Staying with memoir this summer

I have been thinking about why I stay with memoir. Last month, I sent in the first draft of a chapter for an edited collection. The epistolary essay I submitted functions as a letter to other queer memoir writers—a sort of admission of why I partake in the genre to confront questions around shame, sexuality, and desire. Such a project led me to nonfiction and fiction writers who write about desire—writers like Garth Greenwell. In Cleanness, a series of fictional essays, Greenwell digs at BDSM as a more complicated, mental process in which control becomes something less stable or manageable (46). What are the kinds of scenes, he wonders, that we continue to put ourselves into—the sorts of risks we continue to take despite our will to change this or that aspect of ourselves, or despite our telling ourselves that we will never do this or that again? As a writer, these are the questions that keep me going. His writing resonates with me. In my letter, I admit as much. And I talk quite explicitly about desire. I suggest that going back to memories, for me, has become something altogether healing. I know I am not alone. Alterative sexual interests, if you really have them, operate as much more than cheapened scenes and leather-as-fashion. For instance, kink, for me, is about sitting in a body (often my younger body) to better understand why I like what I like today. To give myself permission. To give myself the freedom of mind and words to act on fantasies to better connect, live, and create with other bodies.

This June, I return to a book-length memoir project, one that will grapple with questions around shame. For me, shame has a lot to do with making trouble. How do we make trouble? Who becomes trouble? In my own life, what have I gotten in trouble for? Why have I come to associate trouble with desire? What does that power dynamic do for me? And to me? In Craft and the Real World, Matthew Salesses suggests that re-considering craft should have much to do with, as he writes, “what forces have shaped what we think of as pleasurable, as entertaining, as enlightening, in life” (39). To me, such a quote means I ought to work against a sort of radical individualism or myth that I’m every fully in control of desire. What we desire and how we go about desiring has more (than we might think?) to do with forces beyond our control—forces like oppressive hypocritical doctrine or other gay men, even supposedly open-minded men, with whom I interact.

And so, I will be writing about shame a lot this summer. But doing so will force me to confront aspects of myself of which I am not proud. Or aspects that I have tried to hide. That I fear not talking about. I tell my students that, in memoir, you can’t be the hero, and you can’t be the victim. A good writer and colleague once told me as much. I look forward to updating you as my project progresses. Reach out with any questions or thoughts. Maybe you, too, are writing about similar questions.

Works Cited:

Greenwell, Garth. Cleanness. Picador, 2020.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping. Catapult, 2021.

Hi there

What does it mean to confront and write through sexual shame–through how it silences bodies (my own and others) and heightens the traumatizing effects of repression? A gay man, I address these concerns as they impact queer bodies in particular. I’ve engaged such questions as a scholar–in articles related to intersections among queer theory and writing pedagogy. But now, more than ever, I trust the creative pen as a means to more vividly trace the blood and guts of where I was wronged–and who I wronged. I write to speak about desire in ways that turn me vulnerable, yet stronger in the process. So that I, and others, can recover. I hope you can find strength and purpose here, too. And I always welcome conversation. Email me anytime at rylandjj@uwec.edu.