Not long ago, I wrote an essay reflecting on the many forms delusions can take that included some snippets from my childhood that I’d more or less suppressed for years. When I shared the essay with some other writers, I knew they would tell me that it was great. That I was great. But they didn’t. Nearly all of them wrote in the margin by the passage about my father, “this isn’t enough, go deeper.” I knew it wasn’t enough, hence the suppressing. But their pointing it out meant I had to do something about it or bury it for good.
So I wrote a revision of that passage, in which I bared it all: the drinking, the fighting, the shattering of glass, the holes left in our walls where my father punched through plaster and sheetrock. I wrote about his death in my early twenties. And I wrote about how I never once thought these events were connected to the anxiety and depression that had followed me for years. But when I read the revision out loud in the silence of my kitchen, I cringed with embarrassment though no one else was around. I’d lost control of the writing, breaking the distance I’d worked so meticulously to maintain, and I no longer recognized the voice tinged with vulnerability. A weakness that sickened me.
Psychic distance refers to the degree to which readers feel intimacy and identification with or on the other hand detachment from the characters and dramatic action of the story. While choreographing the dance of intimacy and distance, the writer has many tools at her disposal including point-of-view, humor, tense, and active or passive voice. Each storyteller must make a conscious choice about how to tell her story using these devices for intentional effect. In creative nonfiction it can be useful to open up an essay with outside events or sources. Particularly when a story involves details of a personal or traumatic nature, the writer must work within psychic range in order to draw the reader in, but take care not to alienate the reader in the process.
When I looked at the expansion of the passage about my father, it was clear I’d gotten the revision wrong. But I learned something very important regardless. I learned that I had a line in my writing. On one side of the line, I could maintain control, authority, safety, but I knew I might very well be sacrificing something equally as important on the other: intimacy, feeling, and connection. A teacher of mine once told me, mildly frustrated, you have to let go of that control.
But how? I wanted to be free of my constraints, but when I let go of those reins and crossed over, the writing became an unrecognizable beast raging with emotionality.
In One with the Tiger, Stephen Church describes the beast in man as a line that must be straddled indefinitely or risk losing control. The book explores man’s fascination with apex predators. Of course, it’s also a metaphor for the duality of man, a psychological refrain that man must execute so as not to devolve back to his earlier prehistoric state. But, this central metaphor can also be applied to our writing. In fact, Church describes the metamorphosis of the shape shifting character from Manimal, as happening “slowly, methodically, like a deduction.” Church mirrors the transformation through a slow detailed description of Dr. Chase becoming an animal, suggesting one way of writing about inner conflict. Don’t get caught up in the emotionality and rush through it. Reveal your truth with the tenderness it deserves. On the page. With the reader at your side. Another strategy is to let the event take place off the page. Church writes, “Chase also changes into a bear and a bull, a dolphin, horse, and even a snake, some of them happening off screen, but all of the mutations under his control.” So there it is: restraint. Composure is key. No matter how you want to address the wild animal, you must remain in control.
But what if this is wrong? What if a dogged determination to control the beast in every sense of the metaphor does more harm than good?
Church struggles with the either/or mentality as though the beast within is separate from himself when he describes a violent outburst at a party where he became a person he didn’t recognize. He goes on to say that it wasn’t really him or even a character he wanted to be.
This separation, this disassociation is problematic in both our psyche and in our writing. Homo sapiens belong to the kingdom Animalia just as the bear does. There is no separation, no wall to cross, except the one we ourselves erect. A tiger may kill and eat various species of cow or pig. A bear might on occasion eat a man. And we may feel inclined to label these acts as brutal violence. But, man developed weapons that allow him to hunt these same animals for sport. In fact, man is the only animal that wages war, who designs ways to kill others en masse and not for food, sometimes not even for survival. This leads me to wonder, who exactly is the animal we should fear? I mention this not to digress into the morality of war or gun violence, but to suggest there is no separation at all. The human world is one where we live the most extreme examples of brutality day in and day out. It is all around us, but more importantly it is within us at every moment. The beast is us.
When my father died, I told my friends never to bring it up. Nothing had changed, I told them. I was fine. This is absurd, of course, but at the time I needed to be in control.
Years later, I was hired to write a book for the modernist architect, Arthur Davis, about the hospital he designed in Berlin during the Cold War. And when he died, it blew a hole in my chest, in my facade. This was a man who I’d spent a year with talking about his life. My life. He believed in my abilities to tell his story. And so when he died, I not only lost my job, but also my friend, and in many ways, my sense of self: my identity as a writer. And I tried to feel nothing, the way I said I’d felt nothing about my father, but the numbness had thawed and this loss broke the woman I had pretended to be. I watched her as she walked away from me down to the Mississippi River. She stood on the bank of broken concrete staring at the water lapping up over her feet. Cold and black. And she prayed for the river to rise up and carry her out into its depths twisting her body within its currents, pulling her under. And I wanted nothing more than for that river to swallow her, to consume her. But instead I stood wailing into the night. A guttural cry that echoed across the river and sky towards a god I didn’t believe in.
But my pain wasn’t about Arthur, not really. It was for everything I’d been denying for decades. The pain from my childhood, the pain of losing my father, coupled with the loss of Arthur and all that he represented to me, it burst something inside me. And when I could no longer stuff it down, it emerged like a savage bull twisted with rage. In short, I had created the monster and it wanted out. Afterwards, I sat slumped and emptied, ravaged by a piece of myself I swore didn’t exist. My brother refers to this as my Lieutenant Dan moment, when Gary Sinese sits on the mast of the ship challenging the storm and all that God has done to him.
When we separate the pieces of ourselves that we don’t like, we risk them taking over, demanding the attention they so deserve. It is inevitable. Perhaps this is true of our writing as well. We must learn to manage the emotionality of our stories or it will come out in less than desirable ways, sloppy and lacking both control and style, which in turn will alienate our readers. But maybe the point I am making is that it’s not about control, but acceptance. And the more contact we allow ourselves with our inner demons, the less power they have over us. So in this way, the more we write about these terrible parts of ourselves, the trauma we’ve endured, the more we can learn to express it within a comfortable range of psychic distance. For our readers’ sakes, but maybe more importantly, for our own.
The question becomes, how do we get comfortable with losing control both as humans and as writers? How do we let the rage and sadness out without sounding ridiculous? Without losing our minds? A good place to start looking for answers is at the sentence level mechanics of a writer who handles psychic distance expertly.
In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn illustrates how to express emotion in a single sentence, “I’m laughing like a goddamn hyena at this point, and each time I look at his face, now clearly riddled with concern, now aware that he’s perhaps in over his head, confronted by a truly deranged person, a madman, it makes me laugh harder, falling-off-my-chair laughter, painful, side-splitting laughter, gasping for mercy, tears streaming down my cheeks, only fueled more with each glance he makes toward the doorknob.” As Flynn succumbs to the grief caused by his mother’s suicide, his writing runs on and on, relying on adjectives and adverbs as his restraint deteriorates. A breakdown of Flynn’s normally cool, constrained, and active voice. The sentence mechanics mirror his state of mind, slipping away into the messy, lack of control associated with emotional loss.
However, the beauty of this expression is that it is only one sentence. Even if broken into shorter pieces, it would be three sentences, four at most. The reason why it stands out is because it deviates from the norm. Flynn allows himself to cross over, but then he comes right back. Perhaps that is also a lesson. Don’t stay too long in the madness. Stay long enough to acknowledge it, to pay your respects even, but don’t dawdle. Don’t linger there and let it devour you.
But there I go again, borrowing that all or nothing approach from Church, the line that one crosses over. Maybe for Flynn, it isn’t a line, in fact the sentence doesn’t particularly stand out in tone; if it is a digression, it’s almost undetectable until one looks a little closer. Maybe Flynn demonstrates how that side of himself is always present, something to dip a toe into here and there. Or maybe he wrote a truly cumbersome passage, unruly and defiant of Flynn’s natural voice. Maybe it did get away from him, maybe he wrote in a fury, a madman’s sentence. Because a truth exists in our writing that doesn’t in our lives. Revision. A chance to change what we have done. To take back what we say.
I was fortunate to hear Walidah Imarisha discuss her book, Angels with Dirty Faces. While certainly not the focal point nor the most interesting aspect of her book, she included a scene where she’d been raped by a man. In today’s political climate, this scene gets brought up at a lot of her readings. After listening to her convey the challenge of expressing something so emotionally charged without falling apart, I asked her how she maintained control over her prose, held back the sentimentality, the rage. She said she didn’t. She revised. Over and over. Because she couldn’t write about that experience calmly or with control. She had to let everything out on the page, wild and clumsy. Only through revision did she take back control, shaving away excesses, fleshing out the bones. Perhaps, Flynn too worked tirelessly on that passage, taking away the blubbering confessions of loss and vulnerability until only that one sentence remained hinting at the turmoil and madness made strong over time.
Maybe this is what my teacher wanted from me. Maybe she wanted me to let it all out on the page. Maybe she wanted me to cry, to howl like I did that night by the river, whatever it would take to tell my story. But then she wanted me to clean it up. Apply that disciplined restraint I’d cultivated and revise until I regained control, and got it right like Flynn and his one sentence that tells us no one is in control all of the time.
One last lesson remains in psychic distance. The lesson of fairness and generosity. The importance of showing the villain’s humanity. In Expecting Something Else, A.M. O’Malley describes the violence ricocheting back and forth between mother and daughter and then writes about her mother, “I wrote in my diary that I hated her that she was a selfish bitch then I locked it shut and hid it under my mattress—she wrote in the margin that I didn’t understand what she was going through.” This single line reveals the tenderness of a woman reading what her daughter thinks of her. An acknowledgment that maybe the mother is a monster, she after-all broke into her daughter’s diary. However, it is also a quiet request to be seen, for her daughter to look again. It is simultaneously an act of betrayal and a plea for forgiveness, a perfect illustration of humanity’s imperfect grace. The duality of beast and man forever entwined as one.
O’Malley said her book morphed through several transitions before landing on the final incantation. I wonder how many times the words fell from her pen, warped and wrong, before they sounded right. Before they made sense to her. Maybe courage means saying it wrong, saying it honestly, feeling everything. Maybe it means reaching in and pulling out our worst fears, our most painful memories, and finding the courage to stay with them long enough to find their truth. Hemingway wrote, “No one knows what’s in him until he tries to pull it out. If there is nothing, or very little, the shock can kill a man.” And while I thought I was afraid of finding nothing if I reached in, I actually was afraid to pull out what was within me. The beast is real. But we have a choice to look away or to try observing it without judgment. And with a little practice, we just might uncover our own humanity. I see now that what my teacher wanted from me wasn’t to let go of control; she wanted me to stop being afraid of what I had within. To look the beast in the eyes and say, the beast is me.