How I Wrote The Brass Girl Brouhaha
I wrote The Brass Girl Brouhaha by tattooing the word WRONG across my heart to help me muster the strength I’d need to argue with a world that wanted me to say “hey, y’all!” in a hill-country accent sipping tea under a dogwood in a pink smock smattered with etchings of ivy.
It was wrong of me to stop writing poetry as a second-year college student and to start writing fiction instead. It was wrong of me not to notice that the fiction I was writing was so bad it was blather disguised as essays disguised as fiction.
It was wrong of me to have a baby two years later as a senior in college totally on purpose.
It was not wrong of me to become a waitress in a Greek restaurant to make money to help feed my baby or to work nights and weekends serving middle-aged men vodka martinis with a fat slab of cow. It wasn’t wrong of me to live near my mom and sister so they could help with the baby, and it isn’t wrong of me now to tell you that one night a man in the restaurant offered to fly me to Florida for a weekend getaway. I’ve got a baby, I told him. Bring the baby, he said. I’ve got a husband, I said. Leave the husband at home, the man said.
It was not wrong of me to apply to graduate school after this little incident showed me the extent to which I was wasting my life, though it probably was wrong of me to apply to just to one program because it was near my house. It was wrong of me to try to use writing as a form of escape. It may have been wrong of me to get pregnant with Baby No. 2 before I could accept the program’s offer, and it could have been wrong of me to keep on writing all that bad fiction I was telling you about earlier rather than the poems I really wanted to write.
It was wrong of me to think I could be so reckless and silly and poor and laden with small children and teach myself how and in which genre and why to write. It was wrong of me to think that I could be so female and country and curmudgeonly and teach myself how to write. It was wrong of me to dress in rags from Goodwill and think anyone in vainglorious America would ever be interested in anything I would ever write. It was wrong of me to rely so much on everyone around me in order to teach myself how to write. It was wrong of me to add so many dogs and fish and birds and hamsters and cats into the mix with the kids, and it was wrong of me not to get those dogs and fish and birds and hamsters and cats spayed, as it was wrong of me to always let everything always just proliferate.
It was wrong of me to have such an uncountable number of plants to water. It was wrong of me to have to tend to so many salvaged or donated blankets and beds and chairs and plates and cups and bowls and forks and spoons and Legos and GI-Joes and books and books and books and books and books and books.
That’s Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and John Berryman and C.K. Williams and William Faulkner and James Baldwin and Barry Hannah and William Gass and Toni Morrison and Stanley Kunitz and Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, who I am not afraid to tell you saved me. It’s Grace Paley and Stanley Elkin and Lucille Clifton and Mary Ruefle. It’s Tennessee Williams and James Dickey and Lewis Nordan.
It was wrong of me to get divorced and think I could write as an even poorer single mother, though it was not wrong of me to think that teaching was better than waitressing or to submit my first manuscript to a couple of prizes or to throw it forever away when it kept on being a finalist without winning anything.
Nor was it wrong of me to go back to grad school a second time, this time married again with three children — that’s three children — to write poetry rather than fiction. It was not wrong of me to want to swim in a sea of the like-minded. It was not wrong of me to seek help from people who could hone my ambitions by naming my verbal proclivities back to me, and it wasn’t even wrong of me to take on debt for that privilege.
You are obsessed with voice, the like-minded said. You are fanatical about the polyglot and polytonal and polyvocal nature of the medium of the English sentence. You “are multiple, like the universe.”1 You seem to need to explore “how difficult it is to remain just one person.”2 You even “contain multitudes.”3 You are excessive and extreme — undue, even: unwarranted, willful, rash, hasty, uncontrolled, irresponsible, wild, wanton, wanton, wanton, wrong.
My second ex-husband used to say that the story I just told you about exploring different literary forms in and out of graduate school and having kids in and out of graduate school and letting cats and plants proliferate was the “gravity” I had to wade through to replace the version of myself sitting on a porch saying “hey y’all!” in a hill-country accent with another version that could be strong — I mean wrong — enough to make art in a world that didn’t want or need it. I want to be able to tell you that you can become your most accurate — vulnerable, hell-bent — self without wading through such gravity, but I can’t, because I don’t believe it.
Other words for “gravity” are urgency, intensity, enormity, weight, heaviness, mass, and depth. Also burden and danger. Affliction and encumbrance. Load, risk, peril, threat.
It’s a cliché, but, as Anne Lamott and many many many many others have said, “this business of being conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, how alive am I willing to be?”
The Brass Girl Brouhaha is a record of how alive I wanted to be back when I was a not-yet-quite-really-alive sleepwalking baby. It is a record of the ore I had to walk through to become as wrong as possible as a way of staying alive in an oppressive Empire that likes its southern girls all zipped-up and sweet. It’s the story of my unwillingness to quit. It’s a book of loss and sacrifice that I hope does not feel too grave because somewhere along the way I also stumbled across Charles Simic’s idea that “poetry is best when it finds itself at the heart of human comedy.”
Other words for “ore” are rock, iron, tonnage, and uranium. Mix ore up with other elements and we get copper, steel, tin, zinc, silver, bronze, and gold.
Randall Jarrell said of Walt Whitman, “they should have put this on Walt Whitman’s tombstone: Walt Whitman, He Had His Nerve.” As of course you know, Walt Whitman was one of our inventors of free verse, self-publishing Leaves of Grass in 1855. Henry James compared Leaves of Grass to vomit. Emily Dickinson refused to even read it because she’d heard that it was “disgraceful.” Walt Whitman was born the poor child of a carpenter who drank too much. He left school at the age of eleven.
He was, in other words, as wrong as wrong could be.
They want us to comply and obey, to abide and submit. Well, let me take that back. They really want us to hush. If we can’t hush, they want our subversive speech acts to be clean and orderly at least. Amenable, obedient, disciplined, docile, meek.
If you want to write — and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t want to write — don’t let anybody talk you into hushing. And don’t clean up your speech acts. We write what others will want to read when writing becomes our “one necessity” that we “can’t let go,” as Annie Dillard memorably puts things in her essay about the weasel, who — for the record, was real — not wrong — for being wild.