Hello all. I’m trying something new here today. A guest post. This is exciting and a little scary at the same time. On the one hand this blog is my baby and I’m scared to let anyone else hold it. On the other hand I feel the need to grow and try new things. So here goes. Hope you enjoy.
Guest Author: Claire Holt
Healing and Self-Identity through Fiction
That beautiful quote by American-Iranian writer and professor Azar Nafisi continues to resonate with me until this day: “What we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.” It’s a succinct articulation which sums up my entire sentiment towards reading fiction which I could never put into words myself, but felt for years. And oddly enough, it is through literary fiction (as well as art, music, and film) where I have experienced the most fulfilling embodiment of revelation in my life. Whether reading a piece of short fiction or throwing myself into a multimedia project of elemental proportions, my sense of the world is encapsulated in this perpetual process of creativity and interpretation. And equally profound, it’s one of the few things which have empowered me to come to terms with my own psychological and metaphysical challenges.
Finding Our Inner Strength through Fiction
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for several years, and my constant mentors have revealed themselves through the heroic and not so heroic endeavors of protagonists and narrators from classical epics, Renaissance poetry, modernist fiction and pretty much everything in between. If the resilient strength which emerges and encompasses an inspirational sense of humanity prevails in even the bleakest of circumstances, then this is enough to restore faith in the greater good, and the readerly response will transcend from the page and into “real life”. When we sympathize with key characters, regardless of what superficial similarities they might or might not appear to share with us, we begin to discover the world through their perceptions and perspectives as well as holding our own. Their story becomes our story; their suffering and triumph becomes our suffering and triumph; and the experience carries with it a poignant kind of reality where we have felt and responded in very real ways.
Within these experiences, we discover a remarkable inner strength. Often, long after we have finished reading, we continue to spin around the ideas of the last great book we read in our heads, contemplating, analyzing, in a way giving life to the work’s ongoing legacy. Some people may argue that dramatic fiction fuels dramatic notions about the world – that we get this sense where good must always prevail and where people who choose the right will eventually be rewarded. Yet here is where fiction becomes the most crucial – we see what should happen, what could happen (whether for better or for worse, like in a critical dystopia) and what does happen, revealed in a light that few of us get to see. Works like P.D. James’ Children of Men highlight a reality which is not so far distanced from our own, while Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns sheds a staggering truth about what already is. But because in the midst of this we see the perseverance of our protagonists prevail no matter what the cost and our hearts echo their resilience, we too learn to be better human beings, even by relating to less than ideal archetypes who are not cardboard cutouts of the perfect hero.
So fiction in one sense teaches us to be good, or at least digs deep inside us to resurrect the urge to live by greater strength and become true to our morality. But it also helps us explore the many complexities and facets of our own personalities with a sometimes brutal, but sometimes gentle honesty. I did a lot of reading during a dark period of my life, where I felt shamed for my own disregard for myself and longing to turn my back on everything. I never touched a self-help book despite appreciating the importance of resources available to help those of my demographic, but buried myself in required reading for my classes and if I had time, my own choice of fiction. I found tremendous consolation in both – not because they distracted me from my own turmoil, but because I found an opportunity to face them in another universe so to speak. I learned that my emotions were complex and tangible, that I was actually quite an average human being, but one who merely felt the intensity of life a little more burningly than others. Even through collaborative efforts such as classroom discussion, I was able to come to terms with not only varying outlooks on life but with my idea of self. The healing process which takes place through reading is a very powerful one and even recognized worldwide.
But then there is also the fiction which directly deals with mental illness itself. I’m not just talking about iconic pop-culture works like Ken Kesey’s brilliant piece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is more about countering institutionalization than mental illness itself – but about all kinds of fiction where a particular character is featured who appears to be facing an internal adversary. Sometimes these characters are almost mis-portrayed, with their unique attributes played up for dramatic effect – while at other times they can produce a heartening effect, whether through courage or empathy or both. Even more bizarrely, I found that in a profoundly grounding sense, the more bizarre the work, the less of a bizarre individual I felt, learning to process my own world with a greater perspective.
Even through the exploration of delusional antagonists, out of the world plot sequences and disturbing events, we can find healing through reading, and help to better outline the contours of our identity and take this with us into the world. After all, literature only seeks to find a way to define what we already know deep inside.
Hello, beloved readers. After a toss and turny kind of night, a short story wafted out of my coffee cup this morning. I decided to share.
A Mere shadow
Eva De’ Cocao had always thought of herself as a rather superfluous person. She tended towards the fringes, the by waters and tide pools of life. She dressed in an altogether non-committal way, preferring the edges of the wall to the center of the room.
She always chose a seat in the center of the bus. Not at the front in order to swap inanities with the driver or at the very back where eccentric outspoken people tend to congregate and talk in an agitated and unseemly manner. She cringed hearing them voice their opinions out loud in front of complete strangers.
Eva did not voice her opinions out loud or even in the privacy of her head, for that matter. Voicing one’s opinion, even to ones self, was the road to perdition. Of this she was absolutely sure. It may well be the only opinion Eva had.
She spent her days working in a flower shop on Whitethistle Lane. She excelled at creating sedate, middle of the road, ubiquitous arrangements suitable for funerals or baptisms. It discomfited her a little that customers preferred her arrangements to the shop owner’s, but she gave no brook to the passing feeling. She spoke to customers only when spoken to.
The shop owner did not come on Saturdays so Eva had the shop to herself. She generally closed the shop at 4pm and headed directly home with a small arrangement of flowers for her table. Only on rare days did she stop at a tiny bookstore on the corner of the lane. The old proprietress always seemed happy to see her, patted her on the arm and called her “my dear” whether or not she made a purchase.
Her arrangements were never ostentatious or extravagant, and rarely more than 6 or 7 flowers. She read somewhere that flower arrangements should be asymmetrical so she tended to stick to either 5, 7, or 9 flowers. 11 flowers was too much for her humble abode. She tried it once and after only an hour she whittled the arrangement back down to 9 flowers because 11 was too jarring on the senses.
Eva lived in a small modest flat on Wittsington lane. A 10 minute walk from the shop. Her 4th floor walk up was practically in the rafters. It suited her, not quite drab, bordering on ordinary. A 2 seat table by the window, a small settee that opened into a bed for sleeping. “A sufficient kitchenette in what used to be a large closet,” would be the most accurate description of her lodgings.
One particularly blustery Saturday Eva arrived home at her flat, the usual small bouquet of flowers in hand, to find a chain and a padlock on the front door of her building. A small notice on the front door read “scheduled for renovation, permits at courthouse.” She stared agape in a most unlady like manner. An old man standing next to her suddenly declared to no one in particular, “it’s about time someone did something with this claptrap! No one has lived here for years.”
Eva turned to him and blurted, “but I live here.” “Are you sure?” “Well of course, I’m sure. I’ve lived here for years.” Her face reddened at making such a declarative statement to a complete stranger. She felt a bit faint. His eyes narrowed and he said nothing for a long moment. Then stood straighter and put his hand on her arm. “I think a visit to Mrs. Laudingham may be in order.”
Not knowing what else to do, Eva allowed the unintroduced old man to lead her out of the lane, down a few blocks and into another narrow lane. She was in rather a stupor and neglected to take notice of the name of the lane. At the end of the lane the old man tapped gently on the small brass knocker in the shape of a rose.
A rather flamboyantly dressed women of undetermined middle age, her white hair in wisps about her head, peeked through the crack of the door. The old man said “I’ve got another one for you, Mrs. Laudingham. Her building is being renovated.” The woman looked shocked and concerned and a flurry of activity ensued. They whisked her into a cozy sitting room. The man put a small ottoman under her feet and began fanning her vigorously with a fan he snatched from the table next to her.
Mrs. Laudingham returned shortly with a tea-tray. she put the tray down, turned to the man and said “thank you so much Mr. Conner, I will take it from here.” He bowed low and said “always a pleasure Mrs. Laudingham, I’ll show myself out.”
Mrs. Laudingham busied herself with pouring tea and placed a biscuit in Eva’s hand. She stared at the tea and the biscuit. She should be at home in her flat eating a modest dinner and listening to the radio. Not taking tea with a woman she did not know. Especially after being escorted here by a man she did not know either. Somewhere between the flower shop and home she had somehow taken leave of her senses. Of this she was sure. It was the only thing she was sure of.
Not knowing what else to do for the moment and not wanting to seem rude. Eva sipped her tea and took a tentative nibble of the biscuit in her hand. It was quite good, smooth, buttery, not too sweet. The rich aroma of the tea was almost hypnotic. She relaxed and sighed. Maybe it was alright to let herself go for a few minutes after such a trying afternoon.
A gentle hand on Eva’s arm woke her with a start. She shot up straight, mumbling apologies, fussing with her hair and buttons. The woman sitting across from her announced “I am Mrs. Olivia Laudingham, may I have the pleasure of knowing your name, Dear?” “I…oh…my name is Eva De’ Cocao, please call me Eva.” She thought that was the least she could do seeing as she tramped unannounced into this woman’s home and proceeded to fall asleep with her nose in a teacup.
“Mr. Conner said your building is scheduled for renovation?” “Yes” “He also said that no one has lived there for years?” “Yes, but he is mistaken, because I have lived there for years.” “Oh, and how many years have you lived there?” Eva pondered the impertinent question and paused before answering “well, I don’t remember exactly know, it’s been a long time.” “Do you remember moving there?”
Eva fidgeted in her seat and took another sip of her tea that somehow was back in her hand. What she did know was the she had not been asked so many personal questions in one day of her entire life, before now.
Mrs. Laudingham regarded Eva over her own teacup for a long moment and then set it down on the tray. Finally she said softly, “I would venture to guess that you do not actually remember moving into that flat, do you dear?” “Well, no I don’t. But really, must one catalog every unremarkable event in one’s life?” Mrs. Laudingham chuckled and then became serious again. “Eva, do you remember anything about your life before Wittsington Lane?”
With growing alarm she realized that, come to think of it, she did not remember anything before some undetermined amount of time before this moment. She did not remember telling Mrs. Laudingham where she lived, for that matter. It was as if she had always lived there. She never really gave it much thought. It was so unnessessary to ponder such things. She lived day-to-day, went about her business, and went home, all in an unremarkable manner. She answered simply, “No.”
Mrs. Laudingham regarded her for a long moment and then said, “Eva, I have something to say that may come as a bit of a shock to you. There have been no tenants of #11 Wittsington lane in over 5 years.” Instead of denying it, Eva asked, “how do you know this?” “Somehow It is my job to know. It’s rather difficult to explain. But, from time to time, I encounter women who seem to just exist on the edge of conciousness. Not really knowing who they are or where they come from or where they are going.” Eva thought ‘what an odd thing to say’ but said “What are you trying to tell me?”
Mrs. Laudingham stood up and paced the room for a few moments, smoothed her fly away wisps of hair to no avail, and sat back down. She reached over and took Eva’s hand in hers and said, “Eva De’ Cocao, what I am saying is that you are a shadow. A mere shadow of your former self.” A shadow? What does this mean? “Are you informing me that I am dead?”
“Dead? Oh my dear, no. Please pardon me. You are most assuredly not dead.” “Well that is nice to know.” Eva snapped. Then became shocked with herself for such an uncalled for burst of sarcasm. Mrs. Laudingham laughed out loud at this remark and said “there we are, a bit of spirit, I know you have it in you. I just wonder why you chose to lock it away.”
They sipped their tea in silence for a while. Eva finally asked, “what you mean by locked it away?” “Well, there seems to be a rash of women who lose track of who they are and just bumble about, living a shadow life. I have my theories, but what is important now, is to figure out why and where you wandered off track for so long. And who you really are.”
Eva began to feel angry, a most disconcerting feeling at best. “I know exactly who I am!” “Do you now?” “Yes! My name is Eva De’Cacao. I live at #11 Wittsington Lane, I work at a flower shop during the day and in the evenings I read books and listen to the radio.” “What is the name of the flower shop? What radio station do you listen to?” Eva said “I….” then it occurred to her that she did not have answers to those questions.” Actually, she knew very little about herself. What a strange feeling. Somehow, she had dropped herself in bits and pieces along the way until there was nothing much left. And it happened so gradually that she didn’t notice.
“Mrs. Laudingham?” “Yes, dear?” “I am frightened. How did this come about? Somehow I feel that I was better off not knowing.” “Eva, in some ways you were living a comfortable life, but not sustainable over the long haul. One can only live a dribble drabble of a life for so long before one begins to fade away completely. And you, my dear, are almost gone. This is somewhat of an emergency!”
She stood up and clapped her hands. “The first thing on the agenda is a brisk walk. We will walk to the park at the town square.” “A walk?” She expected a somewhat more drastic remedy. “Yes Eva, we need to get you out of the lanes and alleys, out in the sunshine, around other people.” She protested, “but I don’t have an umbrella..what if it rains?” Mrs. Laudingham giggled like someone only half her age and chucked Eva under the chin. “Then we’ll get wet! Come now dear, we need to get you out into the world, find you somewhere in it and not a moment too soon.”
I went for a really long walk today. We’re talking like 10 whole blocks round trip. Yep, I walked to the 7-11 convenience store, instead of driving, for pack of smokes for the 1st time in the 10 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood.
When I told Mr. Husband I was doing it he looked at me like I was crazy. People just do not walk here in Big D unless they have no other choice. It’s like a status thing. This city isn’t set up for walking and it’s sort of scary. I didn’t bring an iPod, or phone, or to-do list, just keys and 20 dollar bill in my pocket.
I felt like I was walking down the street naked. I wouldn’t have felt any weirder if I was crawling down the shoulder of a highway. But an interesting thing happened. I wasn’t sight-seeing because I’ve seen this street a gazillion times. No distractions, TV, radio, looking around, talking – just walking and thinking. I was little shocked at how odd it felt. It left me with nothing to do except think.
At first my mind decided to interpret the oddness as ridiculous fears. What if I trip and fall, what if someone runs over me or kidnaps me. Then the scariest fear of all hit me. “Oh my God, what if I can’t write a good story because I’m not outrageous, ballsy, over-the-top enough. I had to stop right there on the sidewalk and bend over to lean on my knees because it made me laugh so hard. If anybody saw me I hope they thought I was taking a breather from jogging.
It occurred to me that I’ve been sort of hiding in the suburbs. I was living my life so hard and fast that I needed a break. My mind drifted back over the vignettes I’ve been writing in a memoir of sorts. When I read back over them I think, good grief, if someone told me tales similar to what I’ve done I wouldn’t even believe them. Then a blessed Eureka moment occurred. I don’t even have to make up stuff for a work of fiction. I only have change names and places to come up with one helluva a bizarre tale. Writers have suggested it to each other for years, but it never really sunk into me, my heart, until today.
Then I went back to mental fidgeting. Yes I could fictionalize my life story, but I’m not done living yet. How do you come up with an ending when it hasn’t happened yet? I guess that’s where the creative thinking comes in. And who says it has to have an absolute ending anyway? My tales wouldn’t fit in one book anyway. Tally ho! I’m off again, re-inspired and ready to rock.
This is a valid question. I want to know! I tend to write outside early in the morning until the coffee runs out or the sun hits me, whichever comes first. Then I head inside and lay around like a slug on a sidewalk until the sun leaves the patio, then I go back outside. I even bought a small light to plug in a usb port on my laptop so I can see my key board in the dark.
OK, I’m exaggerating about the slug thing. I alternate between doing occasional necessary things; laundry, dishes, feeding my face, etc. But then I return to slothdom and a good book or not so good book, whatever I’m reading at the moment. Occasionally I read a really bad book just to make myself feel better. It doesn’t always work because the little devil that lives on my shoulder will say “well they got off their can and published their book. Na na na. Can you make that claim?” Well no but…there is no but, I either write or I don’t and the don’t part is not moving me towards my goal.
Wonder is there is an inner critic version of that spray they have for dogs called “NO?” It’s a spray that you spray on stuff you want the dog to stay away from. I could spray it on my shoulders to keep the little devil away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for dogs and the devil is in my head, not on my shoulder.
So back to my original question, do vampire or other horror genre writers write at night? I sort of hope so. It’s a bit scary to think that I could be in the grocery store browsing the vegetables right next to someone who is cooking up all kinds of horrific things in their brains in broad daylight. Are there any outward signs? A wisp of smoke coming out of their ears, perhaps? Thunking a watermelon with brass knuckles? Muttering while stroking the cucumbers?
Come to think of it though, some the scariest things can happen in the daytime. Getting chased by a lynch mob and hanged at 12 O’clock noon would ruin my day. The freeway in North Dallas should be renamed the highway to hell. Since I stopped the 9-5 grind I’ve lost my immunity to the horrors of this road. I guess if you do have to do it every day your mind copes by going numb to the dangers. I’m convinced that there should be an exit ramp that empties directly into the intake parking garage of the state hospital for the criminally insane. Some psychopaths choose to prowl the streets comfortably seated inside their murder weapon rather than wearing it on their hip.
Sometimes I wish writers had someone kind of secret signal like a hand shake or an eye motion. There probably is, but it’s too subtle for me to notice yet.
Why must some people learn things the hard way? I’m referring to myself of course. I like to bend rules. Even more fun to break them. Sometimes there is a reason for rules though. This whole NaNoWriMo thing is breaking my brain. It’s also causing me to have a mini nervous breakdown. What rule did I break? Why the NO part of NaNoWriMo. No meaning novel. Well blow me down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still plugging away. The pothole in the road is that my story morphed from a novel into a semi fictional auto-biography. A biography is not a novel.
I broke another rule. Don’t go back and read what you wrote – keep writing! I did and opened Pandora’s box. Oh my god, I think, I can’t write this. Well yes, actually I can, but can I publish this? If I’m willing to run the risk of nobody every speaking to me again, including people I’ve never met, sure go right ahead. Scrambling for rationalization, I think, Eureka, I have a plan. I will wait until everyone I know is dead, then publish. This plan has a major flaw. I don’t know that many people older than me. So I will be dead too. Where’s the fun in that?
Writing about my life poses other problems as well. Scrutinizing one’s entire life on paper in 30 days sends one into a paroxysm of self-examination that would try the hardiest of souls. Maybe there is a damned good reason to explore someone’s life after they are gone. “Did that really happen? Why do you think that’s funny? That was a horrifying experience. Why was that so traumatic to you? That’s happened to others and they aren’t curled up behind the sofa in a fetal position, sniveling into a blanky. What will the result of this month be? Will I spend the rest of the year gluing macaroni smiley faces to paper plates?
So I struggle onward, cursed by my own stubborn attitude. The month is 2 thirds done and the draft is 1 thirds done. Now I remember what I liked the least about corporate hell. Deadlines…the bane of existence. Deadlines are here to stay in my life though. I have to get the inspection sticker renewed on my car on a deadline. Snarling “yer not the boss of me” to the traffic cop who pulls me over for an expired sticker isn’t going to get me very far. Well maybe to the local lockup if he’s had a bad day. But, it’s probably not a good idea to create situations as fodder for future stories.
I’m not writing a long and winding novel like Atlas Shrugged here. More like Atlas Staggered, fell to one knee – then went to happy hour to recuperate and didn’t come home for a week. Never read that book, actually. But, the title has always given me a giggle. Mom hates that book with a passion, so if you’re reading this, Mumzelle, please don’t go into a tizzy. We’ll talk about it next week when I get to New Orleans for Thanksgiving. Turkey and family, that’s living.