How to make sense of your writing (and also maybe your past)
|Emily VanDerWerff||Apr 13, 2020|| 8|
My favorite part of the writing process is when you know something is wrong but you have ideas on how to fix it, even if they haven’t coalesced into a plan. My least favorite part of the writing process is when you know something is wrong but you haven’t yet found ideas on how to fix it. That anxiety sits in my gut and makes me unpleasant to be around, honestly.
Anyone who has worked with me in any capacity on any sort of writing project will tell you this, I think. Nearly every major project I’ve undertaken on both sides of my career has encountered a moment when I’ve gone back to page one and just rewritten everything. I am not really a tinkerer. When I know something is wrong, I usually find it easier to start from square one than to poke and prod at a thing that already exists.
I certainly can do that poking and prodding, and I’ve made myself a lot better at it across the entirety of my career. But if time isn’t an object, if I’m not on deadline, if I can just go for it — nine times out of 10, I’ll go for the full rewrite. And I like to think I’m really good at that rewriting.
The trick of rewriting isn’t really about writing, actually. It’s about emotion. The second you realize something doesn’t work in your writing, it’s tempting to fall down a spiral of self-loathing — if your writing isn’t good enough, does that mean you aren’t good enough? The best writers are the people who’ve brute forced their way through this natural emotional process to realize that their work isn’t them. But even they will have that brief twinge of, “Am I worthless??” that so often strikes when somebody says, “So, I have some notes…”
(When I struggled with notes, I used to repeat to myself, “They’re not talking about me,” and it honestly worked. It gave me the space to feel and process my emotions, while also reminding myself that my worth is not directly tied to my work, strange as that idea may seem. If you get stuck in the “feeling so many things” part of the process, maybe try telling yourself that you’re okay? It’s the only advice I really have.)
Managing that emotional process is still a thing I’m learning to do. I’m really not precious about anything I’ve written, and I don’t mind notes. But I do sometimes get stuck in that place between draft A and draft B, where I’m trying to figure out a way to make it perfect. And then drafts C, D, and E will only incrementally move the whole thing forward toward perfection, a thing that is unattainable anyway.
And when I get stuck, I get devoured by that gnawing certainty that something is wrong and I don’t yet know how to fix it.
Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, one of the most acclaimed novels of 2019 and the kind of book that seemed like a laser-guided missile aimed directly at my personal interests, is about a great many things, but as a writer, I glommed on to it as a book about the editing process. That is probably not how most people will read it, and that’s okay. But the deeper you get in to the book, the more you realize that the question of what’s true is less important than the question of what’s being elided. Which is to say you can say something that is true and still be telling a total lie because of the way you present that truth and the context it exists within.
Trust Exercise begins as a novel about a passionate love affair between two high school sophomores at a performing arts high school. By its end, it’s about a whole bunch of other things, and for me to explain exactly how would feel like a spoiler. This is the kind of book where you should know as little about it as possible going in to reading it, except also, if you know everything about it, you’ll probably be okay, because there is something to the idea that this book cannot be spoiled. It is as much about what you take from it as anything else.
Suffice to say, the center of the book involves the ways we tell stories about our own pasts and the ways that this tendency all humans have line up with how novelists construct fiction. And yet for all of the ways in which that sounds like this is yet another novel about writing, or about being a novelist, or something like that, it’s really none of the above. Sure, you could read all of that into it, but at its core, this is a book about realizing you are a character in your own life and not its protagonist. Those who assume they are the protagonists are only too willing to toss you aside.
Trust Exercise tends to frustrate those who reach its ending and long for something to hold on to. In the end, the book slips away from you, creating a myriad of interpretations of what “might” have happened. But it tends to enthrall those of us who think that there are no answers in stories, that the way stories are constructed often tell us more about what they mean than what their authors insist they are about.
I read Trust Exercise across three different sittings, staying up much too late to read more and more of it on a couple of those sittings. It’s written very beautifully, with a literary veneer, but it’s plotted like a more conventional piece of potboiler fiction, pacing out its revelations in a way that is hard to resist. Or maybe I read it so quickly because it felt like an atom bomb going off in my brain.
After all, one of the things I’ve come to realize more than ever before is how mutable the past is. I’ve always used my own past as grounding for fiction, but since coming out as trans, I’ve come to realize that my own history is not what I thought it was. Things I remembered with crystal clarity in my old life have been given new filters thanks to my better understanding of myself. The events are all the same; the emotional context for them has changed utterly.
When I was in high school, I met a girl I’ve called Hannah when I’ve written about her in these emails before. The connection I shared with her was unlike anything else I’d felt to that point, and I kept trying to brute force it into a romance, because that was what I knew. We were best friends for a time, and then we fell out of touch (though weirdly, quarantine has led to us communicating more than we have in years). The thing where I kept trying to declare my love to her surely didn’t help.
But when I was 16, 17, 18, I lacked all of the information I needed to make sense of what was happening to me. I wasn’t in love with Hannah; I’d just met the first true girl friend I’d ever had. Before that, the girls I’d tried to befriend were either confused by my intentions or put off by my tendency to declare deep and everlasting friendship after a couple of weeks of knowing each other. Now, when I look back at those times, I understand what I was going for. Back then, I just felt a nameless frustration that didn’t make any sense to me. I wanted to be around them. I didn’t understand why I didn’t quite fit.
It was never that way with Hannah. For whatever reason — I suspect because she was also an adoptee, and we had that to bond over — she saw me right away. Now, when I remember my friendship with her, I remember it with an acute, stabbing regret. She was the great friend I never quite had, and I missed it right in front of me. When I wrote about her in the newsletter I linked earlier (before I came out), I said we were “a friendship to be declared later.” Well, here I am, declaring it.
This sense that the past only makes sense when we’re too far away from it to do anything about it is where Trust Exercise excels. We are trapped inside of time, and by the time we realize what’s happened to us, it’s usually too late. So we tell stories and try to make sense of it or, barring that, try to make it all more palatable to remember.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the repository of information for my family. If we needed to remember what year we went on the vacation to the Pacific Northwest, for instance, I could usually have that information for everybody in a couple of seconds. I had constructed my consciousness in such a way that I could open the right door and find all the answers anybody might need waiting there.
But there was a secret I was keeping even from myself: I was remembering everything the way that everybody else wanted it to be remembered.
By this I mean that, again, the events were more or less true — we really did go to the Pacific Northwest on vacation in the summer of 1998 — but the emotional context of them was all wrong. Here, an example from that vacation: I had dragged my family all the way to Seattle because I wanted to meet a girl from the internet. I thought perhaps this was the great love of my life, but again, once I actually met her (in a Barnes & Noble in downtown Seattle), the vibe we got was far more friendship-oriented. Again, at the time, I didn’t understand what was happening and chalked it up to a missed connection. Now, I have a better sense of the whole thing.
That’s a relatively minor example of what I’m talking about, however. Far more notable is the fact that in my brain, I have a space where the memory “telling my mom I wanted to be a girl at 4” should go, but not the memory itself. It’s been purged, because whatever surrounds it is too painful to remember. All I know is that by the time I was in grade school, I had figured out a way to play keep away with myself, distracting myself from the truth long enough until I had sealed it away in a place where I couldn’t get to it.
I don’t know if I told my mom I wanted to be a girl at 4. I have a feeling this happened, and I have a feeling that the fallout was emotionally devastating to me. But I cannot prove it, because the memory has been purged. It’s easier for all of us to remember me as a happy little kid who didn’t have these massive amounts of existential pain. To acknowledge the latter is to admit culpability, on all of our parts. And to admit culpability is to call the entire system I was raised in into question.
I’ve found this to be true for a lot of my trans woman friends. When people remember us as children, it’s always happy-go-lucky people pleasers. We were so desperate not to make waves that we essentially negated ourselves, forgetting to set boundaries, editing the story of our lives down into a single notion of what everybody else wanted from us. The act of coming out, then, felt like the first thing we’d ever done for ourselves, but it also unleashed a whole slew of negative emotions we’d been holding at bay.
I remember, distinctly, a time when my parents took my sister and me to Deadwood, where several buildings were set up in an approximation of their Wild West selves. They had the two of us get into an old-style jail cell, then asked us to scowl like little criminals. My sister, always a good sport when it came to expressing her darker side, got right in to it, but I refused. It was like the idea just did not compute. Why would I scowl, even in play acting, when I was so happy? To scowl was to admit that other emotions existed and might drive me just as much as my happiness. And we couldn’t have that. (When the Pixar movie Inside Out came out, I joked that my own internal Joy had knocked all of the other emotions unconscious and tied them to their chairs. I didn’t know how right I was.)
Thus, two things can be true at once: I really was that happy little kid who was always there to make people’s days brighter. I was absolutely miserable.
Broadly speaking, Trust Exercise’s core revolves around sexual assault and the varying ways that women might tell stories about what happened to them at the hands of a powerful man who could not see them as anything other than a sidebar in the story of his own greatness and power. What’s amazing about the book is how it gets you to question your own instincts as to what happened to these women, even as you, 2020 reader, must know that, say, an adult teacher having sex with a teenager involves a power imbalance that can never be overcome.
Intellectually, I have always understood the reasons that women tell stories about sexual assault that seem, at first blush, to be untrustworthy. Details shift and change, or an encounter described as consensual contemporaneously may be described, many years later, as something that was far from consensual. But Trust Exercise got me to understand how that feels emotionally, the way that all of the events can be described exactly as they happened while the actual feelings of the experience are kept under lock and key. What is described as a drunken escapade to avoid the pain of what actually happened reveals itself as the brightly colored paint covering the truth flakes off.
What’s amazing to me is how deftly Choi doesn’t really make you think about what she’s doing until roughly the book’s last 50 pages. That’s not to say that you’re not aware that women are being sexually assaulted in the book’s pages. You very much are. But she’s simultaneously keeping you from thinking about it too much, because these very women are finding ways to excuse what happened to them, or put it off to the side so they needn’t think about it too deeply. In one section of the book, a character flits between first and third person, and it takes forever to realize that she uses third person to think about herself when she’s disassociating from thinking too much about what has happened to her.
What Choi understands that is a hard lesson to learn is that we are only stories we tell to ourselves. Those of us who are writers are perhaps better attuned to this than others, but maybe we’re not. It’s taken me ages, sometimes, to realize what it is I’m trying to say in my fiction. (In 2012, for instance, I wrote a short story about a trans woman named Emily, and, uh… I was just a good ally?) The pain we keep from ourselves bubbles up in our fiction, but that’s too often a coping mechanism of its own. To face what has happened requires a kind of courage that is too often in short supply.
You can only write something like Trust Exercise after working hard to confront all of your own painful memories; you can only write something like Trust Exercise by ignoring them completely and letting fiction work its strange magic.
Editing, at its best, is not merely tweaking a thing until it works. At its best, editing involves taking a thing that is stitched together imperfectly and breaking it so you can try to put it back together the right way. This often takes several attempts, each draft pulling closer to some ideal, but also making you realize how far away you are from what you’re trying to do. So you go back to the start and try again, sometimes rewriting everything. At its best, it’s exhilarating to find yourself realizing just what the piece needs. At its worst, it feels like being swallowed by your subconscious.
The thing I’ve come to realize is that editing is the process of finding a way to express yourself in a way that helps other people understand what you’re saying, but without giving up on your fundamental truths. It’s a process of figuring out what you are trying to say and honing that to a fine point. And when you finally pull that off, the story you write can literally make someone think like you, at least for a little bit.
I still don’t know how to explain myself to you, but one thing I’ve found is that the idea of deliberately misremembering something isn’t limited to people who’ve experienced trauma. It’s a thing we all do in tiny ways here and there, in bigger ways when some memories are too painful to bear. I don’t know what happened, but sometimes the not knowing is enough. There is a story hiding in the draft of my life I have right now, and if I break it, then put it back together, I might find what “really” happened.
What I’ve been up to: It was an eventful week for me at Vox. I wrote about my quarantine playlist (which so many of you have listened to and enjoyed), as well as the idea that the president’s coronavirus briefings have become the equivalent of TV clip shows. But my biggest piece was an explanation of the new streaming service Quibi that turned super angry.
And that’s the big problem with Quibi: Everything it does that’s interesting is already being done better by somebody else. A lot of the shows feel like lesser, shorter versions of more successful Netflix offerings (for instance, a show about how various pastas get their shapes is okay and all, but it has a pretentious vibe that Netflix’s similar Salt Fat Acid Heat mercifully avoided). And the shows that don’t feel like Netflix knockoffs are exactly the sort of scripted filler that tends to pad out new streaming platforms in need of content.
But look beyond Netflix and you’ll find other streaming services delivering even better results on Quibi’s core promises.
(And if you enjoy my work at Vox, consider contributing financially to the site. It’s a really difficult time to raise money to support digital journalism, and if you can chip in, that would really help us out.)
Read me: I love this Eater piece by my friend Jaya Saxena on why it’s so shitty to tell people that they can always go be a waitress if nothing else works out and how these times give the lie to that idea.
We as a society have set these jobs up to be temporary, so when someone wants to make their job permanent, we think it is a failure on their part, rather than a failure on ours. There is no such thing as a “bad” job, only bad conditions. Food-service work doesn’t have to be low paid. It doesn’t have to rely on tips, or come without health care or paid sick leave. In the face of the pandemic, we’re seeing how that is the case, as grocery stores and delivery services are pressured into providing better benefits and pay to these essential workers. But it’s time we stop considering these jobs, any jobs, as backup, and time to start providing dignity to all workers.
Watch me: I can’t say I’d call it a must-watch, but I’m enjoying Tales from the Loop, Amazon’s strange new sci-fi spin on Winesburg, Ohio. I’ve loved the role-playing game based on the same paintings that gave the TV show its form, so I appreciate how well the TV show establishes itself as its own thing while capturing the feel of the paintings and game. It’s not going to be for everyone, but the people whom it’s for are going to dig it.
And another thing… Have you heard of “Rows Garden” puzzles? They’re like super fucking involved crosswords, and they wrinkle my brain in pleasing ways. Try some out here to see if they’re for you.
This week’s reading music: “Tonight Is What It Means to be Young” by Fire, Inc.