Bats and Blow Jobs. A good short story is like casual sex. Last Time to Have Sex with You.
Those were titles to a short story, a writer’s creed and a play I wrote in college. I recently discovered these missives while digging through a folder in my office. I remembered the essay “Bats and Blow Jobs” because I’m resurrecting that material as I write more and more about my experiences on Marquette Island. I’d forgotten about my writer’s creed I penned during my senior year at DePauw, a first draft intended to be my welcoming speech for visiting writer Pam Houston, which quickly got nixed by a professor who said he liked the piece but my topic might alienate the crowd. I thought, this is college: I’m not the only one having casual sex. I took Professor Graham’s advice, thankfully, and wrote a better speech that didn’t have so much sex in it. “Last Time to Have Sex with You” was a play I wrote during my senior year. I took my first playwriting class and struggled through the entire semester. I’d never written a play before and I was floundering. I was worse at it than I was at poetry, which I quickly gave up my sophomore year. I was certain of my prose. Towards the end of the semester of Playwriting I, I sat down with my teacher, expressing my anguish in writing a one act play. The play I was working on was a total failure. The one I wrote before was based on my child experience of docking tails of the newborn Brittany Spaniel puppies with my father. My professor noted that while the subject was of intrigue it would be difficult to stage. Puppies and the stage don’t bode well. I left our meeting with this advice: get a bottle of wine (which she quickly followed with, “I probably shouldn’t advise that, but it can help, jar something loose.”), sit down with the play and try again. I accepted the advice with gusto and after a bottle of red, I wrote twenty four pages of dialogue. I didn’t worry so much about it being a play, I simply tapped into the voices of two characters I’d been writing about in my fiction classes, and freed (and buzzed) I let their voices spill onto the page.
Obsessed, wasn’t I by sex? Well I have been since before my first period, truth be told.
In my scouring of my material I produced during my English major days, my stories were all about sex, Marquette Island and my frustrations with my parents. While I’m not surprised by my audacity to write about first blow jobs and mothers discussing their lesbian dreams with their daughters (fiction, I swear) what strikes me, some ten years later, is the certainty and confidence I approached to writing. Sure, all of those essays and short stories are infused with the sort of bravado commonly found on a liberal arts campus yet I’m now left wondering where that bold and unrelenting self disappeared to. No topic was taboo for me. My blue file folder is stuffed with stapled drafts of stories, one page rants about having sex in a 1988 Audi, experimental poems about the death of Johnny Cash, and musings about skiing, about my summer on the island, about my obsessions with men. I wasn’t censored then–I truly didn’t care if I shocked or terrified anyone in my workshop or my professors. Of course part of this has to do with the nature of the writing workshop for budding English majors–there’s a sort of insularity that the workshop created. It’s a place for those who wanted to be free to write. We were not discouraged by our peers or our professors like we were in other arenas of our life. Free to experiment, free to create, free to give voice to those emotions not previously named, I had taken that liberty, and pushed myself to write deeper and deeper.
I remember the fury I took to my writing assignments, the way time would simply disappear when I shut the door to my bedroom in my apartment and typed. Certainly not all I wrote was great. Some of it, again mostly the poetry, was terrible. But I didn’t care. Or at least, I don’t exactly remember caring. I remember being hungry. I was nervous bringing my work to class; not because of what I wrote about but how I wrote. How my characters, Gunner and Allison, interacted on the page. Was Barnacle Bill, an old salt of a sailor, believable with his mutterings? How a twelve year old boy couldn’t swim and his one-breasted grandmother tossed him into Lake Huron and dared him to float. How I blended fiction with nonfiction. How I didn’t feel judged. I couldn’t be touched, couldn’t be criticized so harshly that I’d want to erase my computer and wandering over the Communications department and start anew.
Part of this speaks to the community the English department at DePauw created and another part is the origins of an emerging writer. A young woman discovering her voice on the page, a different voice compared to the one that was lost on campus, drowned out by too much Jack Daniels and too many one night stands.
I’d like to think that in the last decade I’m a bit wiser with my words, a bit more careful and deliberate with my sentences. More knowledgeable with how I write, my process further developed. I’ve certainly gathered much more material to weave my tales from. Yet, I nearly choked when I reread “Bats and Blowjobs” and I asked myself have I become less confident on the page? Have I censored myself, shushed myself? And, why? Because I’m afraid my father would disown me? Because I’m afraid that what I write about will hurt someone I love? Am I terrified of rejection? Have I become consumed with fear–the fear of not publishing, the fear of rejection, the fear of not being good enough? The constant barrage of insults I hurl at myself — why am I not published? why haven’t I written more? At the very least I should have an essay worth submitting to a journal. Has all of this anxiety and self-inflicted pressure prevented me from writing like I once did?
Did I insult myself like that when I was twenty? When I was twenty-two and stood in front of my peers at my senior reading, kicking off my borrowed pink sandals and read “How to Speak with an Island” I wasn’t hampered by the fear that if this essay doesn’t make it to a literary journals I’d be a failure (which it did, a few years later in the Whitefish Review)? No, because I wasn’t bogged down with worries, save the occasional fleeting panic that I was pregnant or that I once again over-drafted my checking account at the bar. I know that I’m not as harsh as I once was and that serves me well as a friend and as a wife. But is there some sense of a writerly self that I’ve lost over the years. The simple explanation is that once I left college I had to become an adult, and I replaced my stories with worries over paying rent, finding a job and debating health insurance plans. No time to dream up plays or wander into a world where a young woman takes off on a sailboat with a much older man (Barnacle Bill. Allison leaves Gunner behind and heads to the ocean, if you must know.).
I’m easily distracted (no social media in my college days. Hardly a cellphone!) and when I was at DePauw I was thinking about writing my next story, in between planning the next keg party at my apartment and going to work at the Gathering Grounds. I was reading Raymond Carver, William Faulkner and Pam Houston. While I didn’t exactly know how to be a writer outside of college, I didn’t allow those concerns to throw me off the page. Now I have to balance more than just stories about first sexual experiences with paying bills and folding laundry. I’m not alone in this world, this constant tug between writing and being a productive member of society, but what I need to do recover is my courage. My courage and my firm belief that the way in which I tell a story is visceral, intense and true. No dodging of details, no softening of words. Writing with abandon and the seriousness that I allowed myself — really the only seriousness I applied during my DePauw days. “Bats and Blowjobs” may not be the title my grandmother or my mother want to read when I publish this blog but I have to give voice to what stirs and quakes within me.
Nothing is completely left behind, as my stacks of yellowing papers can attest. Hell, I’ve been writing about the same themes since I was twenty. I’ve been building and building material to tell my story. Perhaps I should stop approaching it with such trepidation What would my college self have done? Certainly stormed campus naked, proudly waving pages above my head.