2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

Meeting Alison Bechdel, WUSTL’s Visiting Hurst Professor in Nonfiction

Photo Credit: David Blank


Something that really excited me about WUSTL’s MFA program was its impressive rotation of visiting writers. In nonfiction this semester alone we hosted readings from Dinty W. Moore, who also visited one of our graduate classes; and Meghan Daum, who led a small discussion workshop prior to her talk. Hurst Visiting Professors spend even more time with us: we invite one writer per genre per semester to present a craft talk and/or reading, read student manuscripts, and meet with students one-on-one. This semester, our poets met with Claudia Rankine, and our fiction students met with Joy Williams.

Being the inaugural year of nonfiction, I didn’t know who WUSTL would be able to bring in. When I found out that our Hurst was Alison Bechdel, I felt pretty embarrassed that I didn’t know who she was. As my partner put it to me, “How do you not know who Alison Bechdel is?”

Photo Credit: Michael Rhode

I blame a few things: my somewhat isolated and closeted life growing up in a little bitty farm town in Iowa, and my general lack of awareness of nonfiction authors. Yes, I said it. I entered a creative nonfiction program with a pretty major blind spot in the genre. My prior experience was limited: I became friends with really cool dude Iowa’s nonfiction program, and I took a nonfiction class in my senior year of undergraduate. As for graphic novels? The only comic book I’d ever read was Aetheric Mechanics (a post-modern lit course staple) and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Once I started to do some research and reading into Bechdel (just a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, you know, nothing intimidating), I was hooked. I read Fun Home and Are You My Mother? in a couple of days, and bought a collection of Dykes to Watch Out For as my birthday present to myself. As I read, I could feel myself start to widen the shot of what I call my “writer lens.” I started seeing my doodles in class a bit differently, something I’d always seen as a bit of a nuisance (each time I started a new notebook for a new class, I told myself I wouldn’t waste the pages with mindless scribbles, that’d I’d be organized and I would “pay attention”). I’m learning, though, that doodling is my way of paying attention. If I’m not doing anything with my hands during class, you can safely assume that I’m spacing out and/or sleeping with my eyes open.

Prime example of in-class doodling Photo Credit: Katharine Monger
Prime example of in-class doodling
Photo Credit: Katharine Monger

I can’t pinpoint just one element that really attracted me to Bechdel’s work. I loved everything: her candor (I hadn’t yet read any lesbian memoirs, or even books mentioning lesbians); her childhood (we both had fathers whose livelihoods revolved around books and death); and her artistry. She’d even grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania, not too far from where I was born and raised for the first six years of my life. In fact, I grew up in a house that, from the street, looked not unlike hers: an aging structure from another era crying out for a loving touch. In her graphic memoir Fun Home, her father’s attention to detail—especially his obsession with perfecting the façade of the traditional—mimicked his need to project an American Dream-like heteronormative success to the outside world. In contrast, though, my home was just an illusion of timelessness. Although it appeared elegant in its age from the exterior, the interior had been anachronistically remodeled, slapped together with cheap, hollow doors and wall-to-wall carpeting. I recognized the façade, and resisted it. We are not always who we appear to be.

When you grow up in small-town Iowa, you don’t see a lot of dykes. As a kid, I remember seeing only warped glimpses of the community I long for, blurred and contorted like the view through an old windowpane: a family friend, a fourth-grade science teacher, a church visitor. I searched for myself in books, in television, but all I was exposed to were subliminal (and sometimes overt) messages that because I didn’t feel boy-obsessed and excited for marriage and babies one day like all the other girls, something was wrong. So I tried very, very hard to be “right.” I admit now with great shame that I think I subconsciously started seeing guys as potential answers to my “problem” of being “wrong.” It went like this: If I were always dating a guy, I could avoid thinking about the whole “I think I might actually be into women” thing. Brings a whole new meaning to “Mr. Right,” doesn’t it?

In our meeting, Bechdel pushed me to talk about the big things, the hard things, rather than  circumnavigating the roots of my drive to write. She also encouraged me to get back into my artwork. For most of my childhood, even up until my sophomore year of college, I was sketching and painting and taking photos and videos all the time. I stopped for a couple of reasons. One: I delved more deeply into writing, so I didn’t have as much time for art. Two: Okay, I didn’t make time for art. Three: I thought I needed to “pick” either art or writing, and I felt like I was a stronger writer than I was an artist. Four: My art box full of expensive supplies was stolen off the side of the road in 2013 in Ithaca, IL while I was packing my moving truck. (You know who you are, jerk.) Five: I never reinvested in art supplies because I convinced myself that it was silly and that I sucked anyway, so what was the point?

Photo Credit: MacArthur Foundation

I find labels and categories comforting to a fault. It’s easier to say, “I’m from Iowa City,” where I attended junior high through college, than it is to map out the multiple moves of my childhood. It’s easier to say to people, “I’m a lesbian,” than it is to go into the complicated glittery rainbow of my gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s easier to say, “I’m a nonfiction writer,” than it is to say, “I write nonfiction, and fiction, and plays, and screenplays, and sometimes when I’m really upset I’ll write a poem about my tears. And also I draw stuff. And paint stuff. And film stuff. Also puppets.”

I left my meeting with Alison Bechdel feeling ready to rise to the challenges ahead. She was so kind and thoughtful, listening to me ramble with patience. I realize that I need to explore and consider my own reality—meditate on the self, I suppose—than distract myself with the realities of others. And I’m learning that it’s okay, if not important, to explore the self through many different media so that I might close in on the topics I’m putting off in my writing, the experiences I’m avoiding, and the life-changing events I’m ignoring, as I continue to interpret my own bildungsroman.

Photo Credit: Katharine Monger
Photo Credit: Katharine Monger

A lot to think about, and I apologize for the length of this post considering the great pickings on Netflix these days (have you seen that 1995 IMAX documentary about sharks? It’s amazing!). I’ll finish this post rather awkwardly with my obsessively revised introduction to Alison Bechdel’s reading on November 17th.

Introduction: Alison Bechdel, Hurst Visiting Professor
November 17, 2015
Washington University in St. Louis
In his famous parable, Plato tells us the story of prisoners chained up in a cave for their entire lives. All they can see are shadows on the wall, cast by the fire that burns behind them, unable or unwilling to turn and face the light of reality head-on. The prisoner who breaks free and dares to turn around is the philosopher. But what if the light is too bright for the philosopher to understand the reality that she sees?
Tonight, our Hurst Visiting Professor in nonfiction Alison Bechdel also ruminates on this question of how to transcend one’s own perspective in order to both discover and come to grips with reality—what poet Adrienne Rich means when she writes of “Reading the Parable of the Cave / while living in the cave.” In Bechdel’s graphic tragicomedies, text and pictures form the lens that enables us to see the importance of facing both the gauzy shadows of our pasts and the fires of our present in order to understand the self.
But, as much her memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? navigate the silences in her family’s history, Bechdel is less interested in unearthing secrets than probing her own reaction to them, her understanding of them, her ability to process them and the effect of that process on her life. In Fun Home, the primary tension is not the revelation of her father’s suicide or his sexual orientation or her own sexual awakening, but instead the way the shadows of his life predict and reflect her own. Her second memoir, Are You My Mother?, recounts her process of writing Fun Home through a series of conversations with her mother, her therapists, her romantic partners, and her philosophical research. She weaves into her work allusions from her internal library of literary influences, from early childhood psychoanalysts to poets to ancient storytellers, from the greats we recognize to the minor voices we may overlook. From her love of Adrienne Rich to her obsession with Donald Winnicott, each of Bechdel’s revelations self interrogate what it is she is looking for, what it means to live a life, and what it means to write one. “When I look I am seen, so I exist,” she writes, a variation on Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.”
Alison Bechdel is the author of the 25-year long running Dykes to Watch Out For, the memoirs Are You My Mother? and Fun Home, the 2015 Broadway adaptation of which won five Tony awards, including a Tony for Best Musical. She is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and MacArthur Genius Award winner. We are so honored to have her with us tonight, and we thank her for her gracious mentorship, her artistry, her intellect, her voice. “I am not a writer or an artist,” she writes; “I am a writer and an artist.” And, I would add, by confronting the shadows on the wall and the fires that cast them, she is a philosopher.




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