As an associate professor of modern drama, Emilie Pine is used to employing the disembodied writing style of academic discourse. The voice comes from afar, or at least far enough away to offer critical distance. In her first essay collection, Notes to Self, Pine dispenses with barriers and distance and instead draws readers close enough to watch her examine, sometimes with brutal accuracy, subjects such as addiction, feminism, fertility, filial duty and sexual violence. Written in clear, astringent prose, the book is dotted with humour. Pine reveals herself in paragraphs that lack adornment. She dispenses with euphemism. Alcoholism is alcoholism. Blood is blood. Family, for better or worse, will always be family.
Five Dials called Pine at her home in Dublin to speak about her choice to face, from various angles, the subject of the body.
There’s so much in the book about the body, about different types of bodies, a body’s reaction to alcohol, pregnant bodies. Was that a conscious choice or is the body an inescapable theme?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if I had that beautiful structure in place at the beginning? But no. I started out writing about my dad. The first essay in the book is the first I wrote. And what I realized at the end of writing it, when [I was asked] to write more, was that I had been relatively comfortable writing about someone else’s body, even though there were a lot of difficult emotions involved on both sides. But if I was going to do that, I had to be prepared to reciprocate. I had to be prepared to turn the gaze on to myself.
So the second essay I wrote is the second essay in the book: the baby years. For me these were the two compelling issues. It felt like there were two big silences around the words ‘alcoholism’ and ‘infertility’. Both of them affect you mentally and emotionally as much as they affect you physically. I wanted to write about the confluence and about how bodies and narratives seem to go together. There are particular narratives that govern bodies.
One of the things I kept thinking after my miscarriage was: this is not my story. This is not the story I want to tell about my life. A large part of that centred on shame or unhappiness with my body. I felt my body was failing. So part of telling the story was about trying to write myself out of that narrative, which is a narrative that affects so many of us, but particularly women.
So much is projected on to our bodies, by ourselves and by the cultures we live in. I wanted to think my way out, because it creates so much unhappiness.
I started out quite reluctant because I’m an academic. I’ve spent twenty years trying to be uber-rational. The cultural message was that in order to be intellectual, you have to deny your body. So it felt dangerous for me to write about my body, suggesting I’m an embodied person as opposed to an intellectual person.
It was through the writing I realized those don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s not a binary: body/mind. The process of writing is like a debate on the page, and a very self-conscious one about my body and its relation to the way I live my life.
I grew up in Ireland in the eighties. A more prudish society it would be hard to find. And the way around that is to name the thing. It’s to use our words, which is what I say to my three year-old nephew: ‘Use your words.’ Use our language and don’t fall into euphemism or silence. The whole time growing up, female anatomy was referred to as ‘down there’. You were just all meant to know ‘there’ was this dark world we shouldn’t talk about.
It’s liberating to be in a context where those kinds of conversations are happening.
I did an event in the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, and the owner of the bookshop got everyone in the room to chant ‘period’, over and over. At the beginning I thought, ‘Are we going to do this?’ And at the end of it, I thought, ‘Right, we’re done now. Nothing can embarrass us now. This is fantastic.’ It felt like this communal permission-giving.
Can memoir be used as a preparation for the later stages in life, for the later incarnations of our bodies? You end the book with the final line ‘I am afraid, but I’m doing it anyway.’ It seems you gained a sense of fortitude for whatever comes next.
So I never call it a memoir. I understand that it is, right, but I don’t call it that, because I associate memoirs with being written at the end. And it’s so not.
It was written at the stage of my life where I felt I needed to do something different. I wasn’t going to have kids. Part of me thinks, fine, it’s not like you have to do something meaningful otherwise because you don’t have kids. But that’s how I felt, strongly.
The ending is a beginning. ‘I’m doing it anyway’ because I feel like ‘OK, this is the next phase.’ This is where I allow myself to imagine myself as a writer. Again, I am a writer because I’ve been an academic. I have multiple academic publications. But when I was a teenager and I dreamed of being a writer, that was not what I meant.
Writing something that is deliberately written in a way to connect and be as simple and open and honest and straightforward as possible was a real novelty for me. That was the stepping-off-the-cliff moment into memoir rather than analytic prose, into life writing.
I have written about other people’s memoirs as a study of memory, and I’ve talked about narrativization and shaping and self-conscious narrators. And now I’m doing it. It was fun to make something rather than to criticize something.
Do you look back on the book and think, ‘Oh, I’ve narrativized my existence here’?
The book is quite analytic. There are lots of moments where I say, ‘I’m going to step back here’, and ‘Is this really the story that I’m telling?’
I interrogate the writing process as I’m doing it. Also, there are moments when I’m doing a reading publicly and I think, ‘Oh did I write this?’
There is a process of alienation to writing memoir. The book finishes, but you don’t, so you constantly change. And in pinning something down and fixing it, no matter how self-reflexive that narrative voice is, it still is fixed in time and from a particular perspective.
There are times when I’m reading it where I think, ‘Is this even my own experience any more?’ Because I have written it down and other people have read it, and I have read it out loud, and I wonder who owns it now.
It’s an odd process.
There’s a section in the book where you say, ‘Writing honestly about the self could risk the life I have made in the years since.’
It’s all really exposing. And I think good writing has to be. You have to take a risk. Readers respond. Now I get quite a lot of emails and letters from people who tell me their stories.
At first I didn’t understand. I didn’t anticipate it, and I’m also not amazingly good with other people’s emotions, so I was just like: what? But mostly now I think that if you are radically honest or transparent about your own life, it creates a mirror effect in other people, and they will reciprocate. That has been a profound experience for me – to realize there’s a relationship that happens between writer and reader. And it comes back to that question of risk. I have taken a risk and again I didn’t anticipate what the results of that risk would be, but because I’ve taken a risk, other people then can. Again, it’s permission-giving.
For me, I really felt a risk of being judged. I didn’t anticipate having to set boundaries, because you can be as open and transparent in the writing of it, but in the promoting or the living of the book after it’s published you have to be much more careful. I didn’t realize that. I’ve had to learn it over time.
I understand why they do it. I understand why they go for the gutsiest stuff. But when I first started doing radio interviews they would ask me about being raped and I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t speak about that. It’s in the book, you can read the book, but there are limits to what I can narrate.’ This comes back again to gender, because I feel a lot of the time that women who are prepared to speak publicly about things that have happened to their bodies are then expected to perform, and to perform a particular role: the victim speaking out and the moral witness figure. That’s enormously taxing on whoever has to perform it, especially because you’re expected to cry or to emote or to be a particular kind of witness. And I’m not that person.
And the stakes are high if you don’t perform in a certain way?
Exactly. And then you fall into this other category, where you end up rationally discussing something terrible that happened to you, as if it didn’t happen to you, as if it were just a series of sociological facts or events.
That was enormously disempowering for me. Whereas I found the act of writing about it very empowering, because I got to pick my words and control the pace and decide how I wanted to tell that story, versus then how you’re expected to respond in an interview format, where everything is meant to be live.
Are you able to take on these letters that are sent to you? Does that become a chore?
No, it doesn’t feel like a chore at all, but I don’t enter into much dialogue. I see it as an act of listening – that can be, I hope, what people want. So I listen, or read, or whatever it is, and I respond, but that’s where my boundary is.
I do find it really, really moving. The griefs people carry around make you look at the world slightly differently. And you know yourself when you’ve been through something.
I work in a really big institution. I remember after my niece died, walking through work, passing hundreds of people a day who I don’t know, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what if each person I pass has something like this? Is carrying something like this?’ You have a completely different view of how we work as a community.
How did the first section of the essay ‘Notes on Bleeding’ come about? At the beginning you comment on the phrase ‘bleeding onto the page’. It’s masculine. It’s associated with Hemingway. I’m sure you’d heard the phrase many times before. But then the essay examines the different types of blood in your life. Was the essay written quickly in response to something, or did it build up over the years? Were you reacting to that one phrase?
I was at a conference, sitting listening to some appalling patriarch at the front of the room and I thought, ‘I’m just done.’ And I started writing. He was giving a lecture about a female writer. He was conflating the writer and the character and it deeply irritated me, as if, again, women could only write out of their own bodies, or out of their own experience. And he was all about feelings and how women manage – female writers manage – to put feelings down on the page.
The worst part of it was he thought by talking about female writing he was being some feminist. And everyone in the room was sitting, nodding. I was sitting in the room going, ‘What?’ So, I just started writing. I had thought it was a Hemingway quote, but apparently it’s non-attributable.
That’s why it just says vaguely, ‘the male writer who penned this phrase’. But it seemed to me to equate writing with this hyper-masculine approach. And that’s why it’s associated with Hemingway. It was to do with war and those kinds of wounds and bleeding. I just thought, ‘Well, let’s go for it and see where this takes me.’
It was meant to be about how women champion each other, but how women also fall into traps of becoming competitive with each other. It ended up actually becoming, as you know, a treatise on my body, which I never thought I would write, but it just seemed what was called for.
Just to go back to the initial moment: what were you writing on at that conference? Did you have a notebook with you?
That’s part of the joke of the title. I write on every scrap of paper. I literally have this pile of notes to self. I think it was written on the back of my conference paper. The palimpsestic nature of writing. If I were being pretentious about it.
Then there’s the verb choice too when you come to describing blood. The squelching …
You’ve got to! Actually loads of those verbs were hard to get. I was trying to describe blood and was running out of words. Ferrous … Just trying to think of ways of getting across the visceral experience of what it smells like as well as what it feels like. So I was reaching for the thesaurus at various points. That idea of it being something disgusting. I quite like writing about disgusting things.
Do you have favourite writers you wish could have similarly turned their gaze back on themselves?
To do that you have to begin with the premise that your body is a valid subject for discussion. Most of us don’t feel that way. I had to be coached the whole way through by the editors. I kept saying, ‘No one is going to read this. This is unbelievable. I can’t believe the solipsism of writing about myself.’ And they were like, ‘You’re not writing about yourself, you’re writing about everybody. Try to forget an audience.’ It’s really hard to forget an audience when you’re writing about yourself. You can get on your soapbox if you’re writing about the rest of the world.
It comes down to the risk of writing about yourself as an embodied person when you’re trying to operate in a world that pigeonholes women as their bodies and devalues them as a result. I’m always fascinated by Joan Didion’s work and how very rarely her body sneaks in. Because she gets migraines she has one essay about migraines. But it’s very rare. In TheWhite Album you get a reference to her being physically ill and not feeling up to it, but then she shifts very quickly to what that means for her writing and her writing schedule. I sometimes feel like the body is this thing that hovers on the edge of lots of women’s writing, non-fiction writing, as if it’s not something that they can even really talk about.
I was always struck reading Zadie Smith’s work how sometimes she’ll allude to high heels and wearing high heels and taking them off because they’re painful. Maybe I’m fascinated because I don’t wear high heels. Again, in that one image, the idea of the pain of performing as a woman is held up. It’s not a significant part of either of their writing, but there are these tiny little moments.
In ‘Notes on Bleeding’ I got the sense you were implying that some writing can begin to counter the onslaught of imagery women are subjected to.
I think that’s very deliberate, the setting up of writing, or thinking, as a way of opting out of the visual and cultural narrative – the unspoken rules we have to unlearn. I think of writing as a form of thinking. By putting writing on to the page, it’s an extension of a thought process. You identify. You’re able to create a critical distance and step back.
That essay was difficult to write. A crucial turning point for me in that essay was to identify the act of judgement that looks to be projected outwards. It’s not. It’s always projected inwards. That negative cheerleading of other women is actually of yourself. That was important for me to identify, something I would not have been able to articulate before I started writing.
I do think that there are lots of performances of femininity that are physically really bad for women, really unhealthy. And at the same time I have to say that women are smart enough to make their own flipping decisions. So you’re caught in that double bind, saying, ‘This is my subject position, but that’s OK. You can go and do your own thing, even though I think it’s potentially troublesome or troubling.’
So again, trying to resolve this. I don’t think you can. It’s really false if you come up with a pat explanation. You have to allow for there to be differences, and I think that that’s what good feminism is, even for me.
One of the other issues I wanted to write about was abortion, and I felt like I couldn’t in the context that we were in, in Ireland, because I would come out completely pro-choice, but not very pro-abortion. So it’s very difficult to untangle those things and in the context, in Ireland, where I was writing this, coming up to the referendum to legalize abortion, which I canvassed for, I couldn’t write about my own personal feelings about how I do see it as the death of a life.
So there are some things that were off limits. I had to decide they were off limits. And then there are other things where I think, you just have to grit your teeth and go out there, and say, ‘This is what’s right for me.’
Is this sort of writing also a way of rehearsing future defiance? In the essay ‘This is Not the Exam’, you describe a faculty chair who makes demeaning comments towards you, and you write about feeling ashamed that you didn’t object. Is there a way to use the page to examine the incidents that can and do often recur in the lives of women?
Yes. Interestingly I was at an event where I did a reading for creative writing MA students, and one of the questions from a woman was: ‘What do I say when that happens, because it happens all the time?’ And there were a lot of people in the room nodding.
I didn’t really have an answer for her, but I do think that you need an answer. What I would say is those scenarios are pre-scripted. This is again part of what we have to unlearn. And that script goes: objectionable person says something sexist. The rest of us get uncomfortable and the person about whom it is being said stays silent.
And that is a form of tact. Tactfulness is, oddly, designed to protect people’s feelings and not be disruptive, to avoid conflict. But actually tactfulness is a kind of silence. And as a result you have to create your own untactful script that you then pre-script in order to replace the other script so that you can come ready. You think, ‘Right, if somebody says something, this is what I will say.’ You have to have your response ready because in the moment you will freeze.
In the moment I tend to freeze or just think, ‘I want to get past this.’ And that collective denial is on one level really superficial, but on another level it’s so pervasive, it’s so repetitive, that it leaks into other environments as well.
So I think that word ‘script’ is a useful term to think about how we encounter scripts all the time that are pre-made. We have to have our own way of responding with our own scripted messages.
The avenues are limited. You think, right, do I get angry? Do I risk looking like the irrational person? What I have found is the only way to respond is to say, ‘I’m sorry, I have no idea what you mean.’ You take them seriously, oddly. ‘Could you possibly explain that to me because I have no idea what you mean?’
And then they get embarrassed and they’re like: OK, fine. You have to do that. You have to somehow find a way of shifting the embarrassment from you on to them. And then there are people who are bulletproof and who will never be embarrassed.
Do you feel that Beckett has an influence on your writing? I remember reading how Beckett is important to you. He’s always describing the body. For instance, the feet in Waiting for Godot.
His work is about the connection but also the separation between voice and body and about how the body betrays us in various ways, like Estragon’s feet in Waiting for Godot, aching and changing and swelling and so on at different times of the day. So how the body betrays us and is our weakness. But then how the body becomes contorted in his work at the same time. He’s unable to move away from the body. So he’s fascinated by how we punish bodies and how we think about bodies.
I’m really fascinated by the way in which the body is constantly restricted in Beckett and yet it continues to exist. He cannot get rid of it all. He can bury Winnie in a mound of sand up to her neck, but we know that her body is still there under the sand. The continuity of the body is, I think, really powerful in Beckett.
I teach his plays all the time and I have students who go, ‘What is this about?’ They get really bothered because there’s no plot. I’d never read Beckett before I went to see Endgame and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I get it. This is about life, right?’ I think it’s quite realistic. I know he’s an avant-garde playwright but it seems to me to be completely normal, about how we feel, and think, and feel alone and lost and not seen, and how there are stories that we need to tell and nobody wants to listen to us. We’re all abandoned in this sea of nihilism. It seemed to me to fit. I was eighteen, sitting there going, ‘Yep, that looks like life.’ I’m sure that says something terrible about me …
I felt like the last line in your book is a tribute to Beckett in some ways. Over the course of the book, after this self-examination and acknowledgement of pain, you state that you can be afraid but you’re going to go ahead. You’re going to do it anyway.
And then of course Beckett uses Berkeley’s theorem: ‘To be is to be perceived.’ That has got to be at the heart of all life writing, right? You are asking to be witnessed in some way.