How Virginia Woolf and J.A. Baker Helped Me Write a Trans Memoir
Diana Goetsch: “These books became my teachers.”
When I began the memoir This Body I Wore I had no idea how I was going to write it. That never stopped me as a poet; every successful poem I’ve ever written was, for a long time, a walk in the dark. But I’d never attempted a full-length work of prose. My book proposal (something else I’d never attempted) promised “a literary trans memoir.” By literary, I meant an embodiment of experience, rather than a summary or analysis, and I was determined to avoid the predictable transition story. This would instead be a pre-transition story. I’d lived fifty years before coming out and I wasn’t about to reduce that to a “before” photo.
But how would I write it? Until recently, people in the closet comprised the bulk of the trans population. Like the underwater portion of an iceberg, we who became late transitioners were largely invisible—even to ourselves—while the language for who we were was paltry, vulgar, or nonexistent. To embody that experience felt like saying the unsayable, a daunting task of writing a nonexistent self into existence. At the same time, I’d trained all my life to write this book, for poetry specializes in saying the unsayable. In terms of craft, I would need every move I ever learned, plus all the help I could get.
Much of that help came from the books I read while I wrote my book. There were four in particular—The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker; A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet—that proved instrumental. Each of these authors was radically inventive and literary: the depth and urgency of their subjects required new ways of conveying and organizing narrative. They had made discoveries in the nature of reality that had led to discoveries in craft—and vice-versa. These books became my teachers, I allowed them to influence me, and I’d like to illustrate that influence here.
J. A. Baker, The Peregrine
When a friend handed me a copy of The Peregrine she was at a loss to describe it, and didn’t know if I would like it. I quickly saw why: the book is comprised entirely of journal entries, meticulously observing a hawk at an estuary in Essex, a county northeast of London, during a winter in the mid-1960s. It may be the most spartan, least sexy book I have ever read. There is no dialogue or plot or human interaction. We learn nothing about J.A. Baker, other than the fact that he uses binoculars and rides a bicycle. It is like a diary without a diarist, as though Baker had set out to hide himself in a book.
But there’s this hawk, about whom we are informed of every conceivable aspect, particularly his diet:
November 30th. Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe. The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death. The kingfisher shone in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye. He was tattered with blood, stained with the blood-red colour of his stumpy legs that were stiff and red as sticks of sealing wax, cold in the lapping ripple of the river. He was like a dead star, whose green and turquoise light still glimmers down through the long light-years.
I couldn’t get a grip on this book—until it got a grip on me. Baker’s writing is precise, hypnotic, often magnificent, often unnerving. His tools are honorable: the declarative sentence, exacting verbs, and well-timed metaphors. I began to appreciate The Peregrine as a paragon of the “objective correlative”—T.S. Eliot’s notion that by accurately describing our surroundings, we even more accurately describe our own inner state. “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” Baker has written, and the result of such seeing shows up in passages such as this:
I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts.
In writing This Body I Wore,[i] I felt particularly overwhelmed at the beginnings of chapters, with no idea how to re-enter the experiences I wanted to convey. In a chapter called “Northport,” for example, I wanted to present the experience of being seventeen and trans and not knowing it, and not knowing why my life made no sense. Because it was 1981, which is long before the word or concept of “trans” was in play, my experience of being trans couldn’t beexperienced, and narrating that paradox felt like climbing a mountain in thick fog. I addressed my sense of overwhelm by emulating The Peregrine, anchoring myself in descriptions of what I could see, what I did know. And so the “Northport” chapter begins quite simply with a couch and a window:
I am sitting on the orange couch in what my parents call the family room. The couch is an ungainly dual-reclining contraption, in which two people each get their own angle and footrest. It has grown old, rickety, and comfortable.
Out the big picture window to my left is Northport Bay, an undramatic body of water leading to what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the great wet barnyard of the Long Island Sound. To the west, across the mouth of Northport Harbor, is Little Neck, where the red Spanish roof tiles of the Vanderbilt mansion and museum are visible in winter through bare trees. The beach at low tide smells rank, due to a wide stripe of exposed muck and mussel beds. In the wind, which is constant, seagulls hoist up mussels and drop them on stones to crack their shells while screaming at other seagulls to stay the fuck away. Electric horseshoe crabs hunch like land mines, while hermit crabs in borrowed shells make sidelong dashes across tide pools like old men in bath towels scampering down hotel corridors.
But what I’m looking at is the ceiling. Each day after school I sit here staring up, fingers woven behind my head, trying to envision my future, and each day I draw a total blank. I am about to graduate high school, near the top of a class of over eight hundred. I have never done drugs or been arrested, never broken a bone or started a fight. But I am worried that something is very wrong with my life.
The description of objects I knew well gave me a base from which to step into the unknown—the sense of wrongness, and “total blank” of my life. I didn’t know it when I first drafted it, but the metaphors in that opening description—the minefield, the borrowed shells and awkwardness of the hermit crabs, and the nastiness of the seagulls—pointed to the heart of the chapter, where I was an angry trans kid living in a shell, and my hometown was a minefield.
I referred to these openings as “snapshots,” and wrote them in the present tense like journal entries. I was using them functionally, clinging to a solid base before launching into another segment of a chaotic life. I didn’t know if the snapshots would make it to the final draft. They did; of the nineteen chapters in the memoir, fourteen begin in the present tense.
When it was published in 1967, The Peregrine was universally lauded for its stunning prose. It has since inspired generations of environmental writers, activists, and artists. The filmmaker Werner Herzog called it “the one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films.” The writer Robert Macfarlane tells of a troubled punk musician who revered The Peregrine, and loaned it frequently to others to read. When he died of a heroin overdose at age twenty-three, his bandmates placed copy in his grave.[ii] A young man in my Buddhist sangha changed his name to Peregrine on account of the book. It is perhaps ironic that so many have plunged ecstatically into a work whose author all but absents himself from, in favor of inhabiting a creature living in another element.
Standing in the fields near the north orchard, I shut my eyes and tried to crystallize my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk…I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone. I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.
No wonder The Peregrine helped me write a trans memoir.
Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
I have read Virginia Woolf in every season of my life, though I had never read her Writer’s Diary.[iii] In it we find Woolf’s frank assessments of other writers, and the unfolding of her own brilliant literary vision. I particularly valued being privy to her ups and downs as a writer, the pleasures and problems and shifts in morale as she wrestles one modernist masterpiece after another into final form. But what I loved most were the practical entries where Woolf games out her production schedule.
In May of 1924 she reports that she will draft The Hours (a.k.a. Mrs. Dalloway) in four months, take a three-month break to write essays, then revise the novel between January and April the following year, and “aim at 80,000 words.” “Such is my programme,” she concludes. It was helpful and demystifying, for someone attempting her first book of prose, to have a window into the “programme” of one of the best to ever do it. Here is Woolf’s back-of-the-envelope math as she neared the completion of The Waves:
I began it, seriously, about September 10th 1929.
I finished the first version on April 10th 1930.
I began the second version on May 1st 1930.
I finished the second version on February 7th 1931.
I began to correct the second version on May 1st 1931, finished 22nd June 1931.
I began to correct the typescript on 25th June 1931.
Shall finish (I hope) 18th July 1931.
Then remain only the proofs.
There’s a humility to writing prose, as opposed to the audacity of committing an act of poetry. I drafted seven sections of my longest poem in a single morning while dog-sitting with a friend in Delaware. “What the hell was in your coffee?” the friend said, as I laid out my plans for the three remaining sections. A poem’s shape emerges fairly soon: you see it narrow, fat, or jagged on the page; you see islands of couplets, bricks of stanzas. Prose is comparatively shapeless—for a long time.
I’m generally good for a thousand words a day, but when I drafted and edited This Body I Wore each day had a hard limit, separate from any word count, past which my mental capacity shut down. Thinking dulled, typos bloomed. Reading through the previous day’s work, it was easy to spot where my brain fell off a shelf. I actually wondered if I was cognitively deteriorating. That was around the time I picked up A Writer’s Diary. I recalled, from studying Woolf in college, that her practice was limited to three hours each morning—but her diary reveals even stricter limits. She could only work on The Waves for about ninety minutes a day, before “it rolls into a tight ball the muscles in my brain!” This book was heavy, at times more depressing than inspiring—yet it was also good company. Woolf was a planner, and an extraordinarily prolific writer, but she could also ground to a halt, and wind up in a ditch. Good to know.I came across each book haphazardly, at sidewalk book tables on Upper Broadway, or high on a shelf gathering dust.
I found my ditch in Maine, in a cabin I rented for two weeks in late August, where I planned to write two childhood chapters of the memoir. I set up my desk on a screened-in porch surrounded by lush woods, typed “Stony Brook, 1968” at the top of a page, and began,
I am five, sitting on a toilet seat lid, staring at a tiled bathroom floor. The tiles are small and pink, with blue and white specks. If I stare at them long enough the specks lift and float, then fly diagonally across the floor, crisscrossing from corner to corner, faster and faster like shooting stars. When I blink, it all goes away, and the specks are specks again. The bathroom is on the first floor of our house, which is half underground. If I stand on the toilet lid I can look out the window and see our backyard at grass level, out to the power lines separating our backyard from the backyard of the Watts.
My mother locked me in that bathroom an hour a day for a month. That’s maybe not such a big deal—unless you’re five. Each day I wrote a few more pages of that chapter, until one morning I woke up, stepped out to the porch, typed one sentence, and broke down. I crawled back in bed, swaddled myself in blankets, and wept in fear, scared to write another word. I called my therapist—the first time I’d ever done so between appointments.
I had touched on some of these painful memories in poems, but I was finding that in literary narrative you don’t just touch on experience—you go there. The intervening years that allowed me write it were no buffer emotionally. Quite the opposite: the perspective afforded by time exposed me to the full impact of horrifying events, far more intensely than in childhood, when I dissociated and went numb. There were days I could only manage a single paragraph.
Woolf likewise had other sources of exhaustion to manage. I noticed an entry from 1924 where she called Mrs. Dalloway “a feat, finished without break from illness.” Mentioning her previous novel, she wrote, “I feel I have exercised the spell …I had laid myself under after Jacob’s Room.” It is now generally thought that Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder. The euphoric aspect of the illness may have gotten along well with her writing practice, while the depressive bouts, what she called “crises,” could shut her down. The most incapacitating depressions—the “spell” she refers to—descended, as if on schedule, each time she finished a book.
But there was more to it than that. Her progress on Mrs. Dalloway slowed radically—“perhaps 50 words a morning”—every time she worked on what she calls “the mad part.”
A feeling of depression is on me, as if we were old and near the end of all things. It must be the change from London and incessant occupation. Then, being at a low ebb with my book—the death of Septimus—and I begin to count myself a failure. (Saturday, August 2nd, 1924)
“Septimus” is Septimus Smith, a young war veteran who is haunted by voices and “descending into the pit.” He is wandering Regent’s Park, contemplating suicide, as his devastated wife tries to get him to a psychiatrist appointment. Septimus seems to pop up out of nowhere; he isn’t connected to any other character in Mrs. Dalloway—particularly Clarissa, a middle-aged lady preparing to host a dinner party. What is he doing in this novel?
In her diary, Woolf only says she anticipates “a devil of a struggle… to wrench my substance to fit,” and that reviewers of her novel “will say that it is disjointed because of the mad scenes not connecting with the Dalloway scenes.” But clearly she thought she needed the mad scenes, and was every bit as invested in this traumatized soldier as in Clarissa. Woolf herself had been severely traumatized, not by armed combat, but by incest, having been repeatedly molested by her half-brothers beginning at age six. As a young woman she attempted suicide and suffered nervous breakdowns, for which she’d been institutionalized multiple times. She knew herself to be frail, but she also detested how she was treated by the medical system, and she poured her fury into Mrs. Dalloway. Rather than be carted off to a psychiatric home, Septimus takes his own life. Clarissa hears mention of it (his heartless doctor happens to be attending her dinner party) and finds herself helplessly merging with a man she never met:
Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.[iv]
My own “mad part” was child abuse. I knew it would need to be included in This Body I Wore, despite what critics would say. (Transphobic critics were bound to draw a straight line from trauma to “gender confusion,” in their hunger to delegitimize trans identity; trans critics might resent a book that opens our minority to such delegitimizing.) Like Woolf, I had to figure out how to “fit” the material. I did not want to write an “abuse” book, nor for that matter a “trans” book. Half the job of literary writing is slipping the noose of reduction. But a central fact of my life had been that an abused child and a trans child took turns hiding behind each other, preventing me from truly seeing either. When I finally came out to myself, in a solo retreat cabin in Colorado, the two children merged:
A last vision came to me while packing up to leave: a small girl, very thin, with bright, deep-set eyes, her orbital bones beginning to show. She was being held hostage. I only glimpsed her through a crack in a padlocked shack. She handed me a note on a scrap of paper. The note said, “Don’t forget me.” She was unsure I’d come back for her, yet I was her only hope, and she had no choice but to trust me. But did I trust her? Nothing in my life had worked out, and now here was this girl I’d never seen, pleading. Do I let go of everything, and base my life on her?
Musicians talk all the time about what they’re listening to, and how it affects their own music, but rarely do we come across self-examinations of how a book was influenced by what a writer was reading at the time. Even nowadays, when there is a wealth of literature about “process,” we hear little in this regard. Maybe the reticence has something to do with Harold Bloom’s big idea about “the anxiety of influence”—yet all writing has always been in conversation with other writing. Personally I’m a big fan of influence, which for me isn’t a question of plagiarism, so much as What led to what?What passage would never have been written, or written quite the same way, if not for another passage by another writer?
Of the books I read while I wrote my book, two others—by Milan Kundera and Elena Ferrante—were as impactful as the two I’ve written about here, and perhaps I’ll write separately about them. I came across each book haphazardly, at sidewalk book tables on Upper Broadway, or high on a shelf gathering dust. I have always read haphazardly, trusting intuition, and maybe the fact that I wasn’t conducting “serious research” impugns this essay. Then again, as Kundera points out, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute.”[v] Whatever the case, I have never felt so nourished and sustained by what I was reading. And as I said, I needed all the help I could get.
[i] Goetsch, Diana. 2022. This body I wore: a memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[ii] “Hunting Life,” by Robert Macfarlane, Five dials. (No. 36) [London]: Hamish Hamilton.
[iii] Woolf, Virginia, and Leonard Woolf. 1982. A writer’s diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf. San Diego (Calif.): Harcourt Brace and Company.
[iv] Woolf, Virginia (1925, 1953). Mrs. Dalloway, 280. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.
[v] Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being, 48. New York: Harper & Rowe.
This Body I Wore: A Memoir by Diana Goetsch is availabla via Farrar, Straus and Giroux.