Tag Archives: vozsutra

vozsutra: erotic writing as liberatory practice

graffiti - silhouette of crow flyingGood morning! What’s happening for you today? I’m on the other side of this sick, thank goodness, still soothing a raw nose but able to breathe relatively normally again. Outside the weather’s warm like breath, and standing at my front door, I watch as a fat crow lands in the front yard and hops around, poking into the grass for something tasty. I imagine sitting on the stoop, having hir hop up over to me, getting to rest my hand on hir feathers, getting to heft hir weight. Ze goes the other way, though, through a break in the white plastic-picket fence and onto the sidewalk. I come back inside.

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Here’s something I put into the grant application I sent off last night:

As an incested erotic writer and creator of genre-defying creative nonfiction, I am also a performer and writer-facilitator of writing workshops wherein participants create new work at every meeting; each workshop session is a surprising, experiential, transformative art process.

I like getting to use this language, this academic-grant-y language. It lets me set my eyes to a different sort of truth than I usually name around the workshops. It lets me set something else into possibility, I think. Also, I think it’s true.

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I get to hang outwith Jianda Monique on her Lesbian Relationships podcast (on BlogTalkRadio) here in just a few hours now! 3pm pst/4pm mst (that’s as far as we’ve gotten with the time zone conversion) — I’m looking forward to chatting with her about the workshops, about transformative writing, about the possibilities for sexual healing, and whatever else she comes up with!

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This morning I’ve been working on my presentation for the workshop I’ll offer at the Transformative Language Arts Network‘s annual Power of Words conference next week, “Reclaiming the Erotic Story: The Liberatory Potential of Writing Desire”. (As a side note: I kind of like that title! I don’t at all remember creating it… whew.)

Here’s some of what I’ve said before about erotic writing as transformative practice, in an essay I often hand out at erotic writing retreats:

What happens when we all have a wider access to erotic language and sexual expression – when the full breadth of our erotic power can challenge the mainstream Western sexual conversation which is both so puritan and so hyper-sexual? When we try our hand at some explicit writing, and discuss what it means to engage more critically and imaginatively with the messages we all have received (both directly and indirectly) about such things as sexual identity, body image, sexual desire, sexual practice, and more, we can reconsider what we’ve been taught about desire and language and dive fully into the much greater possibilities of and through each.

There’s a Dorothy Allison quote I like to pass out to new erotic writers, in which she describes the importance of learning to write sex:

If I hadn’t learned to write about sex, and particularly to write about my own sexual desires, I don’t think I would have survived.  I think the guilt, the terror I grew up with was so extraordinarily powerful that if I had not written my way out of it, I’d be dead …And I think it’s vital [to write about], aside from whether it ever becomes good fiction, particularly for women with transgressive sexuality…[or] people who in any way feel their sexuality cannot be expressed.  Writing can be a way to find a way to be real and sane in the world, even if it feels a little crazy while you’re doing it. (From The Joy of Writing About Sex, by Elizabeth Benedict)

People sometimes still, I think, may take erotic writing to be frivolous work, but in my experience, this writing is where some wholly deep transformations occur, and where enormous risks are taken.

[…] Erotic writing is and is not just about writing about sex.  It also can be about expanding one’s own possibility through language.   For me, erotic writing has created internal space for previously unexpressed desire, wish, need – which has not been confined to the sexual realm.

That last there is where the liberatory potential resides (liberation: when something or someone is released or made free; the state of not being in confinement or servitude): how we can liberate ourselves and one another into a much greater erotic/sexual complexity than our current American society prefers/allows, and how that liberation creates the ripple effects for more and more erotic desire to permeate the rest of our lives…

More about this as we get closer to the conference. And hey! Registration is still open! If you’re near (or want to be near) Plainfield, Vermont, next week, and you do or want to do work around/with writing/storytelling/song/theater/words as change agents/transformative practices for individuals, communities, societies — it’d be so amazing to be with you at the Power of Words conference. Will you think about it? Maybe pass the word to friends you’ve got in New England?

(Note that I still don’t know where I’m staying — maybe we’ll all rent a hotel room together!)

Thanks for your fierce gentleness with yourself today, at least that one time when you looked in the mirror. Thanks for your words, always.

that doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human

multicolored graffiti that reads, "Developing a voice"

Developing a voice... (click on the image to see more of Cassidy Curtis's pictures)

Thursday is a VozSutra day, talking about the practice of voice.

This morning I woke up when the alarm went off at 5.24, but then hung around in bed for another half hour, sleeping and wrangling with getting up — thinking of lines of poetry.  The only one I can remember now is something about the bright eyes in our vaginas, or the bright vaginas in our eyes. I think it was the latter.

I dreamt of writing a thoughtful-yet-blistering post to facebook (dear god, it’s time for a break when I start dreaming about facebook! that’s terrible!) about transguys taking their shirts off in public. There’d been a whole bunch of photos in a row, guys posting about what they’d done that weekend, and look, I got to take off my shirt, now that I got my surgery and look, you can’t even see the scars, and it was so nice to feel the sun on my chest, finally — and I was just livid, because of the willingness to do this, to share this celebration with all of their female-bodied compatriots who would have been cited or arrested at the same events if they’d taken their own damn shirts off without putting fucking stickers or tape (or something else painful to remove) over their nipples. (It may have been that I had exactly this feeling at Oakland Pride this weekend — just maybe.) Livid because of the willingness, too, on the part of some transguys, to say that transitioning has nothing to do with male privilege. And yet those photographs, that experience, in this country: male privilege. In the dream, F! was worried, didn’t want me to be too something — and so I was thoughtfully crafting this message that wasn’t too angry, but was still clear and a bit angry, but didn’t make anyone uncomfortable, and…as you can imagine, I didn’t get the damn thing posted before I woke up.

What’s this about — this fear of just saying what we think, when we, at the same time, think someone else will be offended.  As female folk (and even here I freeze — is it just female folk? am I being too gender-essentialist?) we’re socialized to be polite and cautious about what we say: don’t lead anyone on, don’t upset anyone. And so we grow up learning to swallow so many things, in so many different ways — we learn how not to speak the things that will upset someone. You know all this already.  The question is, how to unlearn that swallowing.  How to spit it back up and out?

Writing is a help, for me — putting it down on the page, in a notebook, in a thick messy scrawl, with as much intention and emotion as necessary. I remind myself that I don’t have to share it with anyone, and for a very long time, I didn’t. I just kept on going to the cafe, ordering my large bowl of french roast coffee and sitting in the back corner or up front, by the window, just writing in the notebook — trying to figure out how to get it all down, how to say it all the way it felt in my body.

And then, little by little, I started sharing this writing voice with others — at work, at organizing meetings, at open mics, through characters in stories that found their way into anthologies, and then, lo and behold, just in conversation with my lovers and friends. And it’s still a struggle.  It’s a struggle to say something that I know will upset or offend somebody, it’s a struggle not to waver with kind of, I think, don’t you? or try to give voice to every side of an issue at the same time — everyone likes you if you don’t take a clear side, is what I’ve learned, if you just kind of look like you’re leaning toward their side when you’re talking to them. That’s a skill girls learn, I think, and maybe some boys too, something trauma survivors learn, over and over: the ways not to appear a threat, not to appear to have a mind of our own, not to say something that will set someone else off.

I understand the ways that using caution around voice is a self-protective mechanism. And I hold within me the aftermath: that choking, that wishy-washiness, that unreasonable (for me) terror that upsetting someone else means my physical safety is threatened.

For many years, I literally could not have an debate or argument about something I felt strongly about — I’d get so angry, and afraid, too, that I just couldn’t speak, couldn’t find the words I wanted; my mind just went blank. I despaired of ever being able to articulate, extemporaneously, my feelings about, say, violence against women, or rape in movies, or incest anywhere, or queer assimilation or… and, of course, I’d be talking to people who could remain dispassionate about their opinion, which we at my undergraduate institution were supposed to be learning how to do. But how do I stay unemotional about battery and intimate partner violence? Who would want to? Why keep the facade of objectivity, when there just isn’t any such thing as a non-subjective perspective or viewpoint?

I could, of course, easily preach to the converted, and maybe that helped.  The writing, and the talking with folks who shared, and added to/expanded, my feelings and politics and analysis on a particular subject. Listening to other folks talk, folks who could both embody emotion and clearly navigate complex terrain, also inspired me to believe that it was possible to do.

And these morning blogs are another part of that practice –to write what I’m thinking into the computer without too much forethought or editing, sometimes even just stating an opinion without apology: the gall. I learn to be willing to be wrong, learn that it’s not the end of the world if I change or grow, complicate, my opinion. That doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human.

So, here’s a prompt: Is there something you’re really upset about or affected by right now, something you’d like to find the words to articulate? Can you give yourself 20 minutes in the notebook with that today, letting yourself not make sense, not complete your sentences, get really angry or sad, if you want, or even contradict yourself… this isn’t for anyone else. This is writing work, and it’s your own powerful practice.

Thank you so much for being there, for reading — and for your writing!

vozsutra: who have you become, to be thinking about this

street art -- silhouettes of swallows, painted black on white brick, flying around, maybe out of a cage

(all the images on the blog are clickable, linked to their source -- this one comes from a graffiti blog based in the UK)

Ok — so I found out yesterday that writing ourselves whole didn’t get a grant from Horizons that we applied for. Today I’m disappointed but not knocked down — could it have something to do with not feeling so isolated, not so alone in the work? I’m grateful, today, for all the folks I get to work with in building writing ourselves whole to something sustainable and stronger.

Here’s exciting news — last night we ate the first of our own tomatoes with our dinner.  Deep orange like a peach but with tomato flesh, and still warm from the vine.  The first my-home-grown tomato I’ve had since I lived in Maine: I mixed it in with the guacamole, and it was so good.

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Today’s a VozSutra day: a practice of voice day.  I’ve got a little bit for writing time, then I need to head into town and be at the office for a bit before the MedEd writers workshop at UCSF. After the afternoon’s work, the Mr. and I might even get to spend some time at the ocean. Maybe I should wear my bathing suit under the work clothes; it’s supposed to be hot again today.

Did you do some thinking yesterday about what you’d write if you didn’t have to be good?  What did you come up with? I love the writing that comes up in response to Mary Oliver’s poem — I imagine any writing you did in response to this prompt was risky and challenging.  Thank you for that!

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Last night I spent quite awhile editing the piece I’d workshopped earlier this summer at the Writing as a Healing Art conference.  The conference organizers have joined with the folks at University of California Press, and UCP is putting out a volume of the writing produced or workshopped during the conference. The piece I submitted is fiction, drawn heavily from my own life, and focuses on two sisters who experience awful sexual trauma and psychological manipulation and control at the hands of their mother’s second husband — right now it’s a short piece, 30 pages or so, and I’ve excerpted 6 to submit.  I have an idea of the longer work, how it could come together into a book. It’s also a terribly hard story for me to write, and so I’ll get a little bit out (3 or 7 or 12 pages) and then I’m done with it for 6 months or a year, til I’m ready to write the next part.

I want to show how folks experience trauma change from the people they were Before to the people they were After, Later. I want to capture that moment of transition, transformation — the moments of decision: how is it that, just yesterday, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to do or say this thing, but today it’s become a part of my normal?

It’s easy to pathologize victims of trauma (and it’s easy because it’s safer for the pathologizers, for the rest of society — if we make this an individual’s problem, then we don’t have to deal with the wider ramifications of power and control or hierarchy or oppression). It’s easy to paste PTSD over someone’s face and then go to work trying to resituate that person to “normalcy” — which means getting that person to a place where they can be a ‘contributing member’ of our capitalist society (and/or back to the front, if we’re talking about the military*).

What I’ve wanted for some time is to be able to write the story of a long-term trauma, which involves both decisions and actions on the part of the perpetrator, and decisions and actions on the part of those being traumatized — not decisions to be abused, but decisions around survival, strategizings and navigations from moment to moment, day to day.  Over time, those strategizings change, because the ground is always moving: the perpetrator is never satisfied with what he’s already been able to do, he wants to do something more. Suddenly you’re deciding, deciding, not what you want to do with your friends after school but whether today is a good day to ‘let’ the person abusing you do this or that, or whether you think can put it off for one more day. Who have you become, to be thinking about this?  How did you get to this place?

Maybe more selfishly, I want you to know what that experience is like, that going from who you thought you were going to become to someone your earlier self would never, never recognize as you. I don’t like to be alone here.

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Stay hydrated today — it’s supposed to be hot hot again.  Be easy with you today, and I’ll work to do the same.  Thanks so much for all the incredible work you do… whatever you’re doing to be you: thank you.
*This is a side note, but I want to try to write it: I read earlier this week about research going on at th UCSF VA with military folks to try and figure out how to prevent PTSD. The more I think about this, the more terrifying it is: PTSD is a healthy-brain’s response to horror and trauma. A military that has been trained out of the capacity to respond with horror to war is more frightening than I have words for. PTSD is an awful, awful thing to have to deal with, and the best way to prevent it in the military is not to send people to war. In my estimation, the best way to prevent PTSD is not to torture, brutalize, traumatize, harm others: not children, not intimate partners, not friends, not people you think have less power than you, not ‘enemies.’

VozSutra: this is just the beginning

Hafiz poem written on a wall: "Even after all this time/The sun never says to the earth,/You owe Me.'//Look what happens with/A love like that,/It lights the Whole Sky"Good morning! Are you already drinking water, Bay Area readers?  Please stay hydrated — I can hardly believe how hot it got yesterday.  We did make it to the ocean, and I got to ride the rip current at Bolinas.

Today’s is supposed to be a VozSutra blog — the practice of voice.  This weekend I got to be with writers at the femme conference and spend a bit of time thinking about femme-survivorhood: what’s it mean to be a femmedyke who’s a survivor of sexual trauma?  How is our femme identity, our femme self, inflected by our survivor self?  How is our experience of being a survivor inflected by also being a queer femme? Enormous questions that could have essay- or book-length responses. We had time for one writing exercise, and someone suggested that I post some additional writing prompts here, so that we could continue our fierce work. I’ve got a bunch more prompts below.

First, I want to talk a bit about freewriting. Here’s something I wrote last year, for a presentation about transformative writing with survivors of sexual trauma at the Power of Words conference:

Want to write yourself whole? Pick up the pen and start now. Just let the words come. Don’t lift the pen up off the page, don’t censor, don’t make sense. Don’t stop to worry about whether your grammar works there or if you ought to use a comma or a semi-colon or if it’s time for a new paragraph. Give yourself these 5 minutes, maybe 15. Give yourself a lunch half-hour. Give yourself a morning hour, an evening hour, a weekend afternoon. Shut off the phone and turn away from the computer. Follow the flow, the pull of your writing. Set down in ink or pencil whatever words come up, non sequiturs and nonsense and to-do-list reminders alike, stories and complaints, wishes and dreams and frustrations and remembrances. Let it all come and comingle on your page. Let it flow through the boundaries and the bridges that we build within and around ourselves, the containments and separations, the work stuff and play stuff, the now stuff and then stuff. This writing is just for you. It doesn’t have to be shared or read aloud or posted anywhere, unless you want to do so.

Start it now. Do it again tomorrow. Keep up this pattern as many consecutive days as you want, over several years. Continue for a lifetime.

I’m just repeating what I’ve been told, what I’ve read, what’s worked for me. This is the kind of urging that Natalie Goldberg makes in Writing Down the Bones, that Anne Lamott sets before us in Bird by Bird, that Pat Schneider encourages in Writing Alone and With Others. Trusting yourself enough to write freely and broadly and openly and deeply—it creates change.

This kind of freewriting has introduced me to my thought patterns, allowed me to trace out language for experiences that I thought were unnamable, given me meditation and play time. And over time, I’ve learned again to trust whatever my writing wants me to put on the page, and then to share that new, raw, unedited stuff with other writers to revel in the surprise truths my pen leads me to and my peer writers help to highlight for me.

So — given that description and possibility, femme writers (and others!), here are some more ideas. For each one, give yourself 15 or 20 minutes to write –set a timer on your watch or stove or phone so that you can focus on the writing and not on checking the clock! (And listen: if you don’t have 15 minutes, give yourself 5 or 7. Lots can be done in that time.)

  • Write a love letter to your body, or to a specific part of your body; use the second person ‘you’ to talk directly to your body, if that works for you. The tone might be seductive, funny, apologetic, serious, adoring, sad, or all of the above and more!
  • Start your writing with the phrase “If I told you what I’m afraid to tell you …” or “These are the secrets of my body.” (If you find yourself getting stuck, switch from one to the other — or change the prompt in some way: if I told you what I’m not afraid to tell you. These aren’t the secrets of my body –)
  • Create a list of myths about survivors and then a list of myths about femmedykes.  Select one and write in response, or write about its opposite: “This is what they say about me/us, but I/we…”
  • Start with these fragments: I’m  supposed to want… / I’m not supposed to want…. Alternate between the two for a few minutes at the start of your write, and then follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.
  • Begin with this question: What are the erotics of honesty? What happens when we are honest about what we desire (and I don’t mean just sexually) — even only with ourselves?

This is just the beginning.  You can find prompts anywhere — respond to images, songs, dreams. Let yourself pick a book off the shelf, open to a random page, put your finger down, and then start writing from the word or phrase you fall upon.  Everything is a potential spark for your muse.

Please feel welcome to share your responses here!  You can share the writes you do in response to the exercises, or your feelings about/experiences with a particular prompt.

Thank you so much for reading, for writing, for doing the fierce work you do in the world —

voice is a practice

graffiti on the side of a house -- speak the truth, even if your voice shakes

This is the morning.  Today is Thursday, and that means MedEd Writers at UCSF, and it also means a VozSutra post.

(Tea update: the tea this morning’s spiced, again, and today with a little sugar and a little milk — we got milk last night for yogurt, which I made with a little bit of vanilla bean again, to give it some flavor, and which is still setting up.)

Ok: what is VozSutra? (I mean, besides my Twitter-self and the title of our eventual online lit-zine?) For me, it’s (about) the practice of voice. A sūtra is a teaching (from a word meaning thread), an instruction for practice. Voz is the Spanish word for voice or opinion. (And, as an aside, also the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian word for train!)

I wanted, a year or so ago, to find some language that began to thread together the various workshops I was doing — sexuality writing workshops, writing with survivors of sexual violence, of extreme and ritual abuse, workshops with adults living with cancer and other life altering illnesses. How do these groups connect?

Actually, initially, I wanted to find language to make sense of an organization (writing ourselves whole) that offered sexuality writing workshops and sexual trauma workshops. I think when folks came to visit my website, they could, somewhere inside, understand or maybe grok how these two went together: yes, it makes sense that folks who’ve experienced sexual violence might want to engage with their sexuality through this form of practice, this writing process — and, too, it makes sense that someone might offer both these kinds of workshops.  I worried, though, too, that folks would come to the website to look at information about the sexuality workshops or the survivors workshops and be put off that I offered the other one as well — and yes, in the thickness I worry that someone thinks I’m conflating sexuality and sexual violence. And that’s not what I/we do.

So what I wanted was language that brought together what happens in these varying workshops, and what arose for me after some discussion and play was this combination of ideas, this janky, makeshift concatenation of ideas: vozsutra — voice practice, voice lessons: refinding and holding on to the thread of our own voices.

(I’ll admit here that I have an affinity for Katasutra, the mascot of boingboing once upon a time and a secret agent of the NeoWobblies, and so the phrasing, I’m sure, comes from there, as does the bringing together of culturally disparate yet potentially related ideas into one word or phrase.)

graffiti -- using a bullhorn to shout and holding up love/heart in the other handWhat I’ve found is a desire to bring difficult stories to voice, to practice finding and claiming our (writing) voice, our true and complicated voices, over and over again.

This is the thread: voice is a practice. Over and over, we have to step up into telling our own truth, in poetry, in fiction, in memoir, in slams, in conversation, in action.  Over and over: each time, each day, it’s new again, this capacity we have to be true to ourselves and our desires, our histories and our presences.

I believe in the power of finding voice for difficult stories, the stories that others don’t want us to tell, the stories we most don’t want to tell because they are too painful, shameful, scary, gross, messy, real. Difficult stories are often, in my experience, also gorgeous stories — they are rich with detail and honesty, they are riveted with attention and energy. Dorothy Allison, and others as well, describe the importance of going after the fear in your writing: that’s where the energy is. When I talk about societally-difficult stories, I mean stories we’re afraid to tell because one or more of our communities don’t want to hear them, because they’re stories that complicate what we (can) mean, to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, to our organizing groups, our affinity groups, our identity groups —

VozSutra is returning to that practice of our own voice: telling our own truths, over and over, complicating ourselves anyway in the service of finding our own deep truth, and making that complicated, complexly-human space available, through our modeling, to others as well.

And the thread? What’s that poem that I first heard from John Fox?

The Way It Is
William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

What are the threads for you today?  What are the apparently-disparate pieces that make up your whole?  What pieces are you not letting go of?

Thank you for being there, for reading and for writing —