Un-Binary Stories: Writing in Flux and on Skin

A manifesto.

Pounding this out on the keyboard, I’m tempted to go back to working on a group of stories about a phoenix-symbiotic alien that offers a regenerative bonding with humans that society sees as physically or mentally inferior. I also have the urge to sketch out ideas for a second tattoo.

My excitement to alter — both bending the realistic world into a fictional tableau and transforming my own skin — come from the same place, I think. My writing, over always-continual mental and emotional struggle, is not just formed as a novel idea from other novelists’ work, or a poem from other poets’ work, but from the vast multitude. Words on pages, on skin, in songs, visual images melded with words in music comic books, music videos, cinema, even words in real-life bullshitting with friends and bacchanalian festivals in the desert.

“It’s about my own strong belief that outside of maybe the inner workings of my MacBook Pro, binary code doesn’t really translate to the natural world” — Diamond Rings, a wonderfully ambiguous performer of new wave synth music with the lyrics of a confessional folk singer (or a William Maxwell novel), was talking about assumptions of gender and sexuality in performance. I’ve found it applies also to styles and genre modes of writing. Un-binary stories.

I did not used to have an answer for it. My senior year of college, as I tried to form a now recognizably paltry 1984-homage-queer-metaphor-ghost-story creative writing thesis, my advisor read the beginning dribbles and asked me, do you think this would work without the fantastical elements? Brash and timid with only one silver hoop piercing in my left ear, my pride — in what I thought was the start of a rebellious marriage of queer coming-of-age and magical realism — deflated with the reality that it was just like every other beginning story. Years, and piercings, later, I realized I could have plainly told the professor, yes, I could most likely have written that story with no fantasy or science fiction elements, no weird visual imagery. I just did not want to.

I dutifully read the high school classics, but I was always most tantalized by the ones that had an uneasy sense of reality, where there was another surface to the known world. The almost supernatural nature of the daughter Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, the tragic whirl of single body time travel in Slaughterhouse Five, a clerk turning into a sentient insect in The Metamorphosis. At the same time I gravitated to classmates who were flaunting differences. Green hair that had once been brown, jet black that had once been blond, ear piercings, black nail polish on guys, and all accompanied by punk and metal musicians whose lyrics spoke to our inner teenage wallowing and assured us that we could become someone richly creative and find our centers of peace in the world, while proudly looking like freaks.

Getting my first piercing in high school, I had the glee of a kid half my age in showing it off to friends that had more than two of their own already. It felt like one last whirlwind into creative abandon before the structure of post-adolescent life, of awaiting jobs or colleges, so why not dive into hardcore metal shows, animé marathons, and Neil Gaiman gushing while we could? I knew it could not last. I was realizing I was not going to find dragons and magical swords in my college writing classes. Rimbaud‘s lyricism aside (and I was never going to be Rimbaud), punk attitude was not going to be set in the stanzas. It was what I knew, though, and I got into Washington College on a fantastical dream/creation essay and some overly florid rhyming couplet poetry.

I may have been greeted by a few pauses before other students inquired why my writing featured things like a dead wife reanimating to confront her husband on a decades-long marriage of quiet suffering, but for me it was joyful revelation. My weird writing was critiqued just like any other work: For the placement of each word. Even if those words were: “decayed skin merged flawlessly with wrinkled, yet healthy glowing skin and her sparkly smile returned once more; one green eye glinted sharply at him, the other lulled gloomily in its socket.” (I assume my fellow student-critic’s interior thought was: “His story had horror motif and a Two-Face homage, mine had a girl struggling with small town life, but is he really drawing strength from the overly dramatic decaying imagery?”)

Through and after college, I was finding writers crafting second-world fantasy and science fiction with a scholarly attention and strength of words: Neil Gaiman, M. John Harrison, China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer. Then ones like Caitlin R. Kiernan, Samuel R. Delany, Kelly Link, Alexander Chee, and Jeanette Winterson who drew the fantastical simply as another element of our concretely evident world. I found writers who wrote about realistic people and environments in vivid, seductive words that become sorcery in themselves; there is a lush element to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives that is utterly not fantasy but a completely surreal and honest examination at our everyday world that torched my unreal-loving brain. Sentient man turned bugs; artists fighting AIDS as a specter haunting a conservative nation; convicts finding freedom from grafted aquatic gills; Amerasian teenagers finding solace in roleplaying games; devotees of a fantasy adventure TV show; aliens that adapt our myths and pop culture as their history. As a forming writer, working only with my own grasp and pull of words, I saw the melding of every kind of eclectic writer as strength to inherit. I graduated college still with only one piercing but several hair bleachings and full head shavings, and black nail polish occasionally flicked off my fingers at the gym, with story ideas burning in my head.

The first descent, post-college, came in a book geek’s scary revelation that public libraries are becoming Wal-Mart. Seeing dreck soar in library popularity, and more disconcertingly (and obviously) finding I did not always see every pinnacle writer as brilliant as everyone else did, I fell into a writing funk, my first of many. My writing is no good, my ideas are silly, my attempts to create something simultaneously fun to read and intellectual and spiritually provoking were ridiculous! I sought comfort in increasing my piercing gauge, in adding to their number. If my writing was failing me, at least I could still control how my body was becoming an act of creativity.

Metal (again) snapped me out of my creative descent. Thursday’s “Resuscitation of a Dead Man“: Grinding post-hardcore guitars overlain with nearly-screamed lyrics inspired by Dennis Johnson’s novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. My book geek connection was reignited; I poured through more Thursday songs to find more social justice causes and lyrics inspired by David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis. Suddenly I was gleaning story inspirations everywhere. If novels can inspire song writers, why not the reverse? What other acts of creation could I find kinship with? Realism, fantasy, song lyrics, movie actor biographies of River Phoenix and Sal Mineo, performance artist memoirs like Tim Miller’s 1001 Beds, Wojnarowicz’s histories of AIDS activism, lines spoken and visual imagery projected from Derek Jarman movies, Batman cartoons, the formation of artistic constructs and electric color of The Burning Man Festival, musical artists who created fantastic personas with lyrics and costume such as David Bowie, Darby Crash, Grace Jones, Diamond Rings. Artists who write, perform with, or exhibit their own body as a canvas itself — and many did so before them. I have tried to write words that are acclamations of the styles of the deceased, a poem on their lives, a tribute to their reckless attitude to create by any means necessary. My writing has transmogrified into an uncertain, thriving, ambiguous multi-limbed creature spreading frantically, a creative Cthulhu, drawing ravenously from any utterance of words for new creative ideas.

Two summers ago, after running on a Kihei beach (wishing my hair had turned out that shinning aquatic blue months before), I lay on a friend’s couch, astonishing myself by finding merits in lines of a proto-poem I had written earlier in the day. My head echoed with Jonah Matranga lyrics I had written down before I got on the plane to Hawaii: you’re somewhere between a waste and the best place I’ve ever been/I am breathing underwater/you’re somewhere between the lies and the world and bleeding and skin/but I’m learning to balance, my love. Inspired by Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project (where each single word of a story was tattooed on one person), and my teeth gritted, I had those lyrics tattooed across my left and right forearms. Whenever I write now, they are there. Words are brilliant, words are despair, and I swear I will pour out their energy through my skin and blood, put all my passion into their creation.

A large Golden Book of fairytales set me on a fantastical path when I was five — a path soon lined with Terry Brooks, David Eddings, X-Men and Batman comics. I took the Giant (with his female, anthropomorphized harp) over Jack; Elves over Humans; Batman over Superman; Apocalypse over Magneto. They all told me I could be more — even if I could not be a magical mutant, I could be more with the words I use. I fiercely wanted anything more than the weak blurry right eye that always swerves inward, the 5’2″ height that constituted my full measure by age 11.

I have begun searching for that fairytale book, eager to give it to my almost 6-month-old nephew when he is a few years older — to sit him on the lap of his possibly multicolor-haired, quadruple-pierced, thrice (maybe by then) tattooed uncle, and tell him about the weird, transformative adventures that ordinary human kids like him and me could have on these inked pages.

Article © 2011 by Chris Herrmann