What You Don’t Know by Clare Fielder
Clare Fielder’s “What You Don’t Know” is one of three winners of the 2020 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Joy Castro.
Gorgeously humble and questing, Clare Fielder’s “What You Don’t Know” tells a story of transfiguration, of the willingness and courage to embrace confusion and weakness as ways in, ways through to a new kind of knowing and a new kind of strength. Fielder’s narrator shatters a self to find something fresh and alive. Instead of rushing to closure, the essay holds us in the transitional space of not-knowing, the vertiginous space of possibility, of lostness as the ground for new growth: “I was experiencing something that was the opposite of every story I had ever been told about myself,” Fielder writes, “and it was thrilling…. The more I did it the more I wanted to do it…. I didn’t recognize myself.” —Joy Castro
I started boxing because of writing. I was working on a novel about young queer women being angry and boxing their way out of their small town. I needed terminology, so I went to a boxing training class. I liked that it was taught by a woman, N. I wasn’t fit. I was scared of everything. I was twenty-seven, a young queer woman. I was starting to feel confused about the woman part and it made me angry. I wasn’t good at running or speaking in front of people or looking at myself in mirrors.
In the first class I learnt how to turn my knuckles over as I punched. I learnt the words jab and backhand and hook and to respond to the correct command about fifty percent of the time. I learnt that if you were right-handed, like I am, you lead with your left hand.
‘That’s what I love about boxing,’ said N. ‘It engages your brain as well as your body.’
My whole body hurt for a week and then I went back. And back and back.
When I say I was confused about the woman part I mean a lot of things. Something was not lining up between the way people saw me and the way I felt. None of my clothes felt like they fit. Shirts had darts in the wrong places. Jeans were too baggy or too tight. I was always tugging at my collar because I felt like I was choking. I didn’t know how to hold myself; my shoulders hurt all the time from hunching to try to make my chest seem smaller. Whenever I began to feel depressed or anxious the first sign would be the recurring thought that I hated my body. That sounds vague because the feeling was vague. I didn’t know what part was wrong. My stomach should be flatter maybe, I’d think, but that wasn’t really it. I am a small person, but I felt too rounded. When I was a child I would have a recurring nightmare, always just on the verge of sleep, that my arms and legs were too long, and I would be walking through a city, towering above skyscrapers like Godzilla, unable to control any of my limbs and accidentally swiping whole buildings away. This feeling was similar.
At the same time, it wasn’t just about my body. It was people reading my sex and assuming that told them anything about who I was. It was how jarring it felt whenever I was sorted into a group based on my womanness. It was when someone said ‘we’re all women,’ and I’d look around for a minute and think, even me? It was a genuine question and all I really wanted was someone to give me an easy answer.
I don’t remember how this started, or how I became aware of it happening within me. I started coming out when I was seventeen but only really became comfortable with my sexuality in my mid-twenties. I didn’t try to date. I regularly joked that I didn’t want anyone to notice that I had a body. In October 2017, I wrote in my journal: ‘I’ve been trying to confront things I’ve been repressing […] I am so sick of feeling shame. I am gay, and I think I am also gender fluid and I don’t want to feel like these things are wrong anymore, especially when I know they are not wrong.’
I stopped wearing dresses. I wrote myself a list of goals. I wrote, ‘I am so tired of feeling scared and lonely and not seen.’
A week later I signed a contract with a literary agent for a novel I’d written about a family in colonial Burma. It was very straight. Three months later I started boxing.
I didn’t record much of what I thought about my gender over the next year. (The same thing happened when I was with a girl for the first time—no allusion to her appeared in my diary for months. My ability to self-censor was impressive. Everything, no matter how private, was coded.) I can trace a little of how I felt, however, from the things I highlighted in my reading and from scraps, notes to myself written in the corners of lesson plans or to do lists: ‘feeling like I need to rip my stomach out’, ‘you are ok’, ‘don’t really have any answers’. I copied out this extract from Sara Taylor’s The Lauras: ‘It’s bothered me for as long as I can remember, the way the human compulsion to classify stands at odds with my feelings of falling outside the available categories.’
How I felt was angry, most of the time. The anger was with myself, for being inconvenient and self-indulgent, with a culture that made me attack myself for self-indulgence, and with my body for springing this trap on me just when I thought my identity was something settled and that I was comfortable with.
I started writing because of boxing. I would leave N’s classes in the evening, get home red-faced, and be too excited to sleep. I was tired all the time, but I had more ideas than ever. N and I went for coffee and, when I didn’t know what questions to ask, she talked to me about how she started boxing, about her first fight. She showed me a video on her phone of her hitting another girl in the face and it felt like the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I went home and wrote a chapter. Sometimes my arms would ache so much after boxing that the next day I only had to skim my hands across them to feel tenderness. I took stairs slowly.
Meanwhile, my agent was sending my book out into the world. The rejections started to roll in and sometimes she told me about them and sometimes she didn’t. There was a lot of waiting.
I had never really looked at men’s bodies before but now I would find myself holding up pads or doing star-jumps opposite a man in shorts and a vest and I would feel a jolt of surprise when my reflection didn’t look like his. I looked like I was in disguise as a woman in my leggings and old T-shirts. I wanted thighs that didn’t curve. I wanted a flatter chest. I started to wear sports bras all the time, sometimes a size too small. It felt better except when I worried too much about why I was doing it. I tried to wear loose shirts that felt like I was drowning in them. I bought men’s running shorts but they didn’t look the same on me and I was embarrassed to wear them to class. For a year, I had a Post-it stuck on the wall next to my desk that said ‘boy’s legs’. This was a note for my novel that I never really figured out how to use; I wanted to convey exactly the feeling of looking at a boy’s legs in skinny jeans then looking at my legs and feeling like mine were the wrong ones and not being able to say why they were wrong and how that was the worst. It’s convoluted. It didn’t make it into the novel.
When I talk about boxing, a lot of people say, ‘Are you doing it for self-defense?’ I should say, a lot of men say this to me: uncles, colleagues, and friends. I resent it. It suggests to me that women’s aggression, women’s anger is allowed only when it is reactionary and protective, rather than something innate. Men are allowed to just have it.
One day at the end of class we all took turns to spar against N. Minute rounds. I’d never been in a fight, never been punched or punched anyone. I couldn’t stop smiling, even when I sat on the windowsill trying to get my breath back. We weren’t hitting hard, I definitely wasn’t hitting well, but in the breaks between rounds, when I sat on the windowsill and tried to breathe, I felt joy.
Trying to hit someone, being hit, was fun the way things are fun when you are seven years old. Things like rolling down hills or water-fights or spinning in circles until you fall over. My brain felt like it was going faster than it ever had and I needed to run home to catch up with it. That was another few chapters.
At this time, I was waiting for notifications of rejections from publishers and working on boxing book. Boxing book was the book I needed, the one that told me I was okay. ‘I’m basically writing it to figure out what my gender is,’ I’d say. I’d say it like a joke but it wasn’t one.
My face had changed shape, it was narrower now. The circles under my eyes got darker as I started training twice, then three times a week. I’d always felt like a failure at prettiness, but I was beginning to let go of it as something to strive for. I tried to look other ways instead, strong or athletic or dashing. I cut my hair short and my best friend said, ‘You look like you’.
I read a lot. I read memoirs of trans men and women, read queer history, interviews, novels. Parts of things resonated but none of the words felt like they described me. I’m nothing, I kept thinking. I watched YouTube videos. I watched strangers cry when they took off their bandages after top-surgery and then I cried, too. I didn’t know if this was something I wanted. I didn’t know what word to use to refer to my chest, they all caught in my throat. ‘I dream about them being gone,’ I wrote. ‘I don’t know if this is something that I want. I don’t know what I would lose.’ I bought a binder but couldn’t handle the pain of it for long, I couldn’t bear the panic of trying to get it off and feeling trapped. I hid it away in the back of a drawer. I thought, If your dysphoria were real, you would just wear it. The pain would be worth it.
The gym where N trains is a building with wire cages on the windows. She took me there after about a year, in January 2019. From outside you can hear the slap of the pads and the calls people use to add power to their shots. The sounds depend on the person, sometimes they bark a ‘Yah!’ or a ‘Bang!’, others hiss the air out. I can’t do any of it with conviction. The boxing gym is somewhere I would have been too scared to ever enter alone. Actually, I couldn’t walk through the doors without N for about a month. She was exceptionally patient about it.
I’d thought I was fit but N’s gym was another level. We’d run the stairs, and I’d see spots. My body was hit and maneuvered and assessed by men who all gave conflicting advice. I was constantly yelled at to relax and no one understood why this wasn’t working. I’d never hit a punch bag before—compared to a person wearing pads, the bag absorbs everything and the day after training I’d feel like my arms were dragging along the floor. I was scared of everything—scared to ask questions, to get in anyone’s way, to throw a punch with anyone watching.
On the train home from training a young woman sat behind a teenaged boy and blew on the back of his neck. He’d flinch and she’d look over at her boyfriend and laugh. I asked what she was doing and, when the boy got off at the next stop, she came to sit behind me. She blew on my neck twice, before I got up and moved away. She screamed.
‘I thought it was a boy,’ she yelled to her boyfriend.
They weren’t laughing anymore. They were angry. I moved down the carriage. The boyfriend paced up and down slamming his fist into his palm.
‘I’m not gay,’ the woman said, ‘I thought it was a boy.’
It wasn’t quiet. I thought I was going to get hit. It was the end of rush hour and no one looked up. I got off the train and checked they weren’t following. It could have been worse. I felt small and shaken and furious.
It got easier. The gym is predictable. You run first. Then you shadowbox in the ring, facing a mirror like you’re in ballet class. You think you’ll feel like everyone’s watching you when you’re in the ring. Sometimes they are. I like it best when it’s crowded—a forest of bodies battling phantoms. Then you work on the bags. You do pads, sometimes you run the stairs. Then you skip. Then you do groundwork, where J yells instructions at you and tells you you’re done if you stop working hard. Nothing much changes. Some days someone shouts at you. Some days you barely speak to anyone. I almost always leave feeling better. It clears my head, like meditation. Or writing. When I’m in the gym things outside the gym don’t exist. I like that.
Writing and training are similar. In The Fight, Mailer writes, ‘Archie Moore let a few words drop: Boxing is syllables. You learn them one by one.’ He put boxing into linguistic terms, and it is a reminder of how boxing and writing are both crafts. They both take time and discipline. You usually don’t feel like doing them but feel better once you have. No one cares, for the most part, whether you keep going. You can go a long time without seeing results. You hit blocks, you get bored, then you have a breakthrough and remember why you do it—suddenly you use a word you didn’t even realize you knew the meaning of and it’s perfect; suddenly your fist ends up in exactly the right place with all your weight behind it.
It is strange to be able to point exactly to the thing that has changed your life. I finished boxing book and my agent didn’t love it. In April 2019, I left the agency and started going to the gym full time. This meant four to five nights a week. The intensity of it felt like starting the sport again from the beginning. There were days when I’d sit down on the train home and then stand up at my stop and feel as if I had no knees. I’d have to take steps one at a time for days afterwards. Sometimes, mid-training, I’d have to slip outside and stand in the cold to stop myself feeling dizzy, to shock myself into breathing full breaths.
Training full time also meant the assumption was that I would fight. Boxing hadn’t been about research for a long time now. ‘I’m feeling quite up and down,’ I wrote in my journal. Getting an agent had been a goal for so long that to walk away from one felt reckless, but it was also what all my instincts were telling me to do. I don’t think I’d have had the confidence to do that before I started boxing. In the same journal entry I wrote, ‘I am pushing my body to do something I can’t do…I am feeling a kind of fulfillment…it feels really good to do something where the progress is measurable but at the same time it is only for me.’ I am a historically anxious person. Writing helps with that sometimes. When writing became the thing that made me anxious, boxing helped.
I’d always been afraid to take up space, to ask for things, to behave as if my feelings were as important as anyone else’s. As a child a lot of the praise I received centred around being quiet and ‘no trouble.’ It felt good to be able to run a mile, then two, then three. It felt good to see my shoulders change shape and to punch so hard I bruised my own knuckles. Even better was being told to make myself big—being told I had a body that could build muscle, being pushed to extend my reach as far as I could, to move within a space and try to fill it, own it. To make noise, to be explosive. I was experiencing something that was the opposite of every story I had ever been told about myself and it was thrilling. It was scary, too. The more I did it the more I wanted to do it. It was becoming something I felt reliant on for my survival. I had never done a sport before. I sat in quiet rooms and thought about words. I was sensitive.
I didn’t recognize myself.
At work, a kid would ask me the same question every couple of weeks: ‘Are you a mister or a missus?’
The first time, I said I didn’t really like either word but I was a girl. After, I altered my answer depending on my mood and how honest I felt like being.
‘Does it matter?’ I said.
‘No, but what are you?’
Things were becoming more urgent. It was jarring, to have this question, that was knocking around inside me all the time by then, voiced. He was never satisfied. Eventually, I asked him what he thought I was.
‘I think you’re a mister but you haven’t figured it out yet,’ he said.
I didn’t really have an answer to that so I told him I’d have to think about it.
I struggled to find a model for the way that I was. Whenever I thought about my identity I could only come up with contradictions. I wanted to be tough, without compromising any of my gentleness. I was getting stronger and more confident, but I craved validation. I wanted to be a writer, but I was moving backwards through the hoops you are meant to jump through. I wanted to fight and I was also terrified of fighting.
As a child, I believed a choice had to be made between sport and books. I didn’t think both could exist within a person, and I don’t think this idea came from me. I liked books since before I could read them, so sport was never really on the table. Now, I think about Norman Mailer, who wrote about jogging alongside Ali, who was allowed to get up close to him, to train with him. And David Storey, who was a rugby player then wrote a widely acclaimed novel about a rugby player. Even Murakami wrote that book about running (was it actually about running?). I know, now, that using brain and body only enhance each other. I know that I am a better, happier person now that I am giving attention to both. At the same time, I can’t think of any books by women that have sport as a focus and are undeniably Literature.
‘Write what you know’ is one of those pieces of advice that people love to throw around in creative writing courses. This can give you a sense of security maybe, a starting point, but I don’t think it’s very useful. I have felt at my most satisfied and productive over the past few years when my writing became investigative—I was writing about what I didn’t know, because I didn’t know it. I entered the world of the gym—a world I never would have seen myself in—and I was forced to examine the parts of myself it would have been far easier never to look at too closely.
Boxing forced me to confront my body. In the gym, bodies are undeniable. I weigh myself on the way in and out, now. There’s a whiteboard where we write up our names and weights. You know who’s trying to lose or gain and you comment on everyone’s progress. I change my T-shirt at the side of the ring before I leave every evening. Men walk to the scales in their underwear. The toilet door doesn’t lock. Most days, I am the only woman there. (I am a woman at the gym, simply because I am not one of the men. When N is there it’s more complicated for me, because although I see her as my ally, my mentor, my friend, we are not the same gender.) At first, I was never able to forget it. ‘The young lady is showing you up,’ was one of the first pieces of praise I received. It was directed at a teenaged boy. My gender was thrown in his face. It was thrown in mine, too, a reminder that I was different, even though I know it was meant as encouragement. Kindness. I am mostly ‘the young lady’, at the gym. I hate this. Sometimes I get to be ‘the girl’, or, when N is there, ‘the other girl’. These are better. Still, I’d been going a couple of months when a kid watching his dad train saw me change my T-shirt and pointed at me yelling, ‘You’re a girl, you’ve been a girl this whole time.’ As if I’d been lying to him. I don’t know if it was anything about me that had confused him, or just the fact that he hadn’t seen girls there before.
The gym is not always an easy place to be. N’s presence there before me has made things easier, I know. In many ways my gender is a privilege there—I get to be invisible when I want to be. I’m small, though, and it’s hard to get sparring partners. I’m not progressing as fast as I’d like. I’m the last to know everything (I didn’t know there were women’s changing rooms for four months). You are yelled at and, when you’re feeling like you are giving everything, you are told you’re not working hard enough, you need to be faster, to push harder, to be better. ‘You won’t be smiling when you spar, she’s gonna kill you,’ I’ve been told. ‘Just wait until you fight, then you’ll know.’
People tell me, often, never when I’ve asked for advice, that what I need is to find a women’s gym. There’ll be people my size to practice against, I’ll get to fight sooner, I won’t get called a bitch if I miss a shot (probably), it will be better for me. Here’s the thing. I don’t want a women’s gym. That’s not for me. This gym is my team. Whether they want me or not, I want them. I don’t want to be separate from the men; I want to hold my own against them and learn from them and not have it be about me being an other. Women’s gyms are great, but they’re not mine. In my journal, I wrote about the women’s changing room at the swimming pool, ‘you feel like a lie but not a threat.’
There are people at the gym who see me the way I see myself. They may not know my name, or anything about my life outside of there, but that doesn’t matter. Your value comes from how hard you work. I work hard. When I’m recognized, it means a lot.
‘She’s a fighter,’ I overheard J say one day. ‘She’s got steel in her.’
He asked me if I’d grown up with brothers, sure this was how I’d become tough. I said I was an only child.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘so you’ve had to push yourself.’
J and I are both gay. I know this, but I don’t know if he does. I should tell him. I wanted to tell him. That’s how I got tough, I wanted to say. But he was already walking away saying, ‘Only child, I knew it was something like that.’
The same coach who says ‘then you’ll know’, who scares me the most, once rested his weight on my knees, pushing me into the floor whilst I threw myself into sit-ups. I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t enough.
‘Don’t close your eyes,’ he barked into my face. I felt his spit. ‘You close your eyes in the ring and you’re dead.’
I don’t respond well to this. I don’t find it helpful to be told to dig in, to set my intention, to ‘hurt her’, the imaginary woman I would one day fight. But I opened my eyes and I got to the end. As he walked away from me, disappointed, he looked back and said, ‘It’s your body, you’ve got to be able to carry it.’
This made sense to me.
Because of boxing, my body became something I had to look after. I became aware of twinges and strains and fatigue. The way I spoke to myself changed. Instead of you’re a failure, you’re nothing, what’s wrong with you just be normal, I started to think, you can do it, just a bit further, look after yourself. My body and I were becoming part of the same team.
My body has begun to look more like I imagine it. My chest is flatter, with more muscle than before. My edges are sharper. Now, when the ring is full of shadow boxers, I stare at myself in the mirror and I don’t look out of place. My body is changing to look more like the men around me, something in the way I carry myself. I don’t want to be them. I’ve found the place where my body meets theirs—the middle ground where it is comfortable for me to sit. My difference is drawn attention to less and less. I am just shoulders and thighs and fists. I’ve noticed, recently, that when we stand in a line and slam a ball to the ground, J addresses us as ‘Gentlemen’. He used to say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’—just for me. Now, he forgets and I love it. It feels like acceptance.
I’m still writing, I’m still boxing. I’m still not sure if I’m a woman. All these things are question marks: I want to sell a book but I might not, I want to fight but I might not. I am becoming more comfortable living with uncertainty. Most days, I don’t need a word for myself. Boxing has made me calmer than I’ve ever been.
I don’t know why I want to fight, why I want to be hit. At first, I worried it was something broken in me, some shame I was working out. Maybe I felt I deserved to be hit, I worried. Was this part of my feelings of failure? Was I trying to beat my body into submission? I don’t think it’s that. N once said to me, ‘You have the hunger to hit more than I do.’ I like the urgency of it. I like how present it makes me feel in my body, how my brain and body are united in the need to get through it. I like how people hear I box and look at me differently, like I have surprised them, subverted some expectation. I like when I’m sparring with a man and he doesn’t go easy on me and it hurts but I can take it. I like how my lungs ache and I’m shaking afterwards but, in the moment, everything disappears except me in my body and the opponent in theirs. I like how it makes me angry, but not with myself, and this is allowed and it is useful. I like the excuse to hit back.
In boxing book I described a girl who used hand-wraps to bind her breasts (I did this secretly in my bedroom. I called it research). ‘I’m not nothing,’ I had her think. ‘Not nothing, but everything.’
I’m trying to find a new agent for boxing book. If I don’t, it will hurt but I can take it. It did the thing I needed it to do: it made me okay. Boxing and writing together have opened me up, and not just to myself. I love my body and the things it can do. It isn’t keeping secrets from me anymore. One morning this summer I was curled up in bed next to a person I was starting to love.
‘You are such a good creature,’ she said.
I like that word, creature. It makes me feel like I’m part of nature. I’m something beautiful and preexisting, like an ammonite or a deer or a boy or a girl. No stranger or less magical than that.
CLARE FIELDER has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. She has taught EFL and creative writing in Hanoi, Tokyo, and the UK. She currently lives in Barcelona, and is working on a novel about queer pirates.
Featured image by Milo Bunnik courtesy of Unsplash