Sometimes, I read student essays that remind me of sitting on the bus, next to a very chatty person, who tells me about her relationship to the chair she’s sitting on (she once sat on a seat similar to this when she was visiting her friend Jane who had cancer but now she doesn’t) or her belief about stop signs (why so many? Do we have to stop? What about those cars just running through?) the time she stopped at the store we’re passing (7-11, 99 cents for three hot dogs) or the hat of the guy sitting in front of us (is it beige? Or gray? Or beige gray?).
I care about her story because I like my students and I care because people are generally interesting, but “thoughts while riding the bus” is not an essay yet. Until she can see me as audience, she can’t make me care about the bus situation. And, until she sees herself as a character on a bus, explaining to me why she’s talking to me, she won’t be able to see me at all.
Writers live in their heads but that’s the problem. No one wants to be in anyone’s head for very long. Or in their hearts. They are sad. I understand. I am sad too. They are in love. So am I. They are not sure if this choice was the right one, if their parents were good or bad, if their writing reaches anyone at all. Neither am I. We are sad. We are in love. We are not sure. But that’s not quite enough to make an essay. We want to feel it like you feel it and this means that you can’t be you, writey one, any more. You have to put yourself in a character on the page if you’re going to affect the reader in the way that you have been affected. For this to happen, you need distance between yourself narrator and yourself character on the page. It’s ironic that to get the reader closer to you, character, the narrator ‘you’ has to step away.
I tell my students, put your body in a place. The idea that they separate the subject (themselves) from the direct object (themselves) begins the process of separation. That moving the body around like it’s a mannequin on display is the first step in getting the reader to see the narrator as a human. For some reason, telling someone you are sad does not make you seem human or make you seem sad. It makes you seem boring. Who isn’t sad? Get over it. I am sooooo sad, I can hear the junior high school boys mocking.
You cannot feel sorry for yourself. Maybe the best thing is to lie to yourself on the page. Maybe sadness begins there, with the language.
“I was so happy. You could tell by the way my eyes flipped up toward the ceiling. On the ceiling was the happiness, writ large, like a cupcake. All things good are ceilinged and cupcaked. You cannot tell me differently. I walked to the edge of the kitchen. There is no sadness in corners.”
You turn yourself into two people. The straightforward talking narrator and the action-filled character. You make space between the narrator “I” who says, “We all had so much fun making cookies” and the way you move your character “I” across the floor, “I still like to think of myself as the one everyone picked on, even though it was I, who, at four, walked over to where my two year old brother was sitting on the floor and hit him over the head with the rolling pin. Not the plastic one.”
The reader, with the narrator, believes people want to be good. But that same reader, reading the scene, second guesses the narrator. She wants to put her hand between the narrator’s rolling pin and the brother’s head while, at the same time, remembers bonking her own little brother on the head for being too cute too. She empathizes with the narrator. She also feels sorry for the brother. She sees the narrator’s point of view. People want to be good. Sometimes, they are not. The reader, in the space between character, narrator, and brother, sees her point.
The site, as well as the sight, of the body is a catalyst for empathy. What reader doesn’t have a body? Make them feel that rolling pin in their hand, that bonk upon the head. By putting distance in between the narrator and the character brings the reader in closer.
But sometimes the writer, in order to get to the narrator, even before she can get to the character, must employ more drastic artifice. There are difficult things to talk about, like brothers and rolling pins, and then there are impossible things to talk about like rape and torture and murder. And for the essay, because the narrator is part of the scene, how they treat the matter is not only an aesthetic problem but an ethical one. How do you put your story on the page so that it is visible while still making sure there’s room for the reader to breathe, respond, to understand that you, writer, created this art, this artifice, gave this an affect, while still experiencing the actual pain. The reader needs space to turn around. It can’t all be aestheticized or it will read as artifice because then the lyricism is only a non-reactive spackle on the drywall of the reader—no longer active for the narrator/character/writer. And if lyricism is only catharsis for the writer, then it’s not writing, it’s therapy.
My friend and colleague, Laura Gray-Rosendale’s book, College Girl, came out last year. The book is divided in half. The first half recounts her rape experientially, in scene. The second half situates the rape in terms of how to write about rape and what strategies she used to both convey the actual violence and the difficulty of writing about it. More than using distance, she dissociates, even on the page. The narrator/character is both in her dorm room and outside of it. She writes about the narrator/character in the third person, “The college girl gags.” She, the narrator, zooms out while the narrator/character also zooms away. How will she survive this rape? The same way she will survive writing this scene. At the end of the scene, she dissociates, nearly disappears. “The college girl’s breathings harder now. She tries to jostle her sock from her mouth. Tears are caterpillaring down the college girl’s cheeks. She sucks at the air from her mouth corners. She extends her neck toward the streetlight. Delicate spidery rainbows shimmer before her, jump rope along her lashes. And she’s sure. There’s never been anything more magnificent, more full of glorious-dazzling, fairy light magic—never been a more heavenly beautiful. Am I dead? The college girl wonders (25).
The narrator and the writer are both up in the streetlight looking down at the body of the woman being raped. They all had to get away from her to see it. They all had to get away from her to experience it. To remember it. And to write about it. She ends the chapter writing in merely fragments: “i. am. over.” Three periods between three words. No capital letters. The narrator, character, and writer are simultaneously completely absent and completely present. Perhaps you can only get a whole experience through self-annihilating effects.
In part two of her book, Laura, having spent years writing and revising the book, having become a professor of rhetoric, having written scholarly articles on the rhetoric of trauma, says of the experience writing the book that she had to write the rape scene 20 times before getting it right. She wrote it with standard narrative distance but that seemed stilted and over-tidy. An arm’s length narrative aestheticized the scene, thereby anesthetizing the reader. She also wrote it entirely in fragmented sentences, no capital letters, but that seemed too affected, too lyrical to actually put the body on the page.
Finally, after 19 revisions, in her twentieth she came across combination of scene-setting, reader-orienting distance and lyrical, affected, literal, even psychotropic dissociation that made it possible for the writing to be effective, having made a place for the reader to both see and experience.
In working on this essay, I realized I have three separate essays called Dissociation. One is about owls and sex and my daughter and how weird it is that you can roll around naked on the bed with your kid and have not even a sexual thought but if you think about not having thoughts, let yourself think that it’s weird that you’re thinking about how weird it is, that you immediately have to get up from the bed and put clothes on. The minute you see yourself seeing yourself, you can begin to extrapolate some meaning. Here’s a bit from the essay:
I lie on the bed with Zoë who is asleep and smell her hair and think, it’s because I’m her mom that I can do this. I can stroke her arm. I can kiss her neck. There is a reason I can do this, I justify. I’m her mom. But that thought makes me dissociate. I hover above and see myself kissing her and it looks weird: too intimate. I scoot over, move away. Was this moving away the beginning of the gap? Is it my own nervousness this is where there would be space enough for someone else to move in and make her body familiar? Her familiar body was mine, cultivated by me. But someone else will find it wild and want to make it theirs. I would have done anything if she would stay three years old and under the crook of my arm forever but my arm would cramp and her head would itch and we’d both start talking about our favorite foods and get hungry and have to get up. Our bodies usually win these arguments.
In another essay, called Dissociation about how we can eat meat even after we’ve looked the cow in the eye. I write how we have to dissociate one experience from another so we can live with ourselves and eat our meat. Hypocritically, dissociatively, we can do it all. Here’s a little excerpt from that essay.
Hamburger is muscle turned to vegetable. You don’t want to think muscle. You want to chew very little. You want to swallow before you can think about the sad doe eyes. In the face of the accusing animal, you can solidly deny you knew what you were doing.
But what’s worse.?Finding joy in licking the rib clean? Of polishing the bone? Or letting the process happen behind closed doors for you by a grinder, a man in a once-white apron, by knives and forks not your own. You brought only your mouth to the table but it masticates to the same beat as mine.
And the third essay is about suicide and dissociation—how too much dissociation can lead you to see yourself as completely separate from the world and from yourself and that artists, especially one’s writing their self-portraits, have to remind themselves to stitch themselves back into the whole scene once in a while. From the essay:
In 1948, Sir Fred Hoyle said, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” The first astronaut to get above the earth, to look back upon it to say, that is we. We are they. The whole of humanity in his lens. He tried to hold all the humanity, to hold it perfect and steadily with his Nikon. But the earth is more fragile than that. The pictures of the earth taken in 1969 will not be the same as the pictures taken in 2014. You can see the Kennecott Copper Mine’s swath cut into space. You can see brown where the once green Amazon rain forest used to be. Where once were sheets of ice, now blues of sea.
That ability to dissociate—to look from above. You think it would make us save ourselves but like the art of the suicides, maybe the picture postcard was just that. A postcard. A memory trapped by a stamp.
Dissociation happens at interludes, after moments of too intense, close-up emotional work. Distance comes from tone—a kind of tone that is flat throughout the piece. Dissociation can become distance if it’s practiced throughout the whole of the piece. In Brenda Miller’s short essay Swerve, she is distant at first, telling us a narrative with normal-length sentences from a detached point of view. But once the second paragraph begins and the sentences get crazy long and intense, the narrator is no longer just distant, she has changed from distant to dissociated. We read by the end of the essay how: she gained distance through repetition and over time, effected by long sentences, and now the last line of the essay takes us back to the title and first line to re-read, to re-see how the narrator had to leave, get away, re-see herself to write the first paragraph that got her to her second. She had to dissociate to see herself in between the first and second paragraph.. If she had been merely distant, she would have remained the same across the essay. Because she dissociated, she not only could see the change, she could effect the change.
Back on the bus, we need to see that change. The chatty talker seeing herself, and then, maybe even seeing herself see herself, a meta moment where she asks, what am I doing on the bus? Why is Nicole here with me? Then there will be some distance, an expectation that I, reader, know why it matters. Until the dissociation happens, until the writer actually comes on to the page and does some writerly work, like put the character in a streetlight or put the mom naked on the bed or swirl the sentences like toilet water, the reader is not sure where we’re going. In Laura Gray-Rosendale’s book, the point of the book is dissociation. She separated from the world. She could see herself. The act of writing herself helped stitch herself back into the world. In Brenda Miller’s Swerve, the writer comes in and messes up the light bulbs and the light from the window and the light from the brakes on the car until her piled up images let her see herself. The narrator-character is transformed because the writer broke completely, at least for a moment, from the narrator-character. Now, as she returns to the end of the essay, she’s returned herself to herself. Now, thanks to distance, less extreme than dissociation, we know how she is changed.
On the bus, the bus rider sees the things she passes but she doesn’t see herself sitting there talking to me. If she saw herself talking to me, she’d tell me why she’s telling me about the hot dogs. They remind her of the time when she was ten and she ate fourteen in a row. This would be distance which is the first step toward perspective. If then, she started comparing the rigors of bus-riding, all that people talking, store watching, intersection crossing with the difficulty of talking to another person on the bus while remembering the difficulty of swallowing that last hot dog and how, if you really think about it, we are all on the bus all the time, all swallowing our words and our hot dogs, waiting to get off so we can get back on and tell that story of the last bus ride to a new bus rider then the bus rider would be dissociating, and thus, be writing an essay.