Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Writing Community

Author’s Note

I flew to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in a daze of grief and relief after attending my father’s funeral. I arrived very late at night. I crashed without meeting anyone, then woke before sunrise and hauled a bag of dead dad stuff across the grounds from the dorm to my writing studio. I spent the first day decorating my wooden writing cottage. I thumbtacked dozens of photos of my father to the wall: as a boy, as a young man in the Navy, at the altar marrying my mom. I added pages from his notebooks and letters he’d written, including one to his bishop wanting to understand the moral consequences of attending a gay wedding.

By the time I met my cohort at sundown on my first official day, I missed my husband, my coffee maker, my couch, and the warm November-in-Oakland weather. I’d just returned home to California from Massachusetts, where my dad had lived, before taking off again for Virginia. Jet lag, lack of sleep, spending so much time alone, and hunger didn’t help. I felt myself slipping, regretting the decision to attend, and hatching plans to take my dinner to my room to search return flights. I fought the impulses. I’d come to Virginia to meet new people, expand my network. As much as I wanted to be alone, I also wanted to bond with my fellows.

As we sat around an enormous dinner table, the most boisterous of the group described a time, years ago, when he’d talked on a CB radio. “Remember those?” he asked though his mask. One by one the others shared their CB anecdotes.

A memory jolted me. Through the chatter and clanking silverware, when everyone else had finished their CB stories, after the moment had almost passed, I made myself chime in. “I talked on a CB to solicit truckers when I was a kid. Not as a lonely little boy,” I said. “But as a woman with the handle Hott Lipps. My voice hadn’t cracked yet, so I was pretty convincing, and the guys would sometimes pull over and wait for me at the nearby truck stops.”

The chatter stopped. Silverware no longer clanked. Silence. This reaction surprised me, and I stopped talking.

No one looked away. Had they done so, overshare-shame might have shut me up. They maintained their eye contact. What I saw in their stares was neither shock nor prudishness, but curiosity.

“Really?” someone finally said. “Then what happened?” In the silence and the questions that broke it, my desire had shifted from wanting to eat and escape, to wanting to write.

Immediately after dinner, I wished the other artists a good night, returned to my dorm room, and wrote: “Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine. This is Hott Lipps. Anybody out there?” Exhausted, I fell asleep.

What was exciting “last night” isn’t necessarily so in the morning. And I’m slow to fall in love with anything I write, even after many drafts. But when I looked at those lines again, I felt excited. The only problem? I’d planned to write about my dad.

I only had three weeks in Virginia and this was my first residency. With the whole world suffering, all of us still pandemic-scrambling, I knew what a privilege it was to be there, and I wanted to use the time to do what I said I’d do. The first few days, I doubled down on my plan: to stick to my proposal and write about my father. I worked out at the nearby fitness center every morning. By ten each day, I was in the cottage looking at the collage on the wall. I meditated on the face of my father as a boy. Then I sat at my computer, ready to write about him.

“I’ll just do one more hour of Hott Lipps, then stop, and start on Dad,” I said aloud, over and over. Day one, day two, day three.

But how does one write what can’t be remembered? Forty years had passed since Hott Lipps was born in that fort. I had vivid flashes of Halloween. Eating Thanksgiving leftovers at E.’s house, wanting to run away from our dads with E., my mom and E. But they were flashes, and good memoir requires vividly portrayed scenes.

I knew there was no way for this essay to be a replica of my experience, but I wanted it to be as close as possible. I did what any good gay boy would do—I called my mom. Babbz at eighty-one has a sharper memory than I do, and she helped me with the timeline: when my father left, when we moved, the year I went out trick or treating in her nurse’s uniform. I tried to get as many of the facts as I could “right.”

By week two, I was still google mapping the routes in the town where I lived at twelve, looking at satellite images so I could compare the number of houses on E.’s block with my memory’s version. Perhaps I went down those rabbit holes to avoid what was most important in the piece: portraying the longing, the emotional experience of being young and Queer and gender-nonconforming and lonely. And the challenge within that challenge—I didn’t want pure tragedy.

With just a few days left at the residency, two other writers and I organized a reading of our work. I hadn’t written anything about my father except the few lines that still appear in “Hott Lipps.” Once I committed to a date and time to read, I abandoned my original proposal and hunkered down to wrangle “Hott Lipps” into something readable. Two of the audience members, both gay, both painters, laughed during my reading, and this gave me great joy. I felt and feel powerful and brave, then and now, because of surviving the loneliness of my younger life and because of my Queerness. I wanted to portray the danger I was in as a young person pretending to be an adult, presenting myself on the CB as a gender I wasn’t assigned at birth. But that danger wasn’t the whole story. I also love dark humor, and wanted to infuse the essay with what I consider a type of Queer sensibility, where elements of horror, absurdity, comedy, beauty, and tragedy all share space.

Afterward, Christian, one of the gay painters, came up to me and said he appreciated the piece’s campiness. I felt like I’d struck gold.

Writing, for me, isn’t cathartic. It doesn’t help me purge emotion, but it does help me use it. Writing adds meaning and dimension to my life and helps me feel in control by allowing me to impose narrative order on my experience. Writing this piece, I learned a lot about myself as a person and writer. I realized that I need community. Hott Lipps has remained alive inside me. Until I heard others’ CB stories, I’d forgotten about her and how I’d invented her as a way to connect with others when I had little other means to do so.

She also reminds me of the contrast between the public self and the private self. I still feel like Hott Lipps and that femme boy in a fort in the woods on the inside. Both of them live inside me as an adult, no matter how different I may look to others on the outside.

As a writer, I learned how important it is to pay attention to silence. What words, out of all that we say, make others stop? Really look at you? I believe it’s absolutely vital to listen, pay attention to cues that say, “Write about me,” even if you’d planned, even proposed, something else.


MATTHEW CLARK DAVISON is the author of the novel Doubting Thomas (Amble Press 2021). He is creator and teacher of The Lab :: Writing Classes with Matthew Clark Davison. The textbook version of The Lab, coauthored by bestselling writer Alice LaPlante, will be published by W. W. Norton. His prose has been published in BOMB, Literary Hub, Lambda Literary ReviewThe Advocate, Exquisite PandemicGuernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Lumina Journal, and others. Matthew is a member of The Writers Grotto and serves on the board of Foglifter Journal and Press. Find him on Instagram at @matthewclarkdavison.