Your saliva is not you

We sit on stools in the new science block alongside pinewood benches where the copper taps, shaped like swans’ necks, slope into sinks below the bench line.

‘Take a glass, girls,’ Mrs Raj says. She has put out a line of tall glasses along each bench top, one per girl. Mrs Raj wears a red sari over a cropped bodice. I can see the line of her dark flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wonder two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think?

‘I want you to spit into your glass,’ Mrs Raj says.
Murmurs bounce off the walls.

‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face, the set of her jaw. I hesitate. My mouth is dry but I pucker up enough saliva to collect a series of tiny dams on the end of my tongue. I shoot them out from behind my lips.

‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’
The puddle in the bottom of my glass is thick and sticky. My stomach roils.

‘Now,’ the teacher says. ‘I want you to drink it back up. Do as I say, girls. It won’t hurt.’

The saliva is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than cough syrup but I get it down.

‘Now can you see the difference between inside and outside?’ Mrs Raj’s voice does not falter against our bemused stares. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you.’ The red henna spot on Mrs Raj’s forehead jogs up and down as she speaks. ‘Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’

Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows her straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.

Now you might be interested to follow Ami Mattison’s thoughts on Why you are not your writing.

59 thoughts on “Your saliva is not you”

  1. Elizabeth, I read what Ami had to say, and I thank you for the link. And again, what you wrote is a gorgeous piece of writing. I don't believe I will forget it any time soon.


  2. Elizabeth, just a note for you. I am laughing at myself just now. When I read you earlier I thought you were another Elizabeth I have read. (And perhaps it's wrong to say, but I was surprised by the high quality of writing when I believed it to be someone else.) And then I was at William's and I thought, Oh, I need to see what Elizabeth is up to, and I clicked on your prompt to come this way. Third time here today! I laugh.

    I am no longer surprised by the quality of writing, but I am grateful for it.


  3. Thank you for such a good piece today. I like the perspective presented. And thanks for the link. The issue what is and isn't us can be applied to more than just writing. Thank you

  4. You have written with such clarity that I have these images imprinted on my mind.

    Although I might be feeling a little nauseous about the experiment!

  5. Writing is much more difficult than spitting.

    I read the link and I agree 100%.

    Of course, if I'm not my writing, then somebody else is actually agreeing 100%…

  6. Elisabeth, what a brilliant way to make a point and yes, I then went to Ami's webpage to read what she had to say.

    It all makes sense because even what we believe is the truth about ourselves, as we write we're recreating it, honing it and trying to make it interesting/thought-provoking and entertaining for the reader.

    I do wish I wasn't eating yoghurt and meusli whilst reading this post though!

  7. On the whole I don’t have this problem. But I’m not sure that your saliva analogy works when it comes to the writing process. Once I’ve finished a piece of writing, as I say in the introduction to my book of poems, I can stand apart from it, to a certain extent I’m done with it, and so the only way I can take it back into myself is by reading it and, yes, sometimes reading an old poem will dredge up unhappy, even bitter memories. But the fact that I have a few, even a few thousand, words on a page doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve let go of the piece of writing. The paper (or screen) is just for my convenience because I can’t hold that amount of material in my head. I had to stop doing the dishes last night because I couldn’t hold half a dozen lines of an ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ in my head.

          The Reason

          I write things down
          so that I can stand apart from them

          and look at them or go away and forget
          or at least try to.

          I can pretend they're no longer part of me.
          We can all pretend.

          Things look different from a distance,
          smaller, or am I stating the obvious?

          I can't remember anymore.

          13 October 1997

    I do get what Ami says about one’s writing taking a strange turn and wanting to go off in a direction you weren’t prepared for. That’s what’s happened with this current novel. It wants to be something I’m not ready to write (and possibly not yet capable of writing) and the reason it hasn’t worked up until now is because I really don’t want to go there. I feel like I’m trying to juggle steelies besides a magnet – the pull is irresistible. As soon as I put a dad and a daughter in the book it was inevitable that they’d become me and my daughter. I’ve tried hard to play both roles (old me and young me) but I keep finding myself wanting to comment on my relationship with my daughter. The fact is that in twenty-odd years, which is when the book is set (me doing my Krapp again) the two of us will very likely be in a similar position to the one that I’ve put this father and daughter in: i.e. he’s dead and she realises that there was so much about him that she never know. Now whether she needs to know those things is another matter.

    You write autobiography and are clearly conscious of the fact that it’s impossible to write about your own past without touching on the lives of others. Can I write about my own future without coming up against the same obstacle? You’re dealing with facts, I’m projecting: the future I’m writing about will never happen, not in this form, but there are certain inevitabilities that are unavoidable, not all of which are that nice. I have watched my daughter and I grow further and further apart year by year. It happens. Life gets in the way. She has a very busy life. I remember her talking when she was about seventeen about looking after me in my old age and it was lovely and very naïve. Now she’s thirty and probably has a much more realistic idea how our relationship is going to develop over the next few years and the fact is that, and quite rightly so, her life is no longer daddy-centric. By writing this book I would be effectively forcing her – because no matter how much I say the daughter in the book isn’t her she will see herself in the role – to face the future before its time comes naturally.

    I don’t generally worry about an audience when I write because I wrote for me. This one is different. Swallowing one’s own spittle is one thing. Asking someone else to is something else completely.

  8. Mrs Raj, who deserves her place in the pantheon of great teachers unsung (till this), could have been disproving the theory of relativity, and I too, would have been thinking about that gap and is she cold?

  9. Thank you thrice, Woman at the Window. I'm flattered at your high praise and glad that both my spitting piece and Ami's thoughts on writing held your interest.

  10. Thanks for visiting and for your kind words, Indi.

    Anthony, you're right. These instances of self and not self can apply to other creative pursuits, perhaps to any creative pursuit, art, photography, cooking, sewing etc. Thanks for the thought, Anthony.

  11. Thanks, Weaver and Mary. It seems the image is etched onto your minds. I'm not sure whether you welcome that.

    I did not think at the time that others might find it so off putting, but then again, given the degree of revulsion in those girls, including my own school girl self, it's not so surprising.

  12. Kirk, I agree , it is much easier to spit than to write.

    Then I reflect on Hemingway's comment, which I read on Roland's blog, that 'writing is easy, you just sit down and bleed'.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  13. It's funny Kath, I work shopped this short piece in a writing group I've recently and the discussion led us into travels through all the things that revolt and disgust us, nose picking,scab scratching etc.

    These are among the things you handle so well in your blog.

    I agree with you about writing. We all craft and shape. What comes out is not the same as what's inside.

    Thanks, Kath.

  14. Thanks Ms Moon, another one who's locked into the image, it seems. I hope it's not too awful for you to carry around.

    I think of the eyeless, faceless man in the film in which you performed and that image seems to me even more disturbing. Readers and viewers all have their own idiosyncratic responses.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  15. It's the business of swallowing one's spittle after a time lapse that seems to cause the offense, Jim. Maybe in the same way as some people are disturbed by the sight of their own blood.

    I once went to return a little girl to her mother after she had spent the day playing with one of my daughters. Her mother opened the front door to greet us.

    'You're not my mother,' the four year old said. 'You can't be. Your hair is different.'

    It seems during her absence the girl's mother had visited the hairdresser's and had her hair cut short.

    I was taken by the daughter's distress at the time. It's all to do with the pain of separation and our intolerance of difference, I suspect.

    It might seem a little off at a tangent but I think it's related to a sense of abjection.

    Julia Kristeva, whose work I have not read much, but whose ideas interest me, writes about abjection as 'the place …where meaning collapses, the place where I am not. The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self.
    Thus, we forcefully exclude the abject which ostensibly draws our attention to the place where meaning collapses.'

    This language is hard to decipher, I know. I can never quite get it right myself. What does Kristeva mean? To me it's something about how we say 'yuk' when we encounter something that disturbs us, something that once lived and is now dead for instance, something like a corpse.

    Writing has the effect of bringing the abject into focus, which also connects I think with what you're saying her about trying to write about an imaginary future that involves the relationship between a father and his daughter but it won't go right for you because you're memory drags you back into what is familiar, namely your own relationship with your daughter.

    Should she read your novel she will find it to be 'other' and at the same time imagine it is to do with her because you write about the relationship between a daughter and her father and you are your daughter's father.

    I'm rambling a bit here.

    Your poem here seems to come at this from yet another angle, the struggle between different aspects of one's writing self.

    Thanks, Jim

  16. Thanks Niamh B for your kind words and to you Helena of Marshall Stacks.

    These things are all relative and I'm glad that you too Helena would have wondered about this teacher, under dressed for our climate. Thanks.

  17. Wow! What a strange and interesting exercise. It is strange what is inside and then outside us. What we bring in and let out.

    A creative thought and post, Elisabeth. Write on!

  18. Dear Elisabeth this is a marvelous piece of writing and a great analogie on the writing of Ami
    It gave me new food for thought and a new insight I loved it Thank you
    Lot of love marja

  19. Wow, what an utterly mesmerizing contemplation. I experienced a plethora of emotions, anything from disgust to awe and a sudden realization of a new wisdom…
    Wow again, loved this post.

  20. This is a kind of reflection of the mind too! I don't like the idea of drinking my own saliva. I think I will throw up if I had to do so. It's different with your writing or any other activity of a person: that reflects you.

  21. Thanks, Vachte. It is strange this difference between inner and outer. I'm glad you found it creative.

    I'm glad that you found it helpful, too, Marja, in that it offered new insights. It's always so good to think again. Certainly Ami's post had that effect on me, as well. It made me think again.

  22. Thanks for your appreciation, Alberto and to you Zuzana for your response.

    Maybe I am too close to this post, but I am intrigued by the levels of disgust generated in people by ths experience.

    It probably has something to do with the business of 'spitting' generally.

    There is no greater insult to anyone than to 'spit' in their face. Thanks again, Zuzana.

  23. Well, Reader, you are another such person who finds the idea of spitting revolting.

    I agree with you, it is different from the production of writing. There is hopefully far more merit in our writing than in our spittle.

    Thanks Reader Wil.

  24. ugh, what a revolting exercise to be forced through, yet you write with such clarity, I don't doubt it is true (shudder). My first time in here, and I'm glad I popped by (see my smile?).

  25. God you're good!

    I don't think I've ever thought of my writing as me or even an extension of me, I've never found criticism upsetting, but I've known lots of people who do. In fact, I know several people who identify so closely with their jobs (non-creative, exchanging one's labour for cash type jobs) that they react as if you'd tried to stab them if you criticise the industry. I used to react less than cheerfully when someone criticised my cooking when I was a new wife, so maybe I got over all that then.

    Anyway, this has all been very interesting, and thanks for the link: Ami Mattison seems well worth reading in full.

  26. Personally, I've always thought that while I wasn't my drivel, it was certainly representative of the acerbity of my cerebral cortex.

    What a provocatively excellent bit of writing, Elisabeth!

    Enjoyed the link, too.

  27. I am intrigued, Elizabeth. Will follow your link. I will visit you again. Many thanks for your comment. I never thought I would receive so many nice comments on the subject of Goethe. Surprise, surprise!

    Best wishes,

  28. I'm pleased to meet you Shrinky and glad that despite your feelings of revulsion at my story you enjoyed its clarity.

    I think the story is 'true', but memory plays such tricks on us and even I who believe I went through this experience have trouble understanding our teacher's intentions.

    I wrote into the memory to try to find out what it all means. I'm still not sure.

    Thanks, Shrinky.

  29. Thanks, Eryl. You are fortunate indeed that you don't connect your self identity and self worth too closely to your writing. Many of us do.

    It gets easier with age, but still it is a trap. I've met people to whom you can say nothing about their writing without them dissolving into tears or flying into rages. It makes it almost impossible to help improve writing, when criticism cannot be tolerated.

    It's one of the reasons I enjoyed Ami's article. She helps get a clearer perspective on these things and she writes very well herself. Clearly she's taken in much criticism and used it to develop her writing.

  30. Thanks, Kass. Drivel and spittle are close cousins, especially as they both derive from our bodies and our cerebral cortex.

    I'm glad you came out of reading the piece provoked.

  31. As I said on your blog, Catherine from A thousand Clapping Hands, I'm pleased to meet you here.

    Goethe is far more worthy than spittle. I doubt that he'd write on such a topic but you never know.

  32. Elisabeth, This is a wonderful piece of writing, vivid and straightforward with much to tell us. I also followed the link and agree that I am not my writing, nor do I think of it as my child. Sometimes my sense is that the universe has something it wishes to say and has chosen my fingers to do the typing.

  33. Thank you Elisabelle and Dave for kind your thoughts.

    Marylinn, I know that feeling. As it is for you, sometimes some part of me outside of my conscious control moves my fingers wherever it chooses to go and I have little say in the matter.


  34. My nose is wrinkled in distaste…though the message loud and clear. Could I have reinvested the saliva into a mouth, even parched though it were? No. And so the lesson comes only through you, and your ability to do so. Thank you!

  35. I've just been to your blog, Wine and words. As an inveterate wine lover myself, I'm pleased to meet you. I mean this both literally and metaphorically and thanks for your generous comment. I'm pleased to meet you.

  36. Elizabeth


    I look forward to reading more. Thank you.

    It's good to meet you. I read your comments on Brooke Hopkins' and Peggy Battin's blog. I was lucky enough to have both Brooke and Peggy as professors years ago (too many and consider them good friends. I too was moved by Brooke's essay about childhood abuse.

    I can tell it's going to be an adventure reading your posts and thinking about writing.


  37. I'd never thought of that before, but it explains something – I don't like spit. At all. I was spat on all the time by my brothers growing up so it actually repulses me. To see someone spit in a movie or tv show makes me gag. I could barely read your post, too (although the writing was quite lovely and the story and moral of it intriguing).

    But once something leaves me or someone else – I do not trust it. I do not want it back. It was meant to be gone if it doesn't still exist inside and to force it back in is tragedy.

  38. It's lovely to meet you here, Lorraine. What a small world. I was very taken by Brooke's paper as you would have read in my comment on his blog. And now I meet you. And find another friend, Kass, has connections to Brooke too. Amazing. Thanks.

  39. It is amazing to me that something as basic as our saliva can take on such tremendously disturbing qualities for so many of us, Phoenix.

    It's not quite the same as spilled blood, but for someone like you it sounds even worse.

    I'm glad you were able to persevere in reading this post. I can understand your reaction given the level of your trauma.

    As ever you are brave in writing about it here and I thank you.

  40. Elisabeth, the analogy is excellent and memorable. For me it brings to mind not my own but other people's difficulty understanding that I and my writing are separate. My book is "fiction" which of course means it's a complex mixture of memory and imagination. But non-writer friends and family members find it much easier to assume, in a simplistic way, that the characters are me and the situations are from my life. On one level of course, that is true; the saliva came from my mouth. But once it's out there, mixed with air, touching the glass, it must be taken on its own terms. Or must it? To what degree can the author be removed from his work? I like questions more than answers… but I also like it when people close to me can appreciate the work for its literary qualities, not for the voyeuristic kicks they get by assuming the thing is "me."

    Thanks. Good link too.

  41. It never ceases to amaze me, Brent that people spend so much time trying to figure out the so-called 'truth' of fiction. They want desperately to get at the 'facts' of the author's life or of the story.

    The rider that 'this is a true story' sells books. But why? I ask.

    I'm of the view that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that in some ways all writing turns to fiction the minute it hits the page.

    Yet certain people want to anchor the writing down in some way into provable facts. They refuse to see the beauty and the emotional truth of the words.

    Perhaps in doing so they don't have to feel as much as they might or even think as much as they might were they actually to read the work.

    Thanks, Brent.

  42. Holy Cripe!

    I think that teacher must have heard of the experiment through the grape vine, or something. I do not recall any of the lesson plan that instructed anything remotely resembling an instruction to drink it.


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