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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Cruising for Intellectual Mothers: How Writers Use Theory to Explore the Personal and the Personal to Explore Theory
Cruising for Intellectual Mothers: How Writers Use Theory to Explore the Personal and the Personal to Explore Theory
Author: Natasha Bell
Natasha Bell considers the use of the first person within a theoretical work.


Is the use of the first person within a theoretical work excessive or essential? It is only relatively recently that it’s become acceptable for theorists and biographers, journalists and critics to include the word ‘I’. With the gradual wearing down of the perception that the inclusion of personal experience is inherently gauche, unnecessary or unintellectual, we are seeing a wave of truly innovative interdisciplinary publications. Spanning both fiction and non-fiction, writers like Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Kate Zambreno, Deborah Levy and Olivia Laing are exploring the two-way connections between thought and felt lives. By acknowledging their own subjectivity and combining their own experiences with the larger theories they’re engaging with, these writers both perform and illustrate their own contexts. Their works become live texts: books whose covers can never truly be closed as they remain in constant dialogue with all that has come before and, we hope, all that comes next.


Keywords: Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Kate Zambreno, Deborah Levy, Olivia Laing, Memoir, Auto-theory, Theoretical Fiction, Female Voice, Personal Narrative


I find myself nervous to begin this essay with an admittance of my investment in it. Kate Zambreno writes, “There’s this idea in our culture and in our literature that it’s bad to write our excessive selves. To be excessive” (2012: 251). During times of seismic life shifts, identity crises, breakdowns on buses and tears in tutorials, though, it can seem like excess is all there is. And from my current place of excess, I have found comfort in two things: writing and theory (non-capitalized, and used here broadly to refer to works analysing and attempting to understand language, art, history and literature). Still, it feels crass and unscholarly to say I’m falling apart and I think the authors below can teach me how to put myself back together, on and off the page.

“Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent,” says Zambreno (236). She, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy and Olivia Laing have not only stepped on that forbidden shore, but razed and rebuilt it. Laing opens perhaps the most intimate chapter of The Lonely City with the words of David Wojnarowicz: “To make the private into something public is an act that has terrific repercussions on the pre-invented world” (2016: 217). For Wojnarowicz, the pre-invented world was one that ignored the AIDS crisis and marginalised all but the most conventional. The shape of that world may be a little different now, but the sentiment holds true. To write one’s own experience is a statement of existence that doesn’t allow for neat categorisation. It can be a way of claiming ownership of and coming to terms with individual lived experiences, but it can also be a way of saying, maybe shouting: Here I am. This essay will look at how Zambreno, Kraus, Nelson, Levy and Laing take this one step further. How, by using theory as a tool to examine their own experiences and vice versa, they say: Here I am in relation to you. Here I am in context. Here I am and I matter.    

Nelson states on the opening page of The Argonauts that she’s spent “a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed” (2015: 3). The book that follows is the practical application of this idea. The Argonauts is a memoir about Nelson’s relationship with the fluidly gendered artist Harry Dodge and the child they have together. It is also an examination of Nelson’s personal, cultural and intellectual experiences and whether the intersection of these can express what is so often inexpressible about the way they interact every day.

I Love Dick (2016) is a fictional account of the real Chris Kraus’s obsession with the real Dick Hebdige and the real breakdown of her marriage to the real Sylvère Lotringer. The book is a performative act, aware of itself as a piece of art from almost the first pages and rooted in the literature, music and theory Chris and Sylvère have built their life around. It’s steeped in much of the same theory as The Argonauts, but steps beyond to enact its own. This element of performing itself means the book cannot be separated from the backlash against its initial publication, the cease-and-desist order Hebdige took out or its recent resurgence in popularity.

In Heroines, Zambreno turns to the biographies of the “mad wives of modernism” (Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, Jane Bowles) to explore her own experience of marriage, creativity and anxiety (2012: 8). What begins as an imaginary dinner party with the “wives and mistresses” turns into an examination of gender, literature, mental health, patriarchy and Zambreno’s own identity as a writer (94).

Laing’s The Lonely City is an exploration of the connection between creativity, isolation and urban living. Like Zambreno, she examines the lives of some of her heroes (Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Klaus Nomi), but cannot do so without acknowledging her own identity and experiences as a woman writing alone in the city these artists haunted. The result is a poignant blend of biography, history, theory and memoir.

Finally, Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) is a subtler kind of theoretical work that looks a lot like a straightforward memoir. Levy’s childhood experiences, however, are so deeply rooted in politics that, though the narrative doesn’t directly reference much theory, it’s saturated in it. Things I Don’t Want to Know cannot be read without confronting and engaging with political and theoretical landscape in which Levy grew up.

While the relationship between theory and the personal in I Love Dick feels performative, for the other writers examined here it appears more illustrative. For Nelson, “writing has always felt more clarifying than creative” (128). She describes her mother asking her to change the channel to a station with a male weatherman because “They usually have the more accurate forecast, [Nelson’s italics]” then follows with a quote from feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray (47). When talking about women’s marginalisation, theory alone might be dry and impenetrable. Equally, however, this singular personal experience could speak only of the odd sexism of Nelson’s mother and not of the gradual accumulation of everyday sexisms in the lives of all but the luckiest of women. In combining personal experience with theory, a richer and much more succinct point is made.

This illustrative relationship with theory by no means precludes critical engagement with it. Nelson angrily addresses the attitudes of Baudrillard, Žižek and Badiou towards single and lesbian motherhood and transgender identities. With Žižek in her crosshairs, she briefly sums up his argument, but just when you imagine she might launch into a damning critique of all the ways in which he’s wrong, she says: “These are the voices that pass for radicality in our times. Let us leave them to [it]” (99). Instead, she offers a memory of the summer of 2011, when Nelson was four-months pregnant, Harry had just undergone top surgery and they spent a week in a hotel recovering. This moving personal narrative paralleling the experiences of the pregnant and transgender bodies is far more powerful a refutation of Žižek’s dismissal of gender dysphoria than any academic argument. Žižek is made to look like a foolish intellectual, spouting about theory with little understanding of the lived experiences of those the theory touches. Nelson emerges as the victorious warrior of experience.

The question of whether experience is enough, however, is present throughout all of these texts. At times, each of these authors appears to question and pre-empt their own criticism, defending the act of writing. Zambreno notes, “The charge against women writers so often is narcissism. This unconscious bias against women who are full of themselves bleeds into reactions against their literature. That it’s somehow cheating to draw from one’s OWN life” (235). Nelson remembers attending a seminar in which art historian Rosalind Krauss responded to artist Jane Gallop’s latest work about motherhood and love. Rosalind Krauss criticised Gallop’s use of her personal situation as subject matter and called the work mediocre, naïve and soft-minded. Nelson notes:

The tacit undercurrent of her argument…was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting. (51)

This feels like Nelson confronting and critiquing the very criticism she imagines will be levelled at her. Like Zambreno, she is aware of the world she is writing in and for. She’s asking both herself and her reader: Is the personal relevant? Is motherhood relevant? Can either be interesting? Of course, the answer has to be yes, but Nelson knows there are those who will try to say no.

In the opening pages of I Love Dick, Kraus claims “[Chris] is no intellectual” (3) and pits her main character/self as the quiet, listening woman to Dick and Sylvère’s postmodern critical chatter. Gently, however, she lulls her reader into her wandering associative style, moving from the drive to Dick’s house to a performance she did at the age of 23, comparing the evening to an Eric Rohmer film and finally, in parenthesis, dropping in a tongue-in-cheek, future-tense literary comparison: “(Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.)” Even the parentheses serve to soften Chris’s realisation, to mark her unserious, insincere, unthreatening. As Kraus notes, “Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her” (5). This is true of both the character and the novelist. Kraus invites us to believe we are entering an odd, auto-fictional account of love and obsession, but while we’re busy marvelling about that oddness, laughing at her self-deprecation, she surreptitiously places the book in the very theoretical landscape Dick and Sylvère think her separate from.

An awareness of one’s vulnerabilities to criticism seems key to this form, but it’s only one of many ways these writers play with metatextuality and self-reference. A scene in The Argonauts depicts Nelson showing Harry a first draft of the book. Inevitably, this draws attention to the writing process, provoking questions about how many drafts Nelson wrote and what was lost as well as added. Nelson and Harry sit with “mechanical pencils in hand” and alter the very text we are reading. The act of alteration was important enough to make it into the narrative, but what it tells us is there is an alternative, perhaps more truthful, narrative entirely inaccessible to us. It also raises questions about whose narrative it is. Nelson says “But it’s my book, mine!” and Harry respondsYes, but the details of my life, of our life together, don’t belong to you alone” (57). In this short scene, Nelson succinctly examines some of the core questions about memoir: Why write? Who owns a story? Is it okay to write about others? These questions are asked and variously answered by 15 different memoirists in Why We Write About Ourselves (2016), but while the considered and contradictory responses of these writers are interesting, they are ultimately unhelpful to the would-be memoirist except to underline that everyone must establish their own moral code concerning memoir. Nelson’s scene expresses something none of the writers in Why We Write About Ourselves acknowledge or capture: she shows us the immediate, personal consequence of writing about real events and people. She depicts the war with oneself that pits the need to examine life honestly against the desire to do no harm.

The Argonauts is about anxiety: the anxiety of love, gender, sexuality, motherhood and creativity, but also the anxiety of writing a book that may or may not achieve what it sets out to do. By engaging with these anxieties within the text, Nelson creates a dialogue. The Argonauts is a question rather than an answer. Nelson and Harry hate fiction “or at least crappy fiction” because:

It purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out. (102)

Is she suggesting non-fiction is better for being open to interpretation? Perhaps, in laying out the world without interpretation or manipulation, in offering the specific, personal experience to the universal collective, it can be.

There’s crappy non-fiction, too, though. And I imagine there are also crappy examples of writers using theory to close down rather than open up a creative work. What works in The Argonauts is that Nelson examines the foundations of her relationship to theory, thus making its inclusion feel both organic and inevitable. She talks about “cruising for intellectual mothers” (72) as a student, not as an act of academic posturing but as a way of discovering herself. She remembers her thesis adviser being repulsed by her “interest in the personal made public,” and how she continued “ashamed, but undaunted” (75) to write about the performance of intimacy. This is not just remembering, but root-tracing. Nelson writes about her past not as simple documentation or reminiscence, but always to bring the experiences back to the present, to link them to her current situation, philosophy and beliefs. If memoir is interesting because we are all the product of our experiences, then perhaps the theoretical memoir (or what Nelson calls “auto-theory” – see Nelson 2015b) is more so because it acknowledges we are also the product of everything we’ve read, thought and said.

Still, what does tying a memory of being turned on by scenes of “someone jerking off with a chunk of purple quartz down by the water, and the slow sewing of feathers onto a girl’s butt” to Michel Foucault (“I think we have—and can have—a right to be free”) actually achieve? (79) Nelson quotes an interviewer telling photographer Catherine Opie that her artistic movement from the SM scene to motherhood was “shocking…because people want to keep those kind of separate.” Opie’s response was blunt:

They do want to keep it separate. So basically, becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me. Ha. That’s a very funny idea. (Nelson 2015: 92)

This issue of separateness is key. To cross the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, creativity and theory, personal sexuality and public intellectuality, is as seemingly transgressive as Opie moving from photographing herself as a ‘Pervert’ to nursing her child (Opie 1994). It’s also equally funny, because in reality none of these pairings are transgressive; they are obviously necessary, albeit societally uncomfortable. Nelson draws upon theory not to intellectualise, posture or hide from the intimacy of a topic like sexuality, but to open it up fully. Like the discussion of her thesis, this section tells us about Nelson’s personal relationship with the theory that occupies her mind. For Nelson, personal experience leads to an understanding of theory, and vice versa. This is such an obvious, tiny observation, yet huge in the context of how theory and creativity are so often separated. “I collect these moments. I know they hold a key,” she says (79). And we all do, don’t we? But how often do we connect the moments we’ve collected from the disparate parts of our physical and intellectual lives? What if weaving them together is the only way to express the inexpressible?

The Argonauts engages with Wittgenstein on its first page (“that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed”) not just in content but also in form. Rather than using footnotes or endnotes, Nelson attributes quotations in the margins and here only by name. A style borrowed from Barthes, these marginal attributions appear not to guide you to look anything up in context, but to quickly map the connections between Nelson’s firing synapses (Fitzgerald 2015). Reading The Argonauts is like reading a draft with marginal scrawls and notes to self. Nelson also uses italics and quotation marks interchangeably for both speech and quotations. This gives the impression that Nelson’s sister’s comments about their mother’s new marriage, her mother’s repeated anecdote about standing before the Killing Tree in Cambodia and Harry’s critique of the book are just as important as the opinions of Deleuze, Sedgwick, Foucault, Barthes and Butler. Which, of course, to Nelson, they are. Theorists and family become one. All influences, all stimuli are on a par. X-Men is as important as King Lear; Nelson’s birthing pictures are as important as Opie’s photographs.

At the end of the book, Harry is given his own marginal note and a long paragraph of italicised speech. In this way, Harry has replaced Nelson’s theorists, become her sought wisdom, her intellectual family. The penultimate pages depart from theory and external influences to focus on Harry and their son, Iggy, as if in motherhood and love all conversation is silenced. The book ends with Nelson’s own voice, summing up thoughts on nothingness and being in perhaps the only way possible after the journey of this narrative. However, the last words need really to be considered those of the acknowledgements, where Nelson addresses Harry: “Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be—an infinite conversation, an endless becoming” (180).

I Love Dick is similarly occupied by the concept of a marital conversation and what an individual can become within and without a pair. Like Nelson, Kraus weaves literary and theoretical references throughout the novel in an organic way. Unlike Nelson, however, these references don’t serve to develop the characters or the writer, but to illustrate and almost ridicule them. The intellectualisation of every interaction from Chris and Dick’s “Conceptual Fuck” (Kraus 5) onwards is justified by the characterisation of Chris and Sylvère. Theory is part of their personalities, part of their marital conversation. They are intellectuals and artists, vehemently anti self-analysis but so buried in their own patterns of thought that they don’t even necessarily notice the references they make. Even in the first instance of Kraus dismissing herself as the “Dumb Cunt” telling “The Dumb Cunt’s Tale,” it is in reference to Henry James (Kraus 11).

I Love Dick is much bolder, but less questioning than The Argonauts. Kraus references other texts for statement rather than analysis. Chris the character says,

Writing this has been like moving through a kaleidoscope of all our favourite books in history: Swann’s Way and William Congreve, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert. Does analogy make emotion less sincere? (54)

(Note Kraus pre-empting her critics again, labelling her work insincere so we don’t have to.)

The book is playful and clever and shocking in the same way Chris the character is playful and clever and shocking. Chris is not a character seeking a revelation or a transformative experience, however, and I Love Dick does not reveal much except itself. It engages with theory, art and literature not to place itself within, but to emerge from them.

It’s the distance between Kraus as narrator and Chris as character that makes the book so compelling. The introduction of the third person, a satirical eye thrown on the writer and her life, pulls that life from the realm of the real. As a work of art, however, it is undeniably real, so the tension between fiction and non-fiction is extreme. It’s published as a novel and the truth of the events it describes are ultimately unknowable, but unthinkingly placing it on the fiction shelf would be blinkered and limiting, perhaps even boring. What’s important is its blurring of boundaries, its unknowability.

In the afterword, Joan Hawkins posits a definition for what she calls “theoretical fiction” (247). Within the novel, Sylvère describes the work as “some new kind of literary form…something in between cultural criticism and fiction” (27). For Hawkins, there is no “in-between” to this new form; theoretical fiction is independent, powerful, and deserving of more consideration than many of Kraus’s reviewers have offered (247). Hawkins’ use of the word fiction may be reductive, but her criticism of those who misread Kraus’s work goes to the heart of what makes theoretical (non/)fiction both fascinating and discomforting:

It’s strange that critics have tended to treat I Love Dick…as an old-fashioned text which we could read as though the past twenty years of literary theory about the signifying practices of language had never happened. (249)

What sets these works apart is their acknowledgement of and interaction with everything that has come before them.

Similarly problematic, The Argonauts is described on the inside cover as a “genre-bending memoir”, but Nelson likens being called a memoirist to performing drag (142). Both books refuse to be one thing or another: fiction or non-fiction, straight theory or pure creativity, performance or document. This is still not an in-betweenness, but an everythingness. In being all things, I Love Dick and The Argonauts find truths that are lacking in all of the categories they don’t quite fit.

Ultimately labels are not that important, but the lack of them does lead to uncertainty. It is perhaps within this space of uncertainty, however, that the excitement of blurring finds a home. Levy opens her second chapter with a quote from Nietzsche:

I have gradually come to understand what every great philosophy until now has been; the confession of its author and a kind of involuntary unconscious memoir. (2013: 28)

How then is this sentiment flipped for writers whose memoirs are both voluntary and conscious? Does the philosophy become the involuntary and unconscious thing? The end of Levy’s first chapter frames the rest of the book as a confession, a tale she didn’t quite tell a Chinese man she was eating dinner with in Spain when he asked: “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”(25) So the second chapter, with this quote preceding it, is pitted as both her philosophy and memoir, voluntary and conscious.

In some ways Things I Don’t Want to Know looks like a straightforward memoir about Levy’s childhood experiences. These experiences, however, are so deeply rooted in what was going on in the world at the time that the book is saturated in both theory and politics. Levy says as much about sexism and art by dropping in a name or two and illustrating a mood as Kraus does in explicitly examining the ways in which male and female artists are treated differently. Levy remembers identifying Brillo pads as the bonds of patriarchy: “As far as I was concerned, they had been designed to waste the lives of girls and women” (88). On the surface this is an amusing anecdote about the simplicity of her younger self, but its inclusion is a form of agreement with that younger self. Of course it’s absurd to blame a Brillo pad for all that is wrong between men and women in the world, but on the other hand it’s entirely fair. Levy doesn’t need to tell us she is thinking about the wage gap, domestic violence, education, employment, misogyny, FGM, trafficking and child marriage. By lining up the personal and political side by side, we know all those things exist in the at once physical and metaphorical object of the Brillo pad.

She goes on:

This thought made me so desperate that I ordered a slice of extra toast to slow the injustice of things down. Jean-Paul Stare [sic] was French. Andy Warhol was half Czech but totally American and so was Liza Minelli, who like Angie might be half Italian and all the rest of it… (Levy 88)

The intensity and incongruity of these thoughts one after another, side by side, is evocative and suffocating. It is Kraus’s kaleidoscope (Kraus 2016: 54), shown not told. Levy’s art is in describing a single, detailed scene – herself as a teenager in a greasy spoon spending all her change in order to avoid cleaning honey out of the washing machine – and opening that scene out to encompass the world. Having already framed the book with the Nietzsche quote, with the challenge to George Orwell on the cover and with the heavy contrast of her classroom rebellion and her father’s imprisonment, we can’t help but see that greasy spoon contains nothing less than Apartheid, feminism, exile, identity, heartbreak and creativity.  

There may be a temptation to equate these works to manifestos. After all, Things I Don’t Want to Know pits itself as a response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ (1946), in which Orwell sets out four distinct reasons a person would want to write (and is more than a little snooty about some of them). However, even in her title, Levy refuses this didacticism. Her book is about the inevitability of how she found her writing voice in things she didn’t want to know; how her father’s imprisonment and her unhappiness as a white child in South Africa, her unrequited love for her black nanny and being slapped behind the legs for not writing on the top line of an exercise book, all contributed to her finally taking her father’s advice to “say [her] thoughts out loud and not just in [her] head” (64).

Levy tells us nothing, advises us in no way. She simply asks: “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?” (106) It’s up to us if the answer we hear is, “Write.”

Heroines is pitched as “literary scholarship” but opens with a diary entry from 2005 in which Zambreno admits, “I am trying to learn how to be a serious writer and write important books, yet I cannot deal with all of the silence” (13). The reinvention of feminism and the “new model for a newly subjectivized criticism” that the book jacket promises is performed through the personal. It is hesitant, unsure and believably involuntary and unconscious. Zambreno wanders through the biographies of the modernist wives seeking her own answers. We are not being taught by her, but simply accompanying her as she tries to figure these women and herself out. She asks, “What does it mean to paint seriously, to write seriously?” (199) Heroines is the performance of this question, Zambreno asking it over and over again as she blogs and researches and sits around in her pyjamas failing to write this book. The answer she gives is less a manifesto than a personal realisation. It is one that feels at once revelatory and also something Zambreno (and her readers) must have always known: “[Writing seriously] is all about self-identity, and discipline, this audacity to believe that what one could possibly create is worth sharing with the world” (199).

Nelson too refuses to frame her book as manifesto, saying, “I don’t want to represent anything” (120). Kraus labels her narrative the “Dumb Cunt Tale,” either claiming or pre-empting her own insignificance – perhaps both. All of these women, it seems, are trying to dismantle rather than write theory. They’re trying to organise their tangled identities. Nelson knows “every word that I write could be read as some kind of defence, or assertion of value, of whatever it is that I am, whatever viewpoint it is that I ostensibly have to offer.” This, she says, is the “horror of speaking, of writing. There is nowhere to hide” (121). Despite this horror, despite the pitfalls, the misunderstandings and the mislabelling by critics, all of these authors suggest it’s worthwhile. More than that, it’s essential. As Sister Joan says to Levy, “When your father says say your thoughts out loud, he means for you to speak louder” (64).

I’ve left Laing’s The Lonely City to last because it’s much closer to traditional non-fiction than the rest. The chapter “Render Ghosts,” however, opens with a deeply personal and intensely recognisable account of Laing’s access to the contents of the book. Living alone in a tiny sublet off Times Square, she remembers the intensity of her relationship with the internet:

Every day I’d wake up and before my eyes were even properly open I’d drag my laptop into bed and lurch seamlessly into Twitter. It was the first thing I looked at and the last, this descending scroll from mostly strangers, institutions, friends, this ephemeral community in which I was a disembodied and inconstant presence. (Laing 219)

The chapter illustrates beautifully and intimately the contradictory experiences of loneliness Laing has been discussing throughout the book. It is the show to the telling that has come before. Understanding both Laing’s own relationship to her research and also the research’s continued pertinence to twenty-first-century living gives this book about the loneliness of dead artists a sense of immediacy and urgency.

The effectiveness of this chapter is not the only reason I feel it’s pertinent to this essay. Laing’s descriptions of getting lost in the internet, of the rapid movement from “lens solution, book cover, news of death, protest picture, art opening, joke about Derrida, refugees…” (219) is, I think, similar to the effect or at least potential effect of theoretical fiction. Reading a memoir or a novel grounded in theory and literature is an almost dizzying experience of racing through the maze of a writer’s brain. It’s the act of clicking on all of the links that take your/their fancy and enjoying the journey rather than focusing on the destination.

It’s impossible of course to draw wide conclusions from an examination of only a handful of books, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge that all of these authors are women. This may of course be coincidence or my own bias as a reader, but it’s hard not to question whether this is a gendered subject. Zambreno’s argument about the “unconscious” and “internalized bias” (235) against female writers who draw from personal experience is compelling. If women writers are more vulnerable to dismissal or the charge of narcissism, then perhaps the marriage of theory and the personal can be seen as both armour and weapon. The type of “serious writer” Zambreno hopes to be on the first pages of Heroines seems aligned with F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Paul Bowles, but by the end of the book she’s found an alternative canon. When she discovered Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles and other female writers who “bathed their work in theory like a mud bath,” she realised, “I could write about being excessive and toxic, my whole life that came before could be drawn from, to write against the culture” (251).

At a university talk, Nelson was asked how she could handle working on “dark material [sadism, masochism, cruelty, violence],” while pregnant. Nelson identified this question as “a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks” (Nelson 2015: 113). Like Kraus’s claim not to be an intellectual, this reads as a comment on the perceived criticism of the writer who thinks, specifically the woman writer who thinks.

All of these works, however, are more complex than simple rebellion or calls to arms against such oxymorons. Writer and scholar Christina Crosby says Nelson’s great strength is her ability to “bear witness” (Crosby 2018). This comes through in her depiction of Harry, but I wonder too if her treatment of her theorists betrays her own desire to be borne witness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a conversation with someone who had read the exact books you’d read, to be able to follow each other’s leaps and connections and piece together the intersections of life and education? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write for a reader who could also make those connections? To be known fully on the page? In a way, The Argonauts shows us a version of this. Heroines, too, is a multi-way conversation between the wives and mistresses of all ages. Zambreno bears witness to their erasure, but also feels known herself by her immersion in their biographies. These women help each other, across centuries, across disciplines, despite oppression, despite silence.

In a Radio 4 Bookclub interview, Jeannette Winterson said, “You know, if Paul Auster uses himself in fiction…it’s called metafiction, if women do it it’s autobiography” (Winterson 2010). Kraus also uses Auster as an example to discuss the differing receptions to men and women writing from life. She complains Sophie Calle was reduced to a “waif-like creature relieved of complications like ambition or career” in Leviathan (Kraus 55). Zambreno suggests, “Perhaps making someone a character is a way of alienating them from themselves” (Zambreno 155), and notes this has been done to women for centuries. The similarities between Auster’s use of Calle and Kraus’s use of Hebdige are clear. Yet Kraus claims 65% of the reception to the original publication of I Love Dick was hostile (Kraus 2016b). She was criticised for infringing on Hebdige’s privacy and issued with a cease-and-desist order. It’s interesting to note, however, that Kraus took measures to protect Hebdige’s identity, so his privacy was only actually infringed upon when he chose to out himself to publicly critique her. Was the real problem that Kraus was reducing him to a character, relieving him of complications? That’s certainly what Kraus suggests. She says, “When women try to pierce this false conceit…we’re called bitches, libellers, pornographers and amateurs” (Kraus 56). These words, however, were written before the cease-and-desist order, before the critical reception, before publication. So this is not just theory, but performance. In writing this book, Kraus has created its own truth.

Whether performative or investigative, what distinguishes writing that uses theory to explore the personal and the personal to explore theory is the dialogue it opens with all that has come before it. Neither fiction nor creative non-fiction can exist in a vacuum, but often we are asked to read it in one. It’s not until reviewers make connections or students write essays that most authors are overtly linked to other authors or theorists, even though in practice they’re in a continuous dialogue with them. By acknowledging and engaging with theory and with other works in the actual body of a piece of writing, that writing is immediately and consciously placed within the whole.

In one of the most moving passages of The Argonauts, Nelson describes a cashier asking Harry for his credit card and pausing for a moment to read Harry’s feminine name. The cashier asked if it belonged to Nelson and:

We just froze in the way we freeze until Harry said, ‘It’s my card.’ Long pause, sidelong stare. A shadow of violence usually drifts over the scene. ‘It’s complicated,’ Harry finally said, puncturing the silence. Eventually, the man spoke. ‘No, actually, it’s not,’ he said, handing back the card. ‘Not complicated at all.’ (111)

In that silence exists the whole of The Argonauts, all of the theory and anxiety and lived experience of Harry’s gender identity and Nelson’s experience of it. The cashier’s statement about its lack of complexity is at once the truth and a lie. Like all lives, Harry’s is complicated and complex and endlessly fascinating. But this complication is itself so normal, so like every other lived experience that it renders it simple. This is the universal, found in the personal. This is why we write.

All of these women are writing to find something out, turning to theory, biographies and other creative works to look for truth. As writers, we constantly ask ourselves if an action is honest to a character, if dialogue sounds authentic and narrative observations are fair, but in both art and life truth is always subjective. Most memoirists can recount tales from after publication when friends or relatives have told them something they wrote isn’t true.[1] So, is truth an unachievable goal? If it’s impossible to write an objectively honest piece of nonfiction, then is it better to write an honestly dishonest novel or a dishonestly honest memoir? What I find in I Love Dick, The Argonauts, Heroines, The Lonely City and Things I Don’t Want to Know, is the suggestion of a middle ground. One where acknowledging our subjectivity as people and as writers, and examining the context in which we are writing, can edge us towards a more authentic version of truth. This may require being “excessive and toxic,” even “jacking off and defecating on the page/on [our] ancestors/on the establishment,” (Zambreno 2012: 251) but Nelson, Zambreno, Kraus, Laing and Levy suggest it is more than worth it.

Nelson says she writes because she’s “interested in offering up [her] experience and performing [her] particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth” (121). She balances this statement with Deleuze/Parnet: “What other reason is there for writing than to be traitor to one’s own reign, traitor to one’s own sex, to one’s class, to one’s majority? And to be traitor to writing” (121). In writing this essay, I set out to hopefully understand how to integrate theory into a personal narrative. What I have instead are more questions, a much longer reading list and a handful of “intellectual mothers,” all in their way traitors to writing, traitors to form and traitors to the librarians who try to shelve them.

[1] See Ishmael Beah, Pat Conroy, Ann Lamott and Dani Shapiro in Maran (2016)



Crosby, C. (2016) in ‘The Argonauts: A Salon in Honor of Maggie Nelson’, Barnard Centre for Research on Women. [Video] Available from:  [Accessed 3 December 2016].

Fitzgerald, A. (2015) ‘The Argonauts: Diary, Theory, Poem, Memoir.’ Literary Hub [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 9 January 2017].

Kraus, C. (2016) I Love Dick. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Kraus, C. and Nelson, M. (2016b) in ‘Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus on Confessional Writing’. The Guardian Books Podcast [Audio podcast]. Available from:  [Accessed 29 November 2016].

Laing, O. (2016) The Lonely City. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Levy, D. (2013) Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’. London: Penguin.

Maran, M (ed.) (2016) Why We Write About Ourselves. New York: Penguin.

Nelson, M. (2015) The Argonauts. London: Melville House.

Nelson, M. (2015b) in ‘Maggie Nelson: The Argonauts.’ Between the Covers. [Audio podcast]. Available from:  [Accessed 8 November 2016].

Opie, C. (1994) Self-Portrait/Pervert [Art]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Orwell, G. (1946) ‘Why I Write’ in G. Orwell (2000) Essays. London: Penguin.

Winterson, J. (2010) Bookclub. BBC Radio 4 [Audio podcast]. Available from:  [Accessed 15 December 2016].


Natasha Bell grew up in Somerset and studied English Literature at the University of York, followed by Gender and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago. Over-educated and entirely unemployable, she spent her twenties writing TV listings and working as a barista and a projectionist, before returning to study Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She now writes full-time from her home in south-east London. Her debut novel, Exhibit Alexandra, is published by Penguin.