to be genre-bending is to be dangerous

Elizabeth Reeder, originally from Chicago, lives in Scotland and is the author of two critically acclaimed novels Ramshackle and Fremont. Ramshackle was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year. Her stories and experimental essays are widely published and broadcast and often explore questions of cartography, identity, ambiguity, family and memory.  One Year, a digital chapbook of her lyric essays, is published by Essay Press (2016). Recently she has been writing about fire, archives and whisky. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and is co-convenor for the programme.  She is on twitter @ekreeder

Recently, when I’m out walking in Scotland, I look down as often as I look out and notice flowers, known and unknown, in all stages of living and dying. Many of those that are familiar often appear in unexpected places and are suddenly made unfamiliar. Pink sturdy thrift, which loves rocky steep west-coast outcrops overhanging the sea, shows up months later 160 miles to the east, 30 metres inland, looking tamer, grassier, less salt-robust. Once it is othered, it is changed irrevocably and becomes exciting, more of a traveler, something sought out.

I’ve written before about between places – ecotone, twilight, the littoral space between high and low tide – and seeking them out becomes a way of life. Poetry that’s essay; fiction that’s poetry. Reading that’s living. Walking that’s escape. Grief that is love. This is where we are reminded that we can act so that there is no use in a centre. Listen. The only rule of travel is, Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.

A month later, on North Uist, in September, self-heal is raggedy, and yet a meadow pansy blooms open into a deeply yellow sun with a bright white halo. There is joy in seeing one bloom surviving amidst others that are cattle-trodden, end of season. There have been so few flowers on this walk and so this patch of abundance is unexpected. We walk more slowly, aware of marshy ground, the space left by the female hen harrier that had scared up peewits just minutes ago, and still we look down as often as we look out beyond small, crisp blue lochans and the rocky coastline to gannets diving close into the shore, pushed by the wind. Nothing rarer arrives from the air, nor here on the ground, although we look, as we sit perched on rocks above the sea campions bursting white from veiny pods, while bar-tailed godwits, ringed plover and dunlin wade on the shore. They feel rare, unusual, and we sweep our eyes, through binoculars, over to them, past them, rest on them. They move on. We move on.

Nan Shepherd wrote about how the changing of the focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality.  Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs til you see your world upside down. How new it has become! Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

This is writing and reading. It’s immersive. Thrilling. Displacing. Welcoming. There’s risk and comfort in trusting a writer or artist to take me someplace new or to show me a familiar place upside down.

On the gale buffeted coast, the heightened pitch of birds calling as they flitter back and forth, this way and that over the water.

Earlier, the sound of the air through the buzzard’s wings close by.

The waxy, tightly clustered leaves of a still-unknown coastal flower.

Rasped by life we send ourselves to edgier places to be stirred and to rest and heal.

You need a hobby, my partner tells me, one Saturday. It sounds like something you tell someone you want to distract while you, I don’t know, get on with having an affair. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. She’s right. I need a space to learn and think and be overtaken but not overwhelmed.

Flowers happened slowly. First I held them as questions. Now when we walk I slow us down, take bad, out-of-focus photos of unrecogniseable flowers. Outloud, I ponder random family connections. This is what a vetch looks like, it’s part of the pea family.  Tufted vetch (purple), meadow vetchling (yellow), kidney vetch (yellowy orange blooms on a wooly cushion).  Gorse is coarse, of course; Broom isn’t. They’re both peas too.

I search my flower app, which fails completely to have many northern species, almost no alpine ones. Dwarf cornel was a mystery for eight hours, until we could get back to the house and a proper flower book.

I’ve been reading flower books all summer. Compulsively in the passenger seat, at dinner when we should be talking, before bed when I used to read novels. Out in the open; secretly. All the time. I sometimes still read fiction, but summer, I’m finding, is for flowers.

We are dangerous when we write because we know words are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. We birth them and they go about on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, in the mountains, and in our travels we understand that time of day, season and mood all make a known place different. One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often we walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for us. There is no getting accustomed to them.

To break form when you write or make art – to be genre-bending or genre-defying – is to be disruptive, to be dangerous, to be astonishing.  As a woman, to speak at all can be a perilous act as it is always a breaking of carefully constructed social protocols as Agnes Torok’s and Laura Waddell’s recent Dangerous Women’s posts state so clearly, so urgently.

We can speak directly, loudly, poetically. We can speak quietly, and still, always, complexly. We make art when we speak. Our words are galloping tides, quietly urgent, sometimes looking far more tranquil and harmless than they actually are. For me considering how we might write is about us making decisions about how we want to be dangerous.

The art of genre-bending essaying is not only the breaking of expectations but the building of new ones. Gertrude Stein didn’t break sentences, she showed us how far we could push not only sentences, but paragraphs and entire texts. It’s a brain on fire.  Woolf did the same with luxurious semicolons, breathless phrases. It’s desire wrought in sentences.

In October 2014 (two months after another African-American male was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, USA), Claudia Rankine published her genre-defying Citizen. It is an intense, troubling book on everyday racism that includes extensive research into race and violence, memoir, text taken from interviews, and a searing use of art and image in the making of meaning in the text. The margin, the outcast, is a valuable substantive place, even as your own weight insists / you are here, fighting off / the weight of nonexistence… And still a world begins its furious erasure — / Who do you think you are, saying I to me? / You nothing. / You nobody. / You. Claudia Rankine presses images and text together, essential, disruptive, upsetting. It’s a culture of racism held up into the light.

On 01 July 2016, in direct response to the surprise Brexit result, Canongate republished Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 personal, widely connective, rigorously researched extended essay, Hope in the Dark, for £0.49 online. I want to throw out the crippling assumptions that keep many from being a voice in the world. I want to start over, with an imagination adequate to the possibilities and the strangeness and the dangers on the earth in this moment. Canongate tweeted: ‘Send it to everyone you know on the verge of political despair.’ Within 24 hours Hope in the Dark had moved up 30,000 places in the Amazon ratings. I hope we will not need it again, even more urgently, after the US elections in November.

Put a pen in her hand, hold her gaze, and a woman will say plain, burned things. Outrageous, cool things. We’re poised, watching, waiting for those moments when the strictures are released, when we shirk off the expectation of control, of femininity, of silence and social abeyance of strength.

This is the type of writing I will follow anywhere. It is how I read, write and walk. Often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain.

This is essaying. Everything is flawed. Everything is possible. The unfamiliar familiar.

Remember great orators and embed patterns of familiarity, artful repetition; re-centre us, before turning the page, the world, upside down. Unaccustomed. Help us understand these complicated, difficult things. Anything we say might be dangerous, put us in danger. Remember a sentence should not have a name. A name is familiar.  A sentence should not be familiar.

Words belong to each other. And they belong to us. We howk them out of breath and granite and something impossibly enraptured, like the centre of an atom. Make words out of letters. And out of words make sentences and paragraphs and poems and things that do not have names. They are not familiar. They slow us down, fascinate, disturb and disrupt us. Still. Then. Read on. Re-read. Return.

She said plain, burned things. 

Women write equality generosity rage love. Impossible things. They are elemental transparency. They are an attentive body, alert. A mind undone by impossibility, by sadness, as much as hope. Like roundness, or silence, their quality natural, but is found so seldom in its absolute state that when we do so find it we are astonished.   

This is essaying. A bodymind at work.

We have to pay attention. If we alter the tilt of our head or the positioning of our feet we might see differently, we might unfamiliarise the familiar, see how a woman sees herself. We might catch her at the very moment of becoming visible.


Embedded Quotes, Influences, Inspirations, Linguistic markers:

  • act so that there is no use in a centre, Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
  • The only rule …new way. Anne Carson, Plainwater
  • the changing of the focus … earth must see itself. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
  • Labour, Rest, Heal – Karine Polwart Wind Resistance
  • words are full of echoes, of memories, of associations & about on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields. Virginia Woolf Words Fail Me
  • One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
  • Even as your own weight insists / …You. Claudia Rankine, Citizen
  • I want … earth in this moment. Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
  • Remember a sentence should not have a name. A name is familiar.  A sentence should not be familiar. Stein, On Writing
  • …when the inner end of this gash has been howked straight through from the granite. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
  • She said plain, burned things. Anne Carson, ‘On Sylvia Plath’
  • Words belong to each other. Virginia Woolf, Words Fail Me
  • They are elemental transparency & Like roundness…astonished. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain



One thought on “On women and essaying

  1. Beautiful, strong, defining writing. I needed this today, a reminder to tilt my head. It’s tilting and my heart is beating that little stronger as a consequence.

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