1. Different Ways to Say Fuck
I had five eye operations as a girl. After each one, I imagined myself emerging with perfect and uncrossed eyes. I would wait anxiously for the day I could peel back the bandage. But the surgeries were never entirely successful. The doctor always suggested that I have just one more operation.
These operations were complicated by my reaction to the anesthesia. The eye doctor had difficulty waking me after surgery. He once called me his Sleeping Beauty, but it was a sleep that worried him. I was sick, too, and usually confined to bed for a week or two afterwards.
During that time of recovery, my mother would visit my room with a pile of old books to read aloud. She always chose volumes of myths, fairy tales, poetry, parables, or folk tales, usually antiquated books with beautiful pictures and ornate language. She read one story after another, hour after hour, as I lay, dozing, hypnotized by her beautiful reading voice. A former school teacher, she liked to ask questions about the stories. My answers, she complained, didn’t stay close to the text. I usually told her what a story reminded me of.
When I was eight and recovering from my third operation, for example, my mother read me the myth of Persephone. I said the myth made me think of a fight I had had with Trig, the farmhand’s son, a fight that began when he asked, You see what those cats are doing? pointing at the mating tabbies, Tigger and Rain. People do that, too. Only they call it fucking. And one day I’m gonna’ fuck your sister, Sal. I couldn’t help it. I slugged him as hard as I could. That was the day I got my first black eye.
My sister, I told my mother, was like Persephone. Only she wasn’t stolen yet.
My mother blinked a few times before saying, You shouldn’t get in fights. It’s not ladylike. And then she added, Don’t ever use that word again. And you know which word I mean. If you ever tell a story like that, find another way to say that word.
What other way? I asked.
Think about it, she said. You’re a smart child. For every word you use, for every sentence you speak, there are many other and better words or sentences to say the same thing.
For years after I thought of different ways to say fuck.
- Fucked Up
In my freshman year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. I rarely talk about this. Instead I prefer to edit that year out of my life. But the fact remains; I developed what I called a stutter in my mind. I felt as if I were becoming a stuck-record, going over and over the same sentences, thoughts, and ideas.
I don’t know if this experience is particularly unusual—after all, many people obsess. But it became a problem when I was writing. I would try to write a paragraph, but struggle to get past the first line. I would write and rewrite it as many as ten times. Then I would do the same with the second sentence and the third. When I completed a paragraph, I would revise it.
I would also change my topic, or my approach to a topic.
This problem began when I had a certain professor, Dr. B., who assigned an essay a week and then insisted on examining every sentence his students wrote, suggesting alternate ways of saying the same thing. He wanted to open us up to the possibilities of the imagination, grammar, and the English Language.
I can still hear his voice in my head as he read aloud one of my essays, pausing again and again to say, This sentence works okay, but how could you say it differently? Or, Are you certain that’s how you want to say this? If I didn’t answer, he would suggest alternatives.
After a while I saw every sentence as many sentences, or as a potential multiple choice test.
Worse were the grammatical options the professor offered. In this paragraph, he said once, I see three compound sentences in a row. Why not rearrange the third sentence so that you have an introductory subordinate clause? And break up the second sentence into two simple, declarative sentences.
A grammarian I will never be.
Soon my choice of sentence structure became another kind of multiple choice test. Or a game show. Will it be sentence structure number 1, 2, or 3?
I also found myself pondering the use of commas, particularly the Oxford comma which he preferred to leave out but said, at least in some cases, is necessary. And the comma before which, which is used when which is nonrestrictive but not when which is restrictive, and which I still find confusing. A case in point: the which in the first sentence of this paragraph.
It’s just comma sense, the professor would joke, but I wasn’t sure I had it.
In addition, there were the professor’s obsessions, particularly with the conditional and subjunctive cases. He said on one of my papers, Your use of the subjunctive is correct here, I think, but not necessary because the conditional would serve just as well unless you really think uncertainty is paramount. You should know that use of the subjunctive is currently in decline in the English language. But the conditional is also not ideal. Why not write in a more assertive tone?
He especially disliked semicolons. He hated how we students used them willy nilly, saying, The link between two independent clauses must be logical if one is to use a semicolon, just as the link between human beings should be logical if they are to get married, but of course, it rarely is.
And there were also the problems with the elliptical clause, as in better than me vs. better than I, and the split infinitives, and sentences ending with a preposition.
Finally there was his suspicion of the zeugma. Your compound direct object, he said once, could be considered a zeugma, but I would want to know that you know what a zeugma is. And that you decided consciously to use one here. Otherwise consider changing or dropping this sentence.
Instead I said I needed to drop out for a while.
Why? he asked me, looking startled. I said that I had just changed too many sentences, paragraphs, and my mind. Sometimes there is no more time for decisions and indecisions and visions and revisions. I was trying to be funny.
I am sorry to hear that, he said, adding under his breath, That’s fucked up.
- In Defense of Madness
That fucked up experience, or mind-stutter as I call it, has haunted me ever since. I still rewrite excessively, trying and failing to correct my grammatical errors. I still think I should edit any piece of writing, at least one more time. I still dream I am in Dr. B.s class, writing and rewriting those weekly essays. And I remember many of essays from his class. After all, I tried to write them as many as twenty or thirty times.
Just last week I was reminded of the essay I wrote on Jane Eyre when I watched a video by the amazing Jen Campbell, who, in her witty and entertaining style, illuminated aspects of the text and offered her insights, including the idea that Bertha is an aspect of Jane. (Who else could get 4,000 people to watch a talk on Jane Eyre?)
I was reminded of my title from freshman year, In Defense of Bertha, and how I wrote that many women should have a mad woman in their attic. After all, I was meeting aspects of my own just then.
I remember how I wasn’t certain that I could or should write about madness, Bertha’s or my own. My professor pointed out, I spent entirely too much time in the conditional case, pondering and overusing the words like perhaps, probably, maybe, might, would, should, and could.
He added that women are more prone to this problem, which he called conditional-overuse, adding that men speak more naturally and emphatically, a comment which has stuck with me and might or might not be true. Perhaps and maybe. Either way, it’s maddening.
- THE SEVEN SWANS
The more I worked on my Jane Eyre essay, the less I said about the book or Charlotte Bronte.
Instead I wrote about the fairytales my mother read aloud to me, specifically about the princesses in fairytale towers (Rapunzel, Maid Maleen, Sleeping Beauty) who were and weren’t like Bertha in her attic. The princesses were, instead, pre-Berthas. Prepubescent. Still waiting for their moment to be kissed and liberated. Or to be de-towered and deflowered.
Like Persephone, they were unwittingly waiting for a king to sweep them away. But would he be a king of the underworld or this world? And how could they not want to scream?
And then I began to digress even further . . .
I wondered whether fairytales ever put men in towers—or in some purgatorial space between heaven and earth. I concluded that there was one fairytale, The Seven Swans, where this is the case.
In The Seven Swans, seven brothers are trapped in the bodies of birds. And it is a girl, or their sister, who breaks the evil bird-spell and turns the swans back into men. But she doesn’t completely succeed. One brother is left with a wing in the place of an arm.
(Forgive me--I am short-changing the story here, skipping important details including the fact that the sister-savior of the story also spends time in a tower. And she is, of course, rescued and married to a king.)
I wondered if the sister worried forever after about the wing she didn’t fix? Did she stay awake at night, thinking of that single wing, dreaming of it rising out of her youngest brother’s back.
The wing, I think, is emblematic of how people live happily and unhappily ever after with their odd limbs, their crossed eyes, and troubled minds. Of how, after being poisoned or possessed, after becoming a bird or a sleeping princess or a prisoner of the underworld, one is marked for life. No matter how many hours of therapy one endures, a trace of the sleepiness or poison or the wing is still there. It can be tucked beneath a jacket or otherwise disguised. But the mind remembers, even if it wants to rewrite the past and make it perfect. And then rewrite it again.
I have always loved the image of a man with a single white wing.
This was previously published on Best American Poetry's blog