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O Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

September, 1983. Marsing, Idaho.
I'm sitting in a circle of chairs, surrounded by illiterates. We are reading in the round. Everyone gets a page. Some of the pages have taken days to get through. I am filled with a snobby kind of superiority, yet here I sit, doomed to first grade by the unfortunate fact that I have Communication Issues. Namely, I can't keep myself from meowing. The teachers have been told not to acknowledge my meows; that I am simply looking for attention. That is not the case. I'm compelled. Unless I meow intermittently, the meows build up behind my teeth and come out in one giant caterwaul. Better to meow quietly than to howl inadvertently in the middle of math. When it's finally my turn, I speed read. I don't understand why people pay so much attention to the meows. The words are there. The meows are ancillary.

"Dick-and-jane-meow-run-past-Pup-the-dog-meow-meow- meoooooooooooow???"

"ENUNCIATE, MARIA! E-NUN-CI-ATE! You can do it!"

"Enunciate" is euphemism for "PLEASE, mother of god, don't meow again."

I meow again, of course, and when I finally cure myself of meows, I remain a mumbling mushmouth.

August, 2004. The Breadloaf Writers' Conference.
Welcome to Vermont, where it's been raining for two weeks: acres of forest, and mosquitoes the size of pears. Step outside, and mire in thigh-deep mud. Two hundred writers, many of them fantastic, and some of them very famous, are trying out dubious social skills. We are discussing John Cheever and slurring our sonnets. The main thing about writers' conferences? Almost everyone is trying to get laid. The only reason world literature has gotten this far is that writers are genetically selected to be awkward. If we were born socially at ease, no writing would ever get done. All we would do is party. We WANT to party. Things being as they are — all of us, if not external dweebs, hopelessly internally damaged — we swarm to writers' conferences and try to woo the only group we're likely to have a chance with. The only way I managed to marry my husband, the otherwise wildly out-of-my-league Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, is that he's a writer too. We are both so neurotic that we cancel each other and seem secure.

At Breadloaf, there is a barn dance, and everyone moshes to "Smells like Teen Spirit." Carpal-tunnel infested wrists fling. Some guy embarks on a mad solo tango. And I, in my gin-induced haze, watching everyone try to find someone who understands them, am thinking about a title for the memoir I've pitched that afternoon, somewhat inadvertently, to the nonfiction editor I'd been assigned a meeting with. Nothing to sell him, I'd started telling him the story of my love life, which I normally use as cocktail party anecdotes.

"That's commercial," he said, baffling me. "I'd buy that."

Huh. Somehow, even though the events in the book are things I've been telling people about for years, my warped brain never realized that I could put them in a book. I NEEDED them for party conversation. Otherwise, I'd just be stuck standing against the wall, looking like a dork. That's my nightmare. I have no capacity for small talk.

I test the title out. "The Year of Yes."

People like it, and so I tell them the premise: a memoir of a year that I dated everyone in NYC who asked me, including homeless men, taxi drivers, plumbers, and a couple of girls. (The writers are particularly interested in the chick-on-chick action.) By the end of the conference, I've worked up a proposal, and people I don't even know are telling me it's a good idea. I'm excited. I talk faster and faster. I don't meow, but it's an effort. Enthusiasm is still a dangerous thing.

On the second to last day of the conference, there's a cocktail party, and of course, I bring out my old standbys, now titled The Year of Yes. A girl I don't really know comes up to me, looking concerned.

"I just have to ask you something," she whispers.

"Sure," I say, and add, feeling magnanimous, "Anything."

"You're so small. Are you okay?" Her big blue eyes are worried. I have no idea what she's talking about. I think back to the night before. A pretentious conversation about Proust, but nothing embarrassing other than that.

"I don't know what you mean," I say.

"Never mind," she says. "It's none of my business. I guess I'll read about it, anyway."

This makes me paranoid. Maybe I've become a character in someone's book. I look around, but I'm not sure who has it out for me.

Someone else walks up to me, and stands in front of me, raising one eyebrow.

"What?" I ask.

"So, Miss Maria Dahvana Headley," he says, and nods sagely. "So, so, so."

"So?" I say.

"So," he says, winks, and departs.

In the drink line, I encounter a skinny poet from Texas.

"So, you're really into anal sex, huh?"

Since I'm now wholly convinced that my brain is cheesecloth, I know that this is not what the poet has really said. Probably he's just asked me if I'm really into Angela Carter.

"I love her work," I reply. "She's like a modern Brother's Grimm."

The poet looks at me. "Anal sex," he repeats. "Anal Sex."

"Excuse me?"

"I mean, if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine. I just figured you wouldn't care. I wanted to shake your hand, really," he says, and sticks his hand out.

Several other people come up to ask me about my proclivities. At dinner that night, I sit with Murad Kalam and Hannah Tinti, and we riff on the possible proclivities of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Emily turns out to be especially kinky. We spend half an hour speculating on the things that were dropped into the Well of Amherst. Not to mention the myriad puns to be made of her last name. This is, in the end, what it is to be a writer among other writers. You spend all your time speculating on the sex lives of the dead.

I mention the rumor again at lunch the next day. As someone who has a long history of being the freak in almost any group, I figure, if there's a rumor about me, I might as well own it. A girl at my table turns white.

"I mean, it's not true," I explain.

The girl looks like she's going to throw up. I try to reference one of the Emily Dickinson lines that were so funny the night before. She just turns paler.

"What's the title of your book?" she stammers. Okay, we're changing the topic. Fine with me.

"The Year of Yes."

"Spell it," she says.

"The Year of Y-E-S."

"Oh god," she says. "Oh god. Please don't hate me."

"What's wrong?" Two weeks of writers' conference have made me slow on the uptake.

"Y-E-S," she says. "Not A-S-S?

It seems that there has been a small misunderstanding. The girl has told a few people that The Year of Ass is my memoir of having anal sex with everyone I met, for a year. Those people told a few other people. Who told a few other people. It has become a game of literary telephone. And it is totally my own fault.

ENUNCIATE, Maria, e-nun-ci-ate.

I am a mushmouth, and mushmouthiness has been my downfall. I belatedly wonder how anyone could've believed that I was writing a memoir like this, let alone complimented me on it. A few days later, though, I read a reference to a book called The Surrender. It's a memoir of a ballerina's spiritual awakening through sodomy. The New York Times subsequently names it one of the 100 Notable Books of the year.

In books, as in life, some things cannot be predicted.

÷ ÷ ÷

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes. She lives in Seattle with her husband and family.

Books mentioned in this post

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes: A Memoir

6 Responses to "O Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood"

    Wilhelm February 16th, 2006 at 11:25 am

    I predict The Surrender will be on the Powell's Bestseller list tomorrow.

    Moon February 16th, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Really, teachers should be more sensitive to the needs of their students. Sometimes you just have to snort, squawk, squeak, moo or meow to make it through the day. I taught a student once who never spoke to me, but barked instead. Eventually I learned to bare my teeth and hiss back at him and we got along great after that. Interestingly enough, I lost my job that year. I wonder if there's a connection......

    Georgie February 16th, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Maybe it will be, although I bet it would have sold better than it did if it had been titled "The Year of Ass". I bet Toni Bentley wishes she'd thought of that!

    Mandy February 16th, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Even at 24, I still have a slight meowing problem...

    Trout February 16th, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    I haven't been able to get the "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" out of my head all day -- the Elvis Costello version. Is that the version you had in mind?

    maria February 17th, 2006 at 9:45 am

    Elvis Costello works. Probably better than anything else. But really, anyone who sings the song with passion and a sort of raspy pain...it's all about the Yowl.

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