On Grad School: A Personal Statement

Many of you know (because many of you know me in real life) I’m on my way to graduate school in August. This is the second time I’ve applied to programs, and it’s been a wild ride up to my eventual acceptance into Virginia Tech. I was not expecting to accept an offer this year, and I had resigned myself to another year of deep reflection and artistic reevaluation. I was so fully prepared to apply again this winter, I already started my third grad school spreadsheet and decided to aim only for the highest, most funded programs. I was going to learn another language! I was going to get a famous writer to write a letter of recommendation! I was going to start applying in June! Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of those things, because Virginia Tech came through at the 13th hour (long story) and I could scrap my 3rd spreadsheet with a huge sigh of relief.

Before my eventual acceptance, I spent November to February applying to ten schools, narrowed down from about fifteen. By the time I was halfway through the applications, I was spending ten hours a day on my personal statements.

TEN HOURS A DAY.

My samples had been revised and tightened and polished so many times in the previous months in my writing group, all I had to do over my three-week winter break from work was talk about myself and my goals for an MFA program. I’ll tell you: the quickest way to realize you have no goddamn idea who you are and what you want out of a strange, risky, creative career is to write 500-2,000 words about it ten times, to ten groups of faceless strangers who hold the fate of your life and your $75 application fee in their hands. Hence the obsessive ten-hour days.

This post will hopefully help new MFA applicants write the dreaded personal statement without as much anxiety. I haven’t included the whole thing, because some of it is really specific and might be boring to non-committees, but I explain the pieces I cut out and left in the rest for a more thorough demonstration, particularly where I felt imaginative statements met a practical purpose.

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Meeper, the guardian of my insane pre-moving to-do list

 

The Opening: Origins & Ambitions

My opening paragraph came to me in an epiphany-like moment halfway through my application season, so I only got it into five or six applications. Previously, I had a hard time with the personal aspect of the personal statement. My intro was too straight, too dry, until one sparkling moment I had this new idea. I scribbled sentences in my notebook in a delusional flurry and refined the ideas in Word when I got back to my computer. This, I’m convinced, is what landed me a spot at VT, and was maybe as important as my writing sample. I had always heard one must “get to the point” as fast as possible to not waste anyone’s time on the committee, but this hook is not only a crucial part of my origin story, it’s also fun to read:

“If you were to rewind ten years, you would see me as a sculptor attempting conceptual art about communication, and as a writer attempting conceptual stories about communication. I did this by writing stories about teenagers whose only dialogue was “What?” back and forth for five pages, and by setting up big sheets of industrial felt in the middle of areas with heavy foot traffic. This messy but essential origin as a writer led me to explore language barriers and miscommunications in my fiction, inspired by the two creative disciplines bickering away in my heart.

Each time I write, I pull the thread of my thesis a little more, edging closer to some human truth that can only be represented by leaving it unsaid. I am driven to write because I am driven by questions that fuel narratives: Do these linguistic obstacles exist in children? In animals? Is it possible to understand that which has no word attached? Writing about language absence and lost translations comes from my personal journey to connect across the space between what I can say and what I can feel.”

BAM! Took me years of experience and lots of shitty first drafts, plodding introspection, and eventual satisfaction with a few short stories to come up with that opening paragraph. Your opening paragraph should give the readers a sense of where you came from and where you’re headed. Think beyond the typical “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember” and punch it up several notches to paint a fuller picture of your rich creative life. For me, I felt it was essential to begin with a demonstration of my ambitions and early interdisciplinary origins. You also get a sense of my youthful ego in the opening line, but that segues into an honest reflection of why I do what I do and how I began to take it seriously. It’s also funny, because I know much of what I do under the pretense of living my best creative life is a little absurd. But it’s true, and it’s part of who I am and part of my creative process. Do some similar digging when building your opening.

 

The Journey/Research/Experience section

In the main body of the personal statement, I talk about my journey from visual artist to writer, and what led me to seek an MFA in creative writing. I talk about the writing courses I took at KCAI, who I studied with, and what I gained from the visual arts environment that influenced my writing. I talk about what happens when I study literature and how I keep track of my personal and academic growth in my own terms…basically demonstrating I haven’t wasted my time between degrees.

Today, I study writers who provide space for subtle details to bloom in a reader’s mind. I look for this because it is how I once approached sculpting—as a complete narrative containing moments where language could vanish, giving rise to an emotional texture I’m not sure has a name.”

This is a snapshot of my abstract thinking tendencies and ability to switch gears between visual and written work, something I have been practicing for many years. In this section, I also talk about the writers I currently study and what I admire most in their craft. I chose two contemporary American examples and one mid-century non-American example, because my work is mostly contemporary and set in America, but I have been heavily influenced by the styles and sensibilities of non-American writers. I chose writers who are recognizable to people of literature—not really mainstream examples, or anyone I discovered in high school or earlier. If you have the space to talk about writers you read or try to emulate, definitely consider what you appreciate about their style and how it informs your work. This is more than just “I like his use of language.” Instead, be concrete: “I study the character arcs of her aimless young adults to inform my coming-of-age novel-in-progress” or something equally evocative. This is a chance to show the committee you’re a worldly reader who appreciates subtle and dynamic literature, and as someone who kept reading after high school.

The next paragraph talks about my philosophy as a writer and how this developed over time. For me, it was in small press publishing, reading prose for a magazine, writing for The Pitch, belonging to a weekly writing workshop, and participating in contemporary visual art dialogue. My philosophy was developed over about ten years, so I’ve had time to think about my phrasing and presentation, summing the whole thing up in three varied sentences. If you have participated in any kind of critical/creative writing exchange, talk a little about what kind of peer you are. How do you approach writing written by other writers? What can you add to the workshop experience? How has that informed your decision to apply to this program? I applied to Virginia Tech because I have always been a cross-discipline writer, and I want to collaborate with writers in running a publication. Virginia Tech emphasizes both facets of the writing life, and I saw in the program a chance to build on my strengths.

 

The Self-Reflection section

You should also talk about your weaknesses, because ultimately, weaknesses are what get you into grad school. A brief detour: I love failing! Failure is the single best type of learning experience out there for creative people. There is no faster shortcut to creative self-reflection than crushing, debilitating, irreversible failure. I’m not saying this is fun to experience, but it’s so necessary in finding out how to direct our creative energies. For a personal statement, it’s good to recognize your shortcomings and tell the committee how you want to improve, what you’ve learned from rejection, and how you deal with criticism. If you address ways you want your cohort to help you improve, the committee can see A) that you are serious about improvement, B) that you won’t be a jerk to other writers, C) that you probably aren’t a genius (yet) and can admit to that, and D) you are capable of intense and productive self-reflection. All good things for a graduate committee to recognize in an applicant.

If your day job or professional work is of writerly importance, put it in the statement. MFA programs are not just for people who were “born to be writers” or “have been writing stories since childhood”. In fact, committees see that cliché all the time, and the truth is we live in a capitalist society that devalues or ignores creative work up until the point a creative person becomes famous. Most writers have jobs that pay the bills, and really good writers use that job to add something to their writing career—not always in the way Kafka used a job as fodder, but also as a way to grow and develop your skills in an area that will reflect in your creative discipline. For me, the routine responsibility of helping students with their writing and professional skills gave me academic experience in reading syllabi, constructing an academic plan around calendars, and articulating the creative bridge between visual art and literature. I gained research experience, worked on my chronic self-discipline problem, and recognized that I still consider myself a student of literature, even as I help students in their earlier stages of writing. I put all this in my statement.

I did not write that, as a bartender, I secretly made notes on the changing dialogue of my patrons. I did not write about my ruthless editor/mentor, who challenged me to write art journalism with greater clarity and precision. I did not write about how my time as an oyster shucker in Alaska, and a teacher in Cameroon, and a kid in the Michigan sand dunes developed my observational skills and help me imagine setting in new creative ways. But any of these personal things would have been fine to write about if I had unlimited space and attention. Choose the most effective personal experiences for the essay, and make your case for further study as persuasive as possible.

 

The Closing: Goals & Purpose

In the end, the committee wants to know exactly why you should be in their program. Talk about how you have prepared yourself for graduate level work, what self-direction you imposed on your routine, and where you see yourself headed as an artist and creative person. This is going to be different for everybody, and that’s what makes your perspective unique. If you want to get your MFA to teach, or get feedback on a book you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re not making a very convincing argument for your own capacity for growth and development. If you want to get your MFA in Virginia because you need 2-3 years to study the dialogue patterns of Appalachian natives because regional dialect is super important in your series of short stories, and this particular writer on the faculty has inspired you with their rendition of local speech etc. TELL THEM!! That example reason is much more colorful and unique to the program.

“I’ve discovered my drive to answer my creative and critical questions comes from the love of practice. I have prepared myself for graduate level work by applying this philosophy to self-directed writing, research projects, and professional activities. The more work I do, the more curious I become, the more I grow as an artist. Only Virginia Tech can pair me with resources, peers, and faculty who will embrace the interdisciplinary, collaborative essence of my trajectory. I am seeking a program with a history of educating writers who have taken artistic risks in their work—writers who have merged traditional and avant-garde ideas into a signature narrative style.”

For each statement, I found the most attractive aspects of the program I was applying to and I used that in my closing paragraph. For VT, it was their interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunity to work with two publications. For CalArts, it was the art school environment, which has proven beneficial to my practice. For Iowa, it was the understated writing tradition in the Midwest, a region I have lived in all my life. Every program I applied to (this time) had specific qualities that could improve my work and study of literature. One thing that sucks about applying: You might not know if your work fits the program or incoming cohort, but the committee knows, and sometimes even if your work is perfect for that school, it might not be the right time to attend. Rejections can say a lot about your readiness for rigorous work, but can also say a lot about the program itself.

“My goal is to emerge from an MFA program with a new body of work that continues connecting the communication ideas I started exploring in my undergrad. What I am looking for after a graduate program is a sustained relationship between art and language—a new way of writing that unveils the semantic bridge between visual and written work. After a graduate program, I want to continue to work with artists and authors to explore the collaborative grounds between creative disciplines. I will do this in a community role that compliments my fiction practice, either as editor of an experimental small-press, in publishing, or in a position an MFA from Virginia Tech will help me discover.”

I ended with this paragraph about my goals and ambitions in the coming years (to pursue the thread of my ongoing thesis) and the years that follow after an MFA (to bridge community work with writing work). Some goals will inevitably shift in August when I start the program, and they will shift again in January when I start teaching. My goals will continue to grow and shrink and change, but I’m totally open to this flexibility, because I’ll be in a supportive and engaging environment with other ambitious writers. Think about your goals as a writer and artist. What does your work look like in five years? How will you adapt to a changing job market? Will your creative work always be more important than your money-generating work? (It should be.)

In order to do all this, you need to REALLY look at what you’re writing and research the hell out of programs. I’ve applied to 18 programs in all and I’ve been rejected from 14 outright. Those 14 programs weren’t right for my learning and writing style, and that’s not always something new applicants are willing to accept. Although I’ll always be a little bummed I didn’t get into Brown or Iowa or University of Michigan, I also recognize my multi-discipline engagement might not have been a good fit for these straight-forward, traditional programs. It just took two years and many rejections to come to terms with that. The three schools that accepted me outright were The New School, CalArts, and California College of the Arts—three prestigious art colleges, not traditional writing universities. Virginia Tech is somewhere between an art program and traditional literary program, and this is totally where my work fits best. I ultimately decided on VT over the other three because it’s a three-year program with a broad focus (I can take non-fiction, digital media, and screen-writing courses), it’s fully funded and comes with a stipend for teaching, and I want to eventually relocate to the east coast. San Francisco is too expensive for my lifestyle, CalArts is great if I wanted to write for TV, and visiting The New School made me realize I don’t want to live in New York right now. Although I exchanged these hip metropolitan cities for a rural mountain community, Virginia Tech is only a few hours from DC, Richmond, the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. I can scout these areas for cool internships and jobs in the summer when I’m not teaching.

Now you know how I managed to barely con my way into a program (just kidding! I don’t have impostor syndrome!! Not at all!!!) and secure the next three years for writing and studying literature. Whatever comes from this experience, I know it’s up to me to revisit my goals from the last ten years and set my sights on more challenging projects. This includes checking back on my statement of purpose and remembering the reasons I applied to school. If you’re going through this process now, or considering it this season, keep your arrow aimed straight at your target and allow yourself some flexibility when looking into programs. Make your spreadsheet, go visit schools, and write your head off!

Good luck!!

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Nightmares

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Image courtesy of Studios Inc

I’m going to tell you about my first nightmare. I walked up the stairs to my room, the first room I was ever conscious of belonging to me, of being my space in a house. There was a creature over my bed. It was a skeleton, and it was flashing colors, jerking wildly on unconnected bones, and it was making my bed. This is the first nightmare—maybe even the first dream—I remember. Of course I had this long before my natural anxiety latched on to everything plausible a naturally anxious person could be afraid of. What makes me tell you this is the eerie resemblance between Ricky Allman’s Domestic Dusk to my first encounter with oneiric fear.

For those of you who are still with me in the second paragraph: Allman’s exploration into the nightmare realm involves genetic modification, emotionally reactive technology, and colorful skeletons in impossible human poses. The paintings strike a comparison between the infrastructure of our bodies, and a city experiencing a sudden surge of technological resources. Closing in on the rich details of the paintings adds to the mounting stack of questions. Are we floating in space? What are the laws of physics in this dimension? Is that a body or a machine? Little is revealed in the minutia that cannot be grasped by taking the whole thing in at once. That doesn’t mean the details aren’t worth considering. Allman has spent enough time on them to reward the viewers approach. Every inch of the canvas is a traffic jam of information, potential opportunities to dive deeper into the microscope of Allman’s mind, to see exactly how this painting, these ideas, work at their atomic level.

Thrumming synth filled the gallery on opening night. Allman’s distorted speech joined a looping musical component, played live on keyboards and computers hooked up to pedals on the floor. A projection hit the two white walls behind the set up, dragging the audience through prairies and mountains and cloud spattered skies. The accompanying music was droney, panicked, and built complex relationships that looped and self-complicated. The more the notes repeated, the less predictable the track became. Such is the method Allman employs in his brushstroke too. Patterns are shattered by bursts of rhythmic color and sound.

On my second visit, the gallery was much quieter. The speaker between the angled walls emitted something in Italian, and then a loop of spaceship beeps that were quiet enough to tune out. Allman’s paintings and music capture a specific anxiety about the evolution of humanity and technology. (Experiencing the music and paintings combined, I couldn’t help but remember the film Koyaanisqatsi, that this is what it would would look like if Francis Ford Copalla took a bunch of acid and shot the film in 2090.)

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets must refer to the number of pieces in the show (five paintings, an installation, and the musical projections) and to Allman’s fixation on unacceptable earth phenomenon. In every piece, Allman imagines seven ways humanity could sink below the horizon of the imaginable, into the dark nightmare of the distant future, where genetic editing, technology sentience, and omniscient experience are the next stage of evolution. If we can build a better city, we can build a better body.

 

Ricky Allman

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets

At Studios Inc

Until October 14th

First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

Unwanted Gifts: Quilt

One Christmas, after I had grown up and moved away and started and then ignored my own traditions, my best friend gave me this blanket. It’s made from used saris and hand stitched in India. The fibers came to me already worn and handled, containing a personal history of all its previous wearers. Reincarnation, rebirth and regeneration are common beliefs in Eastern religions, and this blanket embodies the ethics of this code. My friend found it and thought of me, and I know she didn’t over-think it. If you look close, you can see the places in the fibers where the seamstress made a mistake and, instead of starting over, used a patch of cloth to cover the flaw.

When I met my best friend, we were both starting over in Kansas City for the same reasons. We both came from the Midwest and from divorced parents. Both our mothers started living with a woman. Both of us fought with our fathers about the same things. We had all these things in common, but one thing made us very different: she was amazing at giving gifts and I was terrible at it. This blanket hits me right where all our words never could, and even though we stopped speaking to each other about a year ago, I still have it. Maybe it’s the cold child in me that can’t let go of something that keeps me warm, as if I am still sleeping pressed up against the wall over the heating vent in a bitter Wisconsin winter, waiting for the breath of hot air that kicked on for five minutes every hour.

I don’t like getting gifts because one year I ended up with two of everything. “Why do you have two moms?” I remember the unintentionally cruel question from the other middle school students. “If your mom is gay does that mean you’re gay too?” I didn’t have an answer to that question, thinking my mother’s gayness was a phase that would recede when she was done being angry at my father. Instead, she and my step mom moved into a house together, interlocking our lives, and all of our things. My mother’s house reflected her newly uncovered sexuality. 2000 was a glamorous time for two women in their 40s. We had two dogs, two couches, two televisions, two cars, two sets of knives and two sets of pots for two moms to ignore while they went out to places with names like Juniper and Gads.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the zip code, our father’s house became a museum. He kept close the hand-crafted objects collected from his travels around the world, things that couldn’t simply be duplicated or replaced. He’d downsized to a ranch with a dark interior, where he curated the rooms to reflect the kind of single man he could finally be. With a cigar hanging from his lips, expensive black caviar under his fingernails, and a useless hunting dog sighing with his head on my fathers lap, he presided over this home where he could sink into the natural state of his shibboleth. His house slowly transformed into the colors and odors of a Flemish painting, where it always smelled faintly like Limburger cheese and it was somehow always winter.

Bedding is a powerful thing. When children suddenly have to choose whose house their beloved bed and covers and pillows go to, the other parent goes out and hastily finds a small creaky frame and scratchy wool blankets that smell like dust in an attic. The second bed is never as nice as the first. It’s always a little too small, a little too old, and lumpy in places a ninety pound child can feel poking into her ribcage. Blankets can ruin a perfect bed, and they can make perfect a ruined bed. A blanket is the ultimate symbol of a new beginning.

My best friend knew these truths, because she lived through them too. She knows the value of a blanket. It must be warm enough to make it through the winter when one parent was cheap with the heat. It must be pretty enough that friends who sleep over will be jealous of it. It must be light enough to wrap around our shoulders and walk to the kitchen like that on a Saturday morning.

I ask myself: how can a person who knows so much about me one day not be a part of my life? The end of our friendship left behind all these textures I don’t understand but am now responsible for mending. Were her gifts a way to cover up the holes in our friendship, and did I hold up my end by providing the patches we could use to mend it? Or did we avoid talking about what made us tick because we have the same emotional guards that characterize children whose parents made them the weapon?

So how do we face unwanted gifts without facing our own history and our own shortcomings? The comfort of the objects we seek out only serve to reaffirm who we believe—in our most generous way—we really are. It’s easy to do what my parents did, to fill our homes with objects that reflect our ideal self back upon us. It’s easy to gloss over our faults and flaws with things that keep us bobbing on the surface above our chaotic emotional depths. To disrupt this dream is to be a better human. We must find some objective flaws to remind us we have them in the first place.

Obviously I kept the blanket. I sleep with it every night and I wrap it around me when I eat cereal hungover on my couch. I finger the threads and trace the patches that cap a hole to protect the delicate insides. I think about my friend and where she is, how she’s doing, and if we’ll ever really be friends again. What else are we supposed to do with the parts of ourselves we have a difficult time facing?

This is how you deal with an object given to you by someone you love who is no longer part of your life: hold it closer. Recognize the parts you haven’t patched up are not broken, but simply incomplete. An unwanted object, one with patches and stitches in the places that were torn, can remind us to do the only thing left to do after something is damaged: repair.

quilt

Listen to the live version from David Wayne Reed’s Shelf Life series.

Ghost Post: Rhiannon Dickerson

Welcome to my Ghost Post series, an occasional divide from the usual content that tackles subject matter I want to make discussion room for. This post comes from Kansas City poet and lecturer Rhiannon Dickerson, who had a powerful reaction to this year’s election cycle controversy and is a general badass feminist with a strong voice. Her personal experience of sexism and abuse struck me as an important topic to make available to a wide readership, given the distance we still have to travel to make this kind of story a thing of the past.

Every Woman I Know

By Rhiannon Dickerson

Driving to the store this weekend, my daughters and I were listening to the local news when we heard the audio of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting a woman. I quickly turned off the radio, parked, and went into the store. As we navigated the aisles for my soon-to-be 10-year old daughter, Isabel’s birthday, deciding between emoji party cups or princess cups, I was only half-present, preoccupied with what my daughters heard on the radio, and the conversation I’d need to have. Earlier this summer, we all watched Hillary accept the Democratic nomination, and it was Isabel’s enthusiasm for Chelsea, and Hillary that, for the first time in this election, I felt inspired. She watched their speeches closely. She listened to powerful women confidently espouse their views, and their experiences, and she was moved to tears. It was seeing her see these women that made me fully realize the importance of this moment historically.

We headed back out to the car, our cart full of pre-teen party goods. I wanted to talk to the girls alone—in a safe space without men. And I was conflicted—I didn’t want them to feel scared, but I wanted them to know there’s always danger around us as women, as girls. I turned around in my seat and I told them what sexual assault meant. We practiced saying, “No” firmly, and without any explanation. We practiced saying, “My body. My rules.” I steadied myself with every “No.” But the thing is we all know those words won’t protect us. I felt powerless as I put on a brave front. I kept thinking about this app I saw on Facebook earlier in the day. It’s an app you can use as you walk to your car—Safe Trek, I think. You simply open the app, and keep your finger on the icon until you reach your car, and then you text in a preset code. If you release the icon and don’t enter your code in 10 seconds, police are notified. We aren’t safe even walking to our cars, I thought. We’re not safe anywhere.

When I was a young girl, my mom taught me about the “oh-oh” feeling, and what to do if anyone ever made me feel that way. My mother was a survivor of sexual assault from her family, from strangers, and from her partners. As women this is part of our everyday lives. Every day. Every woman. Fear, violence, casual sexism, misogyny, looking over our shoulders as we walk down the street, as we walk to our cars, the fact that statistically speaking, we’re in spaces with rapists every day unbeknownst to us.

My first memory is from when I was 3 or so. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, my baby brother asleep in the next room. It was late at night, and I was supposed to be in bed, but I was listening to the sound of my mother being beaten downstairs. I was only 3. I was powerless. I felt powerless.  Years later, in a different house, after my mother left him, he showed up one morning intent on getting in. He tried to break down the door with my brother’s bike, and I was relieved he hadn’t used mine, and ashamed I felt relieved. His girlfriend sat in the car in front of our house. In my memory, she’s checking her lipstick in the mirror. We left through the back door, my mother’s open robe fluttering in the wind as we ran to the fence and she pushed us over. We moved in silence. It was a wooden slat fence and it was so high I can’t imagine how she made it over. Our neighbor—whom we’d never met—was startled when we fell into her yard. She was signing paperwork with the Orkin man who gave us coloring books with pictures of cockroaches while my mother called the police.

When I was 27, I was strangled (it’s still painful to write that word). My boyfriend, someone I loved and trusted, someone I knew since I was 10 years old, 6’3” 280 pounds pressed me to the floor, his hands on my throat, my fingers struggling to scratch his face, or push him off, or gouge his eyes. For years part of me was still lying on the basement floor trying to breathe, trying to leave.

And it’s every woman I know. It’s every woman you know.

By the time I was 16, six of my closest friends and family had been sexually assaulted by men they knew. I’m 35 now, and I can’t count the women anymore. And we don’t talk about it except sometimes when we’ve had enough to drink to let the stop out of our throats, to let the scream out of lungs, to move past the shame to rage. We don’t talk about it. So when you call it “lewd” or “crass” or “locker room banter”, you create a safe space for misogyny, you perpetuate its existence, diminish its reality, and side with the abuser. You leave me on the basement floor trying to understand what happened, what I did, and what I should have done differently.

***

People are asking: are we normalizing sexual assault in these conversations? No. These conversations demonstrate that it is already normalized. Violence against women is accepted, or ignored and implicitly condoned, sometimes encouraged, and often sexualized. It’s part of the fabric of America, part of the fabric of patriarchal oppression, part of what it means to be a woman in the world.  They call it locker room banter because the locker room is the apex of American masculinity, and because masculinity has always required demonstrating power over women, because sexual violence against women affirms masculinity, because patriarchy has never valued women, but does value violence against them. The locker room is the acme of American masculinity—but these values are evident in the board room, the war zone, school room, golf course, and now, the presidential stage. These values are evident in the constitution when they say “all men are created equal” and didn’t mean women—because, well, women have always been dehumanized and objectified.

We’ve never been treated equally. And I’m a white ciswoman. Many folks experience this exponentially more than I have. Misogyny against women of color, against transwomen—is excused, dismissed, ignored and justified far more often. Because culturally, historically, and legally we’ve dehumanized our sisters of color with greater potency and frequency than their white, or cis counterparts.  We’ve come so far, I want to think. My daughters feel empowered by possibility. We have a major party female presidential candidate. But standing next to her on that stage is a self-confessed sexual predator (and let’s not forget, a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, narcissist) and the crowd is cheering for him; they’re applauding. The most terrifying thing is that that stage reflects every room in America. Every step towards progress is met by a creepy, powerful man who gives you the “oh-oh” feeling as he stalks the stage behind you, as he demands that you should be ashamed of yourself, as he talks over you, and he devalues your humanity, and ridicules your ability. Every woman I know. Every stage we’re on. He is some of the men we know. Men you know. Men we love. Men we sleep with, and men we teach. Our grandfathers. Our sons. Our presidential candidates. They are everywhere, and it is terrifying.

I watched the town hall debate, and I cried into my hands to stifle the sobbing—where the hell was that trigger warning? I felt like I was at the top of the staircase again listening to my mother being beaten, listening to women everywhere try to muffle their screams so they don’t wake up the children, running away at night with nothing—no bags, no shoes, even—in an attempt to flee before he wakes. I felt like I was in the police car again deciding not to press charges. I felt threatened and disempowered and fucking scared. I’ll be having long talks with my son about consent, about respect, about sexuality, and masculinity. I’ll remind my daughters that our bodies are ours, and that we live in a world that wants to take our power away, that “No” is a word that doesn’t need explanation.

But, men—this shit is on you. Have you excused or justified or minimized violence against women? Have you taken the side of the abuser? Have you laughed at “locker room banter”? Have you made rape jokes? Harassed women on the street? Have you wondered what she was wearing or what she said before he hit her? Have you blamed women for the violence against them? Have you softened the edges of assault by calling it “lewd language”? Have you created a safe space for violent abusers? Have you kept quiet when you should have stood up? Are you part of rape culture?

Dig deep, y’all, because this isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. It’s every woman I know, and some of the men, too.

The First Humans

The older I get, the fewer stars I see. It must be the glasses, something in the lenses. Or the frightful thought: something in the eyes. On our backs in the camp, the start of the night sky appeared overhead. All four of us wore some kind of corrective lens. There were seven stars, and then there were eight. I counted as many as forty-five until I decided the number was less than I had seen in skies years before. Astronomers believe space is rapidly expanding, moving away from our galaxy faster every year. The first humans must have seen the night sky glittering with stars so bright, they could not have stared all night. If telescopes could see this and predict the distance of the stars over time, the fault was not in our lenses. It was definitely something in the eyes.

We left home without a lot of things we needed. We had enough food for a week for the weekend. Not one of us remembered the water. It was cold and humid in the morning. There was dew on the oven mitts, reflecting the sun in lime green drops, one bit of light at a time.

If we had Pat, he’d chop us some wood. If we had Courtney, she’d build us a fire.

If we had. If we had.

We drank beer so we wouldn’t think about water. Thoughts of water turned into thoughts of a lake of water, of a fresh spring that flowed into our campsite, as if we could will one into existence.

We wouldn’t make it through the weekend without water.

We turned over a stone with the beginnings of a sculpted leg. Da Vinci was just a torrential rain, we said. Michelangelo was a tornado of sand and wind. Lambs ears sprouted in the creek bed, where flat black spiders darted under warm stones when we were posed to step down. Drowned and dried up weeds looked like tattered clothes in a violent way, as if the dry rocks and trickling stream was complacent in a struggle. But they were only plants caught in a flood. But the only tattered clothes were on our legs.

To emphasize our group potential, each of us had a job at the site. The men strung ropes between trees with loops interspersed to hang wet clothes or—jokingly—ourselves when we got too thirsty. The women, used to their morbidity, rolled their eyes and cleared spider webs off the picnic table with sticks of fragrant cedar. Snowy ash from the fire fell into the guac. At least we remembered the guac. We heard a round of bullets fire into the woods, and somewhere in the park a bird left a space in the sky.

At night, a creature walked through our campsite when we turned off the flashlight. We held still at the edge of the woods in the pitch black. The animal moved slow as if stopping to pick fallen berries off the ground. I held my breath when it grew close enough for me to hear her grunts and grinding teeth. When she was beside me, I still could not see. The tip of a soft ear brushed my arm. Danger, fear of wildlife took over, that existence almost exactly like our own, but feral, indigenous. Life was meeting life in an arena with no rules. I closed my eyes to see the sun. I thought please be tame, please be kind as the ear ran across my arm, then my cheek. For a moment, the only thing in the world anymore was the connection of that fur and my skin, the meeting point between girl and unknown animal in the blinding dark. I felt like the earliest human, like I was meeting the world for the first time, like I could look up and the sky would be all white with stars.

Later, in the tent, I put my face into a moist armpit and felt the emptiness of the open night around us settle, turning, in my dreams, to water.

In the morning we left the site in damp boots and unbrushed hair. Our tents were wet, the floor was quenched, but we were not. At the nearby stream, we built a ship. We called her The Mermaid and released the ship into the drink. A maiden voyage, we shouted. Long live The Mermaid! The Mermaid went over a waterfall and drowned in the river.

What we never realized was this: The Mermaid was only a float prepared by thirsty friends. That the stars are there until they’re not. That fur and skin are the only separations between us and the deeper connective tissue of the world. That this life was our maiden voyage.