Recently I wrote an essay about the summer of my fourteenth year, which I spent discovering the Grateful Dead and testing boundaries, musical and otherwise. Somewhere in those pages, I tried to capture the freedom, madness, and jealousies of adolescence, but the story morphed into something else, an elegy to the unbridled narrative of my youth. I submitted the essay here and there and while it has not been published, I did receive a much appreciated personalized rejection, even critical feedback. I pride myself on these teenage mutinies, now that I know their effects were not permanent. I am sober now. No one was terribly hurt. Nobody died (then). I do not have a permanent record. I got away with many things. I accumulated stories, weaving them into a tapestry of causality: why I am the way I am.
In other words, a fiction.
During our December residency at Antioch’s MFA program, Lidia Yuknavitch honored us with a guest reading and seminar. At the Electric Lodge in Venice, she read her essay, Woven, which circles around narratives of violence, in particular a homophobic attack that left her with a knife wound and her partner with brain damage. She read, “I don’t know how to belong to the story in a way that doesn’t betray it. I don’t even want to be in the story, the one in which a woman I loved was left partially paralyzed. But mostly I don’t tell the story because I didn’t stay with her happily ever after forever and ever.”
As she recounted the following day in her seminar, Yuknavitch struggled telling her story because she could not speak of violence without also telling of this betrayal. And betrayal, like many aspects of personality—shame-ridden, conspiratorial, culpable—feels better left unsaid. For her, the unarticulated thing remained obscure, an idea behind the words she grappled with, a grain of sand in the typewriter keys.
I am struck by this. How can we know what we do not know? As Yuknavitch explained, at the center of all stories is a formal question, a negation, or crisis. Around this dilemma clusters the story, or the fragments of many stories, and all the narratorial conclusions, conjectures, and digressions, like a bunch of electrons in an electrostatic field. Here is my version of a formal question: How do we choose which realities wander in and out of our narratives?
I have spent two decades obsessively analyzing the motivations and events of adolescence and early adulthood. I have crafted my own narrative. I was wild. I was depressed. I was artistic. I kept running away from home and nobody ever noticed; I had feelings of abandonment. I wanted to be different so I got pierced and tattooed just like everybody else.
Jerry Garcia died when I was fifteen, not long after I saw the Grateful Dead play in Tampa. Since I was a teenager and fickle, I supplanted my Nag Champa problem with other ones. It was the mid-nineties. Raves had become cooler than Phish or even Lollapalooza, which was too commercial. I had a pacifier and glow sticks. I threw around the word “underground” like I owned something special.
And yet, a friend recently reminded me that during this same period, I was a window model for 5-7-9, the nineties equivalent of Forever 21. I had conveniently forgotten the entire episode. I remembered modeling, dreaming of being Kate Moss with her whole heroin chic thing, but the mall? Not so much.
One morning, my father drove me to the old Palm Beach mall.
He was French and traditional; we were never allowed junk food at home. We ate things like mustard-drenched rabbit and liver cooked in vinegar and he never drank water, just wine and coffee. But each time we came to the mall, he walked straight to the Orange Julius counter: the sine qua non of mall visits, a catharsis of high fructose corn syrup, a time he could eat garbage with impunity and survive this terrazzo-floored, fluorescent-lighted sliver of South Florida.
My father walked me past the Burdines, the Hoolihan’s, the piercing pagoda, the arcade. Had I grown up in France perhaps he would have escorted me to ballet classes at the Opera Garnier. We would have walked down cobbled streets, me in a wool pea coat and him in a smart motorcycle jacket. Instead I wore my favorite pair of oversized corduroys that I belted up with rope, Birkenstocks, and a Camel cigarette t-shirt. Did he feel pride as he left me in front of the 5-7-9?
As Yuknavitch explained, memory is a constant overwrite, a program more concerned with now than then. This is known as reconsolidation theory. Each time we bring to mind a memory, we rewrite it. While the mind operates this behind-the-scenes program, we naively believe that our perceptions hold weight and truth. But memories are neither cells nor capsules; they do not exist in pictograms—they’re more like a flight of birds, forming again and again when called by the wind, each time heading to different locations, with subtle variations in shape and size. Writing is therefore not a record of the past but a record of the process of remembering.
With a handful of other girls, I stood immobile in the vitrine for hours at a time, five or six in total, for very little pay, and for very little reason. We were supposed to have done our own makeup and hair, neither of which I had any experience doing. My hair was wild and my skin uneven. People lingered by the window to see if we would move. We were given sunglasses so we could blink our eyes in peace. They had given me a floral crop top. My back ached and my skin flushed with embarrassment. I counted the seconds till my shift ended, and did what I had learned young—something I can still do to this very day, something I imagine all introverts know de facto: I dissociated myself from the present, removing my attention to the distant edges of my brain, till I was far from that wide window, like an instantaneous memory selection, a real-time edit.
There was nothing rebellious about this act. I wanted to be a model but I sucked. My pictures sucked. My eyes are different colors, brown and blue, and one is slightly bigger than the other, which shows up vividly on camera (like a Husky, they told me). My hair was and still is unmanageable: long, coarse, a magnet for twigs, necklace clasps, door jambs. So when my tiny agency out of Fort Lauderdale asked me to cut my waist-length hair, I quit. Truth be told, I was mortified by the demands of femininity, this type at least: to be demure, charismatic, well groomed, with good hair.
Lidia Yuknavitch recounted that “Woven” took around eight months to write. The piece refused to come together. She had set out to chronicle the attack on her girlfriend but ended up writing around it in braided narratives, about the time her second husband put a gun to her chest, about Lithuanian folk tales. She wrote and wrote until finally it appeared like a blooming drop of blood: her complicity. She did not stay with her girlfriend. The missing piece that was running through all her words, the pea under the mattress, became her compulsion to tell a broader story of violence. In “Woven” she writes, “My question is, where does my love come from that I walk through male violence to find it?”
Here is my disclosure: I have written many versions of myself and in none of them appears the fourteen-year-old window model. My memories of the mall, of my shyness, of my desire to be someone other than who I was: These are little shames. I am not suggesting this is remotely similar to Lidia Yuknavitch’s harrowing account. I have had larger shames as well, things tougher to write and share. No matter the size, it seems the flavor of shame remains the same. Perhaps its only measure is how much we can swallow at once.
In “Woven” Yuknavitch writes, “Aren’t we all woven through with stories? Isn’t that how we think of our lives, how we survive them?” How is it that so much of what we know about ourselves exists on the periphery? We write and write some more, hoping our memories surface, shame rises to the top, truth appears ugly, adulterated, even cosmetically enhanced, but still there and willing to be part of the worlds we create. I write fiction and perhaps this makes it easier to channel my stupid shames. How many different ways have I have told my story to make myself seem better, instead inflicting this scale of pains on my characters? I hope it makes them more believable, more embodied, complex and ultimately forgivable, because I cannot always say the same for myself.