What Happens When I Don’t Understand My Own Novel?

Bonnie Friedman on Taking Clues From Your Own Manuscript

A student of mine was writing a memoir about being in an abusive marriage. She’d divorced her husband in middle age and returned to college, and her prose was stark and beautiful. After a few months, however, her classmates grew restless. “He was horrible,” they said. “A bullying jerk.”

Still, more chapters of abuse arrived.

“But what comes next?” asked her classmates. “That’s what we want to hear.” I agreed. Before us sat a wry, funny woman with a unique voice, already a star of the academy. “Tell us how you got out,” her classmates suggested. “How did you begin to change? And why do you think you chose this man in the first place?”

The next week she brought a chapter in which the man shot a gun near her head when she was asleep. He cut the wires of her car before leaving for work one wintry morning, and later she slid on their icy driveway and slammed her head. She lay for a day staring up at the frozen, depopulated terrain in which he’d insisted they live.

We get it!” we exclaimed.

But apparently, she did not.

Something was not yet real to her. She needed us to witness something; she needed to get this one next instance on the page. Some part of her said this is what happened and another part of her said no it did not, and a third part saw them both and said: let me put it all into this box of a book and see what others think.

It’s a common predicament: we write transfixed by certain episodes, darkly enchanted by them, not yet able to take responsibility for the effect the pages produce—resentful, in fact, of the very phrase “take responsibility.” We tell the stories we can’t believe. We write what we know but don’t. We hope to convince ourselves, to make the unbearable into something whose actuality we can accept.

In the meantime, we foist our experiences on our reader in a strangely triangulating fashion, disowning the impact of our testimony and even honestly baffled by it. And yet there’s also a dignity to this quandary. Where id was, there ego shall be, Freud famously said. We might transpose this into: where the disowned was, there the book shall be, testifying where you once could not.

My student writing her memoir was herself caught in a repetition compulsion, forcing the reader to occupy the position that she once did. She was subjecting us to a kind of violence. In fact, in real life her abuser had begun as her savior. A public safety officer, he’d represented a refuge from a predatory parent. The original family compact was ignorance. There were parts of her own experience she wasn’t allowed to see. What happened at night was not acknowledged during the day. What happened between two people was not acknowledged by the third. The most tormenting parts of actual life must be considered make believe. How is the narrator of her own experience to heal this rift in reality?

I didn’t understand when canny readers of my book said, “She took advantage of you.”

I am especially interested in this quandary because I enacted it myself, although with less toxic subject matter. I wrote about a seven-year psychotherapy in which I’d gained an indelible amount but that had worrisome traits. I grew increasingly dependent on my therapist, and the last year we struggled mightily over how I might possibly leave her, which I longed to do. I didn’t understand when canny readers of my book said, “She took advantage of you.” I thought they’d misread. Hadn’t I conveyed how brilliant she was? I couldn’t see where the problem lay. Similarly, I wrote a novel about an affair and the marriage that had generated it.

I wrote about these things to gain perspective and because I wanted others—wanted, actually, the smartest people I knew—to tell me what they meant. Yet when these readers did, although I was excited and frightened by their perceptions, the perceptions came encased inside a certain coating of incredulity that forestalled my believing their accuracy. I felt as if my observers were exaggerating. Being simplistic and overly dramatic. I regarded their comments with comforting skepticism. These people didn’t quite understand. There was always one last nuance which—if they would just stay patient and let me convey it!—would leave them in a position that would let me trust their interpretation.

So, what to do? The promise of the completed narrative is transformation, not reiteration. How to move the story along so that it no longer inhabits the circle of enthrallment? At a certain point in the composition of a piece, the writer must take a step away. She must shatter the old reverie, depart from the expositional equilibrium, step into the obscurity and resolve it. The writer must at some point—and not too late—find a way to believe her own testimony. At the time I taught the writer of the memoir of abuse in her marriage, I was rather new to teaching. I could see that my student was stuck but didn’t know how to help her get unstuck until I experienced a way myself, in working on my novel.

I was restless to believe a reality that I could not, concerning the characters in my book. I discovered that for this to happen—for me to believe with my heart what only my mind knew to be true—there were some basic assumptions I had to change. When they changed, I was able to complete my manuscript in a way that satisfied both the reader and myself. These assumptions had to do with the nature of secrets and the texture of life.

*

My first step was to observe what my manuscript was telling me. Without my planning it—of its own accord—a pattern of images had appeared. There was a ventriloquist’s dummy in a thrift shop, open-eyed. A Shiva arm jutting out the back of my protagonist’s back. A lost pocketbook. A fish that had vanished. I did not put these images into the manuscript, it seemed. They appeared of their own accord. I liked that they were there. I didn’t know what they meant but could feel their power precisely because they were mysteriously essential; I couldn’t delete them without feeling the novel diminish in meaning. Because my conscious mind did not decide on them and yet I couldn’t part with them, I knew they were true. And over time I couldn’t help but understand what they were indicating.

They were images of dissociation and estrangement. They implicated the husband, who had hidden parts of himself from his wife. But they also, more significantly, implicated the wife, who told herself that her affair wasn’t important, that it was a non sequitur, something she was fantasizing while awake, and which possessed all the importance of an idle daydream. The manuscript explained to me that the cut-off things mattered. If you ignored them, they overtook your life. You could become a ventriloquist’s dummy. Your unconscious could be a Shiva arm that behind your back grabbed one thing or another because your denied need was so strong.

I could believe my manuscript when I couldn’t believe myself or my smart friends. My manuscript knew more than I did. That’s because it welled up not just from my conscious mind but from all of me and from what was beyond me. What was beyond me was coming to my aid—just like the fairy godmother in certain stories. When you think about it, the form of the essay and the novel and the memoir, the forms of literature, are beyond us and our inheritance; they are for us a fairy godmother available to come to our aid.

The images told me that although I—like my protagonist—pretended it didn’t cost me to be deceptive, actually, everything is related. Even lies of omission are lies. There is an integrity, a connectedness, to our actions and our psyches and the outside world that we can put our trust in. That we can put our trust in! This integrity—the meaningfulness of dreams, the erosion caused by dishonesty, the sense that one doesn’t have to control the outcome of a situation but must admit one’s truth—gave me a sense of wellbeing. I felt enlarged from it. Believing what my book told me gave me the courage to let my protagonist grow. It allowed me to create a narrative action that dramatized the character’s change. She confronted the husband and herself. And surprising things happened then, tumbling out, one event and another and another in a concatenation that was both unanticipated and apt.

What are the clues that your own manuscript is giving, I ask students who seem stuck. Like our dreams, our manuscripts contain the conscious and the unconscious, they know more than we do, we are forever catching up. Our manuscripts widen our peripheral vision; they are a mirror into our blind spots. But they also can let us see into others. The man on the page is simplified, consolidated, a stick figure perhaps, and yet he’s drawn from life, and the reader’s response to him might reflect your own refused understanding.

I ask my students who seem entranced, unable to gain perspective on their own testimony, what might you tell yourself ten years from now, if you could look back on the you of today alive on these pages? What might a wise friend see in your narrative? Answering these questions allows people to access their own wisdom, which many of us slide out of our own reach.

I also ask transfixed writers to try to convey how change begins, the often-granular origins of a shift: the social worker who isn’t an uncomprehending flatfooted twit but who actually has one or two perceptive things to say, the job that modestly begins to let one pay one’s bills.

The woman writing a memoir of abuse began to change in real life when she built her own computer and started communicating, late at night, with others who had suffered abuse. She provided testimony they needed to hear. She understood that this was the beginning of her developing her own voice. It was harder to write about this in a manner that was as obviously exciting as the earlier kinetic chapters, but it was thrilling in a quieter, more enduring way.

The things we don’t know, we don’t know for a reason. They make us feel disloyal. They demand us to take action. They seem disjunctive; we worry we’re misperceiving. They scare the bejesus out of us. When I started to believe what my manuscript was telling me, I forced myself to become more honest in my own life. And what I discovered was that my secrets were secrets mostly from myself. My husband had known for years things I believed hidden. But carrying the secrets had hobbled me. And inside my secrets were also my husband’s secrets. My secrets had provided a home for his, one that we were both ultimately relieved to illuminate.

For those who are stuck, it might be useful to realize there is something beyond your own conceptualization of reality. There are other resources, some of them already inside you. You might begin by trusting what your own psyche is telling you, the shapes and images and emblems that flash up. They may point to a larger truth. The other thing I found out—about the texture of life—is that things that initially seem bad can actually be good. When one partner grows in perspective and challenges the other it is an opportunity for them both. Honesty summons clarity, on the page and in life, opening up unsuspected pathways.

Bonnie Friedman
Bonnie Friedman
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life, which has been anthologized in six different writing textbooks. She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness, and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award in the Art of the Essay. A three-time Notable Essayist in The Best American Essays, her work has been selected for inclusion The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Buddhist Writing. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, Image, The Michigan Quarterly Review and other literary journals.





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