Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kati Standefer and Rafael de Grenade on Bad Journals, Poor Decision-Making, and the Hazards of Writing Our Younger Selves

Not long ago, I was interviewing writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade for the High Country News about her arid lands research and recently-released memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback (Milkweed Editions 2014), when we stumbled into irrelevant terrain. Irrelevant, that is, to the task at hand—but not irrelevant to my own work as a writer. Rafael was reflecting on the challenges she faced in her new writing project, The Zephyr, a memoir about the time she spent working on a fishing boat on the coast of Alaska when she was in her early twenties. She was finding it daunting, she said, to step back into her younger voice, particularly when her writing had grown past that voice in many ways. I found myself hungry for such reflections, since my own current book project—which traces the supply chain of my internal cardiac defibrillator—requires blending present-moment reflections with the experiences of my twenty-four-year-old (and quite freaked out) self, who had just been diagnosed with a potentially-fatal arrhythmia.

Rafael and I met one afternoon last week at the edge of the University of Arizona campus, where she drank a gingerade and I sipped an espresso as we explored what it means to confront and nurture our younger selves on the page. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for readability.

K: In Stilwater, as well as your work-in-progress, The Zephyr, you’ve had to write from the perspective of your younger self. I want to talk about the act of having to go back to journals. You mentioned in some of our past conversations that when you hear the voice of your younger self you’re grateful for the information, but you also have to make difficult choices about what you do with that information.

R: I feel this question raises tension, and the tension exists within the self. As you get older, experiences accumulate, and your world view becomes more complex. And so the voice on the page is one of increasing wisdom through time. We all want to be infinitely wise. And we want to be funny. Part of that being funny comes from seeing the ironies, from juxtaposing what you see with what you’ve seen before and putting it into context. However, we also, if we’re not careful, can become cynical. We can become hardened and somewhat dull. As these experiences layer over time, you lose the freshness of what it is to be nascent in this world.

Youth offers a skin that hasn’t been hardened. It’s new. Experiences intersect you in a way more raw and more immediate. We tend to be more present when we’re young. When we’re older, it’s easier not to live in the moment, to get caught up in what we think are important things--you have to pay the bills, you have to have a job, you have to make money; we’ve got families and our careers to think about, and all these layers tend to deaden the senses. As a young woman first encountering the world, I felt a sense of awe—I was in the middle of an unknown place, nowhere I’d ever thought I would be, and I had no predetermined idea of the outcome.

The idea of using the combined strengths of the young and wise voices is something infinitely beautiful—with remarkable possibility. I appreciate the depth that comes with added years, because life in some ways gets easier. I had a hard time growing up. It was challenging to be myself as a young woman in a very masculine world. The stresses and the tensions… I don’t want to go back to who I was then. And I’m grateful that I wrote while I was having those experiences. Though it’s so much harder now to put myself again in the skin of who I was, and take that experience to the next level in the writing. You don’t want too much youth and you don’t want too much wisdom, it almost needs to be this perfect balance, and to hit that tone is challenging.

K: I’m really interested in how you decided whether to narrate from that present, as the person you were then, versus narrating from this present.

R: I didn’t really make that choice. When I first wrote Stilwater, it was right after I’d had the experience, and that was the version that was accepted by the press. It was hard then to weave in the depth, because each sentence had to be taken apart and the words changed subtly one way or another to convey that it was indeed a more complex picture. I worked on the story intermittently for a period of about eight years. And the more recent pieces were the hardest because I was farthest away. The thought process I have now is not the thought process I had then. I had to make that process feel seamless; I had to rethink as a young woman, rethink as a maturing woman, but not necessarily be the woman I am now. It was a displacement of character.

K: Do you feel like there are things in that book that someone could bring up, say, at a reading, that you feel differently about now? They could quote you, and you could say, that’s not necessarily true for me anymore?

R: Yes, yes, I do. Youth comes with idealism. Because we want the world to be special. We want it to be beautiful, we want things to be fairy tales.

K: To have so much meaning.

R: Yes! It’s easy to get passionate, and there’s a high that comes with that passion. We think we’re right and we know we’re right. As we mature, our experiences complicate that idealism. Things aren’t so clear.

K: And so in a sense by choosing stories like Stilwater or The Zephyr, where you’re young and it’s this very particular time in your life, you get to return to that juicy youthfulness.

R: Yes. Although it’s difficult. Because you can’t enter the body anymore. It doesn’t fit. The skin has grown too small, and the voice loses credibility. So it’s easy then to write as an older person and not sound like the young woman, and of course I don’t want to be her anymore, I’ve outgrown her. There’s a retraction that must happen to put yourself back in that place, and yet she, as the character, needs to be big enough that other people want to pick up the story and read it. Not everyone wants to be forced into a youthful view unless there are openings for new wisdom. So it needs to be a character that still has insights and still can show you more about the world than you know, even though she’s young and her vision hasn’t gone through a metamorphosis yet.

K: Initially I thought we’d talk about the book project I’m working on now. But in this conversation I keep thinking about the essay I haven’t been able to write. Maybe I think about it with you because it was the summer that I worked at a fish cannery in Kenai. I was twenty, and I’d just done a summer study abroad class in Italy, so I needed to earn my whole summer’s money in a month. I had this cognitive dissonance of flying home from Europe and 42 hours later setting up my tent behind a factory on the other side of the world. No one knew I had just come from studying Dante in Europe, and I was one of maybe three women when I started.

Back then I was primarily a fiction writer, and I always knew something was there, in that story. I spent a lot of time trying to craft narratives around the factory in the two years directly afterward, trying to tap into whatever that was. But I think the perspective wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t really see what the story was.

Now I look at it, and I don’t know how to paint myself, because the journals are so… They’re focused on strange things. I wrote so much about who was cute, about these interactions that I thought were very intense, that, looking back, were not such a big deal. The things I’m interested in now are completely different. I feel tugged between these two sets of interests; one is narrative and would really explore the bodily experience of that person. What it felt like to work nineteen hours a day packing frozen fish. What it felt like when the trailers full of immigrant guys out back wanted me to come over to their fire, to drink their cheap beer, when I knew I’d be the only woman. How I held out and tried to create a space where I would be safe, and men would come sit by my fire and tell me crazy things about their lives. And how I’d wander around this peninsula accidentally stumbling upon the ocean, on our rare days off. There was a lot of magic.

R: It sounds amazing.

K: But then the intellectual side of me wants to talk about the sociological aspects of the fish cannery. To talk about labor and factories and the strange Alaska job market.

R: It sounds to me like the more interesting story would be the first one you just told. If you could tell that well. If you could not be the young woman but the lens looking at the young woman, be hovering around the young woman, I think you could tell a great story. Maybe that’s because I’ve been immersed in science and I just don’t find it that interesting anymore.

K: You’re hungry for story.

R: I’m hungry for story! And who isn’t hungry for story? Although… I think many of us crave knowledge also. We don’t just want entertainment. We want to learn while we are reading, but in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re just processing information.

Still, the problem with a story is that something has to happen. Even if it is an internal transformation.

K: Which brings us back to the initial problem. Because how do you craft the internal landscape of someone who is rather mystifying to you now? When I look at those journals… wow.

The summer before I went to Alaska, I was nineteen and working at this wilderness school in Wyoming, and I fell in love with my co-instructor. We never even kissed, but we would sleep next to each other in this tent every night with the campers nearby. So it was this very fraught, passionate, unconsummated thing that went sour by the end of the summer, as happens. I spent the whole next year torturing myself about it, especially on the trip to Italy, where I’d been studying Dante’s relationship with Beatrice. Everything was very dramatic and romantic.

So I landed in this fish cannery, and here’s the kind of thing I was noticing in the experience: The boxes said, “Keep Frozen: Perishable.” We were loading fish that had been frozen to -30 degrees. They were already dead. So perishable? What did that even mean? It seemed stupid to me. And the leap I made at as a twenty-year-old was, “It’s just like my heart.”

R: Yes!

K: Like, “If I’m not loving again it’s like I’m already dead, so why am I trying to protect myself so much?” It was this very emotionally fraught, endless sort of metaphorical thinking—about fish processing. Which: A) is not really the way I think anymore, but also, B) I think it would look silly on the page. I can’t figure out how you honor that person. Earlier, you were talking about the gentleness we can afford our younger selves—saying in a sense, “How wonderful that you were so in love with things, and so plugged into this search for metaphor! But also? You’re kind of silly.” How do I write that and not mock her? Or do I write that experience and just ignore all the metaphorical frozen fish stuff, everything she thought was so important?

R: I wouldn’t ignore it. But I wouldn’t necessarily write it. Just telling you as a spontaneous reaction. I can’t even read my early journals. When I was twenty. It’s so full of love and lust and love lost.

K: Ugh, yes! Reasons they should not publish our journals.

R: But that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a really sensitive young woman there. And perhaps there are other elements of the story that can be brought to the forefront and heightened. But don’t dwell on the obvious, or don’t dwell on what this woman was dwelling on, spice it in there. What if you were to not reveal that side of that person but gently do it, or do it subtly, like don’t say what she’s thinking but describe the boxes of fish when you’re talking about her being brokenhearted. Mention the broken heart. Maybe it needs to be done with just a pinch of salt. Go there. I don’t think it should be avoided, but you don’t need to dwell on it. I think anyone would prefer the rest of the story.

K: Earlier, you were talking about not appreciating some of your younger self’s decision-making, and at what point one is strong enough to write those threads rather than cutting them out.

R: [laughing] Never!

K: In this book that I’m working on now, there are two selves we see. There’s a present-time self who’s on a journey to understand the global supply chain impacts of her internal cardiac defibrillator. Then there’s a younger self who pitches face-first into a gravel lot one day. She learns she has a potentially-fatal arrhythmia, doesn’t have insurance, and spends many months thinking she’s going to die, trying to figure out how to access that expensive technology... while sort of loathing it. Both selves are wary about technology.

That young person—I cannot ignore her part in the narrative. Medically, it’s so important. That extended period of waiting, having trouble accessing the device, and being afraid of it, but being more afraid of not having it—this encompasses a lot of what the defibrillator has meant to me, and that’s really the goal of the book, to unpack what a defibrillator is from several different angles. Still, I have felt a lot of shame around the way she acted. She was immature and in a lot of pain. And what I notice as a researcher when I look at my journals from that period is that I was really, really good at writing down every terrible thing my boyfriend at the time did—he was my caretaker through the whole process, and we broke up right after my last hospitalization. It would be really easy in that story to demonize him, because I’ve got that dialogue. It’s really juicy nonfictional material, but I don’t have all these other things written down, all the ways I was lashing out. And my memories are somewhat blank. And so I’ve been hesitant to write it, not trusting that person on the journal pages.

I’m hoping I’m a mature enough individual to be able to write my younger self’s actions without infusing the story with that kind of shame—because nobody wants to read a manuscript full of self-castigation. I think that’s really destructive. I want to write the actions without any infusion of self-malice or judgment. Let the reader do the judging. And on the other hand, I’ll need to not protect myself in some regards—to not hide what’s ugly. So this been a really scary thing. And some of the essays I write and I’m like, whoa. Talk about writing as personal transformation. Writing can be a form of calling yourself out on your shit, because once you see those thoughts on the page, they stand out starkly. You know immediately—oh, that’s not the book that I want to write.

R: It makes me think about my own life right now, and recognize that I am still that way. I don’t call myself out on some things, and I don’t take responsibility maybe where I should. And so I think this is an ongoing process. And I would say, you are a novelist.

K: [laughing] You would say that I am a novelist?

R: Exercise your fiction writing in this instance. Make a character, based on the real character. That might allow you to explore who she also was. Give her three or four different hats, and you will subconsciously be drawing from yourself. Have you worked with archetypes at all in story writing?

K: No, I haven’t.

R: It’s really beautiful. It transformed the way I view characters. It makes them much more multi-faceted. You should read Carol Myss, read Carl Jung. The idea is that we are not one. We are multiple. And these multiple facets of the self respond and relate and embody and transform age-old patterns. So the king and the queen, the teacher, the servant, the artist and the writer, the child, the teenager, the young woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and goes out into the world, the joker--each of these beings are archetypal frameworks that we plug into as human beings. And we work with them subconsciously—sometimes consciously—but they guide us subconsciously until we actually have the strength to be conscious and transform our actions.

If you tap into archetypes while you’re writing—who are the archetypes guiding this young woman? Was she the spoiled princess? Or was she the whore? She wasn’t just one, she was many. And that might allow you the freedom to explore the complexity of her character but not bind yourself to a supposed truth of the past. Because the way that you’re seeing her as one facet—which is largely from your journals--is not the truth. She was complex. As we are now. The way to get into that story might be to break it.


Rafael de Grenade is the author of Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback (Milkweed Editions, 2014). She is currently working on “transboundary water security in the arid Americas” as a postdoctoral research associate at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona.

Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where she teaches composition and creative writing. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Colorado Review,, Fugue, the High Country News, Edible Baja Arizona, Camas, and She spends most of her time in downtown Tucson, drinking Americanos and watching the monsoons blow in.

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