Trauma, Fiction and Ethics (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3

 

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Differences between Life and Fiction:

Life has many threads and potential stories whereas fiction focuses on one thing and unfolds according to this logic so the story world becomes a seemingly complete entity with one nuanced preoccupation. A novel obsesses over a single theme, problem or question. It keeps things simple, consistent and unified. Life and trauma are complicated and multitudinous in a way that classical storytelling is not and for the sake of succinct cohesion can’t be. I say this because for a fiction to work, a neat and tight story as structure to a mathematical degree, is useful. Particularly once the initial drafts are done and choices are strategically made, chapters rewritten, characters and scenes cut, made composite, reinvented and the structure consequently reorganised, and in some cases thrown away to start anew.

 

Fiction and Imagination:

A story can be told from many characters’ points of view, others from one and again others from an omniscient point of view. In fiction cohesion, meaning, significance, structure, plot, characterisation, and a satisfying emotional, character and story arc are always privileged over painstakingly verifying and triple checking the facts and memory for accuracy that we expect from non-fiction accounts. As a complex trauma survivor, I do not have a linear experience of memory nor do I feel 100% confident with the whole of how and what I remember, so non-fiction makes me feel vulnerable, stupid and insecure in a way that fiction does not.

In fiction we are allowed to draw on our imagination, wishes and hopes to infuse a story with meaning, coherence and relief that life is under no obligation to offer or compensate us with. So–for fiction to work in the way that readers are accustomed to it working–we must eventually change what inspires us in life and transform and incorporate it into something else.

By the time this process is complete, the story or fiction shaped to work according to its conventions, will exist in its own right, as something separate and other than the survivor writer’s autobiography or memoir. We can sort out difficult experiences, relationships and encounters without having to disclose facts and identities. This is how I found my way ethically around engaging with topics I felt like a criminal and perverted for writing about. For a long time though, I kept expecting to be punished for what I’d done.

I wrote about complex childhood abuse and how it effects and influences the lives adult survivors go onto live, the particularly fractured experience they are often left desperate to make sense of and attribute meaning and growth. For such narratives of meaning and growth is what we, as trauma survivors, need to sustain us through the painful aftermath in our own lives. This is because such stories give us a sense of connection, insight and hope.

Adventure and the Unknown:

As stated in the lecture transcript, in 2009 when I began my PhD in Creative Writing I did not know what I was doing. I never do when I start writing anything. I just feel compelled to act according to what has me inspired to the point of obsession. I like not knowing what will happen, and feeling as though I’m on an adventure where I can’t anticipate what I’ll learn, where it will take me or how it will irreversibly change me.

What I began writing for the creative component of my PhD started with the protagonist Lumina’s voice. This was before I got the job at Queen’s College. I’ll never forget as though it were yesterday what it felt like being on the train moving further away from Frankston and closer to Uni. I was completely freaking out about not having read enough or being smart enough to do a PhD but feeling desperate to be allowed to stay enrolled because there was still so much for me to learn. And I really needed to learn to understand what it seemed like everyone  else did.

Uni had saved my life up until this point and I needed for it to continue doing so because I didn’t know what else to do. When I wasn’t at school I was out of control. There was no reason for me not to drink and mix it with as much codeine and Valium as I dared. I worked full time in a bistro and bar, and being high while I did make it as fun as it got in the outer suburbs. I’d go out every night with whoever I worked with. Without uni, I had nothing to ground me and at the same time distract me from just how miserable and scared I was. All I could rely on was alcohol and pharmaceuticals to fly me high enough for everyone and everything to seem absurd enough to send me into a fit of hysterics.

I didn’t go out partying every night to talk, have fun or to meet new people. No. I went out to dance and get drunk enough to no longer know my name. Oblivion was my only priority. I don’t want to be here anymore my only mantra. I clung to my bottle of vodka like I’d clung to my bottle of formula as a baby, repeating my first word, “more.” “More,” I’ve always wanted “more”. I never let my Vodka stash run anything less than seven bottles hidden throughout my room with 100 valium. I felt safe knowing I always had “more”, enough to kill myself if I wanted to. Enough to always have some kind of choice. It meant everything to me to be the one choosing daily to stay. That I had what it took to exit at any minute I wished but was choosing not to.

 

Chasing Oblivion:

I drank to feel free from the lie I was and the life I hated living. Oblivion, I wanted oblivion so much I’d cry once the hysterics I’d drunk myself into stopped making me laugh. I wanted to forget so bad I gave myself migraines from dehydration that had me throwing up the vodka I’d only drink back down with ice and lime because more than anything I was always testing the limits on what it took to not wake up the following morning.

Without uni I didn’t have hope, a future or a way out of the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder that I didn’t know I was experiencing because at that point I didn’t trust doctors enough to ever keep an appointment. Besides I didn’t want them to see the scurvy on my tongue or smell the alcohol coming out of my pours. They’d tell me I had a drinking problem. I’d tell them I had trouble sleeping without drinking and walk out with another prescription. Only my stash had been brimming for ages since I’d found a way to get as much as I wanted without having to waste my time with doctors. And the second I didn’t need them I didn’t trust them. I was an addict but if you had’ve called me that then I would looked you hard in the eye, grinned and walked away .

With all this going on hard during the months between finishing my previous studies and returning for more, I sat on the train that morning believing I didn’t have what it took to complete a PhD project. There was no way I had what it took to make an original contribution to knowledge; I had no idea of what knowledge already existed. If only I’d known there might have been a chance I’d be accepted for further study I might have spent those months learning instead of self-destructing.

Since accepting my offer I focused everything on being addicted to writing. It was an addiction being at uni gave me permission to have. Writing was what I was required to do. It wasn’t considered a waste of time when you could be earning money like it was everywhere else in my life. When I wrote I felt euphoric but after the adrenaline of a writing marathon ceased, after writing every spare minute until the draft was complete, I’d come crashing down.

 

Euphoria and Despair:

I wanted to use my PhD to figure out what was going on with the writer during the creative process and why it had the potential to create such extreme and potentially dangerous states oscillating between euphoria and despair. I wanted to know what was going on for the writer autobiographically at the time of writing and how this informed the story they were writing. Or did it have nothing to do with the outcome? I wasn’t sure.

It felt like everything I’d ever written came from somewhere that had nothing to do with me despite everything I’ve ever written being set along the end of the Frankston Line where I grew up; characters being a mixture of people I knew but didn’t understand and the stories being about problems I didn’t know how to solve in my own life but would never speak to anyone about. Rather I hid everything I was in the lies I learned fiction could craft in order to express what felt true. And that’s what guided me always through writing, the manipulation of words to construct what felt true and right and sounded the way it did in my head when I read it out.

Once I stopped writing I forgot what I’d written about. I wouldn’t remember the title or anything of what the story was about. Only when I sat down to it and shut off from the rest of the world did I know what was going on. In fact, it felt like the only real thing I knew. When I write the world I otherwise participate in ceases to exist, so do people. Anyone who has lived with me while I’ve written says it’s scary how not there I am. They speak to me but I don’t hear them, respond or even see them. I have no concept of time or hunger. I’m at once inside the story world, living the scenes, hearing the narrator and remain obsessed with the relationship between text and subtext.

 

Journey Between Worlds:

At the beginning of my PhD, I’d recently met my favourite Australian author, Christos Tsiolkas. He offered to mentor me at the same time I got the resident tutor position at Queen’s College. Here I lived among Melbourne’s richest, mainly anglo-Australian children, despite being of the poor, illiterate Italian-Australian migrant families.

These kind-hearted, high-achieving and talented young adults had appropriate clothes for all the black tie events, knew how to order in a restaurant, look after their bodies and had the confidence to speak up. Because of this my first supervisor thought my PhD could analyse Christos Tsiolkas’s work and discuss the issues of class, gender and the difficulties of assimilation over three generations considering that I was third generation Italian-Australian.

At that point I really didn’t have the slightest capacity to care about the critical component of my PhD because until I knew what the story I was writing was essentially about there was no way of knowing what was appropriate to focus on in the exegesis. Class interested me but I certainly wasn’t smitten with the idea of devoting all my research time to it.

Practice as Research:

Writing the fiction Warrior taught me that all my life I’d been living a fiction. I wasn’t present or alive in my own life. I was naively waiting for a time, place and people in which it was okay to be me.

I was afraid of and hated my truth and story so much that I still oscillated between starving it out of me, throwing it up, drinking it away and abusing pharmaceuticals. No one knew the real me, not even me. Not my party friends from the suburbs or my intellectual and arty friends from the inner city. Not my family or the men I found myself in and out of relationships with. I thought I was magic and could get away with the invisible and self-destructive cycle. I needed to believe that I could remain unseen, unheard, unknown and unspoken and that the truth could disappear into this perfect talented person with a perfect life. It came as a real blow to my ego to find that I was no exception to the rule but a cliche.

It was easier for me to believe that all I needed was enough money for my life to look perfect, successful and important. I was determined to become a sophisticated non-smoker who could run twenty kilometers, travel, publish, collaborate with amazing people and lecture. Little did I know this determination would burn me out soon after I had begun and such tireless ambition and striving would only serve to further disconnect me. I hadn’t taken into account how fatigued I already was from the great distance I’d traveled  to arrive at the point I was at. Like always I wanted “more” from myself and “more” from life. I now realise that in so many ways I was suffering because of “too much”. I could never have anticipated that the PhD journey I’d blindly embarked on would have me writing a trauma fiction that would connect me to the reality of myself and others as well as the realisation that until I experienced a state of peace and “enough” within, nothing external to me would satiate my hunger or give me the kind of calm I needed to be able to live from.

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