Write yourself. Your body must be heard.
Helene Cixous “Laugh of the Medusa”
What is an essay? I ask myself this when I begin to write one. Also, why? Why essay?
I understand the essay in a few ways, all of which have to do with the fact that I am: A Feminist. A Brain. A Traveller.
I was thinking about this essay and about embodiment when I went to AWP and my friend Nicole Walker said during the panel “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay,” “Put your body in a place.” This is an imperative she uses with her students and it might be the most succinct statement of my aesthetic that has been spoken aloud.
I like Nicole and I like her body. I can say that without it being weird because I am a woman and she is a woman and we are both involved with other people and we each have children. Also I can kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her and no one gets jealous or thinks we are going to run off together, though if we did it would be so that we could write without having to make anyone a sandwich for just five minutes.
Put your body in a place.
Our bodies are already in places, we just have to conceive of them as such. To feel our embodiment, to embody our thoughts.
First: The way I understand the essay is the way I understand feminism which is the way I understand the world: through my body. I remember reading Helene Cixous for the first time. Her book is titled Sorties, which is translated into English as Ways Out. Ways Out? Escape Routes? Theoretical mechanisms which allow the socially constructed “body” to circumvent designated behaviors via language; ways the intellect can supercede the physical. These “ways out” seemed so linguistic. How are we to get out of this dilemma, the singular language, the multiple body? Only with more language, I thought. Language is the “way out.”
Until after graduate school.
I went to France with a friend and when we got off the train I looked around for an exit and when I saw one it said “Sorties/Ways Out.”
I suddenly got it. Ways Out were not just mental contortions to think our way out of the straightjacket of language. Ways Out were literal. Exits. Stairways that would bring our bodies out of subterranean confinement and up into the sunlight of Paris.
A Way to get Out of the train station and into the street. We get out of this dilemma with language by getting our body out into the street. Letting it rain on our body and walking until our legs ache and then all we can do is lay on the hotel bed and close our eyes and watch Michelle Pfieffer enact gender atop a piano (yes, this actually is what I watched on my hotel TV in Paris).
So language is a body and the essay is a map. A way not only out but in. Around. A try. Let’s walk around and see what we see, feel what we feel.
Second: How do I understand what I feel? Because when I walk around, blood flows to my brain. My point is that writers have bodies, though we like to forget this in our rush to use words like dialectic and hermeneutics. I like to use long words and I like to walk down the streets of Seattle with my friends, walking so much that my legs hurt and the idea of a bed is like a distant dream someone once told me about using words. And I like to walk around at night in a city with bars looking for that one just right bar in which to have a whiskey or a bourbon or a scotch, even though, despite his best efforts, my husband has been unable to make me understand the difference. I like to sit with other writers who make me laugh until my stomach hurts which reminds me I have a body in which my brain, which may or may not be my mind, resides.
All this walking and eating and laughing puts my body in a place. I am in Seattle walking around in the dark and there are white lights wrapped around tree trunks and there are friends who are closer to or further away from me in proximity but all of whom I love with fierce loyalty, which seems very much to be embedded in a part of my body, say my chest, which is the same part of me that aches when I think about the way my son screamed that one time I had to say goodbye to him at the Detroit airport.
But who cares, asks Nicole, back in that panel several hours earlier. She doesn’t just want to walk around the city with me (though she does, who wouldn’t?), she wants there to be an organizing principle. A body in a place is the aesthetic but the tell me why I care is the reason for existence. It’s the soul. You need a body and you need a soul. But who am I kidding? I mean I. I need a soul. The laughter is the soul, the joke you wouldn’t understand if I inserted it here, but you would, because the body gets a joke before the mind. The body laughs and then the mind says, oh yes.
This is the relationship between the body and the essay, between the brain and the exit sign. Put your body in a place. Get into the street. Walk around. Drink some whiskey. Laugh.
It’s the laughter, perhaps, that provides the rationale for the body. Also: the ridiculous food, and the whiskey, and the pleasure of liquids and language on the tongue.
Why are we walking around the city? I want to see the bar where part of the ceiling is the old underground sidewalk, squares of glass surrounded by cement. I want to have the whiskey, where the idea of having the whiskey is sometimes superior to the drink itself. It is a way of being in my husband’s presence when he is absent. I want to extend the time I spend in the presence of my friends who understand who I am without language. I want to be a body that understands language in the presence of silence.
This, then, is the way we get our bodies out into the street.
Third: I don’t want to remain in one place. Take me somewhere. Isn’t this the promise of great language? It is also the promise of the body. The body is just a mechanism for moving my brain around. The body is the essay, with its demands and desires. With its polymorphous perversions. Cixous says that the female writer is multiple, but I haven’t met a writer I respect, male, female, neither/both, who isn’t multiple. We are multiple in our tongues, that want to speak and eat and drink and describe.
Put your body in a place. This place.
Lynn Kilpatrick’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Ninth Letter and Brevity. Her short story collection, In the House, was published by FC2. She earned a PhD from the University of Utah, and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and son.