Navigating the Wilderness and Workloads: A Week in the Life of Author Jeanne Thornton
Author: William Johnson
July 6, 2016
“I feel like my life is totally constructed by jobs: the freelance ones that pay the bills, the ‘literary’ ones that don’t really pay but that I feel hold me together.”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Jeanne Thornton.
Jeanne Thornton is the author of the fiction books The Dream of Doctor Bantam and The Black Emerald, as well as a Lambda Literary Fellow for 2015 and co-publisher of Instar Books. She lives in New Orleans and is writing a novel about shareware hits of the 1990s.
Before Divided Time
I told people I was going to stay at Mystery Valley, a queer land project somewhere in the open air of the Tennessee Holler, as a sort of “writing residency”; calling it that made it feel okay to go there, like going there was work. When I got to Mystery Valley, the friend in whose house I’d intended to stay was AWOL, ill, so the first night I fell asleep with others all heaped on tarps by the front office below the hanging screen where the movie Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead had just been projected, around us all stars and bugs creeping out of the earth and firewood smoking down. Next day I gave up on the house possibility and pitched the borrowed tent that I’d been carrying in my car’s trunk for over a year (musty air, busted stakes).
The “writing residency” fiction quickly collapsed for mostly mechanical reasons—there are no desks at Mystery Valley, only a weird box lid destined for bonfire—but for other reasons also, namely that I was always surrounded by people. When I started writing seriously I made myself do it in public so I would not be afraid of being in spaces with people. But here I regain that fear: to follow a narrative thread seems, suddenly, not only superfluous to everything around me but hostile to it, sinister. I do yoga sometimes to handle anxiety, tried to do it there one morning on the grass, but there were people around, and I kept thinking someone was going to come yell at me for poisoning the land via cultural appropriation. I kept being afraid.
I feel like my life is totally constructed by jobs: the freelance ones that pay the bills, the “literary” ones that don’t really pay but that I feel hold me together. Jobs are narratives: if I’m x number of pages into a project that I think is going to need to be y number of pages (where y > x), I am Doing Something and am not Wasting Valuable Food Resources on our earth. Our ethics should be quantifiable, amirite?
And in my daily life I feel like a lot of the ways I relate to not-trans people—beam the idea toward them that even though I am a transgender woman, I am worthy of trust and maybe even love—are geared toward communicating that I have such quantifiable ethics, or just that I’m pursuing a narratively appealing path in life (e.g., success at writing/cultural production.) I guess cis people, who comprise most of the people I encounter in daily life in New Orleans, have generally gotten to the point where they want to like trans women and include us in their lives, but maybe sometimes need another “bridge of empathy” to help them out, besides just the fact of us full stop, before we can be admitted to trust. I feel more comfortable to the extent that I think they can see me primarily as someone who is “involved” in the literary world, secondarily as a “tolerated trans friend” or w/e. Most of the people I know in Louisiana are associated with the MFA program my partner Wren just graduated from, so this is a good social strategy: with new people, I can talk about what publications Wren and I have or are hoping to have. For example, I can’t wait to tell them about this column, which will make it one step safer to interact with me. That’s how people think of other people: isn’t it?
At Mystery Valley, however, the above strategy cut no ice: everyone was queer, I didn’t initially know the other trans women present (with whom one doesn’t really need a strategy in the same way, but with whom I didn’t have a ton of opportunity to interact), and talking about oneself as Competent at Cultural Production is an obnoxious thing to do in a space that’s been established at least in part to decouple cultural production and capitalism. So instead I had to figure out how to relate to people directly, which I realize I haven’t actually had to do in years.
I sort of figured out that I could offer people labor as a way of communicating safety. Doing the dishes eased anxiety; weeding the strawberry patch and sections of the garden, same. There were no garden gloves, so I wrapped my hand in a thin plaid shirt some masculine queer kid had left in a huge pile in the barn following a dance party and I pulled out horrible thick plant stalks, their venom seeping into my palms through the squares between the stripes. I helped one of the founders of the space (cis, male) pack up all the hundreds of miscellaneous mugs and plates and stuff for the winter until the next big music festival comes around. At one point he takes a mug that says TRANS WOMYN ARE MY SISTERS on it, hands it to me, and says “Wow, this could be your mug” with a strange look, and he walks away, and I feel upset yet somehow at ease, confirmed.
I wish I could have written about this week day by day as the “main subject” of this column. I originally intended to do that. But like I said, I could barely write fiction stuff as it was, and at times I was not in a good place there. One night I made a bonfire in an effort to make friends—everyone could gather around the fire! That is a thing I could do for the community!—but it happened to be the night when everyone drove to a neighboring land community elsewhere in the Holler (one with a hot tub), and I ended up mostly sitting by the fire alone as the sun went down, worrying I’d used up the winter firewood and thereby condemned everyone who lived in Mystery Valley to slow death by frostbite, until I went back to my tent to eat summer sausage from my backpack, which I sliced with a cake knife with the word CELEBRATION written on it in puffy font suggestive of birthdays: book by flashlight, spider legs drumming with zest on the flap.
But spider legs and darkness aside: the problem “how do I relate to others” had taken off its usual armor—e.g., the problem “how do I earn money, communicating to others that I am worth relating to.” It had presented itself directly. I thought a lot about that.
When leaving, I couldn’t bring my car up over the dry creek bed leading into Mystery Valley: I had to set my stuff by the creek and then walk out down the road, maybe a half mile, to pick up my car from the festival’s long-abandoned short term parking lot. I can feel time starting as I walk out of the valley; I wonder what day it is. A small dog follows me out; I let him ride back with me and we both feel the first air conditioning in almost a week. He doesn’t want to leave my car when it comes time to leave him in Mystery Valley; I coax him out; he has to stay here and I have to go.
My partner Wren is staying at a poetry residency in Knoxville where I pick them up: visiting fiction writers are camping on a mountainside above the residency house, and we ride a quad motorcycle up to them, its engine growling through the woods, yellow-jackets seething over the leaves. There is a good outhouse, and every tent seems new.
On the way back from Mystery Valley I was offered a job by email: something I applied for I think a full year ago, but they are finally hiring and would like me to start immediately. I tell them how many hours a work I can week; they say I need to be able to work more.
The New Job involves editing some eight gazillion articles about criminal justice for textbook purposes. I edit essays about the judicial basis behind stop/frisk, sentencing guidelines, the importance that police maintain strong community relations in the current “racially charged climate around policing.” More people may read this probably than will read anything else I write, and everyone who reads it will enter the criminal justice industry. I haven’t written any fiction since Mystery Valley: every morning I keep telling myself that I have to, that quantifiable ethics are not being honored. But writing fiction—if I balance out the one book advance and handful of honoraria I’ve received against MFA tuition, the cost of residencies and conferences I’ve been to, travel, etc.—is a money-losing proposition, and I need to not be afraid of not having money right now.
The problem of “how do I relate to people” slowly puts its usual clothes back on: layer by layer, big puffy jackets and scarves and muffs.
To celebrate the weekend, Wren and I go to the library in the afternoon. I come here to check out modern fiction usually since it’s too expensive to buy and too often disappointing, but it’s important to read it to feel as if this Real Work I conceptualize myself as doing is connected physically to something. Libraries: a vast commons with books written by friends of mine on the shelves, imagining that anyone might pick them up and check them out, and that the definition of “anyone” has hard geographical limits. Your confessions are visible, a tiny paper body existing within a municipal space.
The main branch library here is patronized mostly by homeless people trying to get out of the sun, dozens reading magazines or charging phones or writing notes on legal pads to themselves or talking in whispers at a small table, as if in high school again and detentions might be handed out. I feel strange crossing the big common space: someone always watches me, either thinking the fact of me is funny or angry-making or in a couple of instances arousing, projecting these thoughts into the big public space. Let me be clear that I feel strange, not bad; it’s good sometimes to be watched without shame, and I become conscious of my walk, sometimes try to twirl around the endcaps of shelves like Angelina Jolie in Hackers, all going into the boys’ locker room to get the DaVinci Virus disk.
One time, I think the first time I went to this library, I was going through the stacks looking for “my friends” (i.e., books written by my friends) when a teenage trans girl came up to me. She asked me if I was “a t—”; I said yes; she asked me if I had any advice on stuffing bras, because tissue paper wasn’t cutting it for her. I didn’t have good advice on this immediately, and she got nervous about something and walked away giggling, and I still don’t know what it was, and I still have never seen her there again.
I brought a library book with me to Mystery Valley: Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability. I think I was maybe the first person to check this book out, and I wanted somehow to suffuse it with woods energy, to fuck up the physical copy of the book for the benefit of its next reader maybe years down the line. For a long time I stopped going to libraries: I have an intense physical attachment to books I read, and I didn’t want anything but a pure new copy to impress psychically. The money I would pay for this pure new copy would ensure its purity: in part you’re paying for the idea that no one has read this copy but you, no one has marked it up or fallen asleep and drooled on it or anything. (Capsule review of Kristen Hogan’s book: it was pretty good to read in a tent with summer sausage grime on my fingers; I totally recommend it in these or other circumstances.)
I spend a bunch of the evening painstakingly going over my bank account for the past three months and regretting each transaction.
New Orleans Pride: work on articles about criminal justice morning of, then go to the parade, which is crawling with police presence. BreakOUT, the local organization for QTPOC, has declined to participate as a result: didn’t know this until I’m standing on the neutral ground, feeling spaced out and less than okay post work, hearing a parade volunteer walking around trying to confirm the parade order, asking “Is BreakOUT here? Where is BreakOUT?” One of the main reasons I wanted to come to this was knowing that there was a group of trans people walking, but I don’t see any of us, or at least not in lines or groups or floats, cheering, waving, being cheered and waved at.
We walk all the way down to the Quarter to a party hosted by GrrlSpot, where the bouncer initially turns me away because “you have to be escorted by a woman to come into this party.” He finds me almost immediately afterward to apologize, seems personally pretty upset; friends are mad about it, but I find it really hard to be angry at someone who shows that they are aware that they have hurt me.
Yet later: me and the two trans lady friends we’ve met up with at the bar drink champagne in a park underneath a statue of Joan of Arc: we three trans women sit on a bench, two cis women before us on the sidewalk, the rest of our party otherwise arrayed, and we explain to them why it is gross and tiring and kind of othering/domineering to be called fabulous/gorgeous (as happened at the bar), and tonight it doesn’t feel tedious at all to explain this: it feels like we all went to the same high school and are all trying to tell the same a funny story that happened involving maybe a marching band, finishing one another’s thoughts.
Sundays I try not to work on anything. Because I made it a rule not to work on Sundays, I can do it in good faith, because it is not “relaxing”; it is “discipline.”
Wren wants to see Finding Dory and we go to Cake Café to have brunch before the show; there is an adorable puppy; the man who owns the puppy tells us, staring into my eyes, that the dog is a “sissy.” His girlfriend has an accent and handbag that makes me think she is wealthy; I become aware that I am talking to Wren about what rents will be like once we move because I don’t know what else to talk about, because there are only money and fear to talk about, and because somehow I want to upset the wealthy dog couple by talking about hard it is to pay rent somewhere.
Finding Dory, like The Feminist Bookstore Movement, is good and recommended: I cry at the part where she’s alone and confused at the bottom of the ocean and the lines of shells, carefully maintained, radiate out at her from the house in the mist. It’s also Father’s Day; late in the evening I talk to my dad about how writing is going, whether my book has or has not sold yet, things he’s always interested in hearing more about. We talk about Hillary vs Trump, institutions and decency and the way power can and ought to unfold through cooperation, until he has to go because at 75 he has to get up at 6:30 a.m. for work the next day.
In the parking lot of the Rouse’s grocery store, while we’re loading my car with bags, a lady approaches, crying: she’s from Covington, across the causeway over Lake Ponchatrain; she and her two daughters are stuck here and having to meet a $35/night hotel bill or face homelessness; she offers to clean my car if I can help her, crying. We paid for the groceries with a debit card, and I don’t think I have any cash, just a bunch of weird Canadian bills from a previous trip that will not immediately help her. But folded up between two of them, I find a dollar bill, which I give her. She cries telling me about how another woman told her she was going to go to the bank to get her the $35 and told her to wait in the parking lot for her, and the lady waited for two hours, and the woman never came back from the supposed bank. “Why lie?” she asks.
The woman offered to clean my car because she was clinging to something that I’m also clinging to. I cry also on the way home from the grocery store, thinking about this woman offering to clean the car, and I don’t know/don’t think I’d have been able to cry if I hadn’t found the dollar bill to give her, which is also sad.
I roast some peppers for dinner, feeling guilty that I don’t cook enough, using a skill I learned at Mystery Valley: how to get flesh from a blackened pepper, incorporate pepper-flesh into other foods. It works out okay, but I spend the whole time the peppers are cooking anxious, feeling like everything is going to fall apart, the oven will explode, etc. Mid-cooking I make a post to a secret social network, one of the ones I’ve set up for when the need to confess really damaging, not okay thoughts is paramount, secret spaces into which to vomit trash and secrets. The most important characteristic of such secret spaces is that it’s possible that someone may discover them: your call for help is not 100 percent extinguished. Sometimes I worry that some upset kid is going to find some secret space of vomit online, awful anxiety exoskeletal molt; I worry it will hurt them.
Annie D. did a performance in Austin a couple of years ago, when I lived there, in the front room of a thrift store. I didn’t really know her well except in passing, maybe a little bit online. The performance was kind of a tent revival meeting: at end of it, Annie asked people to come forward, to whisper some kind of shame, struggle, pain, anonymously into her ear, and then that struggle would be “not yours to carry anymore.” I couldn’t do it: the idea of giving up anxieties that felt so definitional was impossible; I remember shaking in the metal folding chair I sat on thinking about how much I wanted not to do this, and I didn’t give up anything.
Annie was at Mystery Valley; I kept looking sideways at her, wondering if she remembered me and if she somehow knew that I’d declined her offer, that I was still carrying everything.
I feel like my default belief about people is that they are monsters who want to hurt me. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that this isn’t true—Annie D., the woman in the parking lot—but today, none of it seems strong enough.
Tuesday is not a good day, except in terms of billable hours, amirite?? No, you’re not rite: spend most of the morning trying hard to physically move, knowing that oh no it is one of these days, but I have to finish work today or I’ll Die and No One Will Care. All can do is watch Youtube videos I’ve seen many times before while hyperventilating. If I make a sandwich and eat it for lunch without getting at least two hours of effective work from the caloric energy, did I deserve that sandwich? If you turn “Lux aeterna” up really loud it sounds like a drill that can get deep inside of you, maybe destroy your consciousness so you can work and be effective. Be good at capitalism. Hit yourself in the eye until it breaks. This is a thing it is maybe counterproductive to say, out loud, to your empty apartment. Another counterproductive thing: If you do not work harder the world will let you die.
Finally I give up and take an hour to play Shin Megami Tensei, an old SNES emulated/translated RPG about demons invading preapocalyptic Japan through the Internet. Rather than simply murdering the demons—gaining experience and money from each murdered demon until you are strong enough not be yourself at risk of murder anymore, as these games go—in Shin Megami Tensei you have to learn to talk to the demons, recruiting them to your side in order to forge some kind of moral balance. This appeals to me, even though I get anxious every time I have to do the parts where you talk to the demons. Playacting conversation is far scarier than playacting murder. I keep worrying that the demons will disapprove of me, or that I will say the wrong thing and hurt them.
Talking to demons doesn’t help; I can’t make anxiety stop. I try to do a yoga sequence, two, and it doesn’t work; I look up how to do karate blocks and try to do them and it doesn’t work; I try to cook dinner and I set it partially on fire so that doesn’t work; I end up making a separate dinner for Wren and then incorporating some iffy meat from the freezer into the burned failed dinner to make a punitive meal for myself. We watch the Orange is the New Black finale, which is depressing and infuriating (“trauma porn,” as someone online describes it/the show); we fight over the cat after watching a beloved character die and neither of us totally understands why, I guess because the specific cultural product we have enjoyed wanted us to be upset so we would remember and recommend it, like how flu makes you cough. Or it’s just that today there is not a safe place to stand.
I don’t want to write anymore; I don’t want to work on this column anymore; I want not to have to say anything anymore. We have two hermit crabs: they pull into their shells; you can just see one flat claw protecting them like a portcullis; at night their shells bonk steadily against the glass of their tanks as they dig tunnels to nothing.
And here is a thing that happened one morning at Mystery Valley: when I first got there and seemed bewildered, someone there decided to give me a tour of the land of Mystery Valley. We walked down trails—“That’s the campsite. That’s the outhouse. (*branch whips into me, scratching my arm*) That’s a branch.” Having some kind of map: it made me relax. Later in the week they told me that they did this because they also felt anxious, and that giving a tour seemed as if it would help the find a place to put their restless energy. This is sort of the moment when I think it becomes defensible to call this person a friend: the moment when we confessed these anxieties to one another.
But anyway, on this one specific morning they talked about drinking: how they used to drink too much but then decided to control their drinking by drinking not at all, and now they’re trying to navigate a path between those spaces: between total purity, total indulgence. We talk about how alcohol and TV are similar: controls, forces like magnetism that make all the iron filings form up along invisible lines. I feel weird about writing because writing is culture and culture is maybe part of the problem: “reformist” almost by definition, or anyway that’s what I would like it to be, so maybe my entire psyche is part of the problem.
And yet I feel like writing has this function—it’s a way to communicate anxiety that you can consent to experiencing, that you can control and opt into—that makes it useful beyond its use as a signifier of cultural production, as a strategy for feeling safe in a world where I very often do not. And I can’t tell whether I should or shouldn’t feel safer here than I do.
By email, the new managing editor at the client tells me that there may not be more work for me because of issues beyond her control. I don’t think about the missing money; I think about how relieved I am; it’s as if I’ve become terribly sick and no one can blame me anymore.
Hung over from the anxiety storm of the day before, I want to stay in and work on this piece, conscious about deadlines, dreading that I will be incapable of engaging in good literary production, that everyone will be let down. Instead I go out for a regular weekly hangout at Fair Grinds, a local coffee place, with my friend Drew. I think both of us want to see one another but have to make an effort to see one another: like cutting through cotton candy puffs of our own emotional static. I need to see someone like me in this way today; I also kind of know that it isn’t safe today to stay indoors, as tempting as it is.
Sometimes Drew and I talk about one another’s work. They’ve sent me a draft of an essay that I read in the morning: it’s about ephemeral arts (sand painting, drag, situations), about the act of calling oneself a writer and why this is empowering to the exact extent that it’s self-abnegating, why it’s more empowering not to hold this identity sometimes. I want to quote every line of their essay here. I tell them it helped me a lot to read it. We move on from that to talk about Hillary/neoliberalism and the links between violence and class warfare, beginning from the place I left off with my dad a few days before, going somewhere else with it. Drew knows a lot more than me about how class warfare works and is patient with me. Somehow they are able to communicate to me that it is okay if I reveal that I have ideas that are different from them, or maybe it’s just that we are slowly becoming friends, and this makes me less afraid to be human. Part of me is nervous just typing that, like how it’s unnerving to talk about the devil lest you summon him.
Drew has this habit of talking about other people with sincere appreciation. They talk about a girl they know as having “the most scrupulous analysis—I learn something every time I have a conversation with her.” I think about that for a while when we fall silent, when I am supposed I guess to be working on this essay in the coffee shop: I think about how, when I’ve thought about qualities that people have, for a long time I thought mostly about what scared me about them. I think of all the friends I love who live nowhere close to where I am.
It’s time to leave; Drew walks out with me. We get to our cars. I tell them that the pot of tea on sale at Fair Grinds for $3.50 is the best available deal. That is what I have to say for myself: that I know the best nutrition-to-price ratios. They look at me; I can’t read their reaction. Everything in my life I’ve ever done that has been worthwhile has involved learning to relax my grip, and it is still so hard to do that, and it is still so hard to know and believe that there is safety with other people: that you can grow and fuck up even while other people are around to see you do it. Yoga that morning in Mystery Valley: still letting anxious hands fall into prayer at the end of a sequence, both observed and not observed. We say goodbye and turn away