Queering creative writing to reckon with the past, disrupt the present, and build the future of creative practice beyond the gender binary
“By utilising the technique of writing from and through the body, I was able to reckon with the fallout of violence upon my body, explore my emerging queer identity, and disrupt patriarchal discourses of the gender binary within the academy…”
University of South Australia
Heather Briony McGinn is a second-year PhD candidate with a research focus on Beat Studies and feminist literary criticism. In the first year of her postgraduate research she developed l’ecriture kinesthésique, a corporeal-based creative writing methodology.
l’ecriture kinesthésique, marginalised bodies, disobedience, PLR, disruption
Dr Michael Noble had a profound impact on my research, encouraging me to explore the possibilities of writing about and from my marginalised body, and providing a space where my differences could be the source of illumination rather than shame. In this paper, I discuss the process of reckoning with that process of writing from the margins over the course of my Honours year. This paper reflects on a period of practice led research which led me through the trauma cleaning process of writing through my disobedient body, and argues that by utilising the technique of writing from and through the body, I was able to uncover, make room for, and explore queer women’s stories in the artefact and exegesis model of research. This paper aims to show how researching and writing from a queer perspective can respond to a patriarchal society with a history of violence towards women, with a particular focus on, as Cixous encouraged, breaking free from the snare of silence. Engaging with the practice of l’ecriture kinesthésique allows marginalised bodies to speak and be heard.
In this paper, I will be reflecting on the period of queered practice-led research that guided me through the trauma cleaning process of writing from the body that produced an Honours thesis. I argue that by utilising the technique of writing from and through the body, I was able to reckon with the fallout of violence upon my body, explore my emerging queer identity, and disrupt patriarchal discourses of the gender binary within the academy, through practice-led research. Frustrated by the lack of representation of queer women characters in popular culture, and particularly modern literature, I was prompted to focus my research on exploring the possible narrative arcs of queer women characters within the autofiction and poetry genres, aided by the process of bricolage and queer story making. Presented alongside the exegetical outcomes, I will also share some of the poetic work that was created in the course of experimenting with the practice of writing from the body. Themes of otherness, patriarchal silencing of women, bodily autonomy, shame, trauma, and pain will be discussed, having been recurring topics over the course of the research project. This paper aims to show how researching and writing from a queer perspective can respond to a patriarchal society with a history of violence towards women, with a particular focus on, as Cixous encouraged, breaking free from the snare of silence.
Kinaesthetic writing has been born as a result of a search to define my creative practice. While the theories of l’ecriture feminine, or women’s writing, and l’ecriture matière, the writing of matter and resistance, do apply to my writing, I needed something that incorporates the kinetic, and reflects how my body creates and emits text. My body is constantly under pressure from pain, and being intervened with, whether it be through the cutting up of skin with needles and ink, or the binding with rope, and I am always moving. In terms of creative writing, my practice is a direct result of psychogeography, and the automatic writing that arises from performing the role of flanuer. Rather than the think/feel/write approach, I employ the think/feel/MOVE/write approach.
The research question posed for this project was Writing the disobedient body: how can kinaesthetic story making uncover queer women’s narratives?
The research aims of this project were focused around creating work that would address knowledge gaps in the field of queer writing and feminist literary criticism within the academy, through the narratology of fat bodies, queerness, and trauma. The knowledge gaps identified through the Queered PLR methodology were firstly, the need to enrich creative practice through queer story making, secondly, the need to foreground fat, queer, and otherwise marginalised bodies within creative writing and academic enquiry, and finally, the need to add to the feminist literary discussion of women’s writing from the body.
My Honours thesis was presented as an artefact and exegesis, where kinaesthetic writing acted as a trauma cleaner when intersecting with queer theory. Employing Queered PLR uncovered a narrative which told of the richness of text held within the fat, female, disobedient body. The project was disobedient, revealing an artefact that insisted on the inclusion of the erotic, the exploration of trauma and pain, and the witnessing of queerness. The research resisted being narrowed in order to address a singular theme, instead touching on several, from the significance of skateboarding to the formation of a non-conforming identity, to the capability of bondage to help heal PTSD.
So, we are entering the world of the taboo, trauma writing, and autofiction. Nigel Krauth uses Bukowski as an example of the taboo body in the text: “Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out” (2000, 107 cited in Winokaur 2010, 4); while Jensen discovered the link between trauma and autofiction: “…trauma evacuates meaning from experience… Neither fully fact nor fiction… the hybrid nature of the post-traumatic narrative…” (2014, 720).
Baker points out the importance of creating work that falls outside of straight lines, writing that “The representation (or writing) of sexual and/or gender difference is significant because sexuality and gender are often perceived as the most significant ‘norms’ or components of subjectivity” (Butler 1990 cited in 2013, 360).
Engaging with queer discourse is inherently fracturing, or as Baker puts it, “Queer Writing is a practice that directly intervenes in subject information that leads to the constitution of altogether new subjectivities for the writers themselves” (2013, 370). This fracturing is also knowledge producing, reflexive and flexible. It encourages an attitude of experimentation and idea generation, or, as Batty and Berry put it, “Whatever the form and whatever the methodology, the space of creative practice research encourages a critical engagement with doing, making, re-doing and re-making. It creates a place in which practice can be incubated alongside ideas, calling into question the past, present and future of that practice.” (2015, 185)
This space is also an uncomfortable one, or as Abblitt confesses, “I am still uneasy with my strange textual compositions” (2012, 17). This uneasiness was present in this project also, reflected in the peaks and troughs presented in the poetry journal that I kept throughout the Honours year. As discussed by Baker, “an experience of a text or discourse featuring a non-normative gender or sexual subjectivity can – to use Butler’s terminology – ‘undo’ one’s personhood and facilitate the emergence of a new subjectivity” (2013, 360).
Baker asserts that “writing practice and engagement with textual artefacts (literature) can trigger and inform queer self-making” (2013, 359).
I chose the queer deviant body and the text it produces as the site of my research.
The answer is simple: Firstly, my body is an incorrect one; and secondly, I am a poet. I cannot separate my existence from text. I understand everything through the kaleidoscopic lens of poetry processed through a neurodivergent brain and a chronically ill corpus. The text produced by my body is shot through with eroticism, kink, pain, and taboo, making it unsettling, ugly, and exposing.
The tool I use to release this text from my body is kinaesthetic writing.
What is kinaesthetic writing?
Kinaesthetic writing is a technique that explores embodied text and vulnerabilities and extends Cixous’ theory of l’ecriture feminine, or women’s writing (1975, 875), declared by Cixous herself to be “The language that women speak when no one is there to correct them.” (Cixous 1991, 21). A kinaesthetic approach to writing calls for vulnerable and feminist practice that amplifies previously silenced or untold narratives. Quinn Eades theory of l’ecriture matière (2015), which speaks to the writing of matter, and the body as a site of resistance that is always already text, also informed the formation of my kinaesthetic writing theory. The resistance to normative short story forms in my artefact is seen through the text itself insisting that poetry and narrative should co-exist as a hybrid, creating something more than both, something steeped in otherness.
Here, you can see my body in bondage:
(Photograph by Peer Rope Adelaide Inc. 2019)
Fatness makes me an incorrect woman. The eroticism of bondage and its suggestion that I might just be a sexual being despite my fatness makes me a disobedient woman. A troublemaker.
Early on in my research I noticed that without me consciously choosing to do so the main character of my artefact, Maxine, was not only queer and fat, she was also always pushing back against persistent patriarchal ideals of what women should look like and how they should behave. Writing through the body, especially when paired with autofiction, necessarily resulted in the use of the erotic, which proved both empowering and significant as it helped to demonstrate the main character’s identity formation.
Maxine turned up on the page as mouthy, sensual, and resilient, but what I like most about her was that she is unapologetically fat. She is skateboarding while fat. She is working while fat. She is raped while fat. She is terminating a pregnancy while fat. And she is having lots of queer sex while fat.
Engaging with the practice of narrating the fat body as a sexual body allowed the character of Maxine to be multi-faceted and to represent non-normative bodies in literature, and answers to Helen Hester’s work which reflects critically upon “the disruptive potential of the representations of non-normative bodies within sexualized contexts” (Hester and Walters 2016, 895). Hester and Walters go on to write that “sexuality can be a form of public and private self-reclamation” (2016, 895), which points to the possibilities of empowerment for the feminist researcher that arise when writing from the body. Similarly, Willey writes that for Audre Lorde, “bodies are not simply oppressed by or drawn into the service of power, they are also a critical site of resistance…She (Lorde) writes: ‘The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply with another person’” (2016, 559).
The other character trait of Maxine that I enjoyed exploring was her deviance and resistance. Maxine’s disobedient characteristics are explored in her resistance to the prescribed behaviours suggested by the repeated phrases in each chapter. Obedience and conformity are the themes in the first chapter, with “Don’t make a fuss” (McGinn 2018, 6), silence and secrecy the themes in the second chapter, with “Keep it to yourself” (ibid., 18), and in the third chapter, the themes are resilience and recovery with “One foot in front of the other” (ibid., 27)
Hester and Walters research suggests that “When the fat body refuses to stay in the margins, other identities will be disturbed as well”’ (Kent 2001, 144 cited in 2016, p. 894). This writing-as-becoming is a signifier of the employment of queer theory in the text, out of which emerged the queer characteristics of Maxine. Baker explains that “…Queer sensibility…proposes an approach to writing that foregrounds, rather than elides, non-normative conceptions of the self” (ibid., 359- 360).
While the overall narrative arc of Maxine speaks directly to the emancipatory celebration of queer women’s deviant bodies and behaviours, it also deals with the flipside; the all-too-familiar trauma associated with being punished for being a woman who has somehow failed to be correct. Engaging in the feminist practice of self-determination, Maxine’s character arc explores her relationship with her body, sometimes hounded by shame that is articulated by self-harm, and at other times defiantly non-conforming.
Autofiction is fictional writing that draws from one’s own life experience. Jensen explains that “Autobiographical fictions concern the interplay between what the writer knows and what she or he does not and may never know” (2014, 714). When it came to the writing of trauma, the artefact became even more indicative of a piece of autofiction. My research diary reflected the emerging trend towards trauma narrative in the creative work, particularly in a piece entitled “I Don’t”; “Repairing the damage/Because the hurt is repeated” (McGinn 2018, 34).
Igwenou et al. speak to the writing of trauma, “Often violent and visceral, the act of writing disembodies our ephemeral thoughts from our being and captures them as tangible words on the page” (2011, 230). Research performed prior to the creation of this thesis and published while undertaking it points to the visceral elements explored by Kathy Acker, “Jeanette Winterson writes of Kathy Acker’s work, ‘Vomit, shit, urine, cocks, cunts, assholes, blood, the body are intimately described, and not in the language of cloudy romance’” (2002, ix cited in McGinn 2017, 5).
My artefact delves into traumatic territory, discussing rape and abuse, and it also braves the world of the taboo body in the text, referencing the never-not controversial topic of menstrual blood, often framed as unclean. Cixous’ creative output, written in the style of l’ecriture feminine, also sways toward the un-pretty, the dirty, the messy, “Saturdaysunday coupled back to back, sides ripped open, mash of hours, flayed beast, without night skin, a bloody raw time, red gut shot through with jolts” (1970, p. 16). I have included examples of both autofiction style prose and poetry written via the kinaesthetic approach below.
The cloying wafts of incense and the statue of Christ above the altar, bleeding. Men’s blood is noble; a sacrifice, a signifier of courage. Women’s blood is unclean; an unspoken burden. Women’s work. Women’s shame, yet Esther’s blood tasted like power. Honeycomb and copper and citric acid. Every month I drank from between her thighs, holding her hands until her cramps were eased and she was replete with gratitude, her toes curled around my calves. The memories grated against my tongue on their way out of my mouth (McGinn 2018, 28).
Mind so sharp
She cuts my eyes
And I leak
A sacrifice for her
Teeth so clever
She cracks my skull
And I bleed
A ballad for her (ibid., 42)
With my unfuckableness
With my undesirableness
With my unwantableness
With my bigfatugliness (ibid., 40)
The findings of this research project presented in three main areas: firstly, that the queered practice led research model is disobedient and resists linear modes of enquiry, and as such, resulted in a different genre of creative writing being produced than that which had been initially suggested at the outset of the project; secondly, that the method of kinaesthetic writing was appropriate in uncovering a queer woman’s narrative, especially when it came to character development and narrative arc; and thirdly, that the artefact which came about as a result of the queered practice-led research demonstrated autofiction and trauma writing techniques in addition to the central writing methodology of kinaesthetic writing.
Through kinaesthetic writing, the artefact refused to be curtailed to the short story form and instead presented itself as something new and other, a hybrid of autofiction and poesis. This emerging technique has the ability to disrupt, to fracture, to witness, and to reckon with the unspeakable; it is in bed with queer theory and an ideal site for feminist enquiry in the academic sphere, as well as an effective tool for unearthing rhizomatic narratives like those living in the queer woman’s body.
Abblitt, Stephen 2012. “Missiles and missives: Toward a Nuclear Criticism, or How I learned to stop worrying and love this dangerous writing”. TEXT, 16(2),: 1-19
Bacon, Eugen 2017. “Creative research: mixing methods in practice-led research to explore a model of stories-within-a-story to build a novel”. New Writing, 14(3):. 235-256
Baker, Dallas 2011. “Queering Practice-Led Research: Subjectivity, performative research and the creative arts”. Creative Industries Journal, 4(1): 33-51
Batty, Craig & Marsha Berry 2015. “Constellations and connections: the playful space of the creative practice research degree”. Journal of Media Practice, 16(3):181-194
Cixous, Hélène , Keith Cohen, & Paula Cohen 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa”. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1(4): 875-893
Cixous, Hélène 1970. The Third Body. , Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Cixous, Hélène 1991. ”Coming to Writing” and Other Essays. USA: Harvard University Press.
Eades, Quinn 2015. all the beginnings. North Melbourne, Victoria: Tantanoola/Australian Scholarly Publishing Ltd.,.
Hester, Helen & Caroline Walters 2016. “Introduction: Theorizing fat sex”. Sexualities, 19(8): 893-897.
Igwenou, Kene, Brian Fagence, Melanie Petch, & Gareth Davies 2011. “Revealing the elusive obvious: Making sense of creative practice through reflection and writing out”. Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 4(2): 225-238
Jensen, Meg 2014. “Post-traumatic memory projects: autobiographical fiction and counter-monuments”. Textual Practice, 28(4): 701-725
Krauth, Nigel 2010. “The story in my foot: writing and the body”. TEXT, 14(1): 1-14
McGinn, Heather 2018. “Writing the Disobedient Body: Uncovering Queer Women’s Narratives Through Kinaesthetic Writing”. University of South Australia. Adelaide, South Australia
McGinn, Heather 2017, “Writing the Raped Body’”. Writing From Below, 3(2) section 2: 5, <http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/wfb/article/view/850/html_35>.
Willey, Angela 2016. “Biopossibility: A Queer Feminist Materialist Science Studies Manifesto, with Special Reference to the Question of Monogamous Behavior”. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 41(3): 553-577.