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reading tiger

Reading Wednesday

Just this morning I finished "How Poetry Saved My Life" by Amber Dawn, subtitled "A Hustler's Memoir." A Canadian femme lesbian sex worker's memoir, if you want to be more specific and don't already know anything about Amber Dawn.

This isn't a traditional through-narrated memoir, though; it's a collection of short pieces, poetry and prose, arranged roughly chronologically into three sections: Inside, Outside, and Inward. Dawn explains her structure in the introduction: Outside and Inside are about certain phases of her working life, i.e. outside sex work and inside sex work; Inward is more or less learning to be a writer/memoirist/artist, which sounds way more navel-gazing and self-referential than it reads on the page.

"I'd like to suggest that there is a fourth section," Dawn writes in the introduction, "one that invites you, the reader, to explore your own story of survival, speaking out, finding community, and treasuring your own experiences...there are many ways to tell your stories." This sentiment is echoed in the last piece of Inside, in which she grapples with how to talk about the stuff she's talking about. Because yes, choosing what to tell and what not to tell, and how to tell it, is central to the craft of memoir, but the shape of that work changes when you're writing from a marginalized and seldom-heard perspective. When you're an advocate whether you like it or not, just by telling the story.

Dawn is one of the few writers I have seen directly touch on a big issue I wrestle with all the time, at least in my head -- that of how to tell a story "truthfully" when there's no existing context to frame it in, but plenty of wrong contexts and wrong frames to misunderstand it with.

I think a lot, off and on, about memoir writing. Once upon a time I actually made some serious progress writing up an account of my year in the employ of a certain landmark lesbian sex magazine. (Because I got some stories, man. Devil Wears Prada, my flamin' butt.) I finished a draft two days before 9/11/2001, and even if it weren't for that I never did quite figure out how to solve the liability issues inherent in getting it published. I mean, I could change the names, I could fictionalize it, but all those choices felt like hamstringing what gave the story its resonance in the first place.

I went on from that position to run not one, but two high-profile (or, if you prefer, "infamous") pansexual sex party series. Plus my ongoing curation of Perverts Put Out, while we're here. (Have I mentioned this month that we are the longest-running spoken word series in San Francisco?) I hold a lot of underground community history in my head. And a lot of that community has dissolved. Now it's history. And it's history in danger of being lost. This hit home to me when Bill Brent died. Who is left to tell the story of Black Books? I was only there for the last half of its history, but the other folks who hold pieces of that history have scattered. I was only at (the new) On Our Backs for a year; that's a thin slice of a long story. And so much context in the meantime has evaporated.

And also, while we take this digression that is all about me, I never particularly wanted to talk about myself in print. Not directly. I wanted to tell stories that would help make sense of the world for people who might be like me, to oversimplify a lot. I'm not a chronicler.

I didn't write a lot of that stuff down.

A lot of that stuff isn't really mine to begin with. I was just there.


One thing I appreciate about "How Poetry Saved My Life" is its "fragmentary" nature. Its mixed form. Its thematic organization. How nice not to be constrained by strictly temporal logic. I know this isn't unique to "How Poetry Saved My Life." But I haven't seen it combined with subject matter that hits quite so close to home before. This is the kind of books that made big slabs of rock shift around inside my head. I don't know where they'll settle, or what effect (if any) that might have on my writing. We'll see.


Oooh just reserved that at the library. Thanks! I'm working on a memoir and am always interested in different approaches.

I'm a big believer in telling all the stories. Even if you were "just there". I'm trying to piece together the circus fat ladies stories from scraps of nothing. I wish someone who was there wrote it down.
you could write it down and figure out the hows and wheres later. maybe just keep a file of stories that you want to tell and tell them to us, without us being there in the now? i wish i had kept a journal during the time i was in that triathlon club--lots of stories getting lost there.