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."
"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."
"Reading this book is like diving into Yuknavitch's most secret places."
"The book is extraordinary."
"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."
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?