Monday, March 9, 2015

Chelsey Clammer: Body of Work, on Structure Courting Content


We learned this in school. Were force-fed the essay’s acceptable appearance, all our thoughts squeezed into five paragraphs. If/then statement. If we write within the standardized confines, then we prohibit explorations of an essay’s true beauty. We’re taught the expected infrastructure. The bare bones of persuasive narrative. Introduce, provide three bodies of proof, conclude. But creativity lives in our bones—pulses in the pith of what makes us. How we thrive in a variety of forms. Like our bodies. We want to move away from social conceptions of beauty, away from standardized bodies, size 0, the expected texts of our looks. Like the confines of structured writing. Acceptable language. Graded. The expected looks of our texts. But narratives are alive and moving (the memoir of scars, the poetry of clavicles, the language of lungs). Let’s get to the heart of the matter. How we could follow the rules—canon, grammar, five-paragraph form—but the parameters of expression take on different shapes. Always have. How we could continue to follow rules—restrict, thin skin, show bones—but the dimensions of our physical forms want more. Different shapes. Always have.


Body I: Writing Skeletal Fractures

We press against the tenuous fences between poetry and fiction and nonfiction and humor and critical writing and academic writing and blogging and every other genre that has ever existed, ever, in order to discover how to discuss our lives. Stretch through our porous boundaries of self, of genre, to touch what’s on the other side. Hybridize. Here in these in-between spaces, narrative rules no longer apply. Hybrids help. Hybrids show us how to re-think, resist, grow. Regrowth. How to read differently, write inversely, away from the boxes. Writing is alive like a body. Kazim Ali: “The text is a body because it is made of the flesh and breath and blood of a writer. The mind which declares intention is a collecting of senses. And memories. Chemically it is invented in the brain. Thought is matter.” No matter how we have been told to write, our writing is a forever growing thing and how it can grow away from expectations. Born anew in new forms. Throw the skeletons of standardized writing into the closet and forget about them. Find the key, lock it, then lose it. Ander Monson: outlines, indexes, his periodic snow. Jill Talbot: syllabus. Michelle Morano: Spanish grammar. And more: questionnaires and lists and prosetry and letters and textual adventures. Mathematical problems, even. Lauren Slater: maybe a fake memoir. Sherman Alexie and Tobias Wolff and their autobiographical novels. Jo Ann Beard: braided. John McPhee: woven. Lawrence Sutin’s postcards. Sven Birkert’s objects. Renovate self and paint the world with blue. Maggie Nelson. I have an affinity for hermit crabs. Structure courting content, perfectly juxtaposed to make a (w)holy matrimony of form. To un-organize our thoughts, to let the form live as it wants to live. Such as prose poems, lyric essays, mosaic stories, crossword puzzle interviews, poeticized science. Forever restructure the structure. Transform.


Body II: Restructuring the Fractured Body

The head is how we introduce ourselves. Words. Eye contact. Head nod of introduction, recognition. What’s up? Past the main three segments of our bodies—arms, abdomen, legs—we reach the conclusion that’s lying there, right between our legs. Because what will become of us? Come from us? Come out of us? Beginnings and endings can form into unique shapes and values with a personalized purpose (the face, desire), but it’s the body that’s regulated. Marya Hornbacher says, “We turn skeletons into goddesses.” The narrative of normativity. The strive for 0. It’s not for nothing, though, as I’ve been told that part of joy is sorrow. The almost literally fought-to-the-death 0 that eventually (hopefully) goes away, fades. How to allow this? Acceptance of self. Reject the fairy tale of being s(t)ick thin and all those expectations. And how a body can move away from this, can work against it by creating a new text of physical self. Cut up the archetype. Expose the horror story we believe our bodies to be, solve the mystery of how we can fit in this world by simply fitting in with ourselves (acceptance, yes), and get real here—get a thrill out of living creative-nonfictionally. This is my body. Fact. This is what it says. Create. Crack open the 0-shaped shell of social constructions and find the self, the comfortable body that lives within. Powerful. Lia Purpura observes, “How easily the body opens.” Coax yourself out. Forget creams and shampoos and toners and diet foods and magic pills and lose ten pounds in seven days. Instead, open up to personhood, to that aliveness. Create. Describe. Feel real with yourself, in yourself and tell the world a new body narrative. Phillip Lopate claims, “When I write, I almost feel that they, and not my intellect are the clever progenitors of the text. Whatever narcissism, fetishism, and proud sense of masculinity I possess about my body must begin and end with my fingers.” The story of subversion. Re-writing the scripts of our skin.


Body III: Bodies of Writing Made by Writing Bodies

Arianne Zwartjes ignores science writing, ignores lab reports with her lyrical explorations of the body. “Our bones surge and flow with blood. Not only a clothes hanger for skin and organs—they are very much alive, vitally interconnected tissue.” Hypothesis: If we use metaphors in science writing, then our body of work becomes alive. Because when the norm continues to fester in our bodies (you must look like this, act like this, be this) our bones fuse with fright, become restricted by thematic hesitations of I’m not doing this right and I never will. Self-declared failure. Now, work against this. Push your writing into something else. Past the page, past the pessimistic perspective of your physical self. Breakaway. Listen for the real stories of your body. They’re hidden within the expectations. Un-five paragraph your writing.


Now we’re more than what’s expected. More than what we’re instructed to do—conform to the insistence on the 5-paragraph form no more.

I un-social-standard-of-beauty my body. Dreadlocks. Hairy legs. Armpits, too. And my skin that is no longer thin. I'm learning how to re-write my letter of acceptance. To encourage before criticizing. And end each thought with a you’re doing great and a just keep going. There’s always more to write. Always. More to read. Always. Now consider the new shapes of text. The new ways we can read our bodies. Edit. Revolt.

Don’t let five paragraphs constrict nor conduct you.

Make anew.



In conclusion, language and bodies can be fluid if we encourage them to be so. Because if we write within the standardized confines, then we prohibit explorations of an essay’s true beauty. Our true beauty. We’re taught an expected infrastructure. The bare bones of persuasive narrative. The methods of storytelling we live by—those that must be complete. Are complete. Inherently. According to Zwartjes: “We live by story and dying without story seems the most terrifying of ends.” The terrifying end reached by not writing past oppressive narratives. Move away from it by moving about, by believing in the power of motion, the concept of uncertain future. Believe and keep the body talking. Its strength should never be silenced. Likewise, let’s keep the essay moving, shifting. There is no such thing as a final draft. The bodies of (emotionally) provoking books. Stories of skin. Persuade and re-make, re-frame five-paragraphs of an essay that just wants to explore. Stretch. To have room to flesh (out). We hold spines in our hands as we journey through each page. We hold our bodies in the hands of our perspectives when we read not just the skin, but everything within—the narrative of who we are. Who we might be. Time to read.

Our bodies—this page.

Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review (forthcoming) among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. Clammer is also the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Her first collection of essays, BodyHome, was released from Hopewell Publishing in March 2015. Her second collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Summer 2015. You can read more of her writing at:

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