Dressing and Undressing Words

Rhapsodica's picture

When we read Helene Cixous’ Laugh of the Medusa, I felt more inspired than I had in a very long time. Since then, I have been trying to figure out exactly what about her writing speaks to me so deeply. In a sense, I can see why I so strongly identify with the things she says; yet, at the same time, the more I manage to unravel, the more complex it all seems.

Over the past few years, I’ve started to become more in touch with who I am, and who I want to be; I’ve started taking more risks, I’ve started speaking up more, and although none of you knew me before September, believe me when I say that I’ve come a very long way from the shy, timid girl I was before and throughout high school. But now that I’m here at Bryn Mawr, in this class, I am becoming more and more aware that I still hold a lot back. I suppose it was Cixous’ call to express that gripped me so strongly. There is so much I want to say, but do not because I’m afraid. Sometimes I can’t even pinpoint why I’m so scared, and it drives me crazy. For the first time in my life, I’m truly getting sick of being trapped in my own head.

I’m going to borrow Ann Dixon’s terminology for a moment: before I took this class, I felt that the costs of speaking up were too high, and so I stayed quiet most of the time. Now, however, staying quiet is proving to have high costs as well. After our conversation about Cixous, during which I said very little, I felt so frustrated. There had been so much I wanted to say, but for some reason, I just didn’t feel able to speak up. I have no idea what we talked about in my CSEM that day (the class I have after this one), simply because I was sitting there lost in thought and scribbling little notes to myself about how writing is like sex instead of paying attention to the discussion. Having failed to express myself in class, I was left with so many thoughts that even writing them down didn’t feel as satisfying as it normally does. I desperately wanted to talk to someone about what I was thinking, and yet I felt that I couldn’t. I still feel like I can’t. And so I continue to see how my difficulty to express myself mirrors what Cixous talks about in Laugh of the Medusa: writing and thinking in private appease my frustration to a certain extent, but they are no longer enough – I want to be able to express myself in a way that the world can see as well.

As I was trying to decide on a project to pursue, I kept coming back to my thoughts about self-expression and its relation to sexuality, and how all of it relates to my self-induced silencing. I was reluctant to turn that topic into my project, however, because it felt a little too personal to post up on a public forum. After speaking to Anne in my conference last Friday and deciding that I wanted to take a more creative approach with this project, however, I am coming back to it again. I have decided to answer Cixous’ calling: rather than writing a critical essay or research paper, I am going to write something of my own, and it will most likely encompass my own relationships with sexuality and self-expression in some way, though I’m still trying to feel out how overt I want to be.

I am not sure, at this point, exactly what form my piece is going to take. I have not yet decided whether it will be fiction, or creative non-fiction, or some combination of the two. I am a little wary of expressing my thoughts and experiences too explicitly, so I am still trying to decide exactly how much truth I feel comfortable writing into this piece. At the same time, however, I feel like it would be good for me to step a little outside of my comfort zone… to be a little more personal than I normally would be. When I wrote my two-page paper a few weeks ago, I stated that “I am afraid to put myself and my thoughts out there, figuratively naked, for the world to see,” to which Anne responded that I should try to see it as “putting [my] thoughts out there, literally dressed, in words, shaped and honed, to speak in a voice that [I] have designed.” So that is what I want to do in my final project: I want to try and find that voice. I want to find a way to say what I want to say, in a form that does not feel too scary or revealing.

In order to do so, I’m going to experiment with structure, point of view, and various other literary devices. I might write literally, or I might write figuratively. Perhaps some of my writing will resemble that of Cixous, or maybe not. It might be easy to tell whether I’m writing a work of fiction or non-fiction, or it may be (purposely?) unclear. It will most likely be a collection of short essays or vignettes, but I suppose it could also just be one longer story… though I doubt it. I have some ideas in my head of experiences I would like to incorporate (many of which involve my mother and other women in my family, all of whom I feel have shaped my views on feminism and sexuality in very important ways), but I am not entirely sure how I’m going to weave them all together yet.

… I realize that it sounds like I don’t really know what I’m doing, and to a certain extent, it’s true. I suppose I figure that once I start writing, I’ll be able to orient myself in the right direction, and sort of feel out from there exactly what I want to do. In the mean time, I’m trying to fill my well of knowledge and inspiration, so to speak, so that I have something to draw from once I get started. Over fall break, I’ve been reading various selections from Dorothy Allison’s Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature, which I have found very useful so far. On the back of the book, there is a quote of hers which reads “I wear my skin only as thin as I have to, armor myself only as much as seems absolutely necessary. I try to live naked in the world, unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear.” Up to this point, I’ve been wearing a pretty thick skin. It’s gradually gotten thinner, especially since I’ve been here at Bryn Mawr, but I know that I’m still wearing more armor than I need. I know that I am not quite ready to “live naked in the world” myself, so for the moment, I would just like to fashion some less stifling articles of clothing.

On my last trip to Canaday, I also picked up Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp & Judith Squires (in order to gain more of a foundation in feminist ideas), the French Feminism Reader, ed. Kelly Oliver, New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, a book titled Feminism and Sexuality – A Reader, ed. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, and a book I found by accident called Poignant Relations by James Smith Allen, which seems to fit into my topic somehow. I’m not sure which of these books will end up actually being helpful in my pursuit of this project, but they all seemed interesting, and related in some way. If anyone has any suggestions, I would be more than happy to hear them.

Just as a quick note -- I still want to try and answer one of the other questions I raised – about how the larger feminist movement relates to feminism on an individual level. I’m hoping that, taking the cue from Susan Stryker’s term “authoethnography,” I might be able to use my own experiences as a lens through which I can examine these larger issues, in addition to finding a way to comfortably write about what I’ve been thinking. Once again, I’m not entirely sure how all of this will mesh together in the end, but it’s something I’m planning to keep in mind.


… This came out a lot vaguer than I was hoping it would be. Oh well. Maybe by the time I’m done with my project, I’ll have found a way to turn off this automatic self-censoring habit that my brain has picked up over the years. I guess we’ll see!


Anne Dalke's picture

figuratively naked, literally dressed

I’m glad to see you deciding to answer Cixous’ call to express yourself in a way the world can see. What I admire is the desire not to self-censor and—even more—to use you own experiences as a lens for thinking through larger issues.

Whether the voice you find will be figuratively naked or literally dressed (what do you understand as the difference?), I’m looking forward to hearing the sound and seeing the shape of your autoethnography.

You don’t say why you “doubt” that this could take the form of one long story; if you do decide to write a series of vignettes, you might also look @ some examples of this (you know Sandra Cisneros' collections, such as The House on Mango Street? What do you know about the vignette as a genre form? What is its relationship to poetry, on the one hand, and short stories on the other? What does a range of short pieces get you—in terms of representing feminism—that one longer essay doesn’t?)

Also be sure to check out Jeannette Winterson; not only her novel Written on the Body (which plays the “writing is like sex” card more adroitly than anything else I know) but also her essays in Art Objects, esp. the one called “The Semiotics of Sex” (on how we gender art when art doesn't gender itself). Winterson’s a fine example (as she says herself) “not of lack but abundance, Not silence but many voices.” Read her, be inspired—

And write away!

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