American Cloaca: A Memoir: 1

An illustrated memoir series for my tenth year at IHE.


June 6, 2016

This year marks my tenth anniversary with Inside Higher Ed

At the end of 2006 I was honored to become the first IHE blogger and am now one of more than 20 other writers at IHE’s Blog U. The professionalism, generosity, and kindness of the IHE editors cannot be overstated. 

My first significant post for the site was an interview with a writer who’d just published a memoir. Originally from the UK, she got her bachelor’s and an M.Phil. in English literature at Cambridge, then went to New York in 2005, at the age of 25, intending to be a journalist. When an internship ended, she ran up against post-9-11 immigration law and found herself unemployed and among the large community of illegal aliens in the city, whom she wrote about movingly and convincingly. In the interests of survival, she worked for a year as a stripper in midtown Manhattan, an experience that served as the basis for her book.

Her memoir was meant to be a thoughtful meditation—“very Anaïs Nin, JG Ballard, Nabokov, crossed with Naomi Wolf,” the author said—but she was angry with her publishing company. Her book, she said,

“...deconstructs the illusions the strip club is built upon—ironically the same illusions [the publisher] is trying to perpetuate [by creating a cover and sales copy that turn the book into Pretty Woman, or worse]. That the club is fun and frivolous and light and funny. I have no idea where they got this idea. Certainly not from my book, which they purported to have read upon the point of sale. I am not a women’s writer; I’m not a pink and glitter writer. It’s made me furious that they have the audacity to try and package me and pimp me out, when the book is all about how the club does this to you!” 

I was sympathetic; she cussed Rupert Murdoch a little; we turned to other things.

The morning I posted the interview, she emailed, frantic: The Lawyers are Coming Over the Hill, wearing checkbooks as party hats, and the interview has to get pulled down. I rushed, between classes, to notify my editor and felt like I’d broken the nice neighbor’s plate-glass window with my first foul ball.

But the editors’ continued faith and trust helped me try to do something with the platform, even when the idea of keeping a blog was dismissed in much of academe. In the last decade I’ve posted maybe half-a-million words of essays, book reviews, profiles, interviews, travel pieces, satire, and other things. A book eventually came from it, and more than that, a process that will serve the rest of my working life.

Those with the writing itch are blessed and cursed by the same tickle: the feeling that all events, good or bad, might one day be put to use. It’s a writer’s hope, solace, a reason for being. From there it’s an easy mental hop to thinking we’re in control of our fates.

“American Cloaca” will be a series of posts for my tenth year. I’m less sure all the time that the events I remember, the ideas I’ve built, are actual agents of self, but I’ll consider some memories as if they had something to do with who I am now.

If I had the talents of a cartoonist, I’d make this a graphic novel. Instead I’ve asked artist Jade Elkins to contribute illustrations; other times I’ll use my photos. All will serve as bookend to my original theme for The Education of Oronte Churm—my belief in lifelong education of all sorts, and an openness to the world.

As I said when I first announced this blog, “[P]lease come on over...regularly. We’ll talk as we wish, about compromise, about getting what we want, and about life, college or otherwise, as it is.” Thank you very much for reading.


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