LGBTQ Magazine

Formations of Actual Art

By Wildgender @wildgender

FORMATIONS OF ACTUAL ART: conjecture and truth within fiction, fantasy and humor, and the responsibility of writers to be accountable to methods of believability

by Brody Wood

note: this essay considers writing, whether objectively or subjectively, about trauma, pain or systemic oppression and makes the assumption that written work of fiction, fantasy or humor is fundamentally based on a true story.


In her essay “That’s How Strong His Love Is,” Lynne Tillman wrote:
The reader has to say… “I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m crying because I want it to be true but I know it isn’t true. Or I’m crying because I know it isn’t true but suddenly I believe it could be true.” Where you’re caught in the conundrum of believing and not believing, and it just makes you laugh.

Fiction and humor are real. They are radical and valid means of telling stories, of processing, of giving to and moving through the world as the person you are, carrying the stories and identities you carry, of healing. I know this, but I also know that for most of my life, fiction and humor haven’t felt very real to me, the personal me, as a writer, and I have rarely felt comfortable accessing fiction and humor as means of moving forward with and producing honest work about my lived experience.

This weekend in conversation with a person I had only known for a couple of hours, I equated fiction with humor in a way that I didn’t know how to talk about, pretty much because I hadn’t written this essay yet.

What I meant was, I argue the ability to write fiction and humor about trauma and pain without hurting someone. I argue that when believability is accomplished, you may have lost in some way, too. I argue that it is challenging to present fictitious and humorous narratives of trauma and pain. I argue that creating a world for your story to thrive in is pervasive to other stories that thrived in the world you are borrowing from.

I can project these arguments because they are part of my experience, so far, as a writer of poetry and essays. I’m interested in whether or not it is possible to identify with a story that is told fictitiously or comically, without having to rely on your personal resilience to come back to your world, your current reality, but to stay in the world where the story you identify with thrives, because it was created for this story, and you went there and have gained understanding, or have formed a relationship with things there, and you shouldn’t have to leave, maybe it could be a part of you. Similarly, I’m interested in whether or not it is possible to write and present humor about trauma and pain without any disclosure that the author has acknowledged the arduous weight of the story. I’m interested in criteria for what is right or wrong about the methods we use to do whatever it takes to increase visibility of histories (and present realities) that are at risk for remaining invisible or silent. I’m interested in whether or not autofiction — a portmanteau of the words autobiography and fiction, as coined by Serge Doubrovsky — presents enough truth that is named truth directly by the author to the reader, enough truth that some of the work that fiction or humor requires to acknowledge that they are in fact those genres, isn’t required by autofiction. I’m interested what space genres hold for accountability.

But I must also challenge my repertoire of dispute toward humor and fiction having agency over how I present what of mine needs telling, so I must be direct with my understanding that fiction and humor are ways that some writers heal, or even just are writers, and ask of those methods the same things I ask of methods that I use.

In written work, does everything that we say happens, happen ostensibly?

I take myself really seriously. My longest standing priority, which was formed as long ago as I can remember, has always been to harbor an honest belt of tools for self-direction, -discipline, and -care. So maybe I started taking myself really seriously as a product of that, meanwhile not wanting to be in school full-time, or working full-time as anything besides a writer — I need to prove my credibility. But I also take seriously myself, my specific identities and the ways I present in the world, because not a lot of people do, and the stuff of me is often perceived as a reduced version of tropes of “phases” or “playful” or “experiments,” – as a queer, non-binary trans, and an antiassimilationist person. Those are fluid and shifting identities but I am sure of them. I have also, for two years, been moving through the world as a disabled person with a trans-related injury centered around my ribcage, chest and lungs. It is one of the most traumatic things that has happened to me (it took me a very long time to write, but hereis a performance piece about my first year of living with this injury). I am currently going through a second round of osteopathic treatment with a spectacular provider, and at this point we are treating my disability as an emotional injury as much as a physical injury. I am so out of touch with fiction and comedy as means of actualizing my person or healing from trauma, to a point where she is prescribing me Ellen Degeneres episodes, exercises in imagining my idea of total comfort, that kind of thing. Challenging homework.

While it is crucial for me to acknowledge my privilege to pass as an able-bodied person even though I am not, the invisibility of my disability is also relevant and ironic to the way I experience my trans-related disability daily. Similarly, I hold the privilege of passing as cisgender, even though I am not. With that, I am most often read as a gender I do not identify with, and I am most often read as able-bodied. I see a correlation between what happens or what I feel when the world doesn’t take me seriously and when they try to either make me laugh or write me off. When I engage with the world, with people who carry that breed of perception, a common approach I see come at me is a humor tactic, to try to make me laugh, because it might be the only way to avoid our interaction flopping. Another tactic is to simply believe, and make sure I know that they believe, that what I am is not real, that it is all fake, that I’ve made it up. I have never been and am still not quite in a place where I feel able or interested in understanding my trauma and pain by accessing humor, nor is it easy or does it feel good to give my pain and trauma new names and move forward to produce fictionalized work about my life.

Since I don’t have any amount of laughter in the face of engaging with the world about the oppression I receive, I don’t have an amount of laughter to match what some of the world comes at me with, and I must defend myself, I must access new ways of acknowledging my identities, and project. I experience resistance to humor because I actualize myself in the world in serious ways, and I equate that resistance to the discomfort that fiction brings me. I don’t like to extend my imagination farther than what feels possible. It is from a place of protection and survival.

I fear rejection, embarrassment and misrepresentation when representation of the self is up to me, and even though revenge and distraction are really important to me, I fear too much of them. But I’m also really resilient, and these fears don’t exactly dictate my productivity of conversation or the way I move through the world on the day to day, I just don’t like them. I don’t think about it that much.

On one small level I am afraid of rejection when the tone of a social interaction is made of humor, namely when I am socializing with people who don’t know me very well. Then if I try to be funny and I can’t be funny, it is the ultimate rejection, because to much of the world I pass as a lady, which I don’t identify as or wish to be perceived as, and the idea of not seeming funny in some ways feels like I am performing a deeply internalized association between femaleness and lack of useful substance, between femaleness and shyness, between femaleness and reservation. If I am not funny, then I am not a fast enough thinker, then I present a weakness that is equated with femaleness, and as much as it is me just not being funny it is the fault of patriarchy, being the whole world, which is a basic discourse I am often, sure, but not always, alert or caring enough to dispute or map out, so I submit, move on.

If I share serious pain and hard heartache and trauma in concrete, actual ways that I have developed proof for myself that they are actual to me, in a tone of pain and trauma that is congruent to the story, there is no chance that I will be fully understood by anyone besides me because no one else is me, but if I am written off or not taken seriously, I have the same patriarchy and the same real world to blame, and I have the reader to blame, but I think it is more reasonable, then, for me to say plainly: you don’t understand, you can’t, you won’t, but you are able to be accountable for acknowledging that truth and understanding the pathology of your privileges, the ones that I don’t have, the pathology of the space between us, the space between the writer and the reader, that holds amalgamations of the ways different people actualize themselves in the world and posses unique needs.

Maybe I should just take more chances right (isn’t that what being a writer is all about?) but it’s hard to figure out.

I do, though, have a fast-talking, clever, snarky as fuck attitude, and it is joyful, and I enjoy being snide, but I access and project the things I can say as part of that attitude either when I’m talking about something that doesn’t hurt me, or when I’m talking about something that does hurt me and there is intent to make space for other, more serious, methods of talking about the same thing as part of the same discourse, for the same audience.

At this point, at least, I mostly invite humor, fiction and fantasy as distraction. I watch teen dramas when I would like to take a break from thinking about my feelings directly. There is a mutual distraction for me between reading fiction and writing poetry. The partnership of my attention span and my internalized distrust of fiction results in quickly wishing I was writing non-fiction instead, and at times when I am writing non-fiction I feel annoyed by my feelings and want a quick remedy, like One Tree Hill.

There are a lot of reasons why I should desire to take revenge. I am kind of rude. Calling people out is really important to me. Initiating accountability processes in productive ways is important to me. Most of the time, what this looks like, is me just being really mean hopefully saying a bunch of right on stuff. Sometimes the way I make these comments is hilarious, or I make fun of how some people just don’t get it. Sometimes I am hilarious in this conversation because someone else started being funny first and I try to match and give to them what they are saying they can hear. But I fear taking humor, in this reactionary way, too far, being spiteful and being a bully.

If I wrote fiction to spite, if I wrote fiction punitively, would I be perpetuating the same bullying I have experienced which drove me to write? If I wrote fiction as revenge would I become the same bully that exists in the normative world, since I would write about my world, a non-normative world that I, now the bully, am of? If I write fiction would I be a bully?

In Thomas Avena’s interview with Edmund White, White says:
I always thought that I needed to normalize my life. For instance, readers assume A Boy’s Own Story is autobiographical and of course it is — kind of — but in another very important way it is not, because I made the boy much more ordinary than I actually was, since I was compulsively sexual from age twelve on. By the time I was sixteen, I’d probably been to bed with several hundred people…But I thought if I make the boy the way I really was, it will freak everybody out, and nobody will be able to identify with him except a few sickos like me.

Something is lost when you fictionalize your story both when you pronounce your story by borrowing pieces from others, and when you deflate the volume of your story. When you borrow others’ experiences, you risk losing ownership of your work, and the amount of what you can count on knowing what you are talking about decreases. When you deflate your story, normalize or create a character that is more accessible to readers on the landscape of identity within literature, you lose the presence of the details and all the steps that were taken for this story to be true, and you risk contorting the believability of your narrative because some of the equation has dissolved.

Writers are entitled to privacy but they are also expected not to lie.

How can we simultaneously tell our stories and keep our secrets, while being accountable to truth? The more truths we have, we need to constantly reevaluate and reimagine what truth even means.

So, of fiction, there is a fine line between telling your truth with fictionalized characters, settings, etc. and telling somebody else’s truth that you have no possible understanding of. And, of humor, there is a fine line between genuine lightness/ability to really see how it aint all bad, and writing off very real, critical parts of a whole emotional process. What these two literary dichotomies have in common is the difference between truly knowing what you are talking about, that what you are saying is a part of you and that you are a part of what you are saying, and not.

My initial incentives for writing and performing were centered around the Portland, Maine poetry slam scene when I was about 17 years old, one I have since broken up with and no longer have any real emotional investment in (I wrote an essay about it, you can read it here). The landscape of slam poetry is a place I have seen a lot of writers able to make fun of themselves and laugh at pain, but it is also a place I have seen a lot of humor and fictional reality become an uncomfortable, hurtful thing. There is a rhetoric of “dumbing down poetry” to make space for more people to have access to understanding your piece, to try to reach wider and further no matter your audience, but I think that method negates the truth that no person can hear and understand a piece the same way as the next, but since that rhetoric is part of the consciousness of many standard slam poetry communities, it turns into and thrives as the enabling and encouraging of generalizations. It sometimes produces a roundabout form of generalizing your experience in a way that the story you are telling includes experiences you haven’t actually had, that aren’t comparable to the experience you are trying to tell about. I have moved on from the scene with a belief that, no matter the intent of tolerance of the space, there is no space for me there, as a person with extreme needs to write about and perform intersectionalities, dichotomies, and amalgamations of the specific truths I know, that are the stuff of my non-normative narrative.

In his essay “A Renegade of Expression: David Wojnarowicz’s Autofiction in Comics,” David A. Berona wrote:
In the case of Wojnarowicz, whose voice would have been dismissed by traditional literary canons, autofiction allows not only for his voice to be heard but also identifies his place in history.

Autofiction challenges me, too. If you can come up with fictionalized realities that feel so close to your own realities, and place them beside your realities in a world where they form a relationship – to give names to what you believe in, have no proof of them being real other than that they feel real to you, and allow them to compliment what you already know is true and is autobiographical – and write about it, have you succeeded?

And what of persona? I don’t know how to parse the literary option to try someone else on for size, but I’m sure there are consequences if it doesn’t suit you but you move through the world with it on, anyway. Who dictates whether or not it fits? David Wojnarowicz, again, made an attempt to achieve persona of Arthur Rimbaud’s experiences in his photographic series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” in which Wojnarowicz’s body with a mask of Rimbaud’s face over his face is the subject of photos taken on the streets of New York. And believability was achieved, just as it was in his autofiction comic.

Carlo McCormick wrote:
First and foremost a witness, Wojnarowicz’s art and writing constitutes a visually loaded testimony of the oppressed, marginalized, reviled and rejected elements of society. His uncanny ability to convey the outlaw with such seemingly candid honesty, directness and human compassion blurs the line between what is experience, related and invented. However fantastic his stories and imagery may be, they are consistently believable. But what stretches their credibility is the ambiguous relationship between narrator and story. The impact of the first person voice is so strong that, by convincing us of its grisly realism, the possibility that the events may in fact be second or third person accounts brings up the unsettling feeling that the artist is in some way misrepresenting himself.

I argue that though the believability one can accomplish by different amalgamations of autobiography and fiction is credible, the truth must be and remain under scrutiny by the author and the reader.

This winter I wore a large, boxy, suede coat with a hood that fell over my forehead and around my face, with pockets, and I wore a scarf that covered my mouth. When I walked around I mostly listened to One Direction and did this really fun thing that was singing along from a mouth that wasn’t visible, making facial expressions that no one could really see, and ultimately pretending to BE those young, rich, unaccountable, normative, celebrity straight boys namely the way they are in their music video for Gotta Be You in which it is winter and they are wearing big winter coats and scarves with their hands in their pockets. Because of my disability, being mobile (walking, biking) is a challenge. Getting to and from places are the concentrated times in my day when I process anger and sadness. I am aware now that one of the ways I’ve done that is by trying on the persona of those boys, because it is hilarious to me, really fucking fun, and part of it feels true, but I do it in a way that I don’t have to disclose any of that to anyone. One thing I do for work is catering and bartending huge cocktail parties and weddings. Every time, the whole experience is 50% persona and 50% how I act anyway. To clients and guests, I am read as a woman and treated as one. To make more money and provide a successful event, there are some things not worth risking challenging. I try to eliminate those things in my life, but I like the work. So I perform their impression of me, I access some of the things I learned as a person socialized as female until they write the check, things that, once, may have felt honest to present with but no longer do, I just remember them. These are places I am experiencing fantasy or humor.

Last year I started writing a short film with one of my best friends and such an honorable filmmaker. It is a project we are still working on, have held auditions for, and are filming this year. And just this month I began at the drawing board for a new novel, which is something I swore I would never even consider writing. These are two really unique experiences for me. In these projects, what happens is me, though not fully. In the film, when our protagonist’s rat dies and he accesses an unresolved grief process for his dead mother, the rat I had when I was 18 dies and I start grieving my godfather who died when I was 12. When he needs to borrow his lover’s truck, I am in my ex-girlfriend‘s truck with my own needs. In the novel, when my protagonist receives his diagnosis, I receive the diagnosis I got when I was 21, and when he can no longer work as a mechanic in his shop, I lose the jobs I’ve lost as a result of my disability, and when he wishes to leave his shop to the man he loves, who doesn’t know about that love, and doesn’t want his shop, I experience my rejections and unrequited love. In the novel he is a cis man, and I am not cis, and he doesn’t live in Maine, and I do, etc. These are places I am experiencing fiction, as a trans and disabled writer, and I feel really grateful to the possibility of them, because I can’t imagine telling in another genre what I need to tell and am going to tell with these projects. I don’t know what that means yet but I’m pretty sure I’m in for a lot.

In his essay “Godzilla vs. Post Colonial,” Thomas King wrote:
Assumptions are a dangerous thing. They are especially dangerous when we do not even see that the premise from which we start a discussion is not the hard fact that we thought it was, but one of the fancies we churn out of our imaginations to help us get from the beginning of an idea to the end.

Ha. So I must call bluff on myself a little, I must denounce some of my obsession to prove that when I initially equated fiction with humor it was because I am sternly in hardline dispute of fiction and humor having any agency over the ways I experience my trauma, pain, sadness, etc. as a writer. Because while I have my repertoire of arguments, let’s be real about how when I first equated the two and was unable to talk concisely about it, sure it was because I have had a lot of feelings and thoughts about this kind of thing for a while now and haven’t written this essay yet, but it is also because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep in several days, was drinking beer, and was talking with someone I had just met and didn’t know what kinds of things we had in common. I can say so much about why I have either chosen not to or have felt uncomfortable with accessing fiction and humor as a writer of experience-based trauma and oppression, but I realize now too that there are reasons why I would, and I must acknowledge that so many muscles useful in resistance to one method aren’t mutually exclusive to honoring and being open to the same method.

There is a rhetoric that I understand more as a paradox: that what you choose isn’t real because it didn’t happen to you, you made it happen. This rhetoric produces shame, encourages denial and negates the necessity of ownership of choices made. Somehow, though, this thought functions differently in the context of literary genres. How is that possible?

Lynne Tillman, again, wrote:
At the heartless center of fiction is a paradox, which is the writer’s belief, a kind of reasoning, that since the “real world” is, in most ways, not of one’s choosing, a fiction world is no less “real.”

The center of fiction is heartless if you are a bad person, pretty much. Or if you make a big mistake. If you have vow to being accountable to privilege you hold and honoring that all needs and experiences are unique, and if that vow is part of the writer of you, the center of your fiction may have a heart. With that reasoning, the truth in fiction is the same as the truth in humor. If your world is one that thrives based on the language you have created together by means of survival as disproportionately othered or alienated individuals and oppressed people who share similar affinities, maybe the only way to write and distribute fiction or be funny with people who exist outside of your world, is by giving your experience different names and writing about it, names that aren’t reserved by others. Perhaps though you can write fiction in a way that invites to include the reader. This could be a way to include, into a fictitious world you create, pieces that you wish were there but don’t know how to write them in because you don’t understand how they exist or happen. Who, then, decides what person has agency over being a voice for people who don’t have the option, desire or life to? Why didn’t they write what you just wrote, instead of you? I also wonder if another safe way to write fiction is by writing about the exact opposite of the stuff of your life, because if you understand what you have, what you’re made of, and what has happened to you, then you could know what you don’t have, what you are not made of, and what has not happened to you, etc. The absolute value of both stories, when you strain them, is the same. Is that possible? I have no idea. Or, what happens, when you write something you haven’t experienced into the consciousness of a fictional character rather than as event that happens in accordance to the chronology of your story? Is it possible to create a fantastic, fictitious or comical world that is made of characters who experience oppression without that literature inherently oppressing someone? Can I write fantasy and imagine utopia in a productive way towards sifting that fantasy and having leftover what IS possible, and forming my world, my utopia? Can I escape to a fictional world and come back with more possibilities?

I answered all of my questions with questions. But what I know is that amalgamations of conjecture and imagination in written work, no matter the genre, must save room in their story for accountability.

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