Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That shock of recognition

(Maybe this is the beginning of something I’ll read at universities when I’m on tour, or that’s what I’m thinking at the moment)

I started writing stories after I started turning tricks. I was a writer before but I was interested in poetry, in arranging words on the page so that they could shift your breathing but you weren’t exactly sure why.

I started writing stories after I started turning tricks, because my friends kept saying you have to write those stories down. At first I wasn’t interested – I thought the details were too mundane—every hooker has stories, right? I wanted to change language.

But then, once I started writing those stories, I realized I loved it. I loved it because writing for me was memory; at 19 I’d remembered I was sexually abused by my parents and this had changed everything. I started turning tricks soon after but I’d planned it before. It made sense and I didn’t necessarily know why, except that I lived in a culture of radical outsider queers, sluts, incest survivors, runaways, anarchists, strippers, direct action activists, vegans, drug addicts, and other flamboyant creatures and so it was possible. Not in that pathologized way of leaving my body I knew that too well. I was learning to feel, everything, and I didn’t want to turn that around I was very conscious when I would start to hang out on the ceiling and so I’d bring myself back.

I started writing stories because I wanted to process and express the worlds that meant something to me. I realized this was important, mostly because it kept me alive but also because it might keep someone else alive with that shock of recognition, we all need that. Like when I first found David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives and all this energy went to my head— it was the first time I found my rage in print, and simultaneously a feeling of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. Sex so alienated and intimate, infinite and lost, this was the world I inhabited but I hadn’t quite recognized the way that the imagination of desire creates worlds that sometimes trap us until we’re surrounded by our own limitations and we can’t get out or in. That second part I might not have realized until now.

The first story I wrote, the story about my fifth trick, “he calls around 11, says do you go to Concord. I say 100 an hour, 250 for the night, wash up, cash the last train, and of course he isn’t there.” When I move back to the East Coast from San Francisco, I made that story into a performance piece and then it became the first story I got published, in an anthology called Queer View Mirror. Anthologies were a gateway that I hadn’t known about – I’d sent off my poetry to literary magazines since I was in high school, believing their mythologies of discovering new writers I was ready. But I didn’t realize that anthologies actualize that possibility in a way that very few literary magazines even attempt.

I always knew I was a good writer, but I also grew up believing that most good writers never got published, and so that wasn’t important to me. Getting published didn’t change the way I thought about my writing, but I liked the idea of other people reading my words and maybe gasping in disbelief or more importantly the place where all your senses open up: home. That’s what I was interested in creating.


Lisa Harney said...

I liked the idea of other people reading my words and maybe gasping in disbelief or more importantly the place where all your senses open up: home. That’s what I was interested in creating.

Yes, you do this very well, too.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I remember that piece in Queer View Mirror. I loved it. It's been great to see all the publishing credits you've had since!

Deena said...

This is definitely wonderful, and would be great to read on your tour.


Caty said...

I just started reading your newest fiction book--in my blog, I write,
"Reading Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's new novel--it's as if David Wojnarowicz wrote pop songs and didn't die in the 80s in a grungy AIDS New York. (Ms/Mr Sycamore himself would love that comparison all too much.)" I remember my own shock/realization reading _Close to the Knives_ myself, writing in the back flap of my copy of the book on my 22nd birthday, 5 years ago, trying to channel that incredible bleak, clear, raw style into my own observations. I'd been working as an escort for a year, and had just gotten daily about a relationship with heroin that would prove to be both very beneficial and very destructive. For the first time since I started working, I actually felt strapped for cash, and reading DW's own riffs about poverty and blackmarket artists in New York gave me company. Maybe it even glorified the experience a bit much...if I could say that David W. ever glorified anything. He was too honest for that.

The hooker story is its own incredible genre, and it doesn't surprise me that your hooker stories got you to writing. John Rechy writes about how if only tricks could hear the derisive way hustlers talk about them--so many prostitute writers have expressed the sentiment, actually. But why let that outsider story stay secret? Since the beginning of the sex worker's movement in the late 70s early 80s, with Scarlot Harlot, Margo St James' COYOTE, and the _ Sex Work_ anthology, we've seen not only the beginning of a movement but the beginning of a new kind of story being told--finally being told publicly. I think it's so important for us to contribute to that fledgeling tradition...

keidy said...

I would enjoy listening to you tell this story on tour.

Caty said...

Oh, my god, you're friends with Gina De Vries? Ask her about Caty Simon and the short lived Come In Peace Collective. The queer deviant ho world is really a small one--and that's why I love it...I wonder if you know Melissa Gira, cofounder of Bound Not Gagged--we used to date.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Lisa, you are so sweet!

And jinx, I can't believe you remember that piece in Queer View Mirror, that's amazing!

Deena, thank you thank you -- I'm going to continue it and use for longer lecture-type events I think...

Caty, this is all so beautiful -- I have to go to your blog at once!

Only one thing to clarify: sex work didn't start me writing, but it did change the way I wrote and what I wrote about... And yes yes to your thoughts on the hooker story and its possibilities:

"why let that outsider story stay secret?"

Keidy, that's exciting -- for most events, though, I will just read read read and let people relate how they want -- I don't want to get into too much explication -- but for longer events...

And Caty, yes I do know Gina de Vries (I will pass on the question/hello) and Melissa Gira, yes to the queer deviant ho world!

Thanks for everyone's lovely engagement!

Love --

Caty said...

Ha, if you go back into
If you see Melissa Gira, say "hi"--we were really in love once--I dated her and her boyfriend as a couple. It was one of those great breakups that happen just b/c of situational stuff, now with any dissatisfaction with each other--she moved to San Francisco. And she's one of the most brilliant ex-stripper/pornographer/cult internet writer geniuses I've ever encountered. Doing porn for her old sites was an incredible experience--I remember once she had a site specifically geared to the sci/fi/fantasy nerd dressed up as the fae, and flogged and fucked each other in the woods. I was a little devil. The Playboy channel did a feature on it . So hilarious, so much fun.

Then, when the war in Iraq began, Gina, Melissa, and a bunch of other kinky people and/or sex workers got together in Northampton, MA, to form the Come In Peace Collective to make a porno pinup calendar whose proceeds would go to humanitarian aid to Iraqi casualties. Sadly, although Melissa and her boyfriend at the time did all the amazing photos, we never quite got it published. But how could I forget my shoot, U CAN'T LIBERATE A CORPSE scrawled my naked belly in mascara, as I lay in blue light, the ribs protruding from my beginner's vegan body. I couldn't tell if it was more morbid or sexy--but they sure did let me fly with my idea. We were childish and vehement and politicized and FUN, in those days together. I think my shoot is still on a pin somewhere, being sold on cafepress online.

I just started my livejournal again after a long hiatus, and it's mostly babble about my various activist projects. Go back to 2003 or 2002 for some real writing-writing. I always say I'm not a Writer, not in that Modernist individualist way, but sometimes I write.

It's so good to interact with you...

ohthehorrror said...

"I started writing stories because I wanted to process and express the worlds that meant something to me. I realized this was important, mostly because it kept me alive but also because it might keep someone else alive with that shock of recognition, we all need that."

You have succeeded admirable, especially at "keeping someone else alive with the shock of recognition". Your writing has done that for me. Thank you.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Ohthehorror, wow you just made me cry, and crying is so important for me -- thank you so much!

Love --

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Caty, how did I miss your new comment earlier?

YOU CAN'T LIBERATE A CORPSE-- I love that, it's brilliant!

Oh, but wait-- I can't find your blog, because your blogger profile is private private private, so let me know where I should search...


Caty said...
I've had it since livejournal was just a pup--guess I should move on towards a real bloggy blog, but I just can't.

Caty said...

Thanks, I made up the can't-liberate-a-corpse line myself--in the first protest against the Iraq war in Northampton, I carried a hastily made cardboard sign that said just that.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Thanks, Caty -- I'll check it all out!

Love --