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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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The Chronology of Water

Chapter 20: A Happy Childhood


Splattering finger paint across the carpet of my bedroom, laughing as the colors morphed into an ugly green; regretting this after my easel was taken from me and stored in our attic. Crashing my childhood bicycle into a parked car; never wanting to get on a four-wheeled vehicle again. My father hovering over my curled-up body, fist clenched and face red but completely unable to bring himself to strike me; promising myself to pay him back with undying loyalty.

* * *

We all remember moments of our childhood, and we each remember them differently. The thing, though, is that it’s damn near impossible for us to recall these memories in full: more often than not, they come off fragmented, and we only remember tiny bits and pieces that we found significant while having the experiences. Of course, there are some things we remember better than others, but the truth is that we can never remember everything: we just aren’t hard-wired that way.

And with different forms come different techniques. I recently saw The Tree of Life, and what struck me most was how Malick had crafted a narrative around shots that seemed very much to be in the dramatic present. What was brilliant, though, was that these scenes were actually being “remembered” by Sean Penn’s character. So instead of relying on flashbacks to tell the most significant parts of the narrative, Malick lets the inherent tension of the character’s childhood set the tension in a very bare-boned, stripped down manner: close, cropped shots of character’s faces; extended moments of silence; jump cuts that do little to indicate the passage of time. Although the movie is flawed, this fragmentation is an absolutely beautiful deviation from linear story-telling, and Malick has asked his audience to do some of the work on their own.

Cinema allows for this type of presentation; we writers, though, do not have the luxury of showing things. It’s impossible for us to conjure up visual clues that accurate representations in the way that films can. I’m sure some might disagree with me here, but the truth is that the nature of our medium requires us to use descriptive words that conjure up different images with every one of our readers. This means that we have to be a bit more creative when we’re trying to indicate .

Which brings me to “A Happy Childhood,” one of my favorite chapter’s in Lidia’s book. What struck me in this chapter was the repetition. Let’s look at the first section, titled “I am 6”:

“My friend Katie in the water my friend Christie in the water Phantom Lake Bath and Tennis Club and summer is every day every single day in the water we swim in the morning we swim in the daytime we swim in the afternoon we swim at night we swim every day we eat rainbow popsicles we eat fudgesicles we eat creamsicles we go and go underwater laps hold your breath back and forth and back again three times no boys we stay underwater swim goggles look at each other blow your air out sit on the bottom we dive from the low dive we dive from the high dive we find pennies at the bottom of the deep end we laugh and laugh we race at swim meets in evening we race we win and win little gold medals beautiful blue ribbons we dive off of starting blocks we fly in the air we enter the water with glee of girl splashing” (p. 27).

When you first read this section, you probably thought, “Oh, how cool.” Maybe you thought about how “lyrical” it sounded, or how “fun” it was to read. Maybe you thought about it for longer. I’m going to assume you didn’t, because I’d like to think about how sophisticated this style of writing is.

Because I’m the kind of person that has a hard-on for grammar and usage abstractions (T.M.I.?) and a self-admitted addict of lyrical prose, I’d like to call attention to three things Lidia’s done here: first, she’s jammed a bunch of dependant clauses together; second, she’s repeating words and phrases in the same subject-verb-object pattern; third, the only indisputable qualifying adjective is in the title. On their own, these types of usage would look sloppy and “wrong,” but by combining them Lidia is painting a certain type of effect over her reader. These small fragments start building upon one another, and by the time you’ve finished them you’ve made your own evaluative opinion of Lidia’s more blissful childhood memories. How can you not get to the last line (“I want to belong to something besides family”) and not feel an awe-inspiring sense of pleasure? And while all this is going on, she’s mimicking the way young children speak. Mind. Blown.

I know, I know — these deviations are relatively simple ones, and Lidia’s not the first person to use these three techniques. But she’s definitely the only person out there combining these abstractions to tell a story that’s distinctly hers. I firmly believe that every story worth telling has already been told; if that’s true, the only thing writers have at their disposal is style. Ownership of our stories isn’t guaranteed, but is instead earned through careful craftsmanship and attention to detail. And Lidia is owning the ever-loving shit out of these stories: people have gone swimming and have eaten popsicles before, but not like this.

You know what’s so awesome about all this, though? This could be the exact opposite of what Lidia was trying to accomplish. Maybe you think that’s a bad thing. I, for one, think that it doesn’t matter at all: what’s so beautiful about writing is that nothing is ever closed to interpretation. The nature of this discourse allows for an infinite number of interpretations, and although we’re working with literature here, nothing can ever truly be “literal” — there are just too many people thinking too many different things.

Sure, by this point of Chronology of Water, we’ve gotten to know Lidia and her past really well. That’s all very awesome, but that’s not what excites me about this book. Lidia’s used a number of different narrative techniques to make distinctions between particular eras of her life, and she’s using them so infrequently and so sporadically that you can’t even establish a specific pattern. And that’s why you can’t put this book down: Lidia has you second-guessing yourself over and over; she’s introduced patterns to you, then wholly disrupted them; zooming her lens in and then immediately zooming out so you’re constantly on your toes. She’s making you think and she’s making you work, and if you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly thankful for this.

What I love about this section, though, is how brilliantly Lidia owns her childhood. It makes me think about how I can be better at owning the things I’ve cognitively filed away.

* * *

When I think about my childhood, I always seem to think about it in a very cause-and-effect nature. Maybe it’s because of my Catholic upbringing; maybe it’s because I’m naturally a guilt-ridden person. Regardless, that’s the way I remember things: the constant unforgettable details, followed by the ways I’ve rationalized them.

I’ve been rambling for quite some time now. What I ask you is the following: How do you remember your childhood? To you tend to define it with qualifying adjectives like “happy” or “tormented”? Do you find it easy to write about your youth, or is it difficult? Are happier memories easier to write?

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  1. Jessica said on 07/08/11 at 2:25 am Reply

    I have a theoretical hard-on for the demolition of the English language, which is why I especially love that passage. I think it is my disdain for authority, force-feeding rules and laws of language, when terrible grammar can actually be something so absolutely beautiful.

    I remember my childhood in pieces. I don’t have those blissful, innocent memories, where I daydream of being young and naive. I remember running and playing in sprinklers and swinging high on the swing set and not worrying about grasshoppers, which is now a terrible fear.

    I write about misery better than happiness. I write love better than happy. I suppose I can pinpoint those emotions better than happiness. Or maybe it’s just me not being happy or admitting happiness. In fact, I envy those happy people, the positive people. I might even say I loathe those people just because they know what happiness involves. Even when I have happy moments, like laughing at my daughter swim like a dolphin on her back, I can find a part of me that is not happy, like because I’m in a bikini. I also think unhappiness is an occupational hazard of writers.


    Molly Gaudry said on 07/08/11 at 11:58 am

    I definitely agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, Jessica, especially the part about unhappiness being “an occupational hazard of writers.” Maybe it’s not true across the board, but there’s some sort of inner torment there, right, that seems to fuel the need to write.

    Chris Newgent said on 07/08/11 at 12:22 pm

    The 1st para of your comment makes me think of “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolfe.

    Mark C said on 07/08/11 at 2:09 pm

    I’m the same way, Jessica. I definitely am a bigger fan of my “sadder” work. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how depressing my stuff was, mainly because I was working on a story that I was hoping would be funny. It ended up loaded with irony and comng off a little cynical.

    Although, I’m always happy in a bikini.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 2:41 pm

    You never know what someone else will think of as funny, Mark. We just finished up a week on “As I Lay Dying.” Half of the class cried through most of it, the other half thought it was hysterical.

    Needless to say, I was one of the criers.

    Mark C said on 07/08/11 at 3:53 pm

    I don’t remember As I Lay Dying being funny. Guess that’s why I’m not in Vermont at the moment.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 4:43 pm

    Dude, me neither. Apparently it’s black comedy or something? i don’t get it. I think it’s tragic.

    Kristina said on 07/08/11 at 5:04 pm

    Dudes, “my mother is a fish”? That book is comedy gold.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 8:15 pm

    He’s having an existential crisis! Poor, poor Vardaman.

    Jessica said on 07/13/11 at 2:21 pm

    I love how y’all (yes from Texas, just without the famous accent) (and no I do not say ‘ain’t’) mention titles of books. They make me curious and want to run off to search for them. @mark c – def my sadder works are my best. There is a lot of truth in emotion, lots of honesty there. I love cynical works too, so I’d probably enjoy your ‘funny’ work.

    @Emily – you have some strange classmates. But that’s cool too. I mean, I was laughing when my dentist was giving me several shots of lidocaine. To each his own.

  2. Ashley C. Ford said on 07/08/11 at 12:14 pm Reply

    My brother and I loved Tina Turner growing up, and my mom actually let us watch the movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” even though we were much too young. There was never a lot of censorship in my house. Anyway, we loved Tina to pieces, and my mother got the movie soundtrack from the library for us.

    She made all four of us come to the kitchen (the biggest room in our tiny house), and she played the CD from the ancient computer we kept on a counter beside the refrigerator. Then my sister, my brother, and I danced and danced and sang and sang to every single song on the album. I was Tina (as the oldest), my brother RC was Ike (as the oldest boy), and our little brother and sister were our back-up singers/dancers.

    My mom sat there the entire time and clapped and laughed at us pretending we were in the scenes from the movie. I loved it because my brother closest to my age got to do all the things my mother usually told him were “girl things”. He was so happy. I even let him be Tina for one or two songs.

    I knew my brother was gay back then. I guess I always knew my brother was gay, I just didn’t always know what to call it. My mother was hard on him about it. Really hard. And he was always sad. But he wasn’t sad in the kitchen that day. Not even a little. He was so happy being exactly who he was and having the people who were supposed to love him the most smile, laugh, clap and yell, “Do it again, RC! You’re the only one who does that part just like Tina!”


    Ashley C. Ford said on 07/08/11 at 12:17 pm

    I write about my childhood a lot. Now, that I realize how different mine was from those of the people I associate with now, I’m fascinated by it. I try not to portray anyone as villainous, but some of them truly were. I’m trying to get more comfortable writing about things as I remember them and not qualifying for anyone.

    Chris said on 07/08/11 at 12:26 pm

    You and me both, Ashley. I think writing that essay about my childhood at Vouched a couple months ago really opened me up to just writing about my life and being vulnerable with it in a way I’d been afraid to for the past couple years. I remember being a lot more fearless in my writing, and I think I lost some of that in my marriage. Not that I’m blaming my wife for it, but I was on guard more with my writing, if I wrote something dark how would she interpret it, if I wrote something about a girl, would she think it was about someone else and get jealous, if I wrote about an ex, how would she take it? Etc. But lately, I’ve been a lot more free with myself, with my writing. It’s tough. I still want to guard myself. I still want to use other people’s feelings as a scapegoat for why I’m not opening up in my writing as much as I should be, but I’m trying.

    Ashley C Ford said on 07/08/11 at 1:49 pm

    I loved when you wrote that post. Seriously. I love it when people bare it all. That’s one of the things I love about COW. I’m sure there are things that aren’t there, that are carefully hidden, that are just for the author and herself, but what’s there is real and skinned-knee raw.

    Keep writing it all, Chris. I’m so happy when you do.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 2:44 pm

    I loved Tina Turner, too! It’s not something that I readily share. A twelve year old girl with a fascination with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is incredibly inappropriate to talk about. But I loved her, loved her biography, loved the soundtrack, and loved that movie to pieces. I think I could recite every line of it by heart.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/08/11 at 3:23 pm

    Ashley, thank you for sharing this amazing story about your mother and your brother! I can see you all singing there now, and your mother clapping! Lovely details!

  3. Em said on 07/08/11 at 1:25 pm Reply

    I remember my childhood in images and feelings and often I don’t remember something until a present image/memory triggers the past one. Or if I go through my journal. I love how COW uses many different ways of telling. It is definitely written in a certain style, but the angles from which LY is telling her story change often. This made me work for the story as a reader and I felt it was more successful than if she had maintained the same angle throughout.

    @Ashley – thanks for sharing your memory about your brother.

    @Jessica – I tend to write about love and loss much more than happiness. It’s easier. It isn’t that I’m not happy – just more in tune with those emotions I suppose.


  4. Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 2:39 pm Reply

    It’s definitely easier for me to write happy memories. There’s so much ambiguity in memory, that I find it difficult to write about the bad memories that I could potentially be remembering “wrong.” I often describe my childhood as lonely.

    That’s really depressing. I had a lot of fun as a kid, too! Really, I did!


    Mark C said on 07/08/11 at 3:55 pm

    Funny– you saying “ambiguity” had me thinking of Mary Karr’s first book. A lot of those more graphic scenes come off as very specific, yet very ambiguous (if that makes any sense). They’re terribly tragic, yet terribly successful. I wonder why it’s easier for some of us than it is for others.

    Ashley C Ford said on 07/08/11 at 3:59 pm

    I’m the same way! I know there was a lot of fun and I remember having a lot of fun, but my lonely and painful memories are so vivid. Those are the ones I feel the NEED to write about. Unfortunately, that usually ends up being my best writing.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 4:45 pm

    I think my hesitance is in “getting it wrong” and potentially incriminating other people who disagree with how things went down. I don’t know, I had a bad experience with writing about a person and having them hate me forever for it, so I’d rather not have to deal with that again.

  5. Chill said on 07/08/11 at 5:47 pm Reply

    I sucked my thumb until a blister formed, and I didn’t give it up entirely until I was 11, though, by the time I started going to school, I developed the ability to stop sucking it during the day. My sister told me no one would ever marry a girl who sucked her thumb or had a blister like that. I told her I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to be like Mom.

    And my childhood is my mom. Mom who lifted me from the foot of the bed and carried me to my pillow after a 15 hour shift at the hospital, who slept naked and smelled like cheap bubble bath, who cursed in Sicilian slang after her alcoholic ex-husband, who slammed every single finger in a heavy window while trying to change from storm windows to screens and walked with bleeding fingertips through the house cursing and tripping and mangled with no one to bandage her, who called me a bitch when I was a teen and devastated me because I was finally aware of the fact that I was no longer innocent, who told her new fiance when he asked why she didn’t come when he called to her that I had called for her, too, and she would always always always come to me first, who seldom kissed or said the words but always loved us, who introduced me to new men and their dogs and sons and picnics and never gave me cause to wonder what happened when she disappeared with them into their homes for a while, who bleached her hair, permed her hair, cut her hair, wore contacts, wore cat-eyes, wore nothing in an attempt to be both a mother and a woman, who gave up smoking when I was nine because I had trouble breathing and because I wouldn’t stop begging her to quit so she promised she would if I stopped sucking my thumb and for two years I woke up with that traitor in my mouth, pressed against the roof of it, breaking my promise.


    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 8:17 pm

    I love your mom.

    Chill said on 07/11/11 at 2:42 pm

    You and me both 🙂

  6. Jordan Blum said on 07/08/11 at 10:26 pm Reply

    I remember my childhood in snapshots and musical references. I have single frame images of standing up in a crib, of walking around my then yellow walled room with the man-holding-balloons lamp on and my parents watching “The World According to Garp” (but that last part probably isn’t accurate since I couldn’t have known about that movie when was 3 or younger). I remember bonding with my dad in the basement and listening to The Pixies, Thomas Dolby, Prefab Sprout, Sparks, Beatles, and Supertramp. So basically, I remember by association of other things.

    I find it easier technically and harder emotionally to write about the sad and angry parts of my childhood. That is to say writing comes a lot more quickly and fully and interestingly when I write about the bad times, and in general I’d say I had a sad childhood.

    Or at least I remember the bad parts more than the good.

    I’ve always found sadder things more appealing than happy. It doesn’t interest me to read “I had a wonderful day in the sunshine with my soul mate” or hear a song about how everything is going great. Maybe that’s just me, but I believe art comes from suffering.


    Chill said on 07/11/11 at 2:50 pm

    I wonder if art comes from suffering or if we know our audience…you mention yourself that you don’t particularly want to read about happy things, and the fact of the matter is that few of us do.

    I suspect a part of it is relate-ability–it’s sort of why public displays of affection are considered rude–those who can’t relate to sitting in the sunshine with their soul mate aren’t interested in reading about someone else indulging, unless there is a prior investment in said person. There’s jealousy, at the core, for a love lost or a lack of deep-seated personal satisfaction. And those who can relate are busy sitting in the sunshine with their soul mate. They might still read such a book and find satisfaction in the echo of their own sentiment, but it’s not as lasting a connection, because sometimes we have to get out of the sun, or our soul mate is lost to us, and that’s ultimately what bonds us in any lasting way.

    It’s need and want that we relate to, not satisfaction and contentedness. The latter lacks conflict, heat, and it’s not because blissful stories are bereft of meaning, it’s because the meaning feels, to most of us, more foreign. It’s actually a greater challenge to find purpose and conflict in a story about someone doing well or having a good life than to detail something that sucked. The things that suck are what change us, and are inherently endowed with complexity. We don’t tend to think of happy things as much more than surface, and I wonder if one could find a way to successfully tell a story about someone who is utterly contended and satisfied and make it interesting without having him/her fall from grace or exposing that they are in imminent danger.

    Where’s the want? The desire? The conflict? In that way, if we find ourselves happy, can we stay there without mourning the loss of complication that drives us to create?

  7. Cook said on 07/09/11 at 2:16 pm Reply

    I have an incredible memory, and can recall conversations I had or overheard, verbatim, decades ago. Maybe, for this reason, because I can remember so much of my childhood, I am completely uninterested in it. Everything in my childhood, or anything before, say 7 years ago, is present but distant, like things that happened to someone else, or things in a movie I saw. For me, they are things that happened to someone else. My relationship with 10-year-old me isn’t different from that I have with any other 10-year-old. So, obviously, I don’t write about my childhood, and I can’t seem to write characters who dwell on theirs, either.


  8. Kenny said on 07/09/11 at 10:37 pm Reply

    My childhood had two phases – the happy time and the not so happy time. The happy time was before my parents separated when I was 9. My dad was in the Air Force so we traveled a bit and I spent nearly four years living in Cyprus – at that age, the great weather, beaches every day, a wealth of adventures out the doorstep. It was great. When my parents broke up, my brother and I stayed with my mum and we were thrown into poverty and homelessness – bedsits, sheltered accommodation, living with relatives. I remember that time as being a process of disintegration, as my mother became an alcoholic and my brother’s mental health deteriorated, eventually being diagnosed bipolar. There were lots of arguments and very difficult times.

    I don’t really write about my childhood at all. There’s probably plenty of stuff there to use, both good and bad, but I don’t find it works very well when I put it down on the page. Maybe one day.


  9. Dawn. said on 07/10/11 at 9:46 pm Reply

    Lovely post, Mark. I’m a language-smashing slut too. It makes me feel so unhinged. Adore it. That’s one of the reasons COW is my favorite book.

    I think it’s fascinating how we (humans) impose narratives on our memories. The self isn’t something we grow into–it’s something we create. The absences, the subconscious embellishments, the unending drive to have a beginning, middle, and end. We are some crazybeautiful creatures, aren’t we?


  10. Angie Spoto said on 07/11/11 at 7:18 pm Reply

    I remember my childhood in smells, but I can only recall a smell when I smell it now, in the present…and I hardly ever can associate it with an image.

    Also, Ashley C. Ford, I really loved your comment! It’s a really sweet story.


  11. Lidia Yuknavitch said on 07/16/11 at 6:16 pm Reply

    mark and all of you — aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!! i want to make you all dinner!!! i love you and your memories and your thoughtfulness and your love of language!!! word nerds unite!!
    love lidia


  12. brian warfield said on 07/19/11 at 7:26 pm Reply

    i don’t find it necessary to write about happy memories. i just remember them. because, for me, writing is all about transformation. i like taking my painful memories and, by writing them, turn them into something outside of myself.

    lidia writes that the act of writing a memory is different from remembering it. and that writing allows us to re-author our lives. which is what i love about writing. so a lot of my stories start at a true and maybe painful place, but then with humor or craft if i am lucky, i can turn that into something that transcends my own experience.


    Molly Gaudry said on 07/20/11 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Brian, I’m so glad you found this site and that you’re finding places to join our conversation. Just so you know, we’re redesigning the site and we’ll be back in 2 weeks! I’m interested in your writing, and I think, like you, I don’t need to write about happy memories either. Good luck with your writing, Brian! It’s great to have your voice here.

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