Live at the Red Ink Series: How Desire Propels the Writing Life
Featuring Jo Ann Beard, Katherine Angel, Dantiel W. Moniz, and Jeannine Ouellette
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books Are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next discussion, “Reinvention,” will take place on May 20th at 7pm (via Zoom) and will feature Chet’la Sebree (Field Study), Marisa Siegel (Fixed Stars and Burn It Down), Anjali Enjeti (Southbound and The Parted Earth), Gina Frangello (Blow Your House Down), and Sam Cohen (Sarahland ).
The following is an edited transcript from March’s panel, “Desire,” which featured Jo Ann Beard, Katherine Angel, Dantiel W. Moniz, and Jeannine Ouellette.
Michele Filgate: I wanted to start by asking each of the panelists what desire means for you, as a writer and in your work.
Jo Ann Beard: I don’t know how to say what desire is about in my work but I know how to say what it’s about in the artist. Let’s say I write mostly nonfiction, and even when I write fiction it feels a lot to me like nonfiction. Writing is an attempt, or a desire, on my part to find meaning in my life, whether I’m writing about my own experience or somebody else’s. All my life had this certainty that there’s a meaninglessness to our existence. For me, grappling with that works best through writing, because writing requires you to create meaning—it’s the job. So, in the wider world that’s not writing, I still have that feeling of meaninglessness at the core of everything, but in the world of my writing, I’m constantly attempting to use words and images to search for, find, and illuminate some kind of meaning. Even if the meaning turns out to be meaninglessness itself.
Dantiel W. Moniz: I think what I’m interested in when I write is, what’s the space between our wants versus our needs, and how often do we confuse the two? I’m very interested in the things that we want that we are ashamed to want—things that are stigmatized. I’m interested in the desire to be normal, whatever that means, the desire for the American Dream, which is a dream. I’m interested in, I don’t know, just the endlessness of it, the searching of it, and how that makes a person. I feel like once one is satisfied another one crops up in its place, you know what I mean, it’s like the head of the hydra.“I think it’s just part of the human condition, unfulfilled desire or unnamed desire.”
Jeannine Oulette: I think about desire as urgency, and when I teach writing, I talk about desire as fuel. It’s as if you just can’t deprive yourself of the fuel. And I like what Dantiel said about stigmatized desire, because I think for women, almost all desire is stigmatized. Ambition, for example, can be its own form of desire, and that too is stigmatized for women. So this idea of desire as an urgency that can compel us toward the thing that we yearn for, that actually does create meaning, that is meaning for us. I like thinking about etymology, and I was doing some Googling on desire, and it turns out Octavia Butler talked a lot about desire, which I thought was really cool, and she talked about desire as a form of becoming. This was in Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s blog, and apparently desire comes from the Latin, “without a star,” which refers to the idea of “yearning for direction toward our own becoming.” I just thought that was beautiful, and was a much more elegant and eloquent way of saying exactly how I like to think of it, leaning into the desire.
Katherine Angel: I love the way you’ve all spoken about this, it’s really beautiful. And I suppose that feeling of kind of searching, the endless search that I think motivates the desire to write, is something I think a lot about. The desire in me to write is very strong, but it’s not clear to me what it’s a desire for, in the sense that I never know what it is exactly that I want to write until I have written it. So there’s a kind of urgency of wanting to be there in this field, doing this, but I don’t know what it is that I’m aiming for. And often it’s in retrospect that one can clarify actually what one was wanting and trying to create, but at the time it’s a strange kind of knowing and not knowing; a deep urge that remains hazy at the same time.
MF: Dantiel, in “The Hearts of Our Enemies” in your collection Milk Blood Heat, a teenage daughter is upset with her mom for not going through with an affair and still confessing her mild transgression to her husband. You write: “In all of this, Margot was mostly mad that her mother had wanted something and didn’t take it, and the consequences were the same.” What is it about unfulfilled desires that you were interested in writing about?
DWM: I think it’s sometimes scary to get what you want as well as to not get it. And so I think, there is so much about, you know, if we’re thinking about it from the aspect of yearning, there is so much that we yearn towards but we may never get, we may never fulfill it, or we do get it and then it becomes like, oh that’s not actually doing anything for me. So I think it’s just part of the human condition, unfulfilled desire or unnamed desire. I think in that story in particular, it’s really Margot thinking you can be shamed for things that you want, you can be shamed for the things you don’t take, so in all of this you might as well do what you want to do because people are going to have their judgments about whatever that thing is, regardless.
MF: Jo Ann, in your new collection, Festival Days, desire is a theme that runs throughout the book, whether it’s the will to survive seen in Werner, a painter you met who jumped out of a burning building in New York City, or a terminally ill woman who went to Dr Kevorkian to end her life. In the latter essay, Cheri, you write about the way she experiences the world as she’s ill: “The trees on her street vibrate in the afternoon sunlight, the dying leaves so brilliant that she somehow feels she’s never seen any of this before—fall, and the way the landscape can levitate with color, and even her simple cup of green tea in the afternoons, with milk and honey in a thick white mug. Warm. Her hand curled around it, or the newspaper folded beside it, or a halved orange on a blue plate sitting next to it. It’s all lovely beyond words, really.”
One of the many things I love about your work is how whether you’re writing about yourself or other people, even the quietest moments are infused with significance; a desire to hold on to this world. Even the act of holding a cup of tea is imbued with meaning. Is it a conscious choice, all of these moments of illumination?”
JAB: Well, I think it might be both. But in that piece you just read, it’s a person who has discovered that her life is soon to be over, that every day she continues to live is just another day that moves her toward her impending death; she might have a month to go. So, if you as the writer, or we as writers, imagine our way into this person’s life, and feel what it would be like to have a cup of tea with the realization that soon there won’t be any more tea, there won’t be another orange to peel, there won’t be another autumn with these beautiful leaves, that the only thing you can desire is to stay on earth, which is impossible. Instead, she died, and I didn’t get to talk to her about that, so I had to imagine my way through it and speculate about how she might have felt in that moment.
Werner, on the other hand, went all the way to his moment of death and then he got to live, and so he could speak to me about what it felt like to have that happen; to absolutely know that you are going to die and then suddenly your life is handed back to you. A lot of Festival Days turns out to be about matters of life and death. So therefore, imagining your way into all of these deaths, one essay after another, means that you are imagining for yourself what it would feel like to have everything around you, like in this moment, the beautiful, soft lamplight that I’m looking at, your faces—the faces of other artists—to understood fully that this is all shimmering and temporary and that if we knew the actual moment when it’s going to disappear, it would be moving and overwhelming. If we could all only live in that moment forever, we might be able appreciate every cup of tea we have—except this cup of tea has beer in it.“Sexual culture can make it hard for women to find their desire, to be able to be in touch with it, because it’s risky to feel sexual desire.”
MF: Katherine, in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, you write: “Women’s sexuality is frequently punished; women are routinely harassed, and their bodies policed; they are constantly reminded of their susceptibility to male violence, and made to feel responsible for it. Shame, fear, cultural proscriptions and trauma—often sexual trauma—can be profound inhibitors to sexual enjoyment. Yet women are urged to claim their desire with confidence. No wonder many women have a complicated relationship to their desire; no wonder it may need careful eliciting, and that they are easily inhibited.” Can you elaborate on this? Can desire ever be uncomplicated?
KA: This book is partly about what I began to feel worried about in the last few years, in the wake of #MeToo: namely, that in a lot of the increased and well-meaning discussion about sexual violence, there was still a lot of focus on addressing the woman primarily, and in particular addressing a woman’s subjectivity and her sexual persona. There’s almost a requirement that in order to keep ourselves safe, and to be able to experience pleasure, we need to know what we want and then say very clearly what we want. That disturbs me, because the sexually punitive culture we live in means that it’s really difficult for us to say exactly what we want, because we know that those kind of confident expressions of sexual desire are exactly what come back to harm us in rape trials, and in the everyday. Those exact expressions of desire literally get read out in court as grounds to exonerate men from sexual violence. So this emphasis on saying what you want seems to me problematic. In addition, sexual culture can make it hard for women to find their desire, to be able to be in touch with it, because it’s risky to feel sexual desire, because to feel sexual desire is to open yourself up to the pleasures of vulnerability but also the risks of vulnerability in a violent world.
I also don’t think desire is ever something that’s simply there, ready to be extracted. If the conditions are right, we can experience desire in what feels like a simple, spontaneous, urgent way, but there are conditions that have enabled that—and so often the conditions aren’t right. The culture that we live in, the socioeconomic situation we are in, all these other aspects of our identity and our lives, make that kind of discovery of desire really complicated. So the book is partly about trying to start from that complexity, as opposed to trying to push it away, wishfully. If conditions are right, desire can feel so magical and alchemical. But for so many people, the conditions are not right. How can we try and create the kind of social and cultural conditions that mean that people stand a greater chance of accessing a magical space that’s actually very delicate and complicated?
MF: Jeannine: In THE PART THAT BURNS, you write: ““Fire is not the only lick that scars. I want to burrow under the skin of this world and feel its bready heat.” Throughout your memoir I was struck by all of the language about the natural world: atoms, plasma, cells, etc. Can you talk about why you were drawn to that theme?
JO: I’m dealing with the aftermath of trauma in my book, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And I think the section that you read, and the focus on the natural world but also specifically, the body, is very much about my interest in this idea of what it really means to be embodied, what is it to actually live in our body? There’s a section in the book that I co-wrote with my daughter where we’re having a conversation, and it talks about this idea of Self with a capital S. This idea to me is about the Self being the physical body but also whatever that thing is that makes us alive, that life force that is our living self within the body. So the idea of the Self with a capital S is about the integration of those forces that ultimately make us who we are, because I spent so much time in my younger years living completely outside of the physical body. Just observing my physical body from a distance, being very lightly tethered to it by a very fragile string.
I’m reading Pam Houston’s Deep Creek right now, and she has a beautiful bit, where she’s talking about her writing process being observing what is in the world, and waiting for that moment—I think everybody who writes will know what she’s saying which is also how I write, which is just sensing this thing, she calls it a glimmer. So it’s something that catches your attention, somehow, and she captures it. She forbids herself to, she says no interpretation, no trying to make meaning out of it, nothing. Just capture the thing itself. And she has a file in her computer called glimmers, and she will later go into her file and select from those physical observations, sensory observations, and see which ones she can juxtapose, see if they start to talk to each other, to create a kind of an emergent meaning. And I thought that was so beautiful, because I think that’s just so exactly right, you know, the meaning. That balance of not knowing and the urgency of finding out—but starting out with that glimmer that Pam Houston is talking about. I think it does start in the outside world, the world that we all share.