Kelsay Myers is a writer and artist, currently living in Walnut Creek, CA. She’s interested in interrogating methods of identity construction and persona, myth and reality, poetry and prose, and theory and form to explore the limits of personal history and narrative. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2012, an MFA in Poetry in 2013 and is currently Vice Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing Program Advisory Board, as well as an adjunct English Literature instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Sacramento. Her work has appeared in Portland Review, the anthology More Voices: A Collection of Works from Asian Adoptees, and the Lantern Review Blog.
My writing mentor, Diane Seuss, taught me how to be epic and bold on the page. In writing, she is fearless, and one of my favorite of her essays to teach, is “Turd.” It’s a crowd-pleaser. Whether I’m teaching eighteen-year-olds at a private liberal arts college or 40-year-olds at a trade school, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes infectious when we read “Turd.” The students initially chuckle at the title, somewhat nervously, as if they’re unsure of how seriously to take what I’ve just handed them.
Make no mistake, however, it is a serious piece of writing, as well as a versatile one. I’ve taught “Turd” in Writing Composition and American Literature classes as an example of a Contemporary nonfiction essay. I’ve used it as a model for literary analysis, writing prompts on creating persona, or personal essays that push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in either form or content. Seuss is a poet, and “Turd” was originally written as a prose poem, but it was published as a nonfiction essay in Wag’s Revue.
One reason it works in the classroom is because it’s deliciously relevant to an American audience. “Turd” taps into that driving force in each of us to appear flawless and makes it humorous and grotesque. The students relate to the excessive quality of the woman in this essay and to critiques of violence and vanity that emerge in such an exaggerated example of the human will to construct identity. Seuss is a Master of Persona, and the students pick up on that from her first few lines:
“I know a woman who threw a human turd—her own—off a balcony in Seattle, Washington. Her gig is that men she likes, even men she once liked and likes no more, cannot know she shaves, exfoliates or shits. According to the self she constructs for her boyfriends, her body is naturally smooth and hairless as a baby rat, and nothing golden brown or black and tarry, nothing log-shaped or numerous and small and round as a squirrel’s stash of acorns, has ever exited her creamy exterior.”
With an opener like that, the students are hooked. Class discussion after finishing the essay is always positive. Even classes that have been unresponsive in previous discussions of texts, will become animated and voluntarily talk about this one. It’s good to teach as an introduction to a class, or to students who have been actively defiant or disinterested in other course material because of how enthusiastic the students become when reading it. I believe the reason for such excitement across ages, backgrounds and disciplines is because “Turd” surprises them. It’s not the typical kind of essay they’ve read before or are expecting to read in a classroom setting, and thus, it reaches them.
It’s also true that we simply don’t outgrow scatological humor. . .I’ll admit in teaching this essay, I want to shock my students. I want to unbalance them and expand their ideas of what’s possible in writing and in literature. I want to show them how to be just as fearless in what they choose to write about and in how they go about doing it. (Sometimes I even pair this essay with Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” response to Elissa Bassist, “Write Like a Motherfucker,” for the added shock factor!) And it’s worked so far. It seems almost magical, but there’s power in that mysterious, larger-than-life persona that Seuss possesses and inspires us all to go find in ourselves.
Read the full version of Diane Seuss’ “Turd” here.
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