Despite spending most of my adult life as a writer of stage plays, short stories and poems I have just recently forded, for the first time, the treacherous waters of creative non-fiction. The only reason I was tempted at all to do this (I mean who doesn’t love the mask of character?) was that several years ago life took such a surreal turn that I thought to myself: “I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried!”
What happened is that my wife and I wanted to try and have babies. She is a woman of color and adopted and was adamant that our children should at least have access to the knowledge about the other side of their biological make up. That meant the anonymous donor option that is the go-to choice for most lesbian couples was out for us. I asked a good friend of mine; a man I realized I had always had in the back pocket of my mind’s eye (I know, it’s snug) as my potential sperm donor if he would grace us with some sperm. I assumed he would be honored. I assumed he would give us his vital essence, then fly back to whatever exotic overseas locale he was teaching in… and drop in after that once or twice a year to pinch the cheeks of the lovely cherubs that he had helped bring into this world. As tends to happen sometimes in the back pocket of your mind’s eye… something went wrong. He turned me down cold and I suddenly felt like the last strike out at the biological Sadie Hawkins Dance. My wife’s people are all from Holland. Mine are all from Nova Scotia… I found myself suddenly, for the first time in, well, ever: cruising men. New acquaintances and colleagues, the guy who fixes furnaces, the charming barista at my favorite coffee shop. No one was safe. Then we realized that it was too hard to ask people we knew. The feelings were too raw, the risk of rejection too great. So we went looking for a stranger. And it was at this period of our lives; a period we have come to call Speed Dating For Sperm Donors that my own life surpassed the life of my characters in sheer oddity that I thought I had better write about it.
It wasn’t easy because writing about myself goes against every self-deprecating bone in my maple syrup loving, hockey playing body. This quintessential Canadian reticence is even more pronounced where I came from: a small fishing village on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. What do I do? Oh nothing special, I just have this ridiculous brain that causes me to make things up and write them down. And yes, they sometimes pay me for it. I know, the way the economy is…they must be nuts.
Another reason that writing non-fiction was hard is that I flat out don’t believe in it. My go-to-gal, Virginia Woolf, that laser beam of intellect, was already opining in 1922 that “I” was only “ a convenient term for a being that has no real essence.” And she’s right. I don’t know if the “me” of twenty years ago would even stop to say hello to the “me” of the present if she saw her shopping in the Sobeys, though I hope for at least a hearty nod.
Or perhaps writing about real events raises that thorny question of the line between art and therapy that I have always stanchly defended. If you are writing for yourself it is a useful exercise, it is perhaps therapeutic. If you are interested in reaching an audience then you must shape, edit, think and rethink the structure, the form, you must interrogate every possible word and phrase. The best words in the best possible order, insisted Coleridge, after all. Perhaps I have always assumed that non-fiction could never escape its need to argue for something? Can it ever be anything but a a campaign speech? Vote for me: The best candidate to play this character whose essential nature is a matter of doubt and skepticism.
Does an autobiography have to be a spotless record of our thoughts words and deeds as an upstanding citizen? Impossible! No one in the world would want to read it. Yet there is a real hunger that I feel in the world right now for real stories. True stories. Or at least as close to the bone as we can cut with our pens. It made me sweat buckets to write this book. And the fear told me I had to do it. And yet… that question of “I” lingers. Can we know ourselves enough to be able to render ourselves legible on the page?
You could say I am exactly in the place of radical doubt on this question. Recently I found myself able to say to one of my students: I don’t know in response to one of his questions. Not, just, Wait until next class, I’ll find you the answer. No hedging of bets and saying let me put you in touch with an expert. He had asked a question to which I remember thinking I would have to wade pretty deep in bullshit to give an answer. Instead I squared my shoulders. I said: I don’t know. Probably you could spend the next eight years, maybe the rest of your life digging for that answer. His eyes bugged out and we laughed. I said, Here we sit absolutely not knowing together. On the upside, there is your Ph.D thesis if you want it.
Writing autobiographically is like deliberately trying to punch above your weight. How to render this being who is not transparent to herself? Self-knowledge can be a hobble despite how often it is billed as a panacea. I wonder how many of us really could function if we knew ourselves inside out? You cannot fully comprehend the thing that you think with. Your brain. It is busy thinking right now and this is a kind of mental mobius strip that won’t take you any deeper to an essential kernel of “youness” than will a vision quest, a month in a monastery, the Camino de Santiago, or a writers retreat. You will certainly see and think and experience things. Beautiful things: things that you can call truth or truths if you want to give a nod to plurality. But the quintessence of you. The little grain in the middle that distils who you are… is elusive. Perhaps it does not even exist. Even the Wizard, when Dorothy finally found him behind the curtain behind pulling the levers, admitted he had no idea at all about the big picture. Alice B. Toklas was so blasé about the dubious art of autobiography that when prompted by Gertrude Stein to write hers she responded with something like, “Oh, you do it” and so was born The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. A far sexier first lesbian read than The Well of Loneliness… which was, unfortunately (sorry Radclyffe Hall) my first sweaty encounter in the stacks.
And so in Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family; my first uncanny dip into the waters of non-fiction… did I succeed in rendering myself as a character… not at all. I used crib notes from the cheat sheet of all the best girly books I admire… I gazed directly at the subject that fascinates me the most and wrote about that. The book is actually all about my wife. I am just lucky that she is letting me publish it. ; )