(one of my writes from last Monday’s workshop: the prompt, as mentioned in the post’s title, was a reading of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s poem, “Justice, Come Down.”)
I don’t like to write this story, but this is where I wait, with the blackened ash on the back of my tongue: I’m waiting for someone to look there, for someone to see, I want you to notice what I’ve lost, I want it to be a stain, a smear by degrees on my skin. This is where we weather the battle, but I hate war metaphors — it’s inherent in the word survivor, someone who made it through alive. I want a different word, a different metaphor.
I don’t tell my story, I share the facades and shards, the shelved legalese, the patina of identity markers. Telling the story means drooping into vulnerability, means letting in the possibility that you’ll stagger aside after hearing me and let your eyes drop with pity and disappointment.
This weekend on the planes I read two books that maybe aren’t the best light travel reading: Alicia Seybold’s Lucky, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the latter a nihilistic, post-apocalyptic testimony to father-son love, and the former a stranger-rape story.
I read rape stories because I think they will show me how to write my own. F! questions me for buying it, as we’re perusing the heavily-politicized shelves at Modern Times (but what bookstore’s shelves aren’t heavily politicized?)– he wants me to get something upbeat. I tense and swallow and explain that these tellings are upbeat for me — even if it’s not in the way he means. H means a story that doesn’t involve violence or rage or depression, though the book that doesn’t contain any of those is not probably a book I would find in my hands.
What I need are examples of how to write a story I can’t remember in a linear way, and so I read trauma narratives. I watch how the writer folded the story into a line for the reader, or I take note of how they don’t try to keep to a straight line at all. I try to determine how they wrangle with what they don’t remember, what they’re ashamed of remembering but tell anyway, what they hate to remember and forget to mention. How much detail to give, and where they keep it sparse.
Seybold’s is the story of the perfect rape victim — the narrator of this piece (Seybold, yes, but now we’re talking about a book) was raped by a stranger at 19, she was a virgin when she was raped, she called the police and told them everything, remembered details like she’d recorded them with a video camera, she testified in court, she wore all the right clothes and did all the right things according to our current legal system — she was the Good Victim, she hadn’t been drinking that night, she became a successful teacher and writer, she got to have her story appear in mainstream print media and then on Oprah.
These perfectly narrated stories (with, granted, details that she took from court transcripts instead of pulling from her memory whole) always make me feel like yanking at my hair a little — I’m left feeling like my own telling is impossible. I understand that her linear, this-then-this-then-this-so-help-me-god kind of memoir is constructed; maybe she doesn’t really remember it that way. But I want to see something different, something much messier and more true to my life, my head, my remembering and un-remembering., more true to the frenetic and discombobulated way memory smacks around the insides of my life.
Maybe that story’s not publishable, wouldn’t sell, who knows. Does that matter? I still have to find a way to gather it together on the page.