Process (but not the kind you might expect)

So Sassafras Lowrey tagged me in this writing process promo blog tour. Is that what it’s called? Anyway, it was a consensual tag.

It’s a self interview thing, so I am interviewing myself.

Kelli: What are you working on?

Kelli: Seriously, what am I working on? Don’t you know?

Kelli: Yes, of course I know. It’s for the sake of the interview.

Kelli: Really? You’re not just pretending you know?

Kelli: Yes.

Kelli. Well….okay. Right now I am working on about seventeen billion things, but one of the things I am most excited about is I’m working on a nonfiction graphic novel about health and health self advocacy for LGBT people, especially LGBT youth. I’m thrilled because I have an illustrator now to collaborate with (not sure if she’s good with me going public with that, so it’ll be a surprise in a few months).  A lot of my work dovetails with health: for example, this weekend one of the workshops I am doing at the Transcending Boundaries Conference, which by the way, I’m doing in at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center on April 9th as well, is called When A Casserole Is Not Enough: Building Teams of Caregivers in Non-Traditional Communities. I’m also trying to promote my book Freak of Nurture, at least as much as you can do without leaving home.

Kelli: Because of Kneepacalypse.

Kelli: So now you remember?

Kelli: Ha ha ha. So how does your work differ from others of its genre?

Kelli: From other graphic novels about LGBT health?

Kelli: Good point. Okay, so why do you write what you do?

Kelli: I write about health because I’m a nurse, and a queer person, and I’d like very much for queer people (myself included) to be healthier; to have more access to healthcare, to know when we’re ill and injured (trickier than you might think), to feel more entitled to enjoying our bodies as much as we can. And I write funny stuff because I’m funny.

Kelli: How does your writing process work?

Kelli: I don’t know that I exactly have a process unless “sit down and write” is a process. I usually brainstorm long-hand before I write a piece, but not always. With comedy that’s headed for my stand up act, that’s inevitably something that starts in my notebook as somewhat undecipherable notes, and when I fill a small notebook I type them into my “comprehensive stand up comedy’ document. Next time I go to complete a set list, I check for new material to try out.

I’m tagging:

Sarah Sawyers-Lovett at punkjoanofarc.com. Sarah writes books and blogs, and loves her wife, and their hedgehog, Philadelphia, punks, and pickles. (In that order.)

Sinclair Sexsmith, at SugarButch. Sinclair Sexsmith (mrsexsmith.com) is a feminist dominant, identity puzzler, poet, sacred intimate, and strap-on expert. They produce Sugarbutch Chronicles: The Sex, Gender, and Relationship Adventures of a Kinky Queer Butch Top at sugarbutch.net, and have contributed to more than twenty anthologies, and edited Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica.

 

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Arrive Alive: The Fine Art of Family Holiday Survival

During my early years of queerdom I spent more holidays than I can count without getting a nervous twitch in my eye traveling from Philadelphia to Daytona Beach trek with my older sister, her husband and their two kidlets. The trip, often in a compact car, led to the Florida house that my mom shared with her husband at the time, a retired army colonel everyone including my mom, referred to as The Colonel.

The house was adorned with a wide assortment of dead animal skins on the floor and a number of historically significant weapons on the walls. It was a fun place. As we snaked down Interstate 95, past billboards for a Noted South Carolina Racist Attraction and others advertising “Carnivore Heaven Bar and Grill,” or “Agorama: The World’s First Agricultural Theme Park,” I would find myself sweating more with each passing mile. I would crane my head out the car window, scanning the highways for rainbow bumper stickers or any sign of Queer Life and remind myself of my mantra:

I CAN SURVIVE THE HOLIDAYS WITH MY FAMILYMany years and thousands of dollars of therapy later, I fancy myself a bit of an expert in the “let’s wrestle some fun out of this dysfunction” arena. And despite the warnings of my friends, therapist(s), exes and perhaps even my pets…CAT ADVICE BIGGERI have been known to sometimes spend winter holidays with my huge, alcoholic family of origin. I have tools now though, so don’t try this at home. Or if you must try this at (your) home, observe these important survival guidelines to decrease the statistical likelihood of family gatherings ending with tears or bloodshed:

SURVIVAL HINT 1: As much as possible, avoid the more intense family interactions associated with holiday group meals.

These meals can be a breeding ground for cutlery mishaps, eating disorder relapses and semi-drunken brawls. Taking a job such as firefighter, emergency medical technician, undertaker or nurse practically guarantees that you can always use the excuse, “I’m so sorry I can’t make it but [sigh] I have to work.” If your family insists on having holiday meals locally to accommodate your oh-so-busy schedule, clip your little cousin’s walkie talkie to your belt and explain you’re “on call.” Run out right after the turkey is served.

If you’re not able to excuse yourself, at the very least avoid coming out to your family in the midst of holiday meals. At least not spontaneously. That rush of warmth you thought you felt could just be heartburn from your aunt Sophie’s bacon and pepperoni dressing. The resulting indigestion you might experience would probably not be life-threatening, but could indeed feel like it.

In a pinch, you can also feign intestinal disorder that requires constant trips to the bathrooms. This is a fail-safe way of avoiding troublesome, boring or even insulting topics of conversation. For example, for many years every time my family gathered, my grandmother liked to tell the story about how lucky she was to have survived her bout with cancer, since the disease was caught at such a late stage.

“I didn’t go to the doctor right away about the pain in my side,” my grandma would explain, “because I thought I was just sore from carrying Kelli around. She was such a big fat baby.”

Silence.

“Hey,” my grandma would say, “where’s Kelli?”

FLUSH

You get the picture.

SURVIVAL HINT #2: Anticipate the end of a conversation before you initiate it.

One year I asked The Colonel over pumpkin pie if the bayonets mounted on the living room wall were real. “For chrisskaes yes,” he exclaimed, “what good is a bayonet if it’s never been used to kill anyone?” I learned something very important that day. If you can’t handle the answer, don’t ask the question.

PROTIP:  Did you know you can even prepare family friendly conversational prompts in advance?  For example, I have a slight suspicion my mother won’t want to hear about my accidental three-way at Atlanta Pride. But I’m sure she’ll love my stories about discovering drag culture in rural Wisconsin. Write these safe conversational topics on an index card if you can’t commit them to memory.

Is it a tad awkward to recite “Colonel, would you like to chat about the win to loss ratio of [insert name here], a local sports team?” Sure, but if the alternative is chatting about “those damn [insert name of random liberal group or endangered species],” it’s worth both the awkwardness and the effort. Studies have confirmed that the average queersexual can listen to only a limited number of anti-harp seal diatribes before going completely bananas.

SURVIVAL HINT ##3: Work with the family denial system, not against it.

Remember what you learned from the friendly neighborhood dyke lifeguard? If you’re caught in a rip tide, don’t try to swim out of it. The riptide is always stronger than you are, and you’ll tire yourself out before you can reach the beach. Swim parallel to a riptide. At some point a topographical feature on the shore will cause its strength to ebb and you’ll be able to break away.

This same principle applies when dealing with what could be called a “reduced truth” family situation. For example, my mom had a tubal ligation nineteen months before I was born. In the 60’s, the tubal ligation procedure involved only the clamping of the fallopian tubes, rather than actually severing them.

My brother, thinking I was already aware of this fact, mention it off-handedly at a Christmas gathering the year I turned thirty. I did some quick Internet research. According to a CDC report done over a ten year period from 1965 until 1975, out of the 365 post-tubal ligation women the CDC studied, 143 became pregnant at least once after the procedure. In other words, 1 in 155 tubal ligations were unsuccessful.

It seemed strange my mom had never mentioned my special status as a 1 in 155er. We weren’t a timid clan by any stretch of the imagination. One of the explicitly stated family rules was, “Remember kids, we don’t give each other the finger in front of grandma.” My biological father was of the genre of dads that thought great fun on a road trip involved farting and then locking the windows of the family station wagon. I couldn’t understand the silence over this simple medical fact. I decided to chat with my mom about this. The day after Christmas, I accompanied her on an early morning drive to pick up donuts for all the visiting relatives. I had only managed to say, “Mom, you could have told me about the tubal lig—” before my mom turned the steering wheel sharply to the right while simultaneously hitting the brakes. This sent the car skidding onto the gravel shoulder. “I can’t believe how close that car came to hitting us,” she said, genuinely breathless. It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and we were driving on a deserted stretch of highway in rural Florida.

There was no car for miles.

I nodded and agreed that, indeed, who could believe how close that car came to hitting us. I can guess my mom’s motivation for not wanting me to know that she had tried very hard to prevent my birth. She was worried that if I knew the truth it would shatter my self-esteem. On the contrary, knowing the truth resolved a lot of questions I had, most notably, “Why did my parents have one more kid?” Also, knowing that I was a direct result of a super fierce-ass egg fighting its way through a banded fallopian tube filled me with indescribable joy.

Egg not shown actual size.

Egg not shown actual size.

It’s like being born with a protest sign in hand: “I AM here! And I AM queer! Guess we’re all going to have to get used to it!”

All the same I couldn’t resist tormenting my mother about this absurd situation just a bit.

For the next Christmas I may or may not have ordered her this tee shirt, directly from the Planned Parenthood website.

TUBAL LIGATION TEE SHIRTSee? Navigate within the confines of the family denial system, not against it.

Of course, if you’re bringing your partner along to spend some quality time with your family of origin, the ordeal becomes more complicated. Positive outcomes, however, are not impossible.

 SURVIVAL TIP #4:  Don’t introduce your partner to your family at a holiday gathering from which there is no easy escape.

Family vacations might be okay for first time partner-family introductins, if you’re going down the shore and can join the traveling carnival set up by the boardwalk if things get really out of control. But if you’re planning a winter Pocono weekend trip with your entire extended family, a single snowstorm could throw the whole interaction deep into the unmanageable zone.

SURVIVAL TIP # 5:  Warn your partner—if you so desire—about the little eccentricities of your family, but don’t expect to have warned them about the right things.

For example, because I!am both a registered nurse and a registered worrywart, I am known amongst my friends as “Safety Monitor Dyke.” Back in the day, I was frequently (and inexplicably) the only person who brought a fire extinguisher to the Lesbian Avengers’ flame eating demonstrations.

One Christmas my partner watched my cousins (who had each polished off a six pack of Old Milwaukee) head into the woods, chainsaws and axes in hand. She turned to me with a stunned expression “what are they doing?” I replied, “chopping firewood, guess.” She was completely horrified by this blatant affront to personal safety, but I was completely accustomed to it.

SURVIVAL TIP #6: Consider carefully your partner’s view of your family. Their objectivity may shed light into some very dark corners.

For example, in the past ten years I!have been involved in many useless arguments about the souls of cartoon characters. This is because at some point during every holiday gathering, my oldest sister authoritatively announces, “Smurfs are a satanic force from hell.”

NOT SMURG

“No,” I would say, “the Smurfs are merely annoying. There is no evidence they are a satanic force from hell.”

After this heated exchange one year, my partner asked if I might “perhaps choose battles a little more wisely?” Although I was initially resistant, I realized she did have a point. After all, who appointed me Executive Director of the Cartoon Characters Defense League? Nowadays, I let the little blue bastards take care of themselves.

Which brings me to…

SURVIVAL TIP # 7:  Accept that there is only so much reality you can interject into any given conversation.

Two Christmastimes ago, my mom once insisted, as she ladled gravy onto my sister’s mashed potatoes, that the technician from the nail salon where she has her nails done reported that she “feared for her life” after Obama elected.

I made the mistake of asking why.

Because, said my mom, “people were fornicating on the streets.”

Why would people fornicate on the streets?Is it possible that happiness at the outcome of an election results in a desire to have sex in public? For a group of people? For anyone?

How did the nail tech know this and even if it were true, why would it make her afraid for her life?

I didn’t ask any of these questions. The gap between sense and nonsense was just too wide.

Instead I simply observed “Mom, you should not be getting your nails done by the KKK” and let it go at that.

FINALLY, TIP # 9: Refrain from responding to your partner’s requests to pass the mashed potatoes with “Yes Mistress.”

Especially if you would normally do so within the privacy of your own home.

Just trust me on this one.

———

This cornucopia of dubious advice is excerpted and slightly adapted from Kelli’s book of humorous and essays FREAK OF NURTURE. If you’d like to read more about Kelli’s family, her life as a nun or her ability to blow air out through the bottom of her eyes, read some more excerpts from FREAK OF NURTURE here and then order your own paperback or ebook.

If you’d like to read some genuinely helpful and somewhat less sarcastic advice about techniques to get through the Holidays, check out Bevin Branlandingham’s A GREAT WAY TO DEAL WITH YUCKY FEELINGS: EMOTIONAL FREEDOM AKA TAPPING.

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Coming soon: Kelli Dunham’s first ever ecourses!

Freak of Nurture ON THE ROAD and now in Philly!

WHAT DID FREAK OF NURTUR DO OVER SUMMER VACATIONWe had a great time this summer with FREAK OF NURTURE! We started off with a standing room only (how ironic is that) kick off event at the Sealy Cuyler Funeral Home,

Bright green. Art deco. What could be better?

Bright green. Art deco. What could be better?

 

Kelli definitely dreamed about this moment when she was a nun.

Kelli definitely dreamed about this moment when she was a nun.

 

New York queer performance superstars Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson acted out the 2011 The Year I Stopped Getting Invited to Parties.

New York queer performance superstars Elizabeth Whitney and Lea Robinson acted out the 2011 The Year I Stopped Getting Invited to Parties.

You can watch the extranormal bears telling the same story, here.

Then there a collective reading with a bunch of other amazing queer writers at Bluestockings in New York's lower east side. For that occasion, Kelli got so excited she wore a shirt with a collar!

Then there a collective reading with a bunch of other amazing queer writers at Bluestockings in New York’s lower east side. For that occasion, Kelli got so excited she wore a shirt with a collar!

Later in the summer, Kelli performed FREAK OF NURTURE the SHOW in Ann Arbor

Because Kelli needs a great big huge rainbow flay behind her to be MORE gay. Yeah that makes sense.

Because Kelli needs a great big huge rainbow flay behind her to be MORE gay. Yeah that makes sense.

There is really no reason for Kelli to be wearing those ears. None.

There is really no reason for Kelli to be wearing those ears. None.

Then there were the Topside Press events, with authors like Imogene  Binnie and Red Durkin in Chicago and then Madison, Wisconsin.  Where Imogene performed Red’s material, of course.

IMOGENE PERFORMS RED MATERIAL

Can you guess which story this is? Hint: it involves a surprising hare.

Even though she only got one photo of all the performers at Madison, Kelli did manage to take approximately a million photos of the feline art at the Madison venue which was called, appropriately enough, Java Cat.

One of over 1000 iconic cat images found on walls of the lesbian owned coffeehouse

One of over 1000 iconic cat images found on walls of the lesbian owned coffeehouse

 

And if you didn't think there were enough cat images, you could bring a photo of your cat!

And if you didn’t think there were enough cat images, you could bring a photo of your cat!

And then, a little trip down memory lane…

ME AND AIDAN AT READING AT MADISON

Kelli ran into a Aidan, someone Kelli has known since the 90s! They used to volunteer at the Catholic Worker Free Clinic in Phily. Aidan was a tween and volunteered with their dad, Kelli was fresh out of the convent. Memories!

And later Kelli headed out to Colorado State University.

Students sent to take notes. At a comedy show. It's a weird life to be sure.

Students sent to take notes. At a comedy show. It’s a weird life to be sure.

Kelli will be doing a reading/performance in Philadelphia on September 26th at William Way in Philadelphia, and again in Provincetown in October…and lots of places in between. For the most up to the minute schedule, sign up for Kelli’s mailing list. 

Want to bring Kelli to your school, workplace, college, coffeeshop, or a county fair near you? Check out her booking info.

 

Writing Easy When The Subject Matter Is Hard

NOTE: I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because there might not be an original thought under the sun, but there’s definitely original and stolen ways to say them!

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Recently a friend who read FREAK OF NURTURE asked me to tell her “how I did it.”

“Did what?” I asked with a sliver of defensiveness, thinking she might mean “how did you make so make dubious decisions which led to so many of the stories of the book?”

Silly me.

What she really meant was “how did you write about all the shitty stuff that happened to you in many of the stories of the book.”

Slightly different question.

Unfortunately I’m not sure I know the answer to the latter any more than do I the former, but perhaps I have a few tricks. Or maybe they’re tips. I’m not really so tricky like that .

 Kelli’s Surefire Might Work But Might Not Work Tips for Writing About

Bad Stuff That Happened To You Without Losing Your Mind Further, More, or Completely

#1—REMEMBER PTSD IS A REAL THING. Yup, it’s got a DSM code and everything and the government spends money studying it so you know it’s got to be legit. Respect the power of words, and how crafting and creating narratives can mess with your head.

Seriously, I know from PTSD. I was a nun.

Seriously, I was a nun. So I know from PSTD, on both the giving and receiving end.

#2—COMMIT TO CREATING BEYOND YOUR COMFORT LEVEL. If something bad happened to you and you want to turn it into art, that’s amazing. And the end result might also be amazing. But it’s not necessarily going to be easy to get there (see tip #1) and so you have decide that creating something is more important than feeling good, or even okay.

#3—CONSIDER IF YOUR LIFE IS STABLE ENOUGH TO ATTEMPT A HARD PROJECT. If you just broke up with your boyfriend and had to move back into your parent’s basement which they had been using to house their rare incontinent ferret collection, maybe it’s not the time to start your memoir about your time in a abusive commune/ hostage stand off / religious cult. Or maybe it is, what the hell do I know. Point is, consider your current situation before you tackle your past situations.

ME, I PREFER TO LIVE WITH MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND'S CAT WHO WOULD RATHER STICK HER HEAD IN AN EMPTY CASE OF DIET MOUNTAIN DEW TO AVOID LOOKING AT ME.

ME, I PREFER TO LIVE WITH MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND’S CAT WHO WOULD RATHER STICK HER HEAD IN AN EMPTY CASE OF DIET MOUNTAIN DEW THAN LOOK AT ME.

#4—BE AWARE THAT NOT ALL HORRIBLE THINGS ARE INHERENTLY INTERESTING. Include all the horrible details in your first draft, if that works for your process. But since this isn’t your journal, commit to writing many drafts before your work will be publishable. And yes, that includes on tumblr and your blog.

Not even your livejournal. Or my livejournal. Because it's no longer 2005

Not even your livejournal. Or my livejournal. Because it’s no longer 2005

#5—WORK WITH AN EDITOR YOU TRUST. Ideally someone who has suffered more than you, otherwise you might want to punch them in the head.

#6—DO YOUR HARDEST WORK IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHER PEOPLE. That might be at a coffeeshop, or at a friend’s house, or a co-working place you rent by the day or the month. Or home with your room-mates around. You won’t necessarily want or need someone holding your hand, but it’s good to have humans around to remind you that you’re basically okay or at least still alive and breathing.

#7—KEEP IN TOUCH WITH HOW YOU’RE USING SUBSTANCES. In the past I would have said “don’t be an ass, staying up all night drinking whiskey and pecking away at the computer won’t turn you into Hemingway, it will just turn you into an alcoholic.” And I would say generally that’s true. But I know there are some people who tackle their demons equipped with weed or alcohol and it works for them.

#8—HAVE DEADLINES. Deadlines that someone other than you knows about.

#9–WORK SOMEPLACE PRETTY. Or if it feels better to you, someplace really really ugly, some place that matches the mood of what you’re writing. Just be aware of the physical environment.

#10—CREATE OUT OF ORDER. I wrote the first draft of Pudding Day (the one person show about the death of my first partner, which ultimately became a chapter in Freak of Nurture) in chronological order. It felt like losing her all over again. When a few years later my second partner Cheryl died, I realized I needed to mix it up a little, so I wrote about her death first, then our meeting, then her illness. I spent more time editing, but less time managing my own emotional upheaval. Mostly.

#11—ACKNOWLEDGE THAT NOT EVERYONE IS YOUR ENEMY. I know I know, that sounds like an asshole thing to say to someone trying to write about hard shit. But let’s say you’re crafting an essay about how a huge boulder fell on you for Huge Rocks Today Magazine. You can write about your own injuries, and how mean the doctor in the emergency room was to you, what you learned, what you didn’t learn, how mad you are that you stood underneath the boulder, or even how much you hate the person who tricked you into standing underneath the boulder. But if you spend 500 words on how stupid the boulder is, tedium ensues. Many stories and situations have a boulder, don’t give too much time to yours or you lose the reader.

#12—YOU CAN WRITE LIKE HELL ABOUT SOMETHING THAT HURT LIKE HELL and still sometimes people won’t get it. But you created something, so guess what, you win.

PS Kelli will be reading from FREAK OF NURTURE in New York on September 25th at the VP Reading Series, and in Philadelphia on September 26th at William Way Center.  Or come watch Kelli and Red Durkin as they record their CDs (Kelli’s will be called Trigger Warning) on October 11th in Bushwich, BK.