by Katherine Angel
I am often asked how I wrote Unmastered. Sometimes, I am asked how I went about getting it published. Mostly, I feel a bit stumped—almost embarrassed—by these questions, because in truth I don’t quite know how to answer them. But I like trying to answer them, because in my gropings and squintings back at the years that led up to its publication, I have started to understand a bit more about how I write.
I spent the best part of a year writing what I thought of as an essay, and ended up showing it to some agents. When they were emphatic that these ten pages were the beginning of a book, I was a bit taken aback because, after some attempts to map out a book, I had given up in frustration. I sat with my agent in a bar, listening to her say: we could tweak these ten pages a little, turn them into a proposal, and try to get you a book contract. As I sipped my drink, I knew that that was exactly what I did not want to do. I felt a strange, inward turn take place; a changing of gears. I felt myself place, calmly but resolutely, a barrier between me and everything else. I turned my back on everything outside of me and went into a new space of concentrated quietness.
I think this feeling—of putting my blinkers on—was the feeling of knowing that I had just begun to get confident in the voice I’d found, the voice that felt like the home I’d been groping for, and needing to find, for a while. Moreover, I’d found it only by not thinking about what it might say, and how, and to whom. And I knew that, were I to start touting my voice round town, and trying to describe it and perform and sell it, and were others potentially to become invested—psychologically, financially—in it, it would close itself down and be gone in a flash. My wonderful agent immediately understood this: that I needed silence, privacy, and above all no sense of an audience. The only way I could write, unfettered, and discover what it was I wanted to say, was to feel I was just writing for myself.
This sense of solitude within the writing might, I suppose, be a way to cope with the challenges of writing about material that is personal, that is sexual—that makes you vulnerable in some way, because it is sensitive and triggers strong feelings in others. And that was part of it: when I let myself think about audience, I felt intense anxiety. But the turn inward is, I think, for me, just part of writing anything. Creating anything that will go out into the world is inherently an exercise in vulnerability, and in loss of control: you make it, off it goes, and people react. Sometimes their reactions will annoy you intensely. If you write in the anticipation of what might be said about it, you shut down. You have to write as if you couldn’t care less; and, for me, that was to write as if I was writing for no one.
Writing in this way was a profound shift from the training in writing I had received as an academic, which is to say, writing which from the very beginning is dealing in anticipated objections. As academics, we write in relation to the field, in relation to other writers in our discipline. We take on their claims, we critique and dismantle them; we expose flaws, and we offer what we think are better alternatives. When we make claims, we qualify them infinitely: of course such-and-such a person will object in such-and-such a way; and to him or her I say such-and-such. Opening your mouth in academia is premised on the awareness of a targeted audience, one you know well. In writing Unmastered, I had no idea who the book’s audience might be—or rather, I had a hunch, but as soon as I tried to speculate on who might like, and therefore who might not like, the book, I felt fear and inhibition rising in my throat. And so, somehow, I made myself ignore it.
I realized recently that I associate writing with a Louise Bourgeois image that makes reference to an orphanage; the image includes the words ‘Home for runaway girls.’ I began to write, seriously, in the way I had been longing to for years, immediately after the end of a long relationship. The two things became entangled in my mind: writing and aloneness, freedom, release. Writing became enmeshed with the idea of separation from the powerful force of deference to a man; but also deference, full stop. It became associated with a kind of separation from family, from friends; an intense commitment to one’s own story.
But the Bourgeois phrase also spoke to me of seeking refuge in a different kind of home; of running away from ways of talking and writing about sexuality—about anything, perhaps—that had caused me intense frustration. In the years leading up to Unmastered, I felt exhausted by admonitions, by rules, by generalizations—and by the urge to find a final truth that can be applied across the board. I felt tired of vehement, conclusive opinions couched in a language of neutrality, where the personal vulnerabilities and tensions that animate a life are frantically kept at bay. Where personal investments are left out of the analysis. I felt bored to the point of rage by the demand that one come down hard for or against complex issues around sexuality—pornography, sex, abortion—and that one diagnose ourselves and others in stiff, universalizing formulae. This way of talking felt so alien to me, so wildly removed from my own experience of sexuality—multi-layered, constantly shifting, full of questioning and contradiction, replete with intense pleasure and profound pain—that I felt wholly unrepresented, unspoken for. I wanted to be curious and kind, clear-seeing and generous. I wanted to examine something complex, to turn it over in my hands, ask questions. And I wanted to be honest.
Whenever I tried to explain what the book was about, to formulate it in the language of the elevator pitch, I felt it fall apart before my very eyes. At first this unsettled me. But then I realized it was important; in fact, it was a crucial part of what I was trying to do. Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story, argues that essayists and memoirists create a persona, a narrator, who can become the ‘instrument of illumination.’ She writes that ‘the way the narrator writes himself/herself [into the story] is the thing being written about.’ The issues in the prose are enacted through the prose; ‘the narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.’ I think what I had unconsciously realized, and managed to protect, was that the way I wanted to write the book—its form and tone as much as the words I wrote—was what I was writing about. So while the book deals in its content with sexuality, feminism, and power, in its form and tone it also deals with the powers, pitfalls, and violences of how we tend to talk about these issues.
Sontag captures brilliantly, I think, the strange relationship between the self that is the person—Gornick’s ‘agitated and boring self’ out of whom the narrator organizes their experience—and the self that is the writer. She said: ‘I’ve got this onerous charge, this work-obsessed, ambitious writer who bears the same name as I do. I’m just me, accompanying, administering, tending to *that* one, so she can get some work done.’
Letting the writer persona get some work done involved becoming, I now realize, extraordinarily porous, completely receptive to whatever I felt and thought. I paid intense attention to whatever gave me pleasure, and whatever gave me pain; to whatever books, articles, conversations, sexual encounters, seminar discussions, made me delighted, ecstatic, irritable, angry, confused. I followed my instinct without questioning it, dwelling in the obsessions I was developing and leaving books unread if they bored me. I didn’t censor any of my curiosities or my irritations, and everything became grist to the mill, because I was so ready to write the book that had been brewing for so long. And then I just rode its wave, with a mixture of terror and delight.
Letting the persona get some work done also involved not talking too much about the writing; talking enough to keep my excitement and frustration alive—to feel the confusion I met with, and to feel the curiosity and desire—but not talking too much so as to puncture it and deflate its energy. It meant fiercely protecting the writing as it emerged; I found myself resisting, often quite hard, the friends who wanted to read the writing before I was ready to show them. I knew my focus, the persona’s focus, would falter if too many voices crowded in to observe her.
I learned to value and embrace a kind of silence, a kind of inwardness. And this has stayed with me, more or less, through publication. It’s crucial, in order to keep going, to feel able to return to the deepest motor for your work, its deepest pulse: whatever it is that stokes your sensibility and your need to write. For a while after publication I felt an intense urge to explain the book—an urge that came out of the new and bizarre experience of having people write about your work: sometimes understanding it profoundly, and sometimes missing the point phenomenally. For a few fretful weeks I wanted to respond, to clarify, to expose—weeks in which my writing itself felt buried. And then, thank goodness, I moved into a space of not paying too much attention to the book’s journey. Or perhaps a different kind of attention. I listen, I read, I appreciate, I ponder, and then—in the words of an editor—I excrete. And I feel a gorgeous, protective silence fall over me, and get back to my work.
Katherine Angel holds a research fellowship at Queen Mary, University of London. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 2008 and afterward held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Warwick. Her research explores the history of psychiatry and sexuality, and she has written for The Independent, Prospect, and the New Statesman. You can find her online at www.KatherineAngel.com and @KayEngels.