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How To

One Student's picture

A question on my mind is how to live as a feminist, a writer, and a scholar. Where do I stand as a feminist, a writer, and a scholar? To put it another way, how do I write as a feminist scholar?


            Last fall, I took the Gender and Sexuality Program core course, and there were weekly reading responses for that as well. For one, I tried to do something with the (girl’s) life of the imagination portrayed in Fun Home, the (girl’s) life of the imagination portrayed in Persepolis, and my own (g?rl’s*) life of the imagination. It was an attempt at writing my self, albeit an unsuccessful one. I got a check minus for that, and I’m not sure if it’s because I was writing my self or because I didn’t do a good job. Or a combination. I got a check plus plus for a five page close analysis of Trumpet (I think we only needed 1-2 pages), in which I found out something very significant to understanding the book, and something which required a close, careful reading. There was nothing of my self in that piece of writing. I still think back on that piece with pleasure, because I did well and because I was acknowledged for it.

            What would Cixous say about all that? Is traditional/patriarchal scholarly writing bad writing?

            For me, academic writing is play. “The most glorious kind of play,” as a character in The Secret History by Donna Tartt said regarding the study of the classical world. But he was the character who hid from the problems of reality: all his care and compassion went to the play of the mind. Perhaps feminism makes (scholarly) writing more than just play? (Which is not to say that other -isms do not have the same effect.) And perhaps this is why I want to go into the new field of Culture and Media Studies – classics is the study of the culture and media of the Greeks and the Romans, but I am too much a feminist to be satisfied with studying what is in the past, reinterpretable but not changeable. To write as a feminist scholar is to write for change in how people live.


            I found both Cixous and Spivak opaque, but Spivak’s opacity carried authority. I simply didn’t understand Spivak, because she was so scholarly. I didn’t understand, and I blamed my own lack of scholarly knowledge and experience. I didn’t understand Cixous, and … I wanted to blame her for incoherently ranting, for being emotional instead of analytical, for not (as I first thought) taking any text but instead speaking in generalities.

            But I took bel hooks’ advice, and my own advice, and when I started writing notes for my response I put the silt on part of the page and the water on another, and I started to grasp her overall point, if not the particulars. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a demand for change, and that is something I understand.

            And, in class I saw what kind of change Cixous wants: people, especially female people, should put private masturbatory writing in public places, and end to shame for thought and body (though I don’t fully grasp how in Cixous’s perspective thought and body are … simultaneous). And I realized that she took herself as text.


            I am still no longer comfortable with the traditional academic writing style. Damnit, I’m good at it! And I don’t have to put a little piece of my self on display. I just need to play for long enough. There’s no criteria for writing the self, except how much of your self you write or perhaps how well you write it (with an utterly undefined and indefinable value for ‘well’).

            I think that the kind of writing style I use should depend on what I am writing. If I am my own text, that’s one kind of writing. If I have chosen something else as my text, that is another. And the two can be blended. Perhaps the two ought to be blended sometimes, a hermaphrodite, to gender writing like Cixous.


            I still don’t have a working definition for ‘feminism’.


            I didn’t write my self at all. I blame the deadline and the assigned length. And, at the beginning, I shouldn't have put it another way (How do I write as a feminist scholar?). That narrowed the question too much. Should have been, How do I live as writer, etc. Or, better yet: Writer Feminist Scholar HOW?

            I don't want to put my self here. Not right now. Maybe later.


*The question mark is not a typo. G?rl.


gail's picture

Still confused

First, thank you for allowing us alums to read your paper. 

I understand your confusion.  I do separate creating a work from critique of that work, but neither is "play".  I do not understand or have a handle on what is " the theory of feminist critism" really.  I don't know enough to even "play" or begin.  It seems to me that creating a work is easier.  There are no rules.


Anne Dalke's picture

G?rl! Writing for Change

So, Jessy, you go, g?rl. And in your going (from the life of the imagination to "just play," to working/writing for change), you...
bring me along. And provoke further...

So here are some of my questions. First, and most importantly: what's play? Why "just" play? A couple of years ago, I published an essay in a teaching journal about what happened when teaching the American literary canon became child's play. And you'll find throughout Serendip some fairly elaborated theory about play, about the fundamental role it plays in exploration, in evolution and (not to put too fine a point upon it!) in the success of all organisms...

But if I'm understanding you aright, you're coming @ this a little differently. In your lexicon, scholarly writing is "just play" because it's a distancing act; it's not about the self, not about "the real." It's a performance, a demonstration of competence and cleverness. So when Spivak does it, and you don't get it, you're to blame. But when Cixous does something else, something personal, she's to blame. Can you explain why the site of judgment is different in each case? Because "play" is not about the self?

So let's keeping on playing/working this a bit. Are there really no criteria for writing the self? (Surely it cannot be the quantifiable one of "how much of your self" you put on display?) And what might it mean if there are no criteria, if what we are talking about here is REAL play; that is, not 'games,' with rules, and judgments, but actual open-ended exploration, where the pleasure and the satisfaction is in the doing, not in the measuring of what has been done...?

I like, too, your brief final gesture toward a blended form, 'a hermaphrodite.' I was telling you about Katie Baratz's appearance on Oprah last week; the piece on the Haverford website reporting on the show quotes her as saying "how biology loves variation but society can't tolerate it, and that's where the problem is"--

maybe that works as a way to talk about writing, too? You "blame the deadline and the assigned length," for what/how you ended up writing here. Academic writing can't tolerate variation? And why is that? Where are we going, for what are we aiming, with our regulations, opacities, authorities?

Whereever. My favorite line in all of this? Something I'll be sure to use as an epigraph somewhere/sometime? "I am too much of a feminist to be satisfied with studying what is in the past, reinterpretable but not changeable. To write as a feminist scholar is to write for change..."

Mary Clurman '63's picture

writing with the body

I'm a little late here to comment, am only now working my way through the Web papers.

But as an artist and frequent writer I can say that play is, to me, what painting, for instance, is all about: the play of forms against one another, of light and shade, and of colors. It is an intellectual approach to art, I know, but infinitely pleasurable to me. And sometimes physical, in that hitting just the right line in shaping (drawing, coloring) an object sends a heat through me, a little lightning bolt maybe, a hot shiver.

That said, it is very different from what I feel in reading the Book of Salt, which I find prurient: Truong sets us up to feel Binh's lust and to imagine that of Stein and Toklas -- it seems a cheap shot, a triumph for a first novel but to be moved beyond. I feel played with.

It's true that one can easily respond differently in one's style of critique, depending on the author to whom one responds. I have used that myself as a way to learn new writing styles. And I once wrote a bit based on Colette's biography (Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman -- great female reading!), sensual, very physical. I have lost that sample, but I compare it in my mind with Truong's literary sensuality and see my effort as an experiment in good writing, perhaps even an example of it. Thinking back, the content related to light and color but wanted the body to respond.

So that relates to "creative" writing, I don't see theoretical writing as the same kind of p;ay, although it should certainly "come from the body" more that it does in much of the assigned reading, which is tightly wound up in the head and logos (no sexual overtone intended).

I believe that I write from my body, just differently than Cixous, whom I imagine wearing a soft black wool dress and artistic jewelry, neither of which works for me: she is far more feminine (i.e., sensual) than I, and what Myers-Briggs would call "feeling," whereas I am more a "thinking" type.

Surely responding with the body can be sensual without being sexual or prurient, as I see it in Truong. When I write well, I feel a direct flow from my body to the page. Inspiration to this approach came from a brief letter my husband once received from Bobby Kennedy: it had not one extra word, and but a few lines. Yet you felt his presence fully.