Monday, March 24, 2014

Brooke Wonders on Cris Mazza's "Something Wrong with Her" and Women Writing Sex

    Recently, a fellow teacher and academic — a man, of course — joked to me that there are too many twenty-something white women writing about sex.  He perhaps has a point:  Lorraine Berry, in “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” argues that her female students only want to write about their relationships, to the point that Berry “…want(s) to tell these students that there is more to life than guys. That I wasted too much of my time thinking about men, and it was only the creation of a life that was my own…that made it possible for me to let go of the obsessive thinking.”  This obsessive thinking brings essayist Anna Davies to the point of calling it quits; her essay, “I’m done writing about my sex life,” puts a period at the end of the run-on sentence that has been her sex-writing life to date.  The performativity gets in the way of reality, she claims; she wants to live her sex life without the pressure to use its luridness to feed her career.
    Yet years after Davies’ and Berry’s polemics, Claire Dederer, in a recent piece for The Atlantic, discusses how it remains difficult for women to write about sex. She reviews a crop of recent memoirs, noting that the challenge for these writers is “to get at what feels true, which is that the endless internal oscillation that happens during sex needn’t sabotage our sexual experience, much less our autonomy. If questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”  This is a more nuanced argument than the usual handwringing over the confessional and the limits of female sexual self-expression, whether the essayist is arguing that there’s too much sex or not enough.
    A confession: I went on the academic job market this year, for creative nonfiction.  Many of you probably know this, having done it yourselves, but this involves sending dozens of strangers a small sampling of your work.  As I read through the essays comprising my dissertation, I reached the conclusion that I am in fact a handwringing thirty-something white woman who writes too much about sex.  My strongest pieces throbbed, bulged, and panted; they were passionately alive, yes, but also decidedly risky work to present to stodgy academic committees.
    At least I’m in good company: Obsessive thinking isn’t an inaccurate way to describe the genre of essay writing.  Which brings me to Cris Mazza, whose work I’ve followed for years, and who was (full disclosure) my mentor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Mine is not the first review to point out that Mazza’s most recent book, Something Wrong with Her, is “all in her head,” “cerebral,” obsessively of the mind rather than the body.  This makes sense: it’s a memoir in anaorgasmia.  Which would seem to be a limit case for women writing about sex: women writing about how they don’t, or can’t, have any.
    Something Wrong with Her is a memoir told in linked essays, with each chapter a kind of formal experiment.  Essay titles include “I Write as a Charlatan,” “Interlude: Subtone: I Say Scared, You Say Scary,” and “Riffing: Girls with Long Dark Hair”; these titles point both to a jazz term (interludes, subtones, riffing) and the overarching theme of writing one’s sexual history. These experiments attempt to replicate the feeling and form of jazz via language. Too, each essay-chapter is comprised of literal traces of previous selves: fiction taken from Mazza's other published works, emails, fragments from her diary, photos and marginalia. 
    Jazz is a cerebral form, yes, but it’s also an embodied one — aficionados discuss its coolness, its soulfulness, its heart.  What powers this hybrid, fragmented text is the existential tension between mind and body.  Mazza struggles to wrap her head around what seems to come so intuitively to others: how to live sensually in a body.  Her language resists the sensory, a neat trick when done in the mode of creative nonfiction.  Contemporary essays and memoirs both are often saturated with details of body and place.  Consider the rough-hewn descriptions of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: the backpack that digs into shoulders and hips, sloughing off flesh; the narrator pausing on her trek to have sizzling sex with a stranger.  Mazza’s form resembles jazz, yes, in its precision and improvisation on a theme.  But it also resembles the mental control executed by the jazz musician as she riffs on but never loses her melody: every word chosen points back to its maker’s struggle to access the world by way of the body.
    This cerebral focus is the book’s great strength.  Mazza’s intellect is incisive — at times bordering on cruelty toward her former self — as she burrows deep into her psyche to uncover what in other memoirs might be referred to as the originary trauma: a failed sexual encounter with the man she retroactively anoints the love of her life.  Mazza refuses to read this moment as being a site of origin, or of being irrevocably traumatic, however.  She seeks out this man years later, then rewrites the lost years they might have shared as an obsessive wrestling with their relationship’s dissolution.  Something Wrong with Her leaves unconfessed whether Mazza ultimately reuinites with her former lover, or if the string of heartfelt emails they exchange is all there is or ever will be.  Its subtitle, a memoir in real time, necessitates this final opacity — a happy ending would resolve on a major chord, and this book, rightly, ends on a minor seventh.  In this choice, I hear Dederer’s plaint, that “if questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”  Mazza’s work, via form and content, occupies a space of existential doubt: how do we write through both the mind and the body?  How does the act of writing and compiling our past selves influence who we get to be in the present?  And how does women’s writing about sex especially foreground these difficulties?

Brooke Wonders is from the snowy part of Arizona.  She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is at work on an experimental memoir about suicide.  Her prose can be found at or is forthcoming from Brevity, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM, among other places, and she blogs at

1 comment:

  1. These essays on women writing about sex is not uncommon but is surprising to sexists and those who like to label. I, for one, would grab a copy of those essays. - They are interesting, thought-provoking and engaging. - Layce, an essay writer.