At the Heart of My Novel Was The Story I Could Never Write
Daisy Florin Finds the Inciting Incident in a Sexual Encounter She Didn't Have a Word For
I spent most of my 40s writing a novel set on a college campus in the 1990s, a school similar to the one I attended during that same decade. The novel, about a young woman’s affair with a professor, opens with a nonconsensual sexual encounter between the main character, Isabel, and her friend Zev.
Although it begins there, what happens that night is not the novel’s focus. And yet in every draft, going back to the novel’s earliest incarnations, a version of that scene has been there, even when I didn’t know what its purpose was or where it belonged. It wasn’t until a very late draft, nearly the final one, that it became the scene that opened the book.
Writers are often told to identify the “inciting incident” of their story, the event that sets everything in motion. For a long time, I imagined my novel’s inciting incident as the moment Isabel meets the professor. I knew her experience with Zev would be important to the plot, a way to signal her vulnerability especially around sex, but I never considered it the novel’s inciting incident until I realized it was.
R lived next door to me when I was a college freshman in the fall of 1991. According to a journal I kept at the time, he asked me out on October 11, the day the Anita Hill hearings began. I’d been on campus less than a month.
R and I went out a few times, by which I mean we ate together in the dining hall or sat in the dorm common room, the smell of microwave popcorn in the air. R was a few years older than me. I found him interesting but hard to talk to. In a letter I never sent him, I wrote, “I always feel so stupid around you. I feel sometimes like I’m talking to a wall.”
But I was lonely and insecure and so the relationship, if it can be called that, continued. We started making out in my dorm room and before long, R was pressuring me for sex. Eventually, I gave in. After it was over, I never spoke to him again.
I can see the ways in which the paragraph I just wrote is frustrating, as though I am intentionally leaving out key details of the story, a coy fade to black. And yet the act at the heart of this story is maddeningly vague, even to me. If R had punched me in the face, I might describe the sound his fist made as it swept through the air, the feel of knuckle on bone. If I could remember anything either of us said, I would dutifully record it as dialogue. As it is, when I think about that night, I think mostly about erosion, sand dunes caving in as the ocean slowly wears them down. Or hibernation, frogs trapped under ice waiting for winter to pass.
In the days and weeks that followed, I struggled to understand what had happened to me and, almost as importantly, what to call it. Rape, to me, meant violence, deserted alleyways, strangers with knives. Even my understanding of date rape, still a relatively new term in 1991, involved violence or threats of violence.
I settled finally on coercion, a word I saw on a flyer taped to the back of a bathroom stall: “Have you been coerced into sexual activity against your will?” I ran home and copied the words into my journal. “I have been coerced into sexual activity against my will,” I wrote. “I mean, not like I’m going to do anything about it but it makes me feel good to know.”
Reading those words today, more than thirty years later, I see two things clearly: First, my strong desire to know what to call what had happened with R. Also, my sense that there was nothing to be done about it, that because I could not construct a story about that night, the wheels of justice, such as they existed on a college campus in the early 90s, would not turn for me.
Douglas Stuart, author of the novel Shuggie Bain, has spoken about how fiction gave him the freedom to explore the story of his troubled childhood. While his novel is based on his experience growing up queer in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother, it is not a memoir. “It was too complex a story to tell from the lens of only one little boy,” he said in an interview. “I could never have been in all those rooms.”Whenever I had tried to write about it as memoir, I was frustrated by my inability to recall the details that would give the story narrative texture.
Laura Zigman’s novel Small World is similarly based on events from her own life, specifically the death of a sister in childhood. In an interview, Zigman said she once tried to write a memoir about her childhood but because she was very young when her sister died, she didn’t feel she had enough to write about: “There’s only so much you can say about growing up in the shadows of your parents’ grief.”
The story that opens my novel is not my story and yet Isabel’s struggle to understand what has happened between her and Zev mirrors, in many ways, my experience freshman year. And like Stuart and Zigman, whenever I had tried to write about it as memoir, I was frustrated by my inability to recall the details that would give the story narrative texture: my story lacked the things that made it a story.
But using fiction I could write, as Stuart says, “from the inside of those feelings” while inventing the details that made my story come alive on the page. In other words, I could imbue fictional events with the very real feelings I had about that night.
Early in the novel Isabel, who is a writer, reflects on something a male peer has said about her work: “All I did was write stories about ‘girls with feelings.’” This makes her a subversive in academia where reason is prized and feelings are suspect. Readers who react strongly to the opening scene of my novel are perhaps responding to something similar.
While some object to my reluctance to forcefully call what happened between Isabel and Zev rape, others feel that calling it rape, even obliquely, is dangerous and dishonest. Either way, it is the naming they object to more than the act itself. In my case, being unable to build a story around my feelings about that night prevented me from seeking justice; feelings were, in fact, what protected R.
This is perhaps why the scene works as the inciting incident of the novel which is, at its heart, the story of a woman finding her voice and learning to speak up about the things that matter to her. By starting the novel there, with an assault and a silencing, Isabel is immediately forced to reckon with the tension between rationality and emotion, the yin and yang of masculine and feminine, that the rest of the novel explores.
Stuart and Zigman both use fiction as way to write about a time in their lives—childhood—when they didn’t have the maturity or awareness to fully understand what was going on around them. It seems I wrote from a similarly preverbal place: like them, I had to create a fictional structure to write about an experience I did not have the language for. If Stuart and Zigman needed fiction to go to different rooms, I needed it to go back to that one.