Mom’s vagina monologue

4 May

by Jess

When I was a kid, my mom got me a T-shirt featuring a Lichtenstein-looking comic book heroine with the thought bubble “Never yell at your children, they’ll grow up and write a book about you.” As a gift for a writer’s child this was basically code for “I am permanently three minutes away from mining the peaks and troughs of our relationship for material, and therefore I assume you’re doing the same.” In fact Mom would probably feel vindicated if she knew I was writing about her right now. (She’ll see this eventually, and probably bristle, but trust me, Mom: there was part of you that just said “I knew it!”)

At the time I didn’t understand why people dipped into the personal-writing well. It seemed cheap and hackish, the ultimate in lazy research. This was before I was fully in touch with what an indigent ass I was going to turn out to be. Now, personal writing sounds terrific — you mean you can just sit at home and write about your feelings, without having to read books or do interviews or anything? But back then, when it seemed like I might still grow up with a work ethic, I was indignant.

But Mom didn’t always resist the easy way out. She wrote a lot about me when I was a kid and a teenager, and a lot of it was embarrassing or overly personal. I credit that in part for my guardedness, which on the whole is a trait I value, so it wasn’t all bad, but I did eventually say “enough, I am not a personal-essay topic generator.” I believe it was after the piece about how my bra straps always showed when I wore tank tops, an essay that my coworkers clipped and taped to my door. I basically said okay, we are not doing this anymore. I believe the exact wording involved a lot of “MY LINGERIE” and “NATIONAL NEWSPAPER” and “OMG.” [1]

This worked for a while, but lately Mom has slightly altered her interpretation of “do not write about me anymore” so that it means “focus all your writing on the subject of parenting and children in general and your children in particular.” I’ve been tolerant about this because I am generally a nice person and because I have my own unrealistic writing projects to think about, but today she sent me and my sister a draft of a book proposal, because she wanted to see if we were “comfortable” with it. Not only does it involve extensive monologuing about her parenting experience, but it references not one but BOTH of our vaginas. Something about my sister putting in a tampon, and something about me having sex — I have to say I didn’t read it too carefully due to EYEBALL-MELTING HORROR at the COMPLETE EXPLOSION OF BOUNDARIES.

My response was to calmly and deliberately burst into flames. Then I wrote what I was pretty sure was a reasonable email given the circumstances: “I don’t want to have to make a very ridiculous list of rules like PLEASE DO NOT TALK ABOUT MY VAGINA FOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION. I kind of thought that when I said PLEASE DO NOT TALK ABOUT MY UNDERWEAR FOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION, its contents were implied.”

Thankfully, while I can only give 99 percent odds that you will not be hearing about my vagina in this space, I think I can accurately say that I’ve eliminated the chances you’ll be reading about it in your local bookstore. Mom spends enough time on the internet to understand that when I AM VERY CAPPY it means that I ought to be taken seriously. It did get me thinking about personal writing, though. Having grown up, as it turns out, totally shiftless, I find the idea of no-research writing compelling, but there’s always a certain amount of labia-gazing that’s implied when you decide to write about your own life. I just described a friend’s book project, with much love and total faith in her abilities, as “200 pages of someone staring up her own uterus,” and I will read and love her book but in fact that’s what it is.

On the whole I think it’s a higher-integrity move to write about your own vagina (metaphorically!) than someone else’s, but other people are crucial to all the lessons you learn that might be interesting for an audience. (Lessons learned on your own tend to be, to continue the metaphor to an offputting degree, masturbatory.) Eventually someone else’s genitals (metaphorically!) are going to get in the way. I’m doing some desultory work on a thoroughly doomed Modern Love column right now, and I’m very aware of writing things about the other person involved that are both completely unflattering and incontrovertibly recognizable. Is it ever fair game to turn out someone else’s underwear drawer for your own work? If they’re your child and owe you everything? If they’re an abuser and have squandered any right to consideration?

Probably in the long run I’m better off staying guarded, which I’ve grown very good at — not least because I don’t really know how to end personal essays, as you’ll see starting in this graf. But of course the guardedness and the laziness vie for priority. Better to suck out on research by just barfing emotions on a page, or better to protect yourself and others?

[1] This is a lie. OMG did not exist at the time.


3 Responses to “Mom’s vagina monologue”

  1. Laura May 5, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    This is something I really struggle about in my head (with the assumption that one day I will be a gloriously renowned poet). If I publish the poems I’m writing now, it will not only be thoroughly obvious who the people are who appear in my poems, but it will involve me saying a lot of shit in the poems that I don’t say in real life… including a lot of shit that I only say in the poems because it is not strictly true, in that I’m exploring ideas and emotions in the poem because I react to them differently in real life. I’m not sure what the answer is: use a pseudonym? Assume my family will never read my work? Suck it up? I do feel that writing something even as lightly fictionalized as first-person poetry still has a level of distance and plausible deniability for everyone involved, unlike prose nonfiction.

    I can confidently say, though, that I never plan on writing about any of my loved ones’ genitalia.

  2. Jess May 5, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    I always remember one set of poems you sent me with the note “N.B. some of it is fictional! For instance, I love gnats.” That kept me from wondering which parts were “real” (even though, hi, I basically know) and focusing on the poems qua poems. I always want to say that when I send people personal writing, but I expect they will be like “wtf gnats?” (And in seriousness, I have had people be like “wtf fictional? This is supposed to be memoir.” As if any personal account of anything isn’t necessarily fictionalized.)

  3. Laura May 5, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Well, now I know what to use for my epigraph.

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