This episode is an excerpt of a live, free-flowing panel discussion at the recent Writing by Writers Conference in Tomales Bay, California between poet, novelist, and National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison, memoirist, journalist, fiction writer, and teacher Steve Almond, and award winning writer, teacher, and Writing by Writers co-founder Pam Houston.
- Dorothy Allison - http://www.dorothyallison.net/
- Steve Almond - http://stevealmondjoy.com
- Pam Houston - http://pamhouston.net
- Faculty Intros by UC Davis, Masters in Creative Writing students - http://english.ucdavis.edu/graduate/masters-creative-writing
Season One Partner, Writing By Writers - http://writingxwriters.org
Produced & Hosted By: Ben Hess - http://ben-hess.com
Episode 005 - Pissing People Off
Pam Houston: This panel is called How Hard Should We Be Trying to Piss People Off [laughter].
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, the podcast with insights on the craft and community of writing from leading published authors of our day. I’m your host, as yet unpublished novelist and screenwriter, Ben Hess. Today’s episode is #5, Pissing People Off, and has a different format.
You’re about to hear a lightly edited panel discussion from the recent Writing By Writers Conference in Tomales Bay. The panel features poet, novelist, and National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison, memoirist, journalist, fiction writer, and teacher Steve Almond, and award winning writer, teacher, and Writing by Writers co-founder Pam Houston. Given the temperament and sensibilities of these three, rest assured you will hear a range of profanity so turn it up and enjoy … or bust out the ear buds as needed. And of course, visit writingxwriters.org to book your spot in their 2016 workshops in Methow Valley, Washington or Boulder, Colorado.
I’m also thrilled to include in this episode genuine, heartfelt introductions for each panelist from several University of California at Davis graduate students, where Pam teaches. Let’s kick things off with student Christina Turner:
Christina T: Dorothy Allison doesn’t give a fuck.
I mean that statement in the best way possible. And I will revise it: Dorothy Allison doesn’t give a fuck about shit that doesn’t matter. She doesn’t give a fuck about posturing, about pretending, impressing people or making them like her, about anything less than the honest to god truth. That is what makes it so exciting, so liberating, for many of us to experience her writing and her teaching.
It’s also the sort of thing that will make you learn, like Dorothy does, to give a fuck about all the right things: a compelling voice, emotional integrity, and above, for God’s sake, a good story.
Her first novel, Bastard out of Carolina, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and more importantly, it made possible for many people here to even envision the writing and the living that they are doing now. It broke open the possibility for countless women and men to tell the truth about their experiences.
It is a revolutionary thing for a women to give a fuck about the right things. As Dorothy wrote, “two or three things I know for sure and one is I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.” It is my great pleasure to introduce to you this evening Dorothy Allison.
Dorothy Allison: Did I set out to piss people off? You know, I think I did. [large laughter]
This morning in workshop, one of the stories which was beautifully written was an account of a woman, a very successful executive dealing with the sexism of the men she has to work for and it just took me back to my early 20s when I got a job at the Social Security Administration … oh, gawd .. It was the alternative to working waitress and there was gonna be ya know health insurance and all this crap. But the first thing is, they told me about the dress code. So I had to go buy a series of suits. Of pantsuits. Um, showed up in my pantsuit and they sent home to put on a skirt. How can you not respond with moral rage? I mean they weren’t paying me enough to pay for suits and skirts. And they certainly weren’t making it possible for me to be sane and follow the rules that were profoundly contemptible and sexist. Maddening.
And I started writing nasty stories. But the definition of nasty is personal. Some of the stories I wrote didn't seem nasty to me. And it would be shocking if I would goto a reading or send something out for publication, and the response would be this wave of “Oh my god, you can’t say that!” And why not, everybody has a pussy. If they don't have a dick, they have a pussy. It’s just how life is. [laughter]
As far as I can tell, everyone wants to play with their natural organs, right? And if I’m gonna write stories about it, isn’t this part of the revolution of light, of justice, and moral authority? I was claiming a kind of moral authority. Um early feminists did that. It was part of our territory honey, ha HA
But it still always shocked me. um When I was being my most understandable conciliatory … when I thought I was being a good citizen, and they thought I was being a demon from hell, it’s always kind of … it’s the things I thought were the most banal that would upset them the most. That I want every little girl to learn to kill, they didn’t take that seriously. I did. They should’ve been pissed off about that. um … oh yeah … I think the thing that changed my work was when I stopped giving a fuck. It seemed to me … you need to know I began as a write with the small press movement. And I began as a writer working as a day job at the social security administration and then being a receptionist at a photo studio. And living in a collective. Which I have to say was kind’ve fun. The collective … especially the pool table where we used to do pot luck dinners. But was also kinda miserable and grungy. And if I’m going to live a miserable and grungy life without health insurance, there has to be some recompense. And the recompense I could claim a level of authority by which I was telling the truth. Telling the truth justified everything. And the fact that it pissed people off .. on some basic level, I didn’t care.
The guy that showed up and fired a shotgun into our our front door did give me pause. [laughter] But we moved, immediately. [laughter] Actually left town and moved to another town. which I recommend if someone shoots your front door down. And I went on telling stories. And when I published Bastard out of Carolina, it startled me that people were so angry at the mother in that book. She was not the one I was angry at when I was writing. I understood her. I thought I put enough there. That people would understand her thought processes and what she was doing. That by leaving her child, she was saving her life.
But instead everywhere I went, all over the country people were pissed off at this MOTHER. This nasty mother. Who didn’t kill her husband but instead took him away from her daughter. And it was educational. It seems to me I am always in process. I am always becoming .. I think I am becoming the person I am meant to be. But it is a LONG process. And sometimes I have to make peace with pissing myself off. Or feeling vulnerable. Or feeling naked. Or getting those letters from people who hate you. That’s … I'd like to pretend it doesn't affect me. But it does affect me. You’ve got those sleepless nights, you don’t know what you’re doing, what’re doing is worth the process to accomplish it. So that I’m always getting stronger. Seems to me the essential muscle I’ve got to develop is that I don't pay much to attention to the people who get too pissed off.
Family? I’ll deal with family. They can yell at me, I’ll stand in the room. I think that’s … that’s family. But if you’re not family, I’m not standing around while you yell at me.
Ben: I grew up in the south, just an hour or so down I 85 from Dorothy’s Greenville, and I’ve been blown away at her magical combination of dialogue, description, and character that converges to create a south I could never write but one that I recognize immediately. For our next panelist, here’s graduate student Ryan Horner:
Ryan Horner: Steve Almond is a generous writer, the kind of writer who leads his readers from alongside them, who lets the reader do the heavy pulling so that they might then take ownership for the heavy emotional rewards.
A few days ago, determined to learn more about the man than from what I’d heard in interviews online, I picked up Against Football and found an intelligent and sincere voice, like a wise elder who knows wisdom isn’t what we youngsters believe it to be. Then last night a friend lent me a collection of his short fiction so that I could read a few before bed… and I promptly spent half the night in the bathroom, sitting on the tile floor reading by cellphone light, until suddenly it was nearly 3 a.m. and my butt was numb and my eyes had been dry but now they were wet and I had to try for sleep. But first, before sleep, I had to deal with the things I’d learned about myself from his stories.
In my brief but intense exposure to Steve Almond’s writing there is one thing I’ve learned for sure: he cares deeply, unabashedly about how his reader lives in the world, sure, but also about how he does. He cares about how the bad guys are ruining the world, sure, but especially about how the good guys are. Steve… I promise I’ll buy the book instead of just borrowing it indefinitely. It is my pleasure to introduce: Steve Almond.
Steve Almond: That’s like the world’s best book report ever. [Laughter] When I was in graduate school, I was writing very timid work for any number of reasons mostly having to do with the fact that people grow up with a kind of omerta. Maybe various forms of omerta. Codes of silence. First one is within your family. And that one lasts forever. And the attendant anxieties of breaking that silence. And then there’s a whole other set of omerta’s in your peer group. Maybe in your Socio economic class. Ethnicity. Culture, your place in the culture. Things that you’re not allowed to say uh because they’re too painful or disruptive.
And then interestingly when you’re asked to be a writer, assign yourself the task of being a writer, part of what your intention is is to break some of those silences. And the inevitable result of that is people get disturbed by it. You’re really uh part of your job is to deal with unbearable feelings uh uh and disrupt. Um. And so naturally if you’re doing your job then people are going to be disrupted. And you know that’s easy to say but hard to experience because you love some of those people and you feel loyalty to them. And you want to be liked and loved and it’s upsetting when people are suddenly angry with you and they’re not your family, friends, or ex-lovers or current lovers. Or hoped for future lovers.
One thing I remember very clearly in grad school, that I was writing these stories that were very timid and safe and were not really dealing with unbearable emotion and I remember I read Bastard Out of Carolina by that lady over there and then I got very interested in her work cause I thought that novel was beautiful and painful and really sharp edged. And I searched around and found more of her books including this one … remember that one? … which is called The Women Who Hate Me which is a compilation of Dorothy’s poems, uh early poems. And it was kind’ve liberating for me to uh read, especially the title poem but also the other poems.
Because it hadn’t occurred to me was that part of what was hiding in my little hidey hole wasn’t just my disappointment and guilt and so forth but also that I was aggrieved and full of rage. Some of it misplaced and fucked up and my shit to work out. And some of it well placed and necessary. In other words that anger is sometimes a necessary form of self assertion. And that’s what that poem was to me. I also read and was instructed by Pam’s story especially How to Talk to a Hunter, which is not in the same style but has a kind’ve undercurrent of rage and indignation at men and their relentless bad behavior. Um in fact, and years later when I’d gotten a little braver as a writer I wrote kind’ve a response to that story My Life in Heavy Metal which I think is the man’s version of that story. Which was full of rage but in the form of self-loathing expressed as destructive behavior to the women around this character. Totally un biographical, autobiographical of course.
That’s the central thing uh that I would say is that I don’t attend to piss people off. I intend to tell the truth about the things that matter to me and as a logical and necessary by product of that, it ends up pissing people off. And I think that uh sometimes that’s actually good news. My homage to Dorothy’s wonderful poems is this crazy little book called Letters from People Who Hate Me. Which is in fact full of letters from people who hate me for various reasons. Shockingly.
But it’s only by way of saying that um sometimes that … it’s never your intended effect. That’s demagoguery. That’s provocation. And it’s dogma. And it’s easy. Because in the end I think the place you’re uh trying to end up and what you’re moving through is doubt and uncertainty. If you’re being honest. But um it is part of the tradition of writers and artists that there is a prophetic role in what they do. That’s why I was such a big fan of Vonnegut. There was a kind’ve moral rage that drove his books. That’s why I was drawn to writing and in the end it was a response to that omerta that we mentioned at the beginning. That part of being a writer is breaking certain kinds of codes of silence that absolutely need to be broken.
Ben: I just love the transparency in Steve’s writing and how he talks about the craft.
Let’s get to our third panelist, Pam Houston. Here’s graduate student Becky Mandelbaum followed by a free flowing, inciteful conversation amongst our three panelists.
Becky M: The first time I read “How to Talk to a Hunter,” I was 19 and in a fiction writing workshop at the University of Kansas. When I finished reading it, I sat dumbstruck. The next day, the professor provided our class an abbreviated biography: “Pam Houston is a badass,” he said. “She raises these big fucking dogs on a ranch in Colorado.”
As it turns out, anyone with Internet access can figure out that Pam raises big fucking dogs on a ranch in Colorado. Dogs who, I might add, deserve every ounce of the incredible life she shares with them. The internet will also tell you that Pam is the author of five books, that her stories have been selected for the Best American series, the O Henry Awards, and the Best American short stories of the century. That she is generous with her time, teaching both at the Institute for American Indian Arts and at UC Davis.
What the Internet can’t tell you is what it’s like to be around Pam—in a classroom, at a conference, on a trail in the mountains. Because when Pam talks, it’s impossible not listen, to hold your breath and lean just a little bit closer. It seems that nothing is impervious to this pull. When she goes out in the world, the world cannot help but step toward her, be it in the form of bear or elk or over-zealous grad student.
The internet will also not tell you that Pam is as generous as she is smart, as smart as she is funny, and as funny as she is kind. That she will share her last piece of chocolate coconut candy, or hold her dog Livie’s paw the entire night before a surgery, or sing the entire length of One Tin Soldier just to prove that she fucking can.
If you need proof of Pam’s talent you need only to pick up one of her books. And if you need proof of her heart—which is always on, always searching the world’s dark waters like a lighthouse—then you need only to speak to one of the many people (or animals) who know her as a teacher, a mentor, a friend.
Please help me in welcoming Pam Houston.
Pam Houston: There’s a wonderful thing that happens to some women around 50. It's like you come out of a cloud of some kind. It's like you come out of a cloud, it must be hormonally assisted. But you don't care what men think anymore. Or you don’t care more what they think than other people think. You know, you don't give them a special power and it’s kind’ve a miraculous power that you give them until then. To decide if you’re OK or if you can say or do a certain thing. Or whether in fact you even exist at all.
I’ve never said these words before …I really haven’t … I’ve never, I’ve never thought, I’ve never thought exactly in these terms although I’ve been writing this a little bit in this memoir I’m working on.
No one would look at my life-- my hunting, guiding, bear-chasing, river guiding … I was the first licensed female hunting guide in Alaska. I mean no one would look at my life and say, “Oh that little woman was kept down by her man.” Like no one would ever say that. But it was more about the power I gave men to … to give me an existence. God, I hate to say that. But it’s true. Something like If a man didn't look at me in a particular war, I didn't exist. That’s the best way I can say it. Even though I was going about my life, I was writing my books. I was, you know, on Fresh Air. You know, and yet, in some way I didn’t exactly exist. I only know that now. I never would’ve known that at the time or said it. I only know it now.
And and so a lot of what I did up until now was trying not to make anyone mad at me. Which does not mean I’m not proud of the books I wrote. I spent a lot of time trying not to piss people off. And those people had lots of faces and they weren’t just the men. It was, it was my my editor. I was always trying not to piss my editor off though I loved her very much. And she was very much like a mother to me. This was Carol Houghsmith for those of you who know who she was.
It was my readers. You know Cowboys Are My Weakness now, when I look back on it, seems like a book I wrote about all my dumb boyfriends. It seems like a book I wrote when I knew absolutely nothing about anything. And I didn’t even know how to take responsibility for my own actions. Though I think it’s got some nice sentences in it. [laughter] I, I, I’m you know I have great affection for that girl, and I’m embarrassed by her world view. But you know she was 27 so what kind of worldview could she have? But, but when I look back on that book and I remember the rage it caused. I got letters and letters.
Letters from feminists, from self identified feminists who said I set feminism back 50 years. Can you imagine the power that I had? That I could set feminism back 50 years?
Dorothy: I knew you had talent.
So, so I guess I’d say the difference between me right now and then is that back then I was working really hard not to piss anyone off and pissing them off anyway. And now I’m more inclined to try and piss people off though that’s not my first goal in any way. But it’s something I’m now allowed to do because I no longer feel that my existence is … that someone else is in charge of my existence I guess is what I mean.
So I have written a few things lately that have pissed people off and I guess I’ll say that the difference between those things and the old things is that I knew they would. You know I knew they would when I wrote them and that was OK with me. One was an essay for anthology called Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed that was about my decision not to have children and my belief that that decision does not necessarily mean I’m selfish or more selfish than a woman who had children or irrevocably fucked up by my childhood. And that pissed a lot of people off. And I expected it to. And the letters came, and I sort’ve greeted them with pleasure. I did. And then I wrote this essay called
Corn Maze exploring the Line between fiction and nonfiction, which I absolutely knew would piss people off. And where I said the the thing you know that’s very obvious to most of the people in this room which is that language can't necessarily represent reality. To pretend that it does, that’s it’s a simple thing in what we call creative nonfiction is an outrageous assumption.
And then the third thing I wrote, I wrote more recently which is this essay, What Has Irony Done for Us Lately? which opens with a kind of .. the the notion that perhaps academic stance of irony, condescension, hollow chuckle as the only possible response to all the outrageous things happening in the world might not be the most useful stance.
So so those are the three things I’ve written lately that I … and I came from a different place, and that place .. that’s why I opened with that terrible confession … that place … I only feel I can stand in that place now. That place where I have something to say about the world. You know I have something to say on Twitter, something to say on Facebook. I was called recently on Twitter in the same tweet a um a liberal, cunt, moon beam. [laughter]
Which is so great. Like it’s so great. Like they don’t know you’re a fiction writer when they send you a tweet like that, like they don’t understand the gift they’ve given you. [laughter] When they call you a liberal, a cunt, and a moon beam all in one tweet. But anyway, that’s an aside. I always used to say, and this is why I wrote much more fiction than non fiction when I was young - one reason, I didn’t understand nonfiction when I was young at all, and I’m only beginning to understand it now - I used to say you know it's so much more powerful to tell a story. Than to stand in a place and say how I think. It’s so much more powerful to tell a story. And a big part of me still believes that but this ability to stand in a place and say what I think and say it publicly and say it in writing and say it in this thing we’ve all agreed to call nonfiction is um new and um and and brought about by a lot of years on the planet and a lot of years of paying attention and a lot of years of therapy and I also think a significant hormonal decrease. [laughter] It is so different from how I used to feel I have to believe it’s chemically assisted.
Dorothy: Boy! Nice.
Steve: Alright … yeah. [laughter]
Pam: And what about your hormones?
Steve: Some of what my work concerns itself with are really huge instances of that. Like the fact that the central narrative in our country, the central thing that binds most people in this country that is, inhabits them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. The biggest thing, it is not religion, it is not politics, it is sport, and specifically football. And as a card carrying fan of football for four decades, I finally had this moment where I’m like, “Gee, if I’m gonna run around all over the place saying you know we are in big trouble, you know, and our way in moving through the world is almost decadent and pornographically violent, and we’re out of control and no one is taking more responsibility, then I better take more responsibility for being a football fan, trying to understand what it’s about, and learn more about that sport and our attachment to it. Not just what it does for us, but to us.
Well the problem with Against Football as a book is not that … it didn’t piss off enough people because nobody wants to read … nobody who needs to read it wants to read it, um, you know, forget it. I don’t blame’em. The part of me that’s still a drooling worshipper at that particular hyper masculinity and patriarchal prerogative doesn’t want to read a fucking book telling me how corrupt that arrangement is and how it’s corrupted the academic mission of this country and corrupted … and spins this absurd racsist fantasy about how poor kids, especially poor kids of color should be empowerd. Could become people who are worth actually giving a shit about. That’s some angry prophetic shit. But it’s also true to me. And important to say especially as a counter-narrative to what’s generally out there. Because we just fully approve of the the fact that this craze, hyper violent, brain damaged causing super misogynistic game, that is uh also full of deep racial pathology and um kind’ve a particular American decadence is our central thing that we share. And it’s supposed to feel like the All-American game. There’s a wonderul group of people here but you could multiply it by a hundred thousand times and that’s who’s thinking about football as deeply as you’re thinking about literature.
Right? Or maybe it’s more than a hundred thousand times but … so I think … the reason that I bring that up is that I come at this from a particularly male perspective saying, how have I been … how have I been or do I continue to be complicit in the series of very bad decisions that have been enabled from insulating themselves from their actual moral duties in the world. And how have I done that. That’s what Heavy Metal is an attempt to reckon with. I was the bad hunter in that story, or my proxy as fictional character and that’s my attempt to reckon with, “How did I behave so badly? What made me behave in that way when I was in my 20s? Um, I mean I get a little bit of hate mail, but I wish I got more. I wish it was deeper and more profound.
Steve [cont'd]: Well, well as I found out when I left BC and I’ve written things that have gotten into the right wing world and the responses are actually very profound statements. They’re unreliable narrators but they’re telling a fascinating story about their own rage and desperation and … kind’ve impotent rage. And that to me is kinda deep. I’ll try and read one of those tomorrow night because I do feel .. I wouldn’t have put the book out as a kind’ve gag. I feel that it’s absolutely essential that when we you know, much of this country is driven by, it’s not an immoral rage, it’s a misguided moral rage, it’s a form of loneliness, a sense of emotional and psychological fear and displacement that’s always been a part of the American experience. We are, I feel, sort’ve at a proto-fascist point with a certain segment of the population. The way they are willing to dehumanize and demonize anything that violates their sense of basically prerogative and pre-eminence. And that’s real. You know, I don’t think there are other developed worlds, developed countries that are as profoundly violent, that have as much, as many people with guns, as violent a popular culture. That’s something that’s our country, that we’re up to, so part of my effort to write about that rage is to engage with them, and say they actually have more political power than those of us who think that maybe Bernie Sanders maybe is going to usher in an era of actual general liberal humanist agenda, you know, politics or governance. It can’t hurt, right?
So I guess what I’m getting at is that rage is an appropriate response, a certain kind’ve morally grounded rage is an appropriate response to the circumstances that we find, we find ourselves in and also more importantly, our own complicity. You know, if I wrote Against Football, as someone who just always hated it, didn’t get it, didn’t consume it, I think it would be a very accusatory, scolding book. What I was trying to write about is how you walk away from something that you really love, because you know that it’s wrong to still be there, right?
Pam: I want to just talk about complicity for a second … I know what I supposed to talk about is this memoir that I’m trying really hard to write that’s really kicking my ass, because is all around this question of pissing people off or not. I … this book that I’m writing, which is the story of the ranch where I live. Or the story of the ranch where I live and um how it has made me a person, created my personhood, and how it’s sort’ve the great love story of my life, in a certain way. It, um, I’m writing it because my publisher wanted me to. So on the one hand, I’m I’m being the biggest um good girl that I’ve ever been at this moment. They really wanted me to write this, that’s never happened to me before. I’ve always written something and they said, “Oh we wish it was more this way,” and I’ve said too “well too bad.” I’ve always been the bad kid, a little bit. I’m a good sport on tour but a bad sport in the writing because I won’t ever take it in the way they sort’ve try to push it. But this time I thought, “They let me try to do everything I want including Contents May Have Shifted which was really um a formal experiment, and other things that they don’t love in general and and so they were really good sports about that so I’ll do the right thing, I’ll pay that back by writing this memoir. And I had this idea about this memoir, I had this idea of what they wanted which isn’t fair at all to them. My idea, not fair at all to them. The idea was, you know, girl from New Jersey comes out, buys a 120 acre ranch at 9000 feet, freezes pipes, hilarity ensues. [laughter] Like, like, “Oh that wacky Pam, what was she thinking.” [laughter] “Oh that wacky Pam from New Jersey.” So already, before I tried to write I was in this state of the deepest self-loathing, right, I’m like the worst sell-out ever, and I can’t possibly meet their ridiculous goal, which isn’t even their goal, it’s it’s just another way for me to hate myself in the process.
So about two years go by, and I haven’t really written anything because I’ve gotten myself stuck there and and then I was uh lucky in in the way that the world is lucky when one of my colleagues at Davis said a sentence to me, which was “Do you expect me to go to this department and ask them to hire a poet who celebrates nature unironically?”
And that sentence, that sentence ate at me and ate at me for six months, I kept thinking about it and oddly enough, the way these things work, it became my inroad to this book. It became the way I could suddenly understand this book. This book was gonna be my environmental book I said, this book was gonna be about the ranch but it’s going to be me writing about the thing that most concerns me of all the things that could concern me, which are many, all the things that could be keeping us up at night these days. The one that’s so heartbreaking for me is not that even “we’re all going to die’ because of global warming but that the earth is. Because the earth has always been my place of safety, and salvation, and my teacher, my healer. So it’s not even so much that I’m going to die, it’s that we’re taking, we’re taking all this beauty out with us. And to me that is at the center of my rage and fear and sorrow.
And so I thought OK, this book is going to more than just wacky Pam freezes pipes, this book is gonna be you know this environmental tome, and I’m going to do something good for the world. And then, the next step, is that I realized this is all about self-implication which at first felt awful and then it felt better. But in the awful moment of course, like there are a lot of people who are destroying the earth faster than I am, but I’m destroying it pretty fast. I’m flying all over the frickin place, you know, and I have 325 pounds of dog in my life, and they just can’t fit in a Prius. So so that self-implication, while at first seemed like terrible news, of course turned out to be the good news, because that’s the only place to write anything from is that place of self-implication. And from there you know it makes this idea that I’m big enough now to say things about the world possible in a certain way, as long as the first stone, the first slap is across my own face. Right?
Dorothy: This is an interesting word, self-implication, kind’ve fascinating. I realize when I think about my life … who here has seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Cool, you’ll understand this: you know the part where Frankenfurter brings out his body builder? Puts his arm across him and says, ‘Look at this?” And the girl, my favorite girl, goes up to him and says, “pretty nice!” And Rocky grabs the guy and says, “I didn’t make him for you.” [laughter]
For years and years and years, I loved that scene and then I realized, I’m Frankenfurter. When I write, I realize that I have - this is self-implication - I have a guiding impulse toward my own objects of lust. They’re not boys. What’s more …
Steve: Mine either … [laughter]
Dorothy: They’re not even girls. The women in my life who genuinely excite me tend to be dangerous. If not literally dangerous, they look dangerous. And they move through the world … Oh, honey, just think of all those images from the 50s. Uh, think of motorcycling riding, leather jacketed, carrying knives, wearing boots, kickass bitches. Those are the women I wanted and wanted desperately. They were my objects of lust. And while for most of my life, that would be the .. those were the people I was actually courting.
Now being a writer, courting means you’re attempting to put on the page something attractive to your objects of lust. Well my objects of lust didn’t give a shit what I anybody thought of them. Therefore I had to write in such a way that I was a heroic outlaw figure. So that I would be, let’s be frank, sexually attractive to the women I was desperate to fuck and who I wanted to fuck me. This is how me and Frankfurter move through the world. [laughter]
But that means my objects of lust got more and more complicated. Not only did they have to ride motorcycles and be outlaw figures. They had to be well read [laughter]. As time went on, they had to speak several languages [laughter]. They had to have had a wild, misspent youth. Exceeding my own wild, misspent youth. I couldn’t compete with’em, they had to be so far .. they had to be my role model, they had to be my passionate objects.
Now I hit menopause. Let me just say that lesbian menopause is not pretty. [laughter]
Steve: Duly noted. [laughter]
Dorothy: You need this information. Go to your coffee shop, it’ll help. But that meant that my objects of lust kind’ve receded. I was no longer actively flirting with them. Remember this is like a reversal, because in my flirting with them i actually didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought about what I writing. So that a lot of the essays in Skin that are um very very frank about sex and sexual violence and my own fascinations with violence and a lot of detail. Let me just say when the postmistress in Monte Rio brought me my mail, she gave me a look and said “Did you name your dildo after your dog or your dog after your dildo?” and I’m like “She, she read that in my book.” [laughter]
And to be the outlaw woman of my imagination, I’ve got to look her in the eye and say, “I just don’t even remember anymore.” I wasn’t looking to piss people off, I was looking to attract people I found most valid, most resonant, my objects of lust, sometimes lust, but also objects of admiration. The people I thought were really important, powerful, glorified. I did want to be an outlaw, I did worship the outlaw model. In a radical, lesbian, feminist, provocative manner. But then as my hormones receded, I don’t think that essential thing has ever gone away. I’m actually no longer in the market for adventure the way I used to be, she said, speaking in code. [laughter]
But there still seems to be a really strong streak in me that that’s my role, that’s my model for valid, important strong work. And that I need to live up to that model. My own totemic outlaw figures, and I’ve known some serious bitches. And living up to that standard, people who send me letters and tell me I’m gonna burn in hell, I’m like, “Oh yeah, probably.” That’s not going to stop me or get in the way, and in fact, let’s be terribly, painfully honest, there is a glory in pissing people off.
Thanks so much for listening to a special live panel edition of Story Geometry and warmest of thanks to Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond, and Pam Houston for sharing such genuine, insightful thoughts and perspective on Writing to Piss People Off. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin. And also shout out to Kim Rogers who took such fantastic notes during the panel which helped served as the transcript for this podcast episode. Be sure to rate and review Story Geometry in iTunes, send feedback via StoryGeometry.org, and sign up for future Writing By Writers events and conferences at Writing X Writers .org. I’m your host and editor, @BenHess on Twitter. Thanks so much for listening.