Coming Out of Two Closets Is Impossible Without a Sense of Humor
Greg Marshall’s "Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It" is a hilarious memoir about grappling with cerebral palsy and queerness
Greg Marshall’s memoir Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It is a brave and hilarious tour de force, taking us through his journey of self-acceptance as he grapples with cerebral palsy, queerness, and the early death of a parent.
By offering us a front seat to the uproarious antics of his quirky and loving family, and sharing with us his sharp and honest observations of past romantic and sexual encounters, he invites us to look back on the more embarrassing and uncomfortable moments of our own lives, and to recognize how these moments have fundamentally shaped us. Vulnerability is a trait that many writers struggle to achieve, and it’s a role that Marshall bravely takes on in his writing, showing how the mere act of acknowledging our physical and emotional vulnerabilities can lead us toward a braver and truer understanding of ourselves.
Greg Marshall and I were newly admitted fellows at the Michener Center for Writers when we first met in 2010. Over zoom, Marshall and I talked about making the leap from fiction to memoir, the role of truth in storytelling, listening to one’s body and its spectrum of differences, and how the queer sensibility can give us the audaciousness to take creative risks.
Monica Macansantos: I know a lot of fiction writers who struggle with the nonfiction form, but you seem very comfortable with it. I was wondering if you could tell us more about that.
Greg Marshall: My writing has always come from a place of humor and, you could say, quirky observation. But when I was willing to write about disability, to closely observe my brain and body, I started showing up on the page in new ways. I knew right away I wasn’t chronicling the misadventures of a fictional character. These were my experiences. They belonged to me. So it became about using the same craft toolkit I’d picked up in grad school—setting, plot, style—to explore my own life. I was using the same voice that I was using in fiction, but nonfiction had much stricter goalposts, which was a good exercise for me. It let me contain what I was trying to do and give it borders and definition, because my fiction, which I love and really want to get back into, was so beyond imaginative—and I don’t mean that in a good way. My last story in grad school was about a father-son duo who have the heads of falcons and the bodies of men, and they run a grocery store in Idaho. Hyper-imaginative stories are great if you can pull them off, but I think that I was exercising those outlandish, imaginative muscles too much.
MM: Your book made me think more deeply about being born with a clubfoot and how I’ve completely forgotten about it because I had corrective surgery as a baby. But then it reminds me at unexpected moments that it’s there, like when I’m running and I trip on it. Maybe that’s one of the purposes of memoir that isn’t often discussed, how it brings out the most vulnerable parts of the reader’s self as well as the writer’s self.
GM: Memoir brings up so many things you might never get around to talking about with a friend, like my leg or your foot. That’s what is delicious about it: you go into the confessional booth and have the most meaningful, deepest, funniest, silliest, strangest conversations that you’ve ever had with another person, because all the niceties are taken away and all of the dead air is taken away. And it’s just the best parts of a person’s story, however you define best: most interesting, most vulnerable, most intriguing.
MM: What I loved about your book is that it’s so embodied. You really took to heart what our teacher, Elizabeth McCracken, told us: that our writing must be embodied because our characters have bodies. In a sense, a lot of your writing ties in with muscle memory. Sometimes you have to listen to your body to make sense of what didn’t make sense in your head.
GM: Elizabeth’s advice was so seminal to Leg! It’s amazing the amount of specificity and feeling and narrative propulsion that you can create just from observing your own body. The most vivid example is, you know, in terms of sex and romance. What does your body do? What is it capable of in terms of pleasure, and does it feel limitations? What hurts, what doesn’t? Having a lover’s conversation with your own body can be really powerful when you want to add specificity to your work, whether you identify as disabled or not.
MM: I guess this ties in with something I said in one of our previous conversations about these parts of ourselves that mark us as disabled. It could be cerebral palsy or club footedness. In your book, you talk about how your parents decided not to tell you about your cerebral palsy in hopes that you would grow up to be this person who didn’t have to shoulder what they imagined to be its burden, or the limitations it would impose on you. Your book proposes that we change that narrative and talk about disability in terms of diversity, rather than as difference.
GM: Yeah, or even just as a spectrum. Disability is a universal experience that can happen over the course of a day or a year. You might experience an injury, you might be in an accident, you might have a new diagnosis. Being disabled is just part of the human continuum. Why shouldn’t it be part of our literature? And by making it part of our literature, we can start to decompartmentalize our conditions. Stories do weird work: by delving into those trashy details we talked about, our personal narratives become more relatable, more universal, more whole. We can accommodate the foibles of our bodies and we can make allowances for them, but we’re really making allowances for our humanity, not just for one specific part of ourselves. That’s the wink and nudge of the title. Nothing to see here, it’s just a leg. And then the book goes in a million different directions.
MM: Your book participates in many conversations simultaneously: there’s disability in here, but also queerness and how these two are intertwined in your life.
GM: Like a lot of gay men, and children of the ‘90s in general, I was fascinated and terrified of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My obsession started with an Afterschool Special we watched in my seventh-grade science class and culminated, in a terrible way, with the death of my boyfriend Corey at the start of my time as a Michener in the fall of 2010.
Experiencing a life-changing event like that as I was beginning to study fiction in a serious way—as we were reading Before Night Falls in our first-year seminar with Cristina Garcia—shaped my voice and subject matter as a writer. Chroniclers of the plague like Allan Gurganus, Alexander Chee, and Paul Monette gave me a blueprint for how to write through dark periods with humor, panache, and a sense of resilience.
For as different as they are stylistically, what these writers have in common is that they are willing to go there. They write about everything: the disabled body, illness, sex, family, money, religion, dildos. It’s like they’re laughing in the face of death, flipping death the middle finger, maybe even making love to death—pick your metaphor. The ability to do that seemed intoxicating, to pair outrageously funny with outrageously serious. Like, what could be stranger and more powerful than bottoming for the grim reaper?
I believe it was the poet James Merrill who said that being gay isn’t just a sexual preference. It’s an artistic sensibility, a way of seeing the world. I think there’s something to that: a mix of high and low, innuendo, camp, puns, and a certain neurotic lust for life. I’m not saying only gay people have this sensibility, or that all gay people do, just that it’s a comedy lineage that spoke to me as I wrote Leg. I decided to use my body. I decided to go there.
MM: While reading your memoir, I felt that gayness as a sensibility was instrumental in navigating these experiences of marginalization, and that humor was an intrinsic part of that sensibility. In general, humor helps us cut through the deceptions that we tell ourselves, by making us somewhat more comfortable about these truths that we’d rather not live with.
GM: Comedy does have a way of exposing the truth. Sometimes even a knock-knock joke can contain jaw-dropping honesty just by being literal, and that’s what is outrageous about it. That it just announces the truth in our world full of subterfuge and avoidance.
What I’ve noticed is that the queer sensibility is willing to go there a bit more, to take a deeper cut, to take a more audacious creative risk. To be heard, we’ve had to be louder, and to be understood, we’ve had to be more daring. It helps you go to the embarrassing places, which can be rich fodder for vulnerability and honesty and exploration and help you find a little corner of the human experience that hasn’t been written about a million times.
MM: I feel like kids growing up in Utah won’t feel as timid about writing about their experiences of queerness or disability after reading your book. Once you set an example, people coming from similar backgrounds and experiences feel braver to tell their stories.
GM: I hope that’s true. Once you have a template, you can break it. If you use a canonical coming-of-age story like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life as a starting point, you can start to filter your own experience through it, like literary cheesecloth, and see what sticks around. Those can be really interesting narrative curds to munch. Are there places Tobias Wolff didn’t go? I’m pretty sure that in the 1950s, he didn’t have his mom’s Brookstone back massager to discover himself. So hey, that’s something new I can write about puberty.
MM: I’m thinking of my own experiences as a memoirist and how a lot of it again ties in with this act of performance that you write about so well in the book. We often think of performance in terms of masking something that should be hidden. But in your case, you write about performance both as a child actor in the book and as a writer and memoirist, as being something that allows you to embrace these difficult truths and to bring everything out there.
GM: Performance is a way of holding space and having a spotlight shone on your own experience, whether you want the spotlight there or not. It has this ability to make things so artificial and heightened you can’t ignore them, like the fashion on a runway. Or a closeted kid making jazz hands and singing his heart out to the Beach Boys.
MM: And by giving your own performance, you make your own rules.
GM: There’s power in a pratfall, well-told. You deliver the punchline versus being the punchline.
MM: You’re also freer when you exist outside conventions.
GM: Exactly! It’s not like there are no risks or blowback or hurt feelings when you break conventions. I just knew that to say something worthy of the conversation, I had to bring my entire self to the page and not hold anything back. There’s an argument to be made, on a human level, that you shouldn’t do that. But artistically, I had a bit of a Joan Didion Spidey-Sense that this was the moment for Leg. There’s an element of exposure, of personal risk, of upsetting the norm of your culture or family when you write a memoir, but isn’t that kind of the point? Because hopefully you’re not just publishing a book. You’re expanding what’s possible for your contemporaries and the people who come after you.