- Breaking the BodyOn the Writing of “Animalis”
There is a story I heard once, about a man asked to push a rock. The story may have been told to me at church camp; I may have been wearing a baggy T-shirt stained with Kool-Aid. The command to push, if this is true, would then have come from God, but no matter. The man pushes. The rock does not move. The man’s shoulders square in effort; his hands grow callused, his back thickens with muscle, his body tans. The sun rises and falls.
In the end, of course, the rock never does move. It is the man who is moved—who looks down at his body, one day, to find himself transformed.
This is the way I think about “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter,” which sits before you, dear reader, in its tenth draft. It was a rock that did not move, until perhaps it did. But it moved only after it had trained me up. This is the essay that made me an essayist; it is the essay that, more than any other, has required that I learn to tell a reader precisely what I mean.
And so, dear reader, let me tell you what I mean. Before you voice your opinion—if you were going to, if you have found yourself preoccupied by the problems of these footnotes, squelching with their sounds of sex—let me assure you: this essay has tried. The essay has slipped on forms like a woman tries on hats, craning her neck around and rumpling the corners of her mouth in despair—then, trying again. In its ten drafts, the essay has been an annotated list. It has been paragraphs linked by stars. It has been a bibliography swollen with fluff sources—some I’d never even read!—that served to insert narrative in convenient alphabetical locations. It has been lengthened by [End Page 135] rock albums to increase the source-to-footnotes visual ratio on the page, for we have such expectations about what a reference list ought to look like. But since then it has been stripped back down. It has been double-spaced; it has contained different mosaics of men (yes, there were more) and other narratives about my body—heart surgery, and a bout with sepsis. The essay has contained, as Walt Whitman said, multitudes.
Like any writer of sense, I’ve thrown the draft down, let the file languish for six months at a time. But as happens with art, the mistake of the form is what kept calling me back. The mistake of the form created the story in the first place, and the story seemed better for that, more vivid and more worth telling.
Let me tell you about the mistake of this form
A good way to end up with an essay in footnotes is to take Ander Monson’s graduate-levelworkshopyourfirstsemesterintheMFAprogramattheUniversityof Arizona. Ander Monson: he who has written essays in the Harvard Outline, essays with hyperlinks and radio schematics, essays on library catalog cards. (He who arrived at a friend’s thesis defense donning an orange tiger suit.) In my years at the University of Arizona, I would write a lot of unexpected essays for Ander Monson, but none that got me in so deep as the one you find before you.
It was my first assignment of graduate school: to imitate Rick Moody’s “Primary Sources.” Moody’s essay, for those who haven’t read it, is gentle autobiography. The footnotes are short, a few paragraphs at most. Some footnotes present direct quotes; the majority are self-contained anecdote, spanning Moody’s life.
The task seemed simple: gather sources; link to stories.
There are years in which I have the means to buy more books, and the impetus to read them, and 2011 must have been one of those years, for as I walked my house, eyeing the bookshelves, there seemed to be a cluster. The books reminded me of that winter I always knew I’d write about—the unrequited love overlapping with the first fuckbuddy overlapping with the wrestle with what it...