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My Life in a Column

Tracey Emin
My Life in a Column
(Rizzoli, 2011)

Tracey Emin wavers. In her art, and in her writing, she changes her mind, she repeats herself, and she can’t decide what she wants. For a female artist, wavering is dangerous: it can either be attributed to a tongue-in-cheek ultra-feminine approach, or it can be attributed to a lack of consistency. How can one be a female artist who is first and foremost an artist, but not one who has forgotten how to struggle for the right to be feminine? How can one make art that is specifically personal, when the explicit display of the private and feminine parts of one’s life may alienate viewers? If an artist’s image is carefree and easy-breezy, can too much attention destroy her process? Emin’s My Life in a Column does not answer any of these questions, and I’m not sure it asks them, either. But I somehow keep coming back to the book with these questions, and my own work, in mind.

After nine years of almost non-stop workshopping, I assumed I would have nothing more to learn from a college-level creative writing class, but I’m somehow in one again. I almost convinced myself that I would skip today, saying that it would actually be healthy, that I’m addicted to workshops like some are addicted to therapy.

Instead of studying other students’ work or commenting on it, I want to be reading My Life in a Column. What is energizing about this book, especially for me in this very moment, is how un-workshopped Emin’s writing feels. The book is made up of the columns Emin wrote for The Independent from April 2005 to March 2009. The entries speak of partying, of men, of anxieties about aging, and, of course, of art. I read this hungrily, finding her choppy transitions delicious, simply because I know they would get torn apart in my classes. The discrepancies do some work that the words are not capable of. Instead of line editing, I’m forced to read between lines. The diary-like style is at times juvenile, at times vulnerable, at times frustratingly naïve. Emin skims over and dips into subjects quickly and knowledgably. Descriptions of her own art are succinct and confident, while pictures of the many exotic locations from which she writes feel wandering, like long-winded questions. She uses the word “very” too much, talks about writing in her writing too often, seems to think out loud, and then proudly ends in the middle of a tangent, as if to say, I could go on, but, why, look at this, I’ve filled the page.

As a writer, I’m annoyed because I could never get away with this—in a class, or in a draft. But her digressions, her procrastination, her self-criticisms, her egotism—this is all part of what makes her human. After all, her candid expressions of her humanity are what have given her a career. Emin’s art is almost embarrassingly insecure in its content, but bold in its presentation. On November 27, 2008, Emin writes that she is showing in Spain for the first time, and her paintings are of “sprawled text.” One says, “I WANT TO FUCK THE WORLD. C**T INTERNATIONAL. THAT WAS YESTERDAY TODAY I JUST WANT TO DIE.” The column reflects this same dichotomy of pride and shame.

When viewing Emin’s art, I think about the femaleness of the words, and about how the kind of lowered eyes of the phrases look like steps back, not forward, for women. But that they are displayed at all, and so unapologetically, is where the meat of the message lies. The artist wants to be noticed, like all of us; she is female, but it is primarily her personhood, not her femininity, that she is expressing. In her art and in her column, she uses text messages, quotes from friends, and other epiphanies to depict her own struggle with at once seeking any sort of attention at all and wanting real love. Even if the words never explicitly ask it, her descriptions of her daily life—she goes from name-dropping to cat-aggrandizing in a matter of sentences—bring up this stressed-out question: Which, in the end, is more worth it? Emin has strayed from the goal of art to focus on the goal of the artist, and since her art is so egocentric, this means she is attempting self-discovery.

Oddly, through appearing completely un-workshopped, Emin has stuck fast to one time-honored tradition that is derived from the workshop: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes I want to simply ask her what her positions are, but then I am forced to think about the outlet from which they are spouted—an artist determined to reevaluate her position in the art world. The column is a distraction from her real work, so it makes sense that, when she writes, she is frustrated. Emin, whether intentionally or not, has showed us a negative space by focusing on the absence of productivity. She talks about struggles with alcohol more than she talks about parties. She talks about wanting sex more than she talks about having it. She is concerned by displays of her own art more often than she is proud of her awards. But this is natural. We complain more than we praise, especially as artists and writers.

At times, the prose can be too cute or self-deprecating for my taste. A lot of it is probably too tongue-in-cheek for most tastes. This is why we have writing workshops—to regulate an out-of-control style choice, and to taper ideas for effectiveness. For example, I’m often surprised that my hipstery tangents don’t get many laughs from the other writers in my groups. And I bet Emin’s work would, in most academic contexts, fall flat. But it’s the art world she is used to impressing and analyzing. The art world, which prides itself in dismissal. So, instead of focusing on clear theses, her column works as an update of inspirations, which refreshes and changes directions freely. The style may sound unappealing, but I get lost in this life and this honesty. As I read, I think of typical workshop complaints like “But it really happened that way,” and “That’s just the way this character thinks.” But, true to her own minimum-requirement style, Emin doesn’t even try to defend herself.

In my current context, there is an urgency all around me. I’m studying abroad and my classes are accelerated. I’m torn between academia and the bar scene, between the undergrads staying here and the writing fellows staying at the hotel next door, between educational field trips and other kinds of trips. And Tracey Emin gets this stuff. She has to decide whether or not to go to an opening and the after-after-after party/ies every night, while constantly being reminded of her own possible fall from the top tier of her social circle. She indirectly asks, again and again, what it is to be an artist, what it is to be a female artist, what is it to be a female artist in the U.K., and, as she says in the first few pages, what it is to be unintentionally celibate for two years, after two abortions and a few serious breakups.

My Life in a Column can read like an Us Weekly for artists: she’s recognized in the streets, but she has identity crises—just like me! It’s also like talking to one of my more self-obsessed friends: sometimes I forget why we’re friends. And then she comes out with a simile that really works—“the elements of life’s surprises are fast being taken away. It’s like the idea of wanting to be taken. But at the same time, having the fear of losing control”—and I remember again why I like her.

Like in a friendship, stories get repeated. And with each retelling of a relationship’s history or of a phobia’s origin, Emin’s insecurities become more vivid and identifiable. The differences between the ways a narrative is depicted in the years 2006 and 2008 become more telling than the plots themselves. The book on the whole speaks of memory, and of aging. Women fear aging more than men do, and women with a status to look after fear aging the most. What becomes of a person who has been categorized as a female artist, a lush, and a celebrity? Well, it’s what becomes of all of us, but with more room to think in public: She fears death, and all of its consequences.

I have not abandoned my loyalty to old-fashioned formats after this read. I end up going to my workshop class and finishing the book later. Group edits can disfigure a work, but they are meant to help establish a strong voice. No one would accuse Emin of lacking this, but I’m not sure a message, in any one entry, is entirely clear. This, too, speaks of status. When you’re as far up the ladder as Tracey Emin, you can run on and stream out and leave off as much as you like. In this world, it comes with the territory.


Natasha Stagg


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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