When I sit down to write a beard story, I often feel like I’m forgetting something. I wish for an audio recorder, or, better yet, a video camera. Something that would always be on, could start recording instantly, without me fumbling to turn it on and missing – or messing up – the interaction. Something that would record before I knew I needed it, and that would be completely inconspicuous. I’m wishing for a better memory, really. Not that my memory is bad at all, I just want it to be perfect.
I find I want to capture the dialogue perfectly. As I walk away from a beard interaction, I repeat the dialogue in my head, trying to hang onto it until I can write it down. Invariably, I miss something that feels crucial; did he say “girl” or “chick” or “woman” or something else? I also frequently feel like I must be missing a few lines. When I write down the dialogue, it often seems like the exchange couldn’t possibly have been that short. Didn’t we repeat ourselves, make small talk, do something that stretched the interaction out over more than the six lines I’ve written down? The interaction felt so much more substantial than the six lines I’ve written down, how could we possibly have only said that much?
A year or two ago, I was listening to an NPR story on time – on the subject of time itself and how we perceive something that doesn’t physically exist. One study examined the perception of time while subjects were terrified; subjects were asked to closely examine a watch while in the free fall of a bungee jump. The study concluded that the sensation of “time slowing down” during a terrifying event – a car crash, freefall, violence – came from a sharp increase in sensory intake. Apparently, one’s sense of time is calculated backwards from the amount of information taken in, as we tend to take in information on our surroundings at a fairly constant rate. So, when the senses kick into high gear to try to gather enough information to save us from imminent disaster, the brain interprets more information as more time, and the event seems to stretch out longer.
Now, I’m not trying to say that these beard experiences are scary. Far from it; I’m usually amused. But, I do think that I tend to pay closer attention, to try to gather as much information as possible, partially out of curiosity and partially because I know I’ll be writing it down later. So possibly my sense of time is skewed by my attention.
I also think part of the problem lies in writing dialogue. I’ve never enjoyed reading plays. I love seeing them, but when I read them, I don’t have the right kind of imagination to fill in all the details. Reading a play, to me, is dry; I don’t know how to decipher the nuances and characters from a few spare lines of dialogue. Apparently, I have the same problem in writing. I take down the words that were exchanged, and it seems incomplete. I try to capture the visual component, the emotion, the tone of voice. And still it feels like some words are missing. I’ve wished, at times, that instead of writing a book, I could write and direct a play, or maybe a movie, so that I could perfectly capture and recreate what happened, without leaving it open to misinterpretation.
I think that’s part of the challenge in writing these stories: I don’t trust the reader to fill in the details properly. The aim of this writing is to capture a rare experience, one that very few people have seen, let alone experienced first-hand. Most people haven’t even seriously considered bearded women, the way they might have crafted opinions about gay folks or transpeople; most folks don’t believe we even exist. And, for those few who have considered the potential experience of a bearded woman, their assumptions are generally wrong. Mine certainly were. Part of my aim in telling these stories is to convey the (mostly pleasant) surprise I’ve felt in one bearded encounter after another. So, particularly if I ever manage to turn this into a book for a wider audience, my readers will either have no context or inaccurate assumptions when they go to fill in between the lines of dialogue. So I find myself spelling everything out, trying to make sure nothing could be misunderstood.
I’d hate to think that someone would read my story, fill in the wrong details, and thereby reinforce some messed-up gender, racial, or class stereotype. When I write that an unkempt and apparently homeless man in SoMa says, “Hey, how’d you grow that?” I don’t want to let my reader assume that he’s being rude, loud, confrontational, aggressive, or standing too close to me when he speaks. And I worry that because, I admit, that’s what would come to my mind. In reality, he was a good ten feet away from me, and his expression and tone were like a child who’d just seen a magic trick.
A few years ago, I was talking to an author friend about how to accurately capture the full detail of each beard experience, and I told her my frustration in my failure to recall each word of dialogue precisely. She said, “That’s the difference between journalism and memoir.” I have a scientist’s background. I’m trained and predisposed to look at facts, to want all the data, to use precise language. To make utterly sure that my words couldn’t be misinterpreted. I spend hours with my students differentiating between the common, broad meaning of a word and its precise, constrained meaning in biology: adapt, evolve, mutation, and, my favorite, dominant. This writing has been an unexpected exercise in letting go of precision, in the nuance of phrasing, in metaphor and simile, in trust.