Shapes Emerging From the Darkness of a Lake
I’m beginning from a necessary space of frustration, the frustration of framing my fiction in non-fictional terms, the frustration of constructing a (knowingly false) connection between the collective conscience and my own imagination.
This is to say: what I’m writing here, now, will not write easily.
This is also to say: this text will not read, easily.
This non-fictional framing always feels false to me because my fiction never seems to connect clearly. My fiction is not assembled from connections so much as a kind of (light, elusive, and often uncanny) connective tissue.
This is to say: what I’m writing here, now, in some sense, is a fiction.
This is also to say: in some sense, all my fictions are failed non-fictions.
With this phrase—connective tissue—I am trying to embody the gauzy nature of (even the most memorable) fictional connections. These connections are distinct from nonfiction in that their logic is distinctively the logic of an imagined, ethereal world.
Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red imagines a fictive connection between Stesichorus’ epic Geryoneis and the juvenile autobiography of a school boy named Geryon. No it is not the true story, Carson prefaces this airy version wherein All over the world the beautiful breezes [blow] hand in hand.
In Anna Kavan’s book, MeRcUrY, her nonlinear narration drifts strangely between two environments, two opposite extremes. A scene set within the hot haze of a tropical atmosphere cuts to another set in the cold, barren desolation of an arctic landscape. Kavan makes little attempt to reconcile these scene transitions, little effort to arrange them on a clear narrative timeline. The important takeaway is her emotional atmosphere: in her fiction, the sensory impact of mind-numbing heat and stark chill are the same.
When Kavan’s publisher read her final novel, Ice—a(nother) revision and re-envisionment of MeRcUrY’s narrative tapestry—he asked her why she wrote the text this way, why she was so obsessed with recreating this environment. Kavan answered that she wrote this way because she needed to, because this was the way she saw the world.
I think of fiction as a thin, absorptive gauze between my experience, my memory, and my imagination. In laying down a fiction, I seek to collect from these layers of life, to observe some sort of truth within their seepage. But, that truth is only as deep as the fluids that fuel it, and once collected, that truth is not felt, but just vaguely remembered, recalled through the shape of its stain.
Hence, frustration: if the shape is not strong enough, if the words are not vivid enough, if there’s not enough there (and there seemingly never is), I return to the well, hacking deeper into the muscle of my memory, again, and again, and again, and again, and again…
A fiction is a palliative performance insomuch as it does staunch the bleeding of my injured memories, but I can’t claim to write because it heals, knowing that the need to write accompanies a need to recreate those injuries. I have an obligation to retain frustration with my words, to stay unwell, to remain unresolved, to keep (re)writing.
I write mostly out of compulsion, returning again and again to that well, attempting to source some truth from the ontological confusion I was raised with, knowing full-well that no such truth resides there.
When I was a child, my mother constantly compared me to my uncle, a relative stranger who (for me) only existed in phone calls and irregular visits. You’re just like your uncle, she’d accuse me, always in some state of peculiar, untraceable anguish. You’re just like you’re uncle, or you’re going to turn out just like him. She’d approach me in tears when I spent the day reading in my room: I was turning out just like my uncle, detaching from everyone. She’d confront me with weirdly personal anger if I turned down a date with some boy at my high school: I was going to be all alone, disconnected from life, just like this mythic uncle.
I still don’t understand why she fashioned this fictive connection between us. As a small, self-conscious young girl, I couldn’t fathom my relation to a six-foot-four, physically and emotionally domineering man. I certainly felt no affinity with him. She was clearly projecting some dynamic that had nothing to do with me, but this dynamic was never clearly articulated. Thus, I was left to wander the strange, in-between spaces of this imagined connection, wonder over this unfathomable longing to connect.
I have written a number of stories exploring this character of my uncle—or rather, this fiction, this foggy outline of an unknowable absence. I have tried to relate some sensation of me through him, him through me, lacking the knowledge of who he is, to that end, who I am, how this strange figure connects to me.
Sensation is the word I want to draw attention to. With my writing, I try to instill a bodily sensation of a space, insinuate the ways an object or a physical experience contains entire legacies of tension.
Between my years of 3rd and 6th grade, my uncle would often call the house phone in the early afternoon, before my parents came home. I remember very little of his voice and his specific words, but I remember the sensation of dread, building. I didn’t know that he was drunk or what that meant, but I knew that I didn’t want to listen to him or be listened to by him.
My mind blurred the words of the phone conversation into a light gauze. Blocking out these details brought other sensations and objects into focus.
I focused on the lines of light along the carpet, pacing, and the texture of it under my bare feet. I brushed my teeth, repeatedly, and focused on the movement of the brush, the bristled edges scraping, silently.
When I write, I am less concerned with capturing some essence of a conversation I could not remember if I tried to. I am more concerned with writing light on carpet, tooth brush bristles, and suggesting what resides somewhere beneath them.
This is to say: I see repression—in itself—as a creative act.
This is also to say: the most palpable fictions emerge from an act of repression.
In The Autobiography of Red: young Geryon filters the pain of his sexual episodes through the lovely streams of smoke around his mother’s cigarette, the medieval smell and texture of the screen door, and the shadows in the room, the light that pierces through them. It is the light that both contains and threatens his repression, filled with both his tensions and the unknown fears of the collective.
Outside the dark pink air/was already hot and alive and filled with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time.
In MeRcUrY: Luz listens to the sound of her own unspeakable marital trauma in the otherworldly chorus of surrounding forest creatures.
Yet, in the midst of the mournful passages, again and again there’s a reprise, the original refrain reappearing as an assurance that there’s been no break in continuity, a reaffirmation of the singer’s former declaration of otherness…other values…introducing a hopeful note at the very point where a tragic climax might seem imminent and inevitable.
And then: there is that need to express the particularities of ones sensory experience, ones particular sensation of that repression. To write ones narrative—however quietly evasive—in contrast to narratives that others write for you.
I think often of my uncle’s funeral, the way, in place of happy memories, we wore caps with the logo of his alma matter. My mother had decided he was happy, then, and that this logo stood in for a time when he was happy.
I remember looking at the cap, held in my hands, and thinking I can’t let somebody else write me like this.
The irony, of course, is that in laying down a fiction, I’m collecting others’ lives within my own. I may control the flow, the feeling, and some aspects of the seepage, but in many ways, I can’t control its shape.
I recently wrote a story based around my uncle’s death. In lieu of writing him, I wrote around the space he lived in: a space which surrounds a lake that people try to build their lives around, which gives way to pale strips of fog which rise up as though lost.
The story closes with a scene in which a relative observes the stains across the house’s walls, like islands on a map. He imagines these stains as small, stony bodies. Shapes emerging from the darkness of a lake.
This is to say: for me, the act of writing does not feel active.
This is also to say: it feels like watching shapes emerge from some strange darkness.
Meghan Lamb currently lives with her husband in St. Louis, where she is a fiction MFA candidate with the Washington University Writing Program and a Graduate Assistant with the Modern Literature Collection. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance).