I’m having a hard time with structure–the structure of drafts and the revision of structure that inevitably comes when those drafts work their way into polished stories. It’s a process that turns–if all goes well–something hulking and lumbering to something airy and light. A clydesdale into a thoroughbred. Though perhaps that’s not fair, because lord knows I love slow and gentle beasts more than anything that moves too quickly.
Maybe it’s an issue of just getting distracted all the time. By music, by movies, by food, by drink, by dogs, by sleep, by television, by people. The Internet is the worst for writing. And when I say “The Internet,” I don’t mean the Internet that we all use, those benign sites we all keep in our arsenal–Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever else. I mean the Internet that exists below the surface of all that, the one that you find when you dig deep into the sixth or seventh page of search results, the one of weird old articles and hidden forums and unfiltered life writing. That’s the Internet that sucks me in. And it’s the worst because it aids research but lets you research too much and too easily, and before you know it, you’re neck deep in some early-aughties, long-abandoned blog written by a once seventeen-year-old from maybe Ohio though you can’t really be sure because the whole thing is so vague and you can’t even begin to remember how this was supposed to be research to help your story. Every so often, though, it will uncover something smart and somewhat unreal, things like this discussion of Lolita written by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, that I return to at least a few times a year, maybe especially for this passage:
Here, Nabokov does more than write about a self-contained world of horror in a beautiful way. He also presents a curious way in which the human mind can experience that world of horror. One of the things that always bothered me most was how my awful recollections could come back to me in exquisite wrapping: how I could recall overripe apples thumping to the ground in the night, a shooting star, or Bach being played on the piano in an adjacent room. In attempting to make sense of what happened to me, I seized on those moments as “evidence” of the fact that I “liked” what had occurred. If I could focus on the loveliness of Prelude No. 1 in C Major as something disgusting and illegal was going on, wasn’t I just reveling in that which was disgusting and illegal? I punished myself for a way of thinking that, reading Lolita, was revealed to me as a survival tactic. I realized, for the first time, that there was nothing wrong or strange with how I had been coping, by stepping out of the horror and into the beauty that was running parallel to it.
Because for the past however many years (too many), I’ve been trying to write fiction about traumatic things and I’ve been trying to be authentic to the experience of a survivor: where the mind goes, where the body goes, and, finally, where the self goes. Oftentimes those are three different directions. You’d think that fiction, with all its endless leg room and tricks and tools, would be the ideal vehicle for trauma narratives, but again and again I find myself stuck, and pretty soon my characters get stuck too, and I start yearning for the cool-headed, steady-eyed voice that I can only seem to achieve in memoir.
I think of the passage in Lolita that describes, from a distance, the first time Humbert assaults Lo, the framing of the “Carmen” song, the apple she tosses around in her hands, and the lingering description of Humbert as a spider feeling little tugs on his silk strings. This deleted scene from Lyne’s Lolita captures it, in my opinion, rather well.
And then I think of the passage that describes, from a very great distance, the first instance of Humbert raping Lo–the description of the massive painting, the colors, the birds, the column of onyx, the sultan and snake, and finally the child wincing in pain. Because Humbert is the abuser, he’s able to disengage from his own crimes in very pretty ways–that is, he remains in control. Oh, the luxury of being an abuser! Because the dissociation of a survivor of sexual trauma is generally very un-beautiful, but not grotesque or even anything dramatic at all. It’s banal, maybe even boring. Staring at a single spot on a ceiling, the mind retreating to something monotonous with a hypnotizing rhythm–loaves of bread rising, flowers opening and then closing, groceries rolling down a conveyer belt to be scanned. How does one write that? How do I write that? Without suffocating the plot or having the story collapse in on itself as the character’s world essentially shrinks into nearly nothing?
It’s hard to find fiction that deals with dissociation brought on by sexual trauma in a way that’s both “realistic” (and I know that’s a loaded word) and from a p.o.v. cognitively very close to the survivor character. ”Lawns” by Mona Simpson (sadly unavailable online unless you have JSTOR access and can bring up the issue of the Iowa Review it originally appeared in) is one of my favorite short stories for many reasons, but maybe especially for the detail of its narrator acutely remembering the sound of her brother’s baseball hitting the side of the house as she was abused by her father–no glorified sultan or serpent, no beautiful sweeping scenery, no wistful conjured up images of some lost love at a seaside, not even an ethereal otherworld whose gates of escapism only open at the moment trauma begins (because this, I think, is often portrayed as something that commonly occurs for the abused). It’s just the monotony of suburbia continuing on even as the most horrific thing of your life is forced upon you, a reminder of how vast the world is, and how unfair, and unflinching. I guess what I’m saying is, the experience of a survivor of abuse does not easily lend itself to fiction–though perhaps I only believe that because I’ve spent my whole life reading things written by white men who have found the point of view of an oppressor more interesting than that of the oppressed.
Regardless, the contrast between an abuser disengaging with the crimes he commits and the dissociation the victim’s mind performs as a survival technique is something I’m just now beginning to understand from a psychological standpoint, let alone from a narrative one.
And so I research, and I research, and I research. And when I try to go back and revise, I can’t figure out how to structure a story that follows a fractured mind. But I will–eventually. I will, I will, I will. (Wish me luck.)