My parents have a Google Alert set up for me. They have not actually told me this. It has not been confirmed. But, I’m 95% convinced. They periodically discover new things I've written popping up online, reporting them back to me often before I've realized the pieces have gone live.
When you’re writing in the age of the internet, it’s pretty hard to fly under the radar—and I don’t just mean hiding your artistic practice from parents. When Annabel asked me to write this piece, she said explained it as “The slip a la Barthes” which I definitely had to Google.
Barthes writes about “the death of the author”—which basically means that a writer should not be conflated with his or her work. The poem is just the poem. The story is just the story. It stands alone. We should not read a text when keeping in mind when the author was born or the author’s gender or the author’s political views. The text exists independently. The author slips away.
How many of you know who Elena Ferrante is? Ferrante is a well-known Italian novelist with a half-dozen books that have been best-sellers in multiple languages. “Elena Ferrante” is also not her real name. In decades of work as a writer, she gained international renown without ever revealing who she really was.
There was speculation, of course, and Ferrante wasn’t shy about revealing some bits of herself in interviews and books. But in October 2016, an American investigative journalist used financial records to trace Ferrante’s “real” identity; he then wrote an expose that was met with harsh criticism in the literary world.
Why was this act so horrible? Weren’t we all a little curious? Much of the journalist’s driving desire to reveal Ferrante was that he didn’t believe a woman could have written with the level of skill she had (and he wasn’t the only one who held this belief). Top theories often pegged Ferrante as a famous male Italian novelist writing under a pseudonym, despite the fact that most of her books centered on nuanced interpretations of the female psyche and female relationships.
By maintaining an anonymous identity, Ferrante had given readers, critics, and literary circles the slip. They were forced to address her works purely on literary merit, without focusing on many of the questions that plague female writers. There’s a fixation on how much of female novelists’ work is autobiographical, what her husband thinks of her writing, how she balances her writing with her family… and her work is lost in the process.
This sort leads into an important note about the slip: it applies to the minority subject position. The woman. The person of color. The queer person. The slip is about the tension between what you choose to reveal and what you are expected to reveal as a person who exists within one of these subject positions.
Let’s make a lateral move from Elena Ferrante’s fiction to women who write creative nonfiction. There’s a particular pitfall that extends mainly to this group (though it could be argued to extend to other minority subject positions to which the slip applies...more on that later). It’s a sort of “Madonna/whore” divide.
Women are asked to reveal intimate details of their personal lives—even when unrelated to their writing careers—but are also criticized for being too open, revealing too much, or talking about themselves. It’s a double standard. And if you look closely, it’s everywhere.
Chloe Caldwell is a writer who has made her living writing personal stories of herself, her family, and her exploits—often veering into territory that isn’t seen as acceptable female behavior. She does drugs! She has sex! She writes about ugly parts of herself! In several piece online, Caldwell responds to common questions she receives on her work. People ask her if she’s ashamed of writing about the things she does. Whether her family cares. Whether she thinks anyone will want to date her after revealing these things. Double standards a male writer would never be subject to.
But at the same time, we WANT women writers to reveal more.
Last year, Hearst shuttered its online content submission site The Mix. The premise: The Mix would propose clickbait headlines to which (often young, often inexperienced, almost always female) writers would respond with personal essays. Some essays would be chosen to be published online at a Hearst outlet (think Elle, Seventeen, Cosmo) for less than one spends on groceries each week.
Here’s the catch: you would receive a bonus payment if your piece went viral. There’s money in revealing yourself, baring yourself down, laying yourself on the table.
I guess the opposite of the slip is the strip.
The above passage is from another essay I wrote, in which I tried to parse a personal story without bowing to the pressure to give too much away. In a workshop, a man said, “Well, why don’t you just tell exactly what happened?” and a woman said, “That’s the whole point.”
But how do you give the slip when art imitates life? If you actually are revealing yourself through your work, is there any reason to proceed with caution?
Eileen Myles publishes all of her memoirs as fiction...Chelsea Girls, Inferno. These accounts probably ring truer than most traditional memoir, though some events and people are condensed or stretched. Myles always insists that these so-called “fictions” are always about her but simultaneously insists that there is no greater fiction than the self.
In approaching any written work, the reader tries to find the author. My father will continue to read my poems online and see only the details of my life reflected in them. I’ve tried to explain to him that poetry is a sort of loose, slippery truth. A bunch of things I’ve seen or heard or felt or experienced all collaged together in a way that is undeniably true but also impossible to pin down.
I wrote series of political poems twisting the words of a rising-through-the-ranks political figure. I was solicited by an online publication interested in these poems. If published, they would be easily found with a simple search of my name.. I said to my girlfriend, "But I don't want to get on the government's hit list" and she said, "But does the government even read poetry?"
We’re going to end this essay with two versions of the same story. There are different slips in each that will affect how you hear what I say, how seriously you take me as a writer, and what’s at stake.
I often pass in both my life and my writing. This is something I struggle with.
I don’t often invoke my queerness in my writing. This is not to say I am trying to hide that identity or that part of myself. This is not to say that I don’t write about it. But this is an area where I struggle with deciding when or where or how much or how little I want to give. I struggle with knowing who I am writing for and who I owe more or less of myself to.
Really, I struggle with how much I want to slip away.
And for me, that’s the catch of the slip. It’s that balance of legibility and illegibility. Visibility and invisibility. The need to reveal myself (my identity) could be seen as a type of outing. But it could also be taken as a form of radical assertion of a visible identity. How could the slip give me access to spaces I may not usually have access to? And at the same time, could a decision to slip away be viewed as a form of covering (or hiding or distancing)?
It’s sort of like this: What is the difference between a poem on a non-queer subject appearing in an anthology of queer writers versus a queer-as-hell poem smack in the middle of POETRY Magazine? Is one more visible? Are they giving different types of slips?
That was draft four of that story. Here is draft one, with some commentary.
I’m going to tell you something I’m ashamed to admit. I don’t submit (by which I mean I haven’t yet submitted) to anthologies or journals or contests that specifically call for queer writers.
I’m ashamed both that I do this and that I am ashamed that I am ashamed that I do this. I am out in really every area of my life—at work, with friends, with family. But there is something that freezes in the pit of my stomach at the thought of some stranger out in Wyoming reading a poem of mine, Googling me, and immediately knowing that I’m queer.
I don’t know if it’s a fear of danger or a fear of revealing myself in a more far-reaching way than I would ever have to in everyday life. I think a lot of it is about having an identity supersede the work I create, becoming the only thing the reader can see. Giving them the power to create a narrative and assumptions about my work.
The fact that I can make this decision is a privilege. Not everyone can make the slip. Their name or their voice or their appearance or their pronouns or their gender or their language or where they’re from may limit how much they can slip away.
Upon sharing this draft with my girlfriend (Annabel, in case you didn’t notice that double-slip earlier in the essay), I self-slipped on this topic. We stand on different sides of the slip issue. It’s important to contextualize this. We discussed my aversion to revealing myself through my writing lying in my bed, my computer out as I took note of her objections. (A conversation about queer theory in a queer context within a queer relationship.) An entire context I slipped out of this essay.
I edited myself out. I removed everything I was struggling with. (“I can see why you omitted it. They may have trouble focusing on what you were saying if you were talking about lesbians in a bed,” she said.)
If I told you this story first, you wouldn’t have taken me seriously. Or you wouldn’t have trusted me. Or both. That was a slip I consciously made.
Even after many hours of discussions and several drafts of this essay, I don’t have an answer for you. The author doesn’t in fact slip away, as Barthes says, but they’re as present as they want to be...though at the same time, they do not have full control over how what they put out into the world is taken up by audiences.
You can give as much as you want, but you can’t take back what you’ve said.
What I most want you to take away from this is that there isn’t shame in the slip, just as there isn’t shame in the reveal. There isn’t shame in being either anonymous or hyper-visible.
I don’t think I’m correct on this issue.
I also don’t think I’m incorrect.
The slip is a slippery thing. I hope you’ve caught even just a little of this before you slip out the door. I’ve slipped and unslipped a dozen times in this essay. I’ve changed my mind a dozen times more.
And so I’m going to end on a question. What would you have taken away from this if I had slipped everything? What would you have taken away if I had revealed everything?
I wouldn’t be able stop you from slipping away with your thoughts either way.