“Was My Life Worth Living?” is the wonderful title of an essay by the American anarchist Emma Goldman. I’ve always loved her blunt phrasing of the ultimate question behind the writing of personal narrative. Recently I’ve been faced with my own version of her conundrum, as I’ve been immersed in the text of my memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. Long out of print, it will be reissued next year. Here’s an excerpt from the new publisher’s description (written by yours truly–for, like supermarkets where you have to scan your own items, publishing today has discovered the secret of turning authors into their own publicists):
Apples and Oranges is a feminist adventure story: the memoir of a smart, awkward daughter of the 60s who makes a life of her own, but not exactly the way she planned. We start at a dramatic fork in the road: in the late 1980s, Clausen, well known as a lesbian writer and seemingly committed to a stable life with her long-term lover and their daughter, travels to a war zone in Nicaragua and falls in love with a man. [Clausen] reads her own gender socialization and sexual history as a cautionary tale…. In the process, Apples and Oranges not only challenges the rigid framework of straight versus lesbian identity, but offers important reflections on the role of erotic experience in definitions of self and group. And it offers an unforgettable portrait of Clausen’s multiracial Brooklyn lesbian community, a cauldron that generated many of the classic insights informing today’s intersectional feminism.
Preparing for the reissue has been stressful all around, and not only because I’ve had to revisit portions of my life that weren’t so easy to live through or, later, to write about. Naturally, I’ve also had to take a critical look at what I now think of the book’s success as a piece of prose. On top of everything else, the process has offered a sharp reminder of the vast amount of sheer drudgery and detail work involved in being a writer. All those hours at the keyboard, the line editing and proofing! Being someone who, like most writers I know, always had to do these chores herself makes me wonder how I ever could have managed without what seems like a crazy, almost fetishistic obsession with not only grammatical details but the actual shapes of words and letters.
“Why don’t you just hire somebody who really knows how to type?” a friend asked upon hearing that I’d embarked on retyping my entire book. “But I do know how to type!” I protested. The fact is I’m a very good typist. I used to make my living transcribing audio tapes. I didn’t want to pay another typist to create the electronic version my new publisher requires. I’d been told that converting scanned pages to a Word file would create so many errors that it wasn’t worth the hassle. And since I knew that the book’s re-issue would require me to confront the contents anyway, it made sense to become my own clerical help.
I’ve now finished the monumental typing job, proofed the typescript against the printed version (another hugely time-consuming task), and input the corrections. I’m more conversant with the text than at any time since the book was originally published. Happily, it turns out that I still agree with all of my original arguments about the problems with our common understandings of sexual identity and the role of the erotic in social life. Despite substantial cultural and legal shifts, my critique of rigid assumptions still seems highly relevant. The one really obvious gap is that, writing in the 1990s, I didn’t foresee the explosion of transgender visibility and activism, and the related assault on the gender binary from new directions, as these have come to inform and define queer communities. Unsurprisingly, my book is an artifact of its time, just like the life it reflects on.
What has struck me most in these weeks of retyping and rereading is that the portions that I care most about today are the ones with juicy scenes, with vividly detailed characters and sharp imagery–in short, the novelistic bits. Yet the premise of the book–what got it accepted by a trade publisher on the strength of a proposal, with an advance that bought me time to do the bulk of the writing–was the argument it makes, its promise of delivering a cautionary tale about sexual subjectivity and personal experience. That’s why I was allowed to be heard, and probably why I’m getting a second chance now. But if the truth be known, all the linear argumentation and careful context make me tired. Instead, I value feeling and aesthetics–the art of the matter.
In an essay called “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion wrote that capturing “how it felt to be me”–not recording facts–was the whole point of her notebook. I value Apples and Oranges for the moments when it captures what it felt like being us— part of a noisy, angry, loving, contentious, creative, variegated “women’s community” in Brooklyn in the 70s and early 80s. I care about its portrait of a leftist lesbian family–two women raising a daughter, while juggling freelance work, poetry, editing, publishing, and subverting the social order. I care about the passages that recall Brooklyn’s pungent flavor before the current tsunami of real estate money and high-rise construction displaced long-time residents and turned our neighborhoods into theme parks.
The work of the memoirist is imagining reality. I’m glad that I got the chance to look back and imaginatively report on significant portions of my actual life. I’m grateful that the result will get another chance in the public eye. And I’m ecstatic to be done with my typing marathon/life review. I hope never again to be tempted to use my past for instructional purposes. From here on out, I intend to bask in Art.