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Flying by Hand
Writing, doing, and floqing.
“It is a fact … that the practice of art, far from making the artist out of touch with his kind, rather increases his sensibility.”
—Virginia Woolf, qtd. in Tomorrow Perhaps The Future
(In an effort not to bury the lead, please read more about FLOQ here. But also, like, please read this lol.)
I’ve been handwriting a lot more lately, which maybe has something to do with why I’ve been feeling more aligned in body/spirit/mind. The channel is open. It’s like trying to fly a kite on a steep and grassy hill where the wind hits strongest. You have to wait for the right gust, but how do you know when that is coming? It helps to close your eyes, though even then it’s hard to know for sure. You feel the stirrings of a breeze and let it go. It falls back to the ground having been unsupported by a gust that never arrived. You try again and again, thinking if you could just quiet yourself enough, slow down your thoughts and really listen to the breath of the wind, you’d nail it. Then finally, a strong gust comes and you throw and the kite is up! You cheer and run alongside it and vow to remember that feeling next time, which will be in just a few minutes from now. You will not remember. You will go through the same dance with the wind again.
This is how I’ve been feeling trying to write a novel. One of the problems with being an artist of the Now is the tendency for the present to overwhelm the story and the slow process of writing. For a long time—all of my life—I’ve been trying to narrow the chasm between what I think and what I do. There must have been a point at which these two were not separate. Sure, there should be some gap, and maybe some writers have a naturally large gap—maybe that is part of what being a writer means for some people. But for me, it’s one of the things I struggle with most. My gap feels less like a period of reflection and more like a veil between the rest of the world and myself. There have been moments when I’ve broken through. More recently I’ve told myself that this veil is there because I am a writer—it is part of what preserves me from the world, part of what lets me write these things about kites and time and weather and lizards and fungus and all the other things you read in this space.
I’ve begun to suspect, however, that this veil is not the result of being a writer. While I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, reading the immense Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War by Sarah Watling has turned a few keys. It is the book I’ve been waiting for about the Spanish Civil War. Watling traces the involvement of women writers and activists from the US and Europe—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Cunard, Martha Gellhorn, Josephine Herbst, and the first Black American nurse to serve abroad, Salaria Kea—exploring how their fiction, journals, and letters reflected their different reasons for getting involved with a civil war in another country and one of the great twentieth century tragedies. A number of them were communists, while several repeatedly refused to be pinned down by political labels. It’s a testament to Watling’s writing of history, in which she does not hide her own struggles in the archives, that she allows each woman here to stand on her own as the complicated, flawed, and sometimes awe-inspiring person they were.
A highlight was learning more about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s commie lesbian cred—it’s great fun to watch her not give a shit while making the hyper masculine war reporters uncomfortable with her lesbianness. Virginia Woolf comes across less victoriously, struggling throughout the 1930s as her literary star rose along with the numerous requests for political support and side-taking from British communists. She resists, and not always glamorously. Credit to Watling for showing this, too, and for wading through Woolf’s journals (I’ve tried, and decided I’d rather just have the fiction untainted). Still, I didn’t know her nephew Julian Bell was killed in Spain fighting against the nationalists for the International Brigades. A dark shadow at the close of the thirties for her, a time of many dark shadows.
Although the period the book explores is almost a century prior, the quandaries these writers faced, the frustration with governments dragging their heels in the fight against Franco’s army and fascism, the deep despair and hopelessness, it all feels so familiar. Watling’s book is really about writers lifting their own veils between thinking and writing and doing work in the world. Of Warner’s novels written during this period she writes:
“In this moment of crisis, of self-assertion, uncertainties have been swept away, leaving only purpose and unity in their place. A hatred that, untapped, can only corrode impotently from within has been transformed into revolutionary momentum.”
That corrosive untapped hatred hits real hard. It grows in the dark behind the veil. I’m grateful to this book for reminding me that the veil as impermeable membrane is not the mantle of the writer. And in the background of all this reading, some other life events have reminded me that dysphoria is also a veil or barrier between the self and the world, one with which I continue to struggle. This is one reason why laws banning trans healthcare are pursued—to prevent the actualization that medical transition brings to trans youth and adults, and to prevent trans people from being actively involved in the world. When you feel disconnected from your body you feel disconnected from the world. It’s really that simple.
But in this moment, I don’t want to sit behind the veil any longer. Not a dysphoric one, anyway. This desire ebbs and flows, sure, I’ve done enough inner monologuing to learn that much at least. Right now it’s flowing, or ebbing, or whichever one involves baring the most coastline so that a few more people can put their towels down on the sand.
And so: I’m starting something new. The first FLOQ: An Evening for Portland’s Trans Lit Community is happening this Thursday, July 6th, at Bishop & Wilde, a delightfully queer bookstore inside Tin House. I hope you’ll join us—first for a workshop at 5pm (filling fast) and then for a reading and open mic featuring the electric cosima bee concordia. Trans people will be prioritized for open mic slots, and cis allies are welcome to come and listen, and maybe read a passage by one of their favorite trans writers (because you have more than one, right?).
Is a reading an action? Are books action? I don’t know. I’m not just pretending or being modest—I really don’t know, on a cellular level. In her 1978 speech “The Stone Ax and The Muskoxen,” Ursula K Le Guin said that “[Maturity is] a just assessment of your capacities, and the will to fulfill them.” And this tracks with my own desire to continue to make the biggest impact I can for my community with the resources at my immediate disposal. So here we are, fulfilling. Willing. Sending up the kite again and feeling for the wind. You’re reading this, so maybe you are the wind.
Is this the sex? The weather? The death part of this newsletter? I think it’s the climate, actually, as we live and breathe and fight inside of it. Fuck the 4th. Keep going.
What (else) I’m Reading
You’re reading it, they’re reading it, we're all reading it: Open Throat by Henry Hoke, the queer mountain lion novella you can read in an afternoon, but an afternoon you won’t forget any time soon. It is very very good. Scary good. So much more to say about this, but just read it yeah?
What is it about mountain lions that inspires writers toward either end of the extremes of fiction?