Allison: I'm more sympathetic to that than I used to be. I understand the fear. Partly because of what I saw about my own writing in the Jenny Moore workshop, how stunted and doctrinaire it had become working in just the political realm. That can be a real narrow room. The problem is, if you step outside that narrow room, and bring your politics into the larger world, you can do something marvelous, even though the rest of the world sees that room and is afraid. Lots of people are threatened by a feminist political interpretation. They're afraid they're gonna get lectured, be told they're no good.
I want to make a few comments about essay assignments here. First, the thing that I am most concerned about, in your writing a composition, is a dialogic element: by ‘dialogic’, I mean that I want you to focus on some point that an author has made, and to work on two related skills. Dialogue means that we converse with authors. To do this, we must absorb some point that an author makes. We call attention to that point; we quote it; we describe it; and secondly, our most specific purpose, we formulate our own thoughts on the issue that has been raised, and we join in conversation with the author on that raised point.
I was writing fiction entirely in the context of a feminist-lesbian alternative community, which was wonderful and encouraged me enormously, and which created a whole body of work that is vitally important in this century. But one of the things it did to me that was problematic is that my storytelling was addressed to a particular audience and placed in a context that shaped what I could do, not always for the better in terms of the work itself. The Jenny Moore workshop exposed me to a new community of writers, one that was enormously diverse. All of a sudden, instead of talking to other lesbian feminists, I was talking to a black preacher from northeast Washington, DC, and the wife of a white lawyer from Harvard. All of a sudden, the ways in which I had been writing, the craft of the storytelling, was rendered invalid. None of the coded language of the lesbian-feminist community worked. So some of the material was suddenly plainly false. It was facile, and worse, the language was bad. It was a political language that we had negotiated, but which was obscure or false outside that community. If you work in a political community, that happens sometimes. You negotiate code words everybody understands. All of a sudden I was talking to this black preacher from the northeast-and he hadn't a clue what I meant by "patriarchy." So I had to step back, and the further back I stepped, the further I went into the kind of storytelling that defined my family-telling a lie to make a piece of truth.
Allison: Amazing, isn't it? Every writer I know, if you get talking to them, will tell you about the books that saved their lives, but you almost never see it in the books they write.
Reading exercise 1: Dorothy Allison
And the South dovetails all that. I love the romance, but I keep a careful, clear-eyed view of it. Keep in mind that my child resulted from collusion between two lesbians, a gay man, and a turkey baster. In most of the South, that means that I am nothing to him in the eyes of the law-so you think I'm going to take him where someone can take him away from me? Ain't happening. So I come in like a stealth writer, show up with my drawl and attitude and absolutely frank, matter-of-fact approach to sexual violence, and then I leave. It's kind of nice; I feel like a night-rider.
Essay assignment 1: Dorothy Allison
The story I'm going to read tonight-"Compassion"-I started when I finished Bastard and then it got stolen out of the car. So I was recreating and writing, I wrote to get myself over my mama dying, a lot of stuff about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to write some of the story in the hospital. I started writing about going to the hospital and letting my mother die and getting there too late-I mention that in Two or Three Things, and in the middle, I thought, I don't want to do this first person, and I started writing from the outside, three sisters being with their mother dying. I didn't get much at all. I got about eight pages. But it's haunted me for years and I kept trying to go back and write it.
Dorothy Allison, This is Our World
Allison: That's an entirely different book, and when I get it right, I'll publish it. It's based on the life of Janis Joplin-not biography; I don't want to write biography-I wanted to write a novel based on her life. I've been working on it, but the problem is the problem of voice. I don't have it right yet. In the course of working on that, I was writing this drunken desperate woman. I thought I was writing my Janis character. What's that magical writing that people do? I do that when I'm getting a character, I let them talk on the page. In the middle of the scene where I thought I was doing one thing, the woman just reared her head up and spoke-it was Delia. God! She was heartbroken and desperate and took over the page. It wasn't what I thought I was writing-it was so much more powerful and interesting than what I had been doing. I got 40 or 50 pages of Delia, and then stopped and said, "This ain't that." It took me a while to figure out what I had. But Delia was so interesting and alive, I went with it. It took me a little while longer to figure out that Delia was Cissy's mother.