I’ve been revisiting a lot of old stories lately.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I sort of have a basic blueprint for when I write fiction: young female narrator experiences a trauma, she copes (usually quite badly), she gets an ambiguous ending that often involves walking into the ocean. I didn’t realize how far back this patten went until I recalled one of my first short stories that I wrote in high school.
The story, which I titled “Little Sister” at the time, followed a young girl named Karli, who had a very desperate crush on her older brother’s friend, a character named Brian. The main conflict of the story was Karli’s struggle with self-esteem as she compared herself to Brian’s girlfriend, whose name happened to be Carly. Normally, I do not give my characters unique names unless it is relevant to the plot. Keeping track of a Karli and a Carly could be confusing to the reader, but it was necessary because the time, this story was a symbol for a very real situation I was dealing with in high school that involved a classmate named Catherine.
Although the events of “Little Sister” are largely fictional, the emotions are still the same. As I skim through the story, beneath the adolescent angst, I find themes of not feeling “good enough,” of unfair comparison between Karli (the narrator) and Carly (the “real girl.”) While the terminology may not sit right with me as I reflect on this piece, I think the main takeaway here is that despite the emotional distance between who I was when I wrote this and who I am now, many of the themes of feeling inadequate have followed me into adulthood.
The story’s concludes with Brian, the object of Karli’s devastating affection, sexually assaulting Karli while he is intoxicated. After that, Karli leaves the scene of the crime and walks to the beach in the middle of the night. The last paragraph is as follows:
Stylistic writing choices aside, this passage says quite a bit. I’ve put a lot of distance between who I was back then; seven years is a long time, especially considering the jump from age 18 to age 25. So why, then, would I want to go back to Karli’s story? Why go back there to a messy, obsessive, self-destructive, and garbled story? Because Karli deserves a better ending.
In order to write fiction, particularly realistic fiction, one must be open to the possibility that things could have gone differently. For example, a friend of mine recently went through a very messy breakup and I was able to be there for her to lean on, which is not a role I usually play. (To borrow a line from another piece of my fiction, “No one calls me in an emergency. I usually am the emergency.”) This experience led me to ask questions: What if my friend’s situation had unfolded in reverse? What if my friend had been a man? What if there was a dog involved? What if there was an elephant involved? What would have happened if John Doe had been there instead of Jane? And on and on. My mind was sort of stuck on these questions and finally I wrote some of them down, crossed several of them out (no elephants were harmed!) let the idea fester in my brain while I did other things, and at the end, a short story came out of it. My test audience (read: my parents) really liked it, and I’ve received some truly sparkling rejection emails from no-name literary journals and magazines to which I’ve sent the story.
All of this is to say that writing stories has the power to transport us to alternate realities or universes where we got the outcome we wanted, the outcome that seems fair, or the outcome that sucks the least. As a writer, I am under very little obligation to make sense, especially as characters may or may not be cohesive across multiple, separate short stories. This lack of obligation gives me the power of time travel, of teleportation, and of course, shape-shifting. No, I am not a fantasy writer. I will probably never voluntarily sit down and write a letter to an alien or create a realm in which dragons roam free. At the risk of being overly saccharine, I am writing for past-Katherine, for little Karli.
It’s no secret that I’ve kept a journal for well over ten years. When I was still working out the bugs of journaling, deciding what format, what content, and what sort of style I wanted to use for my journals, I experimented with dialogue between three separate aspects of myself. Eventually a fourth speaker was added to moderate the arguments between the original three; the moderator was simply named Common Sense. While this might seem like an excessively solipsistic modality of journaling, I have to give past-Katherine points for originality at the very least.
I bring this up to demonstrate that I haven’t ever truly stopped talking to myself this way. I’m sure an argument could be made that this is abnormal or indicative of some psychiatric condition, but I find it very helpful to externalize parts of myself, to think of them as characters. (Take the landmark book Life Without Ed, for example.) Usually the conversation is between present-Katherine, past-Katherine, and occasionally, future-Katherine. (Like I said: powers of time travel.) Whether I’m talking to myself while buying groceries, or thinking about writing fiction, I am in constant conversation with my past/present/future selves. And what future-Katherine divulged to me the last time we talked was this: compassion is everything.
I’m pretty sure it was Dr. Seuss who said “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Well, I’m still working on that. Over the weekend, I attended a long, yet enjoyable planning meeting for a school organization I’m involved in. During this meeting, we addressed the fact that in three years, none of those present would still be here–we will have graduated.
I’ve been a student for a really long time. I love college, I love the structure it provides, and I love the shelter it provides from the “real world.” As a sort of quasi-adult, I’m getting the best of both worlds. The idea that my time at this university will end, along with my time participating in all of the fabulous organizations I get to be involved with, makes me really, really sad. But what I didn’t consider at first was the fact that I get the opportunity to leave a legacy.
So where does this come into play with writing? Why is this relevant to little Karli at all? Start with the journals. Will those someday be part of my body of work, on a shelf next to The Letters of Vincent van Gogh and The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde? If that is the case, then I want to be renowned for my personal character development, my lived redemption arc. Anyone flipping through my years-worth of journals or even a good deal of my early experiments with writing will find unabridged self-loathing. My British Literature professor called these sorts of writings “juvenalia,” and author Ann Patchett likens writing to the process of unclogging a faucet: all the gunk has to come out first.
In his book The Wounded Storyteller Arthur W. Frank makes the argument that suffering translates into a need for storytelling. While this particular book focuses mainly on physical illness, I absolutely believe that many of its lessons translate into the arena of mental health as well. He argues that the stories told by ill people simultaneously make us who we are, while our realities and experiences shape the stories, making them what they are. One of the discussion questions the professor posed in relation to this book was, “How do storytellers resist pessimism? How do they sustain hope?”
An underlying theme and extremely important concept in Frank’s argument is that any ill person deserves the right to make informed, independent decisions regarding their medical care, and this extends to mental healthcare as well. Being a “wounded storyteller” myself, I offer my answer for the previous paragraph’s question. I resist pessimism by treating doubt with compassion. So many people at so many different points in my life have told me some version of the same story, “You’re too hard on yourself.” My journals depict a perfectionistic, intensely critical, and negative outlook on life. They also depict a pretty consistent pattern of, “That thing I was so worried about, that I thought I would screw up or ruin actually went pretty well… Everything turned out better than I expected.”
As for little Karli, she and I will both have to live with the consequences of other people’s bad behavior. But now that Karli is a little bit older, she doesn’t look for an external savior such as a lifeguard to tell her it’s okay; not only does the lifeguard character not know her situation, but what meaningful support could he offer? Karli is able to find the strength to get down from the tower and onto the sand, and she’s able to walk away from what doesn’t serve her. I decided Karli deserved a better ending and I set out to give her one. Instead of rewriting the story of the summer of her sexual assault, I decided I’d pick up with Karli two years after the incident and write an entirely new story.
To circle back to Frank’s book and the question of how to “sustain hope,” I would say that yes, suffering does merit storytelling–and then I’d ask myself, “Now what?” Everyone gets knocked down at some point in their lives. Not everyone gets back up. Life may go right back to normal after being temporarily derailed. Or it may never be the same and the telling of your story is the process of defining your new normal. As I make decisions about my future, my craft, and my mental health, I am making them from a place of compassion–both for the person I once was, the scared little girl who deserved better from herself, and for the person I aspire to become.