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Some writers write from the head. Most often, my work starts with the messy, pleasure seeking, ripening, reactionary, diseased, joyous, aching body. Since I write about humans, the stories I tell dovetail the corporal and the emotional. For me, it is not possible to write about the body without writing about feelings.
For example early in my novel The Girls Club there is a scene circa 1967 in a high-school bathroom. The protagonist Cora Rose is seated on the toilet and is spit on by a girl standing on the toilet seat in the next stall. This scene started in my gut, literally. I was in fact spit upon while seated on a toilet when I was in high school so the visceral elements of the scene were readily available to me. The scene is fiction. The characters are invention. But as a novelist, I had direct access to the bodily humiliation and rage that coalesced where the back of soft thighs hit hard porcelain when a girl with too-blue eyes looks down from her perch, standing on a toilet, and spits on a girl in the next stall.
In reality, there were several girls, a group of adolescents that the media would upgrade and refer to as a gang in 2011. And since the spitting happened more than once it would probably be referred to as bullying these days. In 1967 the term bullying was confined to recurring incidents that involved broken bones and bruises. None of these “real life” girls was anything like the spitting character of the novel. Not that I am aware of anyway. I never got to know these girls, except in their tormentor roles. What I did partially know and wanted to recreate, to more fully understand, were the bodily and emotional reactions of all the characters in the scene. What would make a teen-aged girl spit on another teen-age girl she barely knew?
I could not ask or answer this question in 1967. But when I began writing I found that I can ask almost any question, probe a character, body and spirit, until some kind of answer evolves. And if the character won’t answer directly, I can gesture at emotions or actions surrounding the scene, manipulate the world of the story. Ask the story to help point out how or why or even to verify that, yes, crazy inexplicable things happen. A character, an incident, a reaction can be wrung until some sense sweats out or until it is dry as bone and all the writer can do is trace a question mark in dust. Manipulation is allowed, desirable: the time and place, circumstances and characters can be tweaked until they give some sense of how the world or people or God works. Or why a too-blue eyed girl who wears tights in the middle of summer to hide her bruised legs might spit on another girl who is trapped on a toilet with her panties around her ankles.
I still feel shame when I write about ulcerative colitis, the dreaded bowel disease suffered by myself and the protagonist in the novel. I can feel my fear, her fear: that I was out of control; that she was out of control. I can imagine the too-blue eyed character, her lack of control, her rage at the protagonist’s lack of control. As an author, I can empathize with those blue eyes in a way I cannot empathize with the “real” girl.
I think I have come to understand, through writing fiction, the power of fear of loss of control as it relates to disease. People need to feel safe. I sure do. Who wants to be reminded that we are soft-skinned vulnerable creatures? For security sake we need to feel in control of our environment and our selves. All kinds of conditions threaten that control. What could be more basic than the need to feel safe in our bodies? That we are born dependent can’t be denied, but a few years after birth, control of bodily function is a given for most people. Disease, disability, any condition that takes away that baseline of corporal control is a kind of body betrayal to the person affected and an unsolicited reminder to the well and the unwell that humans are vulnerable and that (forgive the very bad pun) “shit happens.” Things do go wrong. All bodies refuse to work as desired at some time or other. As humans, we don’t want to be confronted with the fact that no amount of research, medical break-through, or new technology is going to keep our bodies from eventually breaking down. The protagonist in the story understood that if she didn’t want to get spit on she better conceal her lack of bowel control as far as she was able.
We are at risk, some more than others, but not just teen-agers in high school girls’ rooms or old folks with a confirmed diagnosis, all of us, at one time or another. Most people are not happy to be reminded of their own frailty. I think most chronic illness (especially conditions like ulcerative colitis which exposes the messiness of life) scares people because illness forces folks to consider their own tenuous bodies. People who are well want to believe that disease happens to other people, other people who have somehow lost control, older people or people with less access to care, careless people, unlike themselves.
Of course, it’s not just physical disease and disability that people fear. My real life dad lived with Alzheimer’s for the last few years of his life. I write, sometimes, about a demented dad. People ask, “How do you feel about exposing your father in print?” They mean, “How could you possibly disrespect your dad by portraying his dementia?” For expedience and self protection I answer, “I write fiction.”
What I really think is that Dad suffered from an extreme of a universal condition. All people in the real and imagined world are a bit doddering. Our minds, like our bodies, just don’t always do what we want them to do. This is not news to anyone with an iota of self awareness. No one escapes this human condition. If you think you are never weak-minded, you are, at the least, in jeopardy of being a bore.
Say you won a Pulitzer in Literature at 30 and died in a car crash at 32; some part of you died mentally frail. You may have been successful at keeping your fragility from your editors, publishers, and readers, but something in you was teetering and foolish.
Like failures of our GI tracts, whether in a big way as happens with ulcerative colitis or in a more contained and occasional way, as happens with an intestinal virus, all of our systems fail all of us, in greater and lesser ways.
As a writer, the danger is presenting a “Dad with Alzheimer’s” character as only infirm. No writer is talented enough to convey the exact complexity of a human being, real or imagined. This is no reason to settle for a stock portrayal of “the Alzheimer” or “the colitis” character.” A living person and any character worth reading about can’t be summed up by a diagnosis. My dad was a whole person who had Alzheimer’s.
In fiction and life, the way a person’s body and mind function are facets of who they are. Disease or fear of disease is one of many challenges that inform our lives and the lives of most characters.
I am a whole person. I had ulcerative colitis. I have an ileoanal anastomosis. Don’t know what an ilioanal anastomosis is? Doesn’t matter. There are many other things to know about me. My life, and I bet yours, is a complicated story. I’m a writer, a lesbian, fiercely working class. I have a sense of humor, loving friends and family, a beloved granddaughter, empathy, a body that gives me joy and trouble, food on the table, heat in the winter, and a mind that I hope stays open, strong and frail and doddering. And I have fiction to help me figure it all out.