Writ­ing as Re­demp­tion


Poets and Writers - - The Literary Life -

IHAVE a small pink-white scar at the base of my thumb. It curls at the end like a ques­tion mark I may have drawn to re­mind my­self of some­thing. It is an im­por­tant re­minder. And it’s proof—of an event I had forced my­self to for­get as a child and, now, can­not for­get. I am com­pelled to re­write that real-life scene again and again in my fic­tion, as if mem­ory, and even the past it­self, can be re­vised.

There is a chap­ter to­ward the end of my new novel, The Gypsy Moth Sum­mer, in which one of the main char­ac­ters, Mad­die, is beaten by her fa­ther. He hits her with a broom. The metal broom head cracks apart and cuts her hand, and she is left with a scar in the shape of a ques­tion mark. Like Mad­die, I, too, was a sixteen-year-old girl liv­ing on an islet off the East Coast in 1992. What the reader can­not know is that this scene be­tween Mad­die and her fa­ther, though only a few pages long, took me two and a half decades to write, and re­write. Only now, af­ter many tries, has it pro­vided me with a glim­mer of re­demp­tion.

The real-life event took place in 1992, the day af­ter my ju­nior prom, when my fa­ther, ri­fling through my backpack, found a pack of Camel Lights, a dis­cov­ery that fu­eled our worst, and fi­nal, phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion. But the first time I put the scene on pa­per was over a decade later, in 2001, in a short story I wrote dur­ing my first year as a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop.

I hadn’t had much time to pro­duce new ma­te­rial dur­ing that first se­mes­ter, and I had been feel­ing par­a­lyzed by the tal­ent and con­fi­dence of my class­mates. I pro­cras­ti­nated all through win­ter break but fi­nally wrote a new story in one sit­ting and, un­usual for me, by hand. The story was about a teenage girl who, like Mad­die and me, was grow­ing up work­ing class on an idyl­lic is­land, home to the elite up­per class. The teenager, also like Mad­die and me, was a trou­bled girl in an un­pre­dictable home where vi­o­lence seemed to crouch around the cor­ner of each day, ready to spring, claws bared.

I handed the story into my work­shop when I re­turned from win­ter break, cer­tain it would be shred­ded by my class­mates’ crit­i­cism. I was shocked when the story was praised, not only by my fel­low grad­u­ate stu­dents but also by

our pro­fes­sor, a dis­tin­guished au­thor whose fi­nal verdict was often damn­ing. I’d never had a work­shop cri­tique as pos­i­tive as that one, and the story, ti­tled “The Girl Who Walked on Wa­ter” (I cringe a lit­tle now at the heavy-handed sym­bol­ism), earned me a cov­eted fel­low­ship that year, the at­ten­tion of my peers and pro­fes­sors, and a shaky con­fi­dence I would cling to for the rest of my time in grad­u­ate school. The sac­ri­fice was worth it, I told my­self. And I did feel as if I had sac­ri­ficed the “un­named girl” (Mad­die Ver­sion 1, we’ll call her—I hadn’t even al­lowed her the power of a name) in the story. I let her be abused, raped, hu­mil­i­ated. In re­turn, I’d re­ceived praise. I had also sac­ri­ficed my­self—the part of me who was that “un­named girl.”

I was grate­ful for the re­sponse and re­lieved my ac­cep­tance into the Work­shop hadn’t been a fluke, a sus­pi­cion I’d har­bored since I’d re­ceived the ac­cep­tance letter, but I still had a grow­ing fear that I was a fraud. I’d writ­ten the story at the last minute, af­ter all, and even more wor­ri­some, I had felt so lit­tle as I wrote the vi­o­lent scene my pro­fes­sors and class­mates ad­mired the most. How could the story be any good, I asked my­self, when it felt as if I’d turned off my mind—and my heart—in or­der to write that scene? The girl’s fa­ther strik­ing her with a broom, the twisted metal cut­ting into her hand. The rest of the story was un­re­mark­able and bor­dered on cliché, just like the ti­tle, but my class­mates and pro­fes­sors were right about that par­tic­u­lar scene, I knew that much— it was ex­cep­tional. Yet as I’d writ­ten it, my hand cramped from clutch­ing the pen, I had felt as if I were on au­topi­lot. The sen­sory de­tails I’d ex­pe­ri­enced in real life—the scent of my fa­ther’s English Leather cologne, the tinny taste of blood, the cheerful jin­gle of a toothpaste com­mer­cial on the TV set, the bite of the metal broom head slic­ing my hand—ap­peared on the page, but it was as if some­one else was writ­ing; I was sim­ply the ves­sel through which the words flowed. How could the story be good (the def­i­ni­tion of which seemed so elu­sive in work­shop)? How could the emo­tion be au­then­tic when I knew I should have wept as I wrote?

IWAS fa­mil­iar with the phe­nom­e­non of emo­tional dis­as­so­ci­a­tion that vic­tims of trauma, specif­i­cally child­hood abuse, can ex­pe­ri­ence. In the years af­ter I’d left home for col­lege, mem­o­ries of my fa­ther’s episodes had re­turned—his lash­ing out when his ob­ses­sive fears erupted, often cli­max­ing in vi­o­lence, and al­ways against me, never my mother or brother. I loved and ad­mired my fa­ther. He is a survivor—of war and poverty, of famine and dis­ease—him­self a wit­ness to con­stant do­mes­tic abuse in his own child­hood. I still love him. I had wanted to ig­nore those vi­o­lent mem­o­ries that vis­ited me in dream­like frag­ments those first years away

from home, the first ob­jec­tive dis­tance I had from what I quickly re­al­ized had been a dys­func­tional fam­ily. I doubted my­self. “Could I be mak­ing it up?” I chided my­self. “Get over it, Ju­lia, plenty of kids had it way worse.” But I only had to look down at the ques­tion-mark-shaped scar on my hand to see the ev­i­dence.

Some of my MFA class­mates asked if I was the girl in “The Girl Who Walked on Wa­ter,” and I played coy, not re­veal­ing or deny­ing. I sus­pected they wanted me to be her, but I was too ashamed to ad­mit it. Af­ter all, that girl was a vic­tim; she didn’t fight back. In­stead, she for­gave her fa­ther. She com­forted him as her torn hand bled, rubbed his back as he cried and apol­o­gized and said he was bet­ter off dead. She begged him not to kill him­self, fear­ful he would. This was what had hap­pened in my own life, this is what I had done—no won­der I felt ashamed as I watched that scene re­played on the page.

When I’d ar­rived at the Work­shop, I’d read only works from the so-called lit­er­ary canon. Other than the nov­els of Edith Whar­ton, I’d read few sto­ries with young women pro­tag­o­nists, not since my teenage years when I binge-read V. C. An­drews’s melo­dra­mas and stole my mother’s ro­mance nov­els. A few days af­ter my ar­rival in Iowa City, I vis­ited a used book­store and left with bags of books. Most were col­lec­tions of con­tem­po­rary short fic­tion writ­ten in a min­i­mal­ist style. Sto­ries by Ray­mond Carver, James Salter, Lor­rie Moore, and Ly­dia Davis. I fix­ated on one col­lec­tion—Black Tick­ets by Jayne Anne Phillips, who, it was ru­mored, had been a fa­vorite stu­dent of Frank Con­roy. I stud­ied those sto­ries, so spare they seemed starved—sto­ries about young girls who were abused and mo­lested, used and dis­carded. I’m sure I had those bro­ken girls in mind, as well as the emo­tion­ally dis­tant style—what we called “re­strained” prose in work­shop cri­tiques—as I put that un­named girl in “The Girl Who Walked on Wa­ter” through hell.

In my fi­nal work­shop, I stud­ied with pro­fes­sor Mar­i­lynne Robin­son and learned the most im­por­tant les­son of my writ­ing life, one I carry with me still, pass­ing it on to my own stu­dents: the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing com­pas­sion for your char­ac­ters.

I’ve al­ways been the type of

reader who wants drama,

con­flict, and se­ri­ous stakes, all

of which pro­vide the com­plete

es­cape I crave in books.

No sur­prise, I want the same

es­cape in my own writ­ing.

I’ve al­ways been the type of reader who wants drama, con­flict, and se­ri­ous stakes, all of which pro­vide the com­plete es­cape I crave in books. No sur­prise, I want the same es­cape in my own writ­ing. I was di­ag­nosed with ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive disor­der in my early twen­ties, and I’ve al­ways ex­pe­ri­enced life with an emo­tional in­ten­sity that has crossed into my fic­tion. This means that bad things hap­pen to my char­ac­ters. They live in worlds where dan­ger lurks, just as vi­o­lence did in my child­hood home, around every cor­ner. My char­ac­ters lose loved ones, homes, for­tunes, and some­times their lives, and it is my job, my re­spon­si­bil­ity, to make sure their suf­fer­ing is not for nothing.

While the emo­tional dis­tance I felt in writ­ing “The Girl Who Walked on Wa­ter” al­lowed me to record that vi­o­lent mem­ory in metic­u­lous de­tail, I can also see how it pre­vented me from treat­ing that bro­ken “un­named girl” with the com­pas­sion­ate care she de­served. I promised my­self I’d do a bet­ter job in the fu­ture.

Af­ter years spent help­ing other writ­ers un­lock the doors that lead to a deeper emo­tional un­der­stand­ing of their writ­ing, I’ve learned we must give our­selves per­mis­sion to fail in that first draft, es­pe­cially when re­call­ing a trau­matic event. We have many terms for it in work­shop— un­der­de­vel­oped, sketchy, vague, stereo­typed. I know now that in­com­plete first draft—Mad­die Ver­sion 1—was a place­holder I would re­turn to when I was ready, and I wish I could go back in time, tell my twenty-three-year-old self, “That’s okay, you did your best. Try again later.”

TEN years later, I rewrote the scene, a sum­ma­rized ver­sion told in flash­back, in my first pub­lished novel, Cut­ting Teeth. Allie (or Mad­die Ver­sion 2), a new mother to twins, is strug­gling with her am­biva­lence to­ward moth­er­hood. She re­calls a trau­matic mo­ment—yes, you guessed it, she was sixteen when her fa­ther hit her with a broom—a scene that is in stark contrast to her own chil­dren’s bliss­ful lives. She goes so far as to im­ply that per­haps chil­dren to­day are given too much love. Hav­ing had ten years of ret­ro­spec­tion be­tween “The Girl Who Walked on Wa­ter” and Cut­ting Teeth, I knew that the most sig­nif­i­cant part of the scene wasn’t the girl get­ting hit with the broom but the af­ter­math—her fa­ther, his head on the kitchen table, weep­ing into his arms, beg­ging the girl for for­give­ness. This mo­ment of forced em­pa­thy, I re­al­ized, was even more bru­tal than the phys­i­cal at­tack—not only for the char­ac­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it, but also, I was fi­nally ready to ad­mit this, for me. I knew I had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to this new ver­sion of the “un­named girl.” I wouldn’t let her be a vic­tim again. I worked on that flash­back for a week. I re­vised un­til I felt so close to the girl’s con­scious­ness, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing

JU­LIA FIERRO is the au­thor of the nov­els The Gypsy Moth Sum­mer, pub­lished in June by St. Martin’s Press, and Cut­ting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Her work has ap­peared in the New York Times, Buz­zFeed, Glam­our, the Mil­lions, Time Out New York, and

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