My Struggle with Hiding in Photos and Writing

eves-pic-of-spot-and-me
From a book called ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS

Eve told me to sit and be with Spot (that’s Goober behind us). Eve is amazing, the way she uses a camera. We were talking and I was barely aware of being photographed, so she caught me smiling. My lips are pulled back a bit much, since I’m laughing and wrinkling my nose at the same time Spot flicks out his tongue. Otherwise, it’s a good smile.

me-age-10
Me around ten

I love this photo, maybe the last one where I’m smiling and it’s pretty. I can count on one hand –actually, I can’t even locate good photos of me smiling after I turned ten. The photo just below of me at twelve is so self-conscious and sad. You can see that puberty is hitting me and I’m breaking out.

awkward-me-2
Me around twelve

Since puberty, the minute the camera comes out, I stiffen. And when I write characters who are older than ten, I stiffen. I don’t mean to. I didn’t realize until I started writing a memoir that it has to do with hiding part of me/the character.

A lot of people freeze when the camera comes out. We’re all self-conscious to some degree. I think most of us love-hate having our picture taken. (There’s the tiny hope that maybe this time, the photo will reveal a beautiful me.) We say, “Oh, I look awful!” and our friends tell us, “You do not, you look great.” Sure.

I haven’t had a clue what hiding means, or how it affects my writing. I struggle to show myself, but I can show lizards. Martine read some of my pre-memoir stuff, and she said, “I don’t even like lizards, but you made me love them in these parts.”

Imagine if I could achieve this when I write about human characters (including me).

When I face a camera, or write about a me who is more than ten years old, I retract like a rattlesnake coiling into her den, or a lizard trying to camouflage herself in the trees. Hiding the me who is vulnerable. Anxious, afraid of looking ridiculous and awkward and stupid and ugly and too female. What does that even mean. Any book on craft will tell you that Reader wants to see character vulnerability. Have I really been that scared? Why am I always the last person to know what I’m up to. The voice in my head says, “Get over yourself!”

sebastian-me-4
Author photo

I like my “author photo” well enough. No awkward smile; my chin isn’t too clunky. And Sebastian is there to help me.

But I’ve been told, “You’re not smiling. Readers might think you’re not friendly.” It’s been ten years since that photo was taken. Time for a new one. I’ll try my best to let go, open up. Smile, even.

I love this thing Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her “Wild Woman Archetype” recording: “I’m really friendly. But I’m not quite tame.” I’m hoping for a photo of me that will show this. It won’t be without a lizard, though.

Snakes

mr-boa-me
Mr. Boa and me many years ago

I live with lizards. I’ve lived with snakes, too. Boa constrictors, ball, reticulated and Burmese pythons, anacondas, pine snakes, rat snakes, and more. The only reason I don’t have snakes now is that my time and resources are limited, and I can’t give them the care and attention they deserve. My lizards are demanding!

Here is an excerpt from LIZARD LOVE.

“I didn’t know where I could go and be okay. I walked, not caring which way I went, watching the lines of my swimsuit blur into the grass until I saw that I had come down the path where the brambles used to be. I stopped and held a tear between my eyelashes. It was like peering through a tiny prism. For a second I was back in the tunnel of green light, the way it used to be before Bob Ellis cut away the brambles. I squeezed out the tear and saw the snake, right there at the edge of the path.

His neck was curved, because he had seen me and was being careful about coming out of the tall weeds. He held his head up, watching me, but I could tell that he wasn’t afraid. I knelt close to him and he didn’t run away. His red and black tongue flicked in and out. His eye moved, a black pupil inside a gold ring. He let me reach underneath his chin and touch his glossy throat. I pulled my hand away slowly and kept still and watched his sides move in and out with each breath.

Soon he came out of the weeds. His brown-and-cream- striped ribbon body made S shapes across the path. He didn’t hurry. I wondered where he was going and what he wanted. He flicked his tongue in and out as he went, checking what was in front of him, and then he entered the weeds on the other side of the path. I watched him go, watched the dark tip of his tail slip away, and I caught my breath.”

Times when I’m upset and go for a walk, I see a snake. Either I am open to it, or he lets me see him, maybe both. It’s just the snake and me, breathing, being, and it’s as though our heartbeats and breath are at the same time. I forget why I was upset. He reminds me about what matters –that we are alive, sharing this moment.

On November 5th 2016 a RARR member shared a photo on Facebook: “They aren’t rattlesnakes, but it’s just as bad. We need to expose Simmons Sporting Goods in Louisiana, as well as the East Carroll Parish Sheriff’s Office.” The photo shows dead snakes that have been dumped in a heap on the ground, like garbage. There are perhaps a hundred dead snakes, maybe more, different species and sizes; adults, and juveniles. There isn’t much blood; the snakes were mostly beaten to death. The caption says, “Describe this picture in one word…GO!” The edge of a red cooler is seen in the photo, suggesting recreation, as though to emphasize the tone of the challenge to “Describe” the picture in the spirit of fun.

I can describe the picture in one word: Hate.

Why? (This is not an isolated incident.) Whether it’s biblical fear of serpents, belief in entitlement to dominion, bullies who feel compelled to hurt animals, the complete absence of empathy and compassion is chilling. Each of the dead snakes had a life he or she was living, each had a right to exist and thrive.

If a person doesn’t like snakes, it’s totally fine to leave them alone. When I say this, I’m confronted with stories of being chased by cottonmouths, and if we don’t kill snakes, they will kill us.

In his article Blocked-flight Aggressive Behavior in Snakes herpetologist D. Bruce Means tells of an Eastern Cottonmouth who “rose up like a cobra and menacingly crawled toward me…When I stepped sideways…the snake maintained its original direction and did not turn to follow (or ‘chase’) me. Its ‘aggressive’ behavior obviously was a bluff to assist the snake in making its getaway into the safety of the swamp…” Means repeated the study with different snake species, including rattlesnakes, and observed this behavior consistently.

You can also watch a video of Orry Martin setting the record straight about cottonmouth snakes.

Here’s what Melissa Amarello, co-founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation says:

Snakes are more like us than people realize. They learn. They care for their kids. They care for their neighbors’ kids. …they have families and friends… They have homes with favorite places to get food, meet friends and mates, rest, and shelter from predators and inclement weather… I hope that by helping people see that snakes share many behaviors with us, behaviors we value, people will choose to treat them better, and cruelty like wanton persecution of snakes and rattlesnake roundups will no longer be socially acceptable.”

 

THE SNAKE

 

Gem-bright and patterned coils you weave,

A living stream of reasoned flesh and bone

Through the familiar grass, and then you leave

Ancestral markings on the sand, beside some stone:

More delicate than spider webs, or tiger’s bristles,

Your tongue’s twin tips flick earthward—smell and taste

What there is need to, amid twigs and thistles—

Something to feed upon, or love, or flee in haste.

Superb, unmindful of the Scripture’s curse,

You thread your ancient way triumphantly,

Around man’s ignorance (save a few) and nurse

No hatred in your calm fluidity.

That day is pleasant, if some pathway leads,

To your bright beauty, flowing through the reeds.

 

P.H.W. Bachmann, 1949