Photo credit: Gia Goodrich
I first wrote Draw Your Weapons
as a novel. I spent years working on the manuscript, and when it was finished, I sent it to a friend willing to give it an honest, critical read. “This isn’t working,” she said when we talked a few weeks later. I was devastated.
The novel was based on real people — a conscientious objector during World War II, who protested the internment of Japanese Americans and went to prison; a veteran of the Iraq War stationed at Abu Ghraib, who painted portraits of detainees; and a professor at an art school (a thinly veiled version of myself). My friend suggested I write it as nonfiction instead. “Give it a try,” she said. “See what happens.”
So I took this manuscript that had taken years to write and I shattered it as if it were made of glass. I broke it into hundreds of pieces, which I then arranged by category into files on my computer, collecting all the fragments about animals, about art, about photography, about torture, about sound, about theology, about instruments.
I worked and reworked those fragments. I put them together in numbered lists. I took them apart. I wrote new pages, and more new pages, and more new pages. But I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of the material I’d generated, how to give it form.
I signed up to take a Tin House summer writing workshop with Nick Flynn in Portland, where I was living at the time. Years before the workshop, I’d read Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb
, a powerful meditation on torture and the birth of his daughter. I’d written my dissertation on the torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I emailed him to thank him for that book, and our shared interest in state-sanctioned violence made us friends.
In a few hours, I was holding a brand-new Frankensteined chapter in my hands. It was alive. I could feel the heartbeat of my next book.
Nick asked us to bring three things to the workshop: a science article that inspired us (I brought Jonah Lehrer
article about “the forgetting pill”), a page of nonfiction that bewildered us (I brought a page from Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay
), and an image we felt was somehow connected to our writing projects. The image I brought was from “Mining the Museum,” Fred Wilson’s 1994 exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society. Titled “Metalwork 1793-1880
,” the image shows silver pitchers and silver teacups and silver goblets and iron slave manacles.
Wilson’s placement of luxury items next to tools of violence makes the horrors of slavery more visible than if he had chosen to display the manacles alone. His arrangement of seemingly disparate objects next to each other reveals that wealth’s foundation is often — and continues to be — enslavement. Looking at his work, I was overcome by the revelation that everything is made. Art, racism, slavery, the world itself — humans make these things. And they can be unmade.
Much of “Mining the Museum” works by juxtaposition. Wilson displays objects from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection in unexpected ways. A KKK hood inside a baby carriage. A series of recent photographs of Native American families hung on a wall across from a row of cigar store “Indians” from the museum’s collection, creating what Jennifer González in Subject to Display
calls a “face-off between the wooden fantasies of the past and the contemporary subjects.”
Part of what makes Wilson’s exhibition so effective is the space between objects. He leaves room for the viewer to come to her own conclusion about what she sees. And that was my hope for Draw Your Weapons
, too. I left white space on every page — open spaces for the reader to enter, to make up her own mind, to ask questions. I wanted to create an argument by proximity, by curation. Not a polemic, an invitation. But I didn’t know that was what I was doing until Nick asked us to bring an image to the workshop.
We wrote every day in Nick’s workshop, and at the end of the week, I had a stack of new pages. On the second-to-last day, Nick asked us to bring scissors, tape, blank paper, photocopies of all the new pages we’d written, the science article, the bewildering nonfiction page, and the chapter we’d workshopped. Then he directed us to mark the passages that spoke to us, cut them up, and tape it all back together.
The process was exhilarating, physical. I was sweating by the end of it. And in a few hours, I was holding a brand-new Frankensteined chapter in my hands. It was alive. I could feel the heartbeat of my next book.
This became my new writing process (which I later found out Nick learned from the poet Carolyn Forché
). I write in fragments. I always have. Printing out what I’ve written, cutting the pages into pieces, arranging the pieces into thematic piles, and then putting them in order on the blank sheets I’ve laid out on my kitchen counter or living room couch or bedroom floor helps me see what I have to work with, makes clear the themes that give my project shape, illuminates connections I didn’t know were there. It also forces me to see what doesn’t fit — the passages I love so much that I try to cram them into one chapter after another after another.
There’s a final step in Nick’s cut-and-tape method. Once you have collaged your chapter (or essay or article), you have to retype the whole thing. You aren’t allowed to cut and paste from the existing manuscript. You have to write it fresh, recommitting to every single word.
Draw Your Weapons
took me 10 years to write. It demanded commitment like a marriage. It required a stubbornness I didn’t know I had. Endurance. Some books are easy to write, and others are hard, challenging, unyielding. Yet they bring magic, transformation. I couldn’t create Draw Your Weapons
by myself. I needed artists and writers and activists and students and teachers who helped me become the person the book needed me to be so I might finish it.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Breaking Up With God: A Love Story
. Her new book is Draw Your Weapons
. She earned a bachelor's degree at Yale and master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard.