In a recent feature on WBUR’s Radio Boston, P. Carl (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’18) discussed why he wrote his new memoir, Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition. In part, it was because he didn’t see trans stories like his being told, and “any time you’re adding to the stories that are missing in our culture, that might be helpful somewhere down the line.”
It was also the powerful next chapter of his life as a writer, scholar, and theater artist. Here, Carl discusses the journey of the book, what the risks of writing memoir have in common with the risks of transition, and other details of his work and life.
How did Becoming a Man start (as a project)? Did you immediately know it would be a book, or did it have multiple lives in different forms?
The project came together in kind of a strange flurry. I was doing some writing, a friend read a little of it and I talked to an agent, then received support from the Mass Cultural Council, and the American Academy in Berlin and a wide open space of almost a year dropped before me and I wrote non-stop. I have been writing all my life but until I transitioned, I never felt embodied enough, connected enough to my emotional self. The book just poured out of me in a year’s time as if it had been writing itself without my knowing all my life.
Along those same lines: you’re currently developing a new theater work based on the book. I’m curious about the relationship between theater and writing: how did your long experience in theater impact your prose writing, as you wrote Becoming a Man? And what are the challenges of bringing that prose into the theater?
This is such a great question because it’s so complicated to make prose into dialogue and embodied drama – add to that, taking my own life and putting the words, often very painful words, into an actor’s voice, is terrifying. Memoir is driven by narrative, by taking language and trying to lift it into something that can almost feel like flesh, that you and I can be together in the book in the most real way possible. Dialogue in the theater of course includes words but what you can do with gestures, and inflections, and movement and sound and lights means words are just one piece of a much bigger picture, and so the writing is completely different, often many fewer words are necessary so then which ones? And of course what feels most moving and emotional in prose will feel differently as dialogue.
Another thing that has mattered in my adaptation process is giving more background story. Because prose allows more description, there are ways to read into prose and you can’t do that with dialogue so in adapting the play I have had to write new scenes that are part of my story but that I didn’t include in the book. And this works the other way – many sections of the book are not dramatic in a theatrical way.
We posed this question to a variety of artists on ArtSake, and I’m curious your take: What special challenges do you face when incorporating real people from your life into your art?
I feel like I should shout, “every special challenge imaginable!” In my case I am telling a story about my transition which includes a twenty-two-year relationship. It was imperative that my wife felt comfortable with all of it and this was a two-way process, not something I could do alone at my computer. It’s also just a risk. I did not know my father would pass away before the book was published. I don’t know what I would have done had he still been alive. My mother has Alzheimer’s and so much of the book would be painful to her and I love her dearly. I guess I am saying as a writer my body insisted on telling the story and that’s what I did first. I let it pour out of me and then I thought long and hard about the consequences for each person in my life. In this way it is like embracing a trans body – I talk a lot in the book about all that I lost for becoming me, the terrible way I was treated by some formerly close friends, the risk to my marriage, to my work and yet I had, as I say in the book, to “choose me.” I chose to stay alive and give myself a chance to have a fully felt life. That risk is related to the risk of writing a memoir, the risk of loss to write what you must write.
Is there a through line that connects the different aspects of your work: prose writing, new play development, and scholarship?
Don’t all writers only actually write about one thing from a thousand angles? The through line for me lives in my belief that all people deserve, as Judith Butler calls it, a “livable life.” Every theater project I have worked on, my academic work, and my writing have always been focused on bodies, those we allow to live with solid ground under their feet and those we refuse the full scope of possibility to know they belong here, that they are seen and valued. As a teacher, I think about this all the time. What is the most important part of sharing knowledge? For me it has everything to do with making sure every student in my class feels seen by me in the way they see themselves in their best moments. Of course, I fail at this all the time. But it’s what I aspire to in all of my work. The joy of my transition, of looking at myself in a mirror and at age fifty-one to see myself reflected back for the first time is a euphoria every human should feel.
What’s the best/worst day job you’ve ever had?
Worst – bank teller. People get really weird about their money.
The unauthorized biography of your life is titled:
What is Wrong with You? Living through Eight Orthopedic Surgeries.
Do you secretly dream of being a) a pop icon, b) an algebra teacher, and/or c) a crime-solver/writer a la Jessica Fletcher?
I secretly dream of being an Emergency Room doctor.
What are you currently reading?
Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers by Joel Whitney.
Computer, longhand, or typewriter?
Computer, iPhone Notes, a little blue notepad, my hand.
P. Carl is a Distinguished Artist in Residence at Emerson College in Boston. He is currently the Anschutz Fellow at Princeton University for Spring 2020. He was awarded the Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in the Fall of 2018, the Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship in 2017, and the Andrew W. Mellon Creative Research Residency at the University of Washington. He is the founder of the online journal HowlRound, and past dramaturg and producer for multiple theater projects over the past twenty years. His work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Lit Hub. Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition is his first book. He is currently working on the stage adaptation of the book, commissioned by American Repertory Theater.
Image: cover art for BECOMING A MAN: THE STORY OF A TRANSITION (Simon & Schuster 2020); author P. Carl, photo by Asia Kepka (Photography Finalist ’15, ’11).