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Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.


"This is the book Lidia Yuknavitch was put on the planet to write for us."

– Rebecca Brown, author of The Gifts of the Body

"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."

– Andrei Condrescu, author of The Poetry Lesson

"Reading this book is like diving into Yuknavitch's most secret places."

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

"The book is extraordinary."

– Chuck Palahniuk, author of Pygmy

"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."

– Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch

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Chapter 16: Swimming with Amateurs


It says a lot for an author when, after a week of eighteen-hour days spent reading and analyzing literature, I choose (as in can’t put down) to read her book instead of paint my nails and watch Clueless as planned.

I picked up Lidia’s book last Friday to get a feel for the text and what questions I should be considering in preparation for writing this guest post. My intention was to only read a few chapters, because there is little time for pleasure reading while I’m in school. (That’s where I am now, by the way, sitting in a stiff-backed chair in the thin-walled library with a stack of essays on nineteenth century aesthetics, Virginia Woolf, and psychoanalytic criticism of The Sound and the Fury. [Seriously, if I have to read one more essay about the gravity of female virginity, I’m going to start burning books.])

Not only do I barely have time to read for pleasure (let’s be real: I barely have time to read everything I need to for class), but the last thing I want to do after reading from sunup to well after sundown is read anything I don’t absolutely have to.

Except, last Friday I picked up Lidia’s book, and my evening of watching Amy Heckerling’s retelling of Emma and licking Doritos crumbs from my fingerprints went out the window. [Resist temptation to make textual connection to Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway.] Where I’m going with this is here: this book is good. Like chest-grabbing, can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough, someone-get-me-a-book-light-because-I’m-going-to-be-reading-this-all-night good.

The chapter “Swimming with Amateurs” is about an evening Lidia spent “night swimming” with Ken Kesey and three other friends who are all “totally, completely, unapologetically, rocket shot high.” In this chapter, Lidia and Ken speak of their deceased children (his killed at the age of twenty in a car crash, and hers “pink and rose-lipped” and stillborn). As they swim under the occasionally shadowed moon, Lidia uses piecemeal memories of the evening to explain to how meeting Ken “so close to death brought writing into [her] hands.” In this moment of utter grief, a moment in which Lidia admits to being numb from the death of her daughter, writing, like a way out, is put in front of her.

And writing is a way out, isn’t it? Putting experience into words, whether it is through writing or retelling, objectifies it. It puts it outside of us, in front of us, and into concrete terms to be manipulated and examined objectively.  It’s why talking about loss is better than not talking about it. It’s why authors obsessively rewrite the same story until it takes adequate shape outside the confines of their minds. Last year, for a class I took on Trauma and the Literature of Survival I read more trauma theory than any one person should. I read a lot of Freud, yes, but I also read a wonderful book by a woman who met with holocaust survivors and asked them to tell their stories. Unlike many historians who had approached them, this author was trying to capture the feeling of their experience, not the historical truth. Faced with this open-ended ability to talk, these men and women began forming a narrative: they told of losing friends, of losing their homes, of losing fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. After decades of dealing with the most immense of traumas, talking about their experiences was the only way they were able to make sense of them. It didn’t lessen the pain (nothing, I imagine, ever does), but it did give it shape. Telling their stories took their repeating memories of trauma and put them into words.

In “Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf (yes, you’re going to have to get used to the Woolf and Faulkner references for the next five weeks) describes how writing, rewriting, and finally capturing her mother successfully in the form of Mrs. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse was helpful in laying the trauma of her mother’s death (she died when Virginia was thirteen) to rest: “I ceased to be obsessed with my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I suppose that I do for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” Narrative objectifies traumatic experience and renders it comprehensible. Even though Virginia would sneer at the suggestion, writing is therapeutic.

Of course I don’t mean to be emotionally simplistic and insensitive. I don’t mean to suggest that writing about trauma instantly cures one of its effects. In Virginia Woolf’s biography by Hermione Lee, the author questions whether Virginia “exorcise[d] her mother as completely as she tells herself she has” since she “goes on, after To The Lighthouse, calling her death to mind, and is still trying to describe her—and still finding it difficult—at the end of her life.” Creating narrative does not necessarily “cure” trauma, but it can certainly aid in its integration.

Here’s my admission of bias on this topic: I went night swimming once, not too long ago. I belly-flopped into the black water of Lake Champlain with my nose plugged between my thumb and forefinger, while the man I had loved for ten years dove over me and into the water, his perfect body curved like a parenthesis. Like Lidia, this night inspired words, words that served as a means of objectifying my experience. “I don’t want to forget this,” I thought the next day after we had parted on the side of the road. I wanted to get it all down, but I also wanted to make sense of it. If I wrote the right words, I thought, if I saw it all there in front of me—his toe rubbing against mine on the bed, the tart pop of blueberry pie, the suddenness with which he had reached under the water and inside the wet lip of my bathing suit, his goose-pimpled skin submerged and blue in the moonlight—I could understand it. I needed to give it form. I needed to get it out of my head. So I sat on my bed and wrote and cried and tried to remember everything.

* * *

Does writing help you sort through your experiences, or do you write only after you’ve made sense of your experiences? Are you more like Julia Alvarez who believes that one should wait seven years before writing about an event (an experience, like a wound, she says, needs time to breathe before it is assigned words)? In what ways has narrative helped you process difficult and/or traumatic events in your life? In what ways is your writing therapeutic?

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  1. ydde said on 06/30/11 at 10:09 am Reply

    Great post. I love Virginia Woolf, so references to her are always appreciated. I think she’s my favorite modernist, really.

    I never set out to write about me. It never even enters my head, but bits of my life kind of weave into the characters and they all take parts of me with them.

    Writing, though, is definitely a way for me to process the world and my experiences. So much of the world is pure absurdity to me and I just can’t seem to understand so many things, and then I start writing, on accident, impulsively. And I tend to write in binges. Like, I can spend all day writing, no problem. There have been some Saturdays here where I woke up at 8am, started writing at 10am, and wrote to 4am. When I get flying, I can’t stop and I see no reason to, because all the world opens to me and I never have a plan, never even know what’s beyond the sentence I’m typing, so I’m kind of on a ride except I’m building it as I race through it. And though I tend towards surrealism or magic realism, the more strange things get, the more reality starts bending and splintering, the more at home I feel within it and the more me it becomes. It’s like creating a landscape of my life, but only painting the emotions, the sensations, and few of the details. Or the details will be there, but they’ll be rearranged and forty pages apart.

    I’ve written a lot since I’ve been in Korea. Two novels, four novellas, and maybe or more short stories, and I think, partly, it’s a way to keep me occupied, but, more likely, it’s a way for me to process living in a place where no one within half an hour of me speaks english besides my coworkers and I know very few people.

    So how much time? I don’t know. I find, though, that I’m always writing about the things that happened when I was between, say, fifteen and twenty. I think, maybe, you need a bit of distance. I wouldn’t properly be able to write about my life as a twenty three year old because I don’t know much about that yet. Maybe when I’m twenty five I’ll understand being twenty three, the way, maybe now, I finally understand what happened when I was a teenager.


    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 10:34 am

    Can I be a fly on the wall when you are writing from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m.? Because that sounds thrilling.

    I’m more methodical, more of an everyday, set-a-word-goal kind of writer. I relate more to Jonathan Safran Foer’s observation that writing is like pulling teeth… out of his penis. Painful, brutal, and overall pretty gory. I have been in places where I’ve written more, mystically influenced by the location (Vermont, thankfully, is one of those places), so I definitely believe that place can have a big influence (negative or positive) on our creativity.

    But, yeah. I’m totally jealous of your writing binges.

    ydde said on 06/30/11 at 10:58 am

    Ha, I’m certain it’d be really boring. Lots of me drinking water, pacing around, clicking around the internet, staring at the walls and then an hour or four where my fingers never stop. And it kind of cycles like that.

    I’ve written four novels since last September, and the longest one took me nine days. The first one, I was halfjoking to myself, thinking, I bet I can write a novel by Friday [it was Sunday night]. Having no idea what the novel would be about, I started it Monday morning and finished it by Friday. Though, I mean, my novels are rather on the short side, the longest being 64k words, the shortest being 41k. I always set myself a goal or 5,000 words a day, which takes me between three and seven hours, typically. But, I mean, sometimes I hit 5,000 words at 11am and if I have nothing to do that day, why stop? Other times I hit 5,000 at 3am and want to keep going, but decide it’s best to get a fresh start. But, man, when I’m writing, I can’t seem to do much else. Not sleeping, not eating, just writing. And working, I guess, which is an annoyance, losing nine hours of every day right in the middle.

    But that’s just how I have to write. I used to write maybe 5,000 in a week, then edit till it felt right, then move on, but I never got far going that way, always quit after a few weeks. I realised it’s best for me to just run as fast as I can until my brain shuts off and there’s nothing but my fingers and the images flying past. And mostly what I mean by binges is that, typically, I don’t write for most of the year. I find it almost impossible to write in summer and winter, though this last year’s been a startling exception. But, anyrate, because of that, I push a year’s worth of writing into the three or four months of the year I actually do write.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 11:57 am

    All right, I’m officially super proud of you both — YDDE (your output), Emily (your discipline). Me? I just wait until an idea comes. I’ve been waiting two years. But it’s been a GREAT two years off! And I don’t feel guilty about not writing! Man, it feels good to say that.

    ydde said on 06/30/11 at 12:13 pm

    Not feeling guilty about writing is great! It’s something that I struggle with at times because I feel that I’m way behind where I should be. But mostly that has to do with submitting stories and novels and such, which I really really hate, so I almost never do it.

    Also, as a side note, every time I see my name in capital letters like that, it makes me think you’re cheering me on, which is pretty great. Might even be why I keep coming back.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 12:15 pm

    YDDE, HOORAY! (Ha, that’s pretty funny!) And yeah, I hate submitting, too, and don’t, anymore.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 1:33 pm

    A novel in NINE days?! Holy hell. That is majorly impressive.

    Lately I’ve started to equate my relationship to writing to my relationship with food. In the same way that you “binge” on writing, a binge for me would be self-destructive behavior, so, in this case, *not* writing. I really really really wish it worked the other way.

    ydde said on 07/01/11 at 9:29 am

    Ha, well, it’s only impressive if it’s actually good, and since only I’ve read it, it’s hard to say. But I think it’s the greatest thing written by an american with my name. Definitely.

    I guess I binge the other way, too, not writing. But all the time I’m not physically writing, I still kind of am, but mostly I’m making bad decisions or trying to draw or paint or sculpt or play instruments. All of which I do quite terribly, but I find it great fun to play with things I don’t understand, like pianos and paint.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:36 pm

    “But I think it’s the greatest thing written by an american with my name. Definitely.”

    That’s saying something!

  2. Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 11:59 am Reply

    Emily, thank you for writing this stunning guest post today! I love, love, love your own night-swimming confession. Beautiful-lovely.


    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks, Molly!

  3. Dawn. said on 06/30/11 at 12:28 pm Reply

    Great post, Emily. I’ve never been night swimming, but after reading this stunning chapter in COW and then your lovely words about night swimming here, I definitely want to.

    Even though I write fiction, I do think one of the main reasons I write is to process my experiences and the experiences of people dear to me. I layer those experiences with varying amounts of lies, because it’s easier to tell the truth that way. At least for me. I usually don’t intend to do this, write my way through personal experiences, but it ends up happening to some degree no matter what the story is. It could be just a flash, a puff of smoke, but it’s there. Writing through trouble reminds me of this fucking beautiful quote from the Bible: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I don’t know why, but I love that.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 1:37 pm

    I don’t have a lot of night swimming experience, but the times I’ve done it have been great. And like Dawn, I think I write, too, to process my experiences and the experiences of those around me. Dawn, that is a lovely (terrifying?) quotation.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 1:38 pm

    That’s beautiful.

    I love what you said about littering the truth with lies because it’s easier to tell that way. It reminds me of a Tim O’Brien quote: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” It’s very post-modern of him (or “pomo,” as Mark Cugini would say), but I love the idea of “truthiness” in writing and how we, as writers constantly strive for it, and how we, as readers, feel it.

    Also, word to the wise: night swimming is freaking freezing.

    Chloe said on 06/30/11 at 2:13 pm

    Oh, Dawn I love that too! Thanks.

    Dawn. said on 07/01/11 at 12:02 am

    Glad to know we share that, Molly. BTW, I just read your prosepoem “War Wear” in Midwestern Gothic this afternoon and I really enjoyed it. MG is the best debut issue of a lit mag I’ve read so far.

    @Emily: It is just fucking scary beautiful, isn’t it? Love that Tim O’Brien quote too. And I think the freezing aspect is why I’ve been too chicken to try night swimming yet, haha.

    You’re welcome, Chloe. It’s one of the only Bible verse I can still remember.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:38 pm

    It’s quite a day for Molly Gaudry, isn’t it? Midwestern Gothic and Requited? Congrats to you, lady!

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/01/11 at 2:35 pm

    Dawn, thanks for reading “War Wear.” It’s one of those poems that I do, where I take someone else’s writing (in this case it came from one of Claudia Smith’s pieces from her Future Tense chapbook Put Your Head In My Lap) and have to use all the words, but in a different order. Good brain exercise, and it forces you to use verbs and nouns in interesting ways.

    Emily, ha, the Requited poem. So sad. So true. Thanks for the shout-out, though. And it is quite a day! I’m taking it easy from a little medical procedure I had. So far, 1800 mg of Ibuprofen, and few Xanax. And still in pain, and still having claustrophobia-inspired panic attacks. It is quite a day, indeed! 🙂

    Dawn. said on 07/02/11 at 1:29 pm

    Put Your Head in My Lap is a great fucking chapbook. Aw, I hope you feel better, Molly!

  4. Jordan Blum said on 06/30/11 at 12:29 pm Reply

    I definitely write as it happens (rather than waiting till it’s over and I can “make sense” of it). It helps organize the main points and put them into perspective. I can look at the situation somewhat objectively if it’s on paper, written on a white background with black letters. I think before that, if it’s just in my head, it’s too abstract, like randomized snapshots that aren’t fully formed. I need to get it written ASAP.

    I’ve written some poems about broken hearts and anger toward my mother, and it helped me understand my feelings. But a lot of my writing isn’t personal; it’s nonsense haha.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 1:38 pm

    Jordan, I know I definitely write a lot of nonsense, too, especially in my more constraint-driven poems. Sometimes that’s the best writing, the freest.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 1:41 pm

    Exactly, Jordan! It’s all smoke and fog in your head, but getting something down on paper, seeing those black words on white provides a structure for those thoughts. It’s not a perfect system, but I definitely feel relieved once I get something down on paper. Until then, I obsess endlessly. (Even something as simple as a grocery list. The minute I put it on a sticky note, there’s a sense of relief from the release of it.)

    Jordan Blum said on 06/30/11 at 9:06 pm

    Yup, yup. I actually have the outline for a new flash fiction piece in my head now; however, I’m too tired to write it down, and I’m scared of putting it down because it might not live up to my own expectations. Crap! haha.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:40 pm

    Write it down, Jordan! I like what Chloe said below about how a story can change over time. How you write about it today may be cursory and not how you write about it in, say, a year or two when we write it for real, but I bet getting it down in some form will influence and inspire what you write in two years.

  5. Chloe said on 06/30/11 at 1:37 pm Reply

    Beautiful post, Emily.

    I take a ton of notes. When my apartment in Brooklyn was condemned, my friend said, “take the most fucked up notes you can,” and that always stuck with me. Since I write non-fiction I take notes on my emotions and I write down verbatim things people say. Since I am a non-fiction writer, this way I can fact-check.

    I just write constantly. Before, during and after experiences. I find it fascinating to look at how I wrote about an experience when I was still very close to it, and how I write about it five years later. Then sometimes I mix the two, I suppose. I use the fucked up notes converged with my perspective from time.

    I’m a binge writer but if I’m not in a position in my life to binge, I just try to write something each day–whether it’s editing old stuff, starting new stuff, or recording my dreams. I like to keep food and dream journals.

    The only time I find myself backing away from writing is when I know it will hurt. The truth hurts. But I try to stay mentally strong and just bleed.


    Emily Lackey said on 06/30/11 at 1:45 pm

    I love the idea of combining the rawness of present experience and the potential wisdom of hindsight. That must make for some beautiful essays. I go back and forth. Sometimes I feel compelled to write about it immediately, sometimes, like you, I can’t. But I like your idea of trying to get at least something down in the moment and coming back to it later with some perspective.

    And you know the Hemingway quote, right? “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

    Dawn. said on 07/01/11 at 12:05 am

    This is why I can’t wait to read your book, Chloe. 🙂

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/01/11 at 2:36 pm

    ME TOO, Chloe!

  6. Girl with a New Life said on 06/30/11 at 1:46 pm Reply

    I find that I do both. My creative process is part organic and part methodical. In the midst of my daily quotas there is also some meditation and experimentation. Most days I am at my desk, but many days I drag my notebook to a park bench and have at it.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 2:06 pm

    I am in love with the park-bench writer. I see them sometimes, maybe writing poems, maybe writing fiction, maybe writing songs or in a journal, and I want to go to them and say, Hello, what are you writing, but of course I would never do that. It is such a romantic thing to do — take your words into the public, and put them in a private place, on paper, but then perhaps one day set them free into the public again.

    Chloe said on 07/01/11 at 1:20 pm

    Haha, Dawn, you are so good to me. I LOVE your site by the way.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:44 pm

    I wish I wrote more by hand. I’ve come to rely so much on my computer when I write (the ability to edit, the speed of typing, etc.). Since I’ve been in Vermont, I’ve been trying to journal each morning and have had to stop after a page or two to stretch out the cramps in my hand. It’s sad that we lose that tactile connection to our words when we write on a computer. Seeing and hearing them written. I miss that.

    ydde said on 07/01/11 at 1:53 pm

    I’m the same way, had been forever since I actually tried to write with a pen and paper, but, since I’ve been banned from reading at work [yeah, seriously], I started writing there the old fashioned way. Or, I did for a while, until I stopped writing about a month ago. But it felt pretty good, and, of course, I could only write fairytales, because why else bother?

    ydde said on 07/01/11 at 1:54 pm

    But, then, too, man, I cannot cannot cannot write with a pencil! That kind of noise, so loud, so close, I feel it in my teeth and wish I didn’t have teeth and then my skin’s all goosed and I can’t think about anything except how loud pencils are and I want to scream!

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:57 pm

    Interesting! See, I love the sound of pencil on paper. I’m sure for each of us it’s something from childhood. Some negative and positive association, respectively.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 1:58 pm

    The shh shh shhushing of it. It’s very womb-like. Very wave-like. Very leaves-in-the-wind-like. I love it.

    ydde said on 07/01/11 at 2:24 pm

    Gah! Even thinking about it is making me cringe!

    It’s one babystep below chalkboards, which, if those were at my school, I’d have to quit my job. I’d look like a frightened bunny all day, afraid someone was going to write on it.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/01/11 at 2:38 pm

    I’m the same way re: pencil, YDDE. I am very particular about the kind of pen I use, too, except it changes depending on my mood — sometimes I like ballpoints, sometimes art pens. Who knows? Maybe I’m nuts!

    Mark C said on 07/01/11 at 3:44 pm

    I write most of my poetry outside and with a Papermate Sharpwriter (which is the type of pencil I used to steal from the office supply closet of the law firm I used to work at).

    But yeah, I think writing needs to be part organic and part routine, right? We can’t sit around forever, waiting for ideas to come along. You don’t get anywhere if you’re waiting.

    ydde said on 07/01/11 at 5:47 pm

    Oh man, the right pen is so important. It’s like, if I was going to be a cabdriver, I’d need the right hat or I just wouldn’t be able to do my job. Not that I wear hats, but, I imagine, the me who would be a cabdriver is a me who would be quite particular about his cranial coverage.

    Routines don’t make sense to me, really. I mean, I can fall into them, but it’s not so much a routine and me quitting life and just writing till it’s done, which, I think, is why I spend a lot of time not writing. I need to live. I never have a lack of ideas and it’s usually the opposite, a congestion of ideas, four novels want to be written today and I’m meant to pick one, so I just pick none and wait for them to sort it out, form a queue and get back to me.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 6:21 pm

    Maybe my problem is that I need a new pen.

    Dawn. said on 07/02/11 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks Chloe!

  7. Chloe said on 06/30/11 at 1:54 pm Reply

    Yes! I must have been channeling that. It rings so true.


  8. Mark C said on 07/01/11 at 3:42 pm Reply

    That thing about the Holocaust writer reminds me of something i heard last week–“we don’t write for accuracy, we write for surprise, bewilderment, and honest human drama.”

    I thought that was a really poignant thing to say, and I definitely think you summed that up here, Em. Writing has never been “therapeutic” for me, but reading other people’s experiences (and writing) has awakened something human and something true. I do this thing because I want my heart to hurt, because I know that other people’s hearts hurt; and it’s in this collective heart-hurting where I feel like we all have something in common.


    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 6:24 pm

    YES. Yes, yes, yes. I read for the chest-grab (my name for the heart-hurt), and I write with the hope of sharing it.

  9. DK said on 07/01/11 at 3:48 pm Reply

    I probably write about 2000 words a day thanks to freelancing and various creative projects, but YDDE kicks my ass. Sheesh. I’d be amazed if your keyboard still has keys on it, with work habits like that.

    It takes me a little while to write about my own experiences, mainly because I need a couple of days to a week to process everything and find the humor/sadness/etc. in it. But I absolutely do, and it’s really funny how certain memories or emotions will end up in fiction where the characters’ circumstances are completely unrelated to what’s really fueling the work.


    Emily Lackey said on 07/01/11 at 6:28 pm

    So true. I’ve often said that if a person knew me well enough, (knew the way my mind worked, knew what I dream about, knew the experiences that have shaped me, etc.), they would read my work and realize how invisible the line is between fiction and nonfiction. So much of my life is in my characters, even if their circumstances, personalities, and stories are completely different from mine.

  10. Lidia Yuknavitch said on 07/02/11 at 11:53 pm Reply

    it took me more than 20 years between seeing and saying these things in the book. i don’t know if that’s something to TELL other people. i don’t think it should take a writer 20 years to tell something of the essence of their experience. but it was on the table to tell it when it happened, and then 5 years later, and then 10 years later, and then 15 years later, and it wasn’t “right” to come out of me until now.

    memoir is tricky. you need more than “this happened to me” and now i want to tell it to you.

    you need distance. you need a thousand different ways of looking at a thing. you need silence and humility and reflection times a gazillion. and you need more than anything, a reason beyond the SELF to tell it.


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