Writing Through Fear is a Way to Take Back Power
Alice Anderson, Julia Fierro, Pascale Kramer, Megan Stielstra,
and Carmen Maria Machad in Conversation
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate, hosted at powerHouse Arena. This dynamic series focuses on women writers, past and present. The name Red Ink brings to mind vitality, blood, correcting history, and making a mark on the world. The next discussion, “Silence,” will take place on November 9th at 7 pm, and feature Rene Denfeld (The Child Finder), Gayle Brandeis (The Art of Misdiagnosis), Alexis Okeowo (A Moonless, Starless Sky), T Kira Madden (No Tokens and Guernica), and Alisson Wood (The New York Times, Catapult, and Pigeon Pages).
The following is an edited transcript from October’s panel, “Fear,” which featured Alice Anderson, Julia Fierro, Pascale Kramer, Megan Stielstra, and Carmen Maria Machado. A full recording can be found here.
Michele Filgate: How is fear is a factor in your most recent books? How does fear play into what you wrote about in your most recent books?
Carmen Maria Machado: Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection, but I also have a memoir that I’m working on, which is about abuse in a same-sex relationship. The entire memoir is this exercise in trying to banish, failing to banish, and trying to wrangle fear. It’s just been a really interesting, emotional process, and I haven’t quite figured it out yet, because it’s still in progress. I went through this phase where I thought, Oh, I can just write about this and it’ll make it go away. I can get rid of it. But it was like full body wrestling something.
Alice Anderson: I wrote my book through the fire. As a poet, I used to always say this line, that I need seven years to catch up. Something had happened seven years ago, and I had somehow processed it and gained some wisdom and could write about it. I wrote my book, which is somewhat of a legal thriller and a memoir, while it was happening. For me, the actual act of writing the book was a way to channel my fear. When writing about trauma, my fear is always that a reader will see me just as “victim”; for me, writing through the real-life fear of the events, while they happened, was a way to take back power. I used fear as fuel.
Julia Fierro: I love what you said, Carmen, about trying to banish fear, once I realized that I couldn’t completely banish it, it became more fuel, more of a tool. Often when we’re in writing class, teachers say to us, What does your character want? And for me, I think a more efficient way to get to the sort of point of the uniqueness of that character is to say, What do they fear? It’s even more urgent, and often what my characters fear is not getting what they need or want. I think it’s really the most valuable information you can have about a character, whether it’s yourself, in memoir, or in fiction.
Megan Stielstra: My son was born in 2008, he’s 9 years old right now. And he’s rad. But I was on the ground for a couple of years after he was born, postpartum depression, and when I kind of started to climb out of that a little bit, I was really surprised with how scared I was all of the time. Before that, fear hadn’t been how I walked through the world, and when I started to interrogate that with myself a little bit, I was just kind of blown away by the privilege of that, to not walk through the world in that sort of a way. So I wanted to look at fear and how I’d experienced it, in personal essays, in part because I wanted to get it out of my body.
One of my favorite writers is Lidia Yuknavitch, and she talks a lot about how our bodies can’t carry fear, but the page can. So I wanted to put it out and look at it, and I think the thing that I figured out really quickly is, well, what are we going to do? The world is terrifying right now, and we can sit here, and we can be pissed, and we can throw things all over, which I actually want to do on a daily basis, pretty much—I just want to throw dishes. But at this point, I think, after putting so much of it out of my body, what I’m interested in now is action, and what I can do.
MF: In your stories, Carmen, women’s bodies are on the line—whether it’s reimagining the famous horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, or writing about women who literally disappear into prom dresses, you utilize fear as a tool to explore women’s lives. And you said in an interview for Electric Literature a few years ago when asked about writing, I quote here, “in and with the blurred space between realism and fantasy or science fiction,” this is something you said: “But we live in a society where women’s experiences are devalued. I think, because of that devaluing, it’s possible that female writers seek ways to represent their experiences that are more subtle or less easy to pin reality on.” So I’m wondering if you find that writing in this blurred space allows you a certain kind of freedom to dive deeper into fear itself.
CMM: I needed that magical space, or that surrealist space, to give me a little bit of distance to emotionally strike at the topics of the stories. So for example, I have a story in the collection, “Mothers,” which is about a woman whose abusive ex-girlfriend turns to her after a breakup with an infant and says, This is your child, I got pregnant with your child, here’s your child, and gives the baby to her. Before I started writing the memoir, I was sort of trying to get at this topic of same-sex abuse, and what makes it so uniquely terrible. I saw the protagonist as myself, and I was beating up on her super hard because I was beating up on myself very much in the same way. And it was cruel, what I was doing to her was so cruel, I would just cry while I was writing the story. It was just so devastating, and I couldn’t finish it.
At some point, I realized that this surrealist element of two women having conceived a child together was one of my worst nightmares—I was really grateful when I broke up with my abusive ex-girlfriend that we didn’t have a kid together, because that would have connected me to her. I needed that surreal space to really engage with the thing I was most afraid of. I feel like that space for me is the most rich and potent. I do occasionally write realist fiction, but when I am in that magical realist liminal fantasy space, I find all of my emotions engaged at full capacity.
MF: Two years ago, Toni Morrison wrote a short piece for The Nation called “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” In the essay she says, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I’m wondering if you guys agree with Toni Morrison, that there’s no room for fear during these times of dread that we’re living in.
JF: For me, what’s more important than the idea of creating art or culture is the empathy that goes into it, and also the empathy that every single reader, child to adult, experiences when they read something. And I would go as far as to say that even being on the internet and reading on social media can accomplish this. I feel safest when I’m practicing my humanity on the page—which in some ways is a little cowardly, because I strive to have that same kind of openness in real life, but I do think that to read is to hopefully do what Toni Morrison is saying that we’re doing.
Pascale Kramer: I remember when I read this, because it came to France during our presidential election, when we were very close to electing Marine Le Pen. At this time, I was completely depressed; I would not be able to live in a country with Marine Le Pen as a president. When I read that it gave me so much hope. I thought, she’s right, there is no space for self-pity, I think she used this word too—we have to act.
And while we’re at least four years free of Marine Le Pen, we have to face other fears—for instance, terrorist attacks. After the terrorist attacks at Le Bataclan, mosques opened their doors inviting everybody to come, to discuss, and to get to know each other. The solution to fear is just to go where you see the danger—just go and try to understand and talk.
CMM: At some point I remember thinking, what am I doing? I might as well be making taxidermied animals with little hats on them. I felt like I was just playing. (Sorry if anyone here makes taxidermied animals with hats, I really love taxidermied animals). I thought, this isn’t worth anything. I’m just in a sandbox making crafts, I should be out there doing something really political—I should be doing something else. Then I remember when the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened, waking up and my phone was full of AP alerts. I was laying there reading and reading, and my wife—my then-girlfriend, now wife—woke up and was like, what’s going on? And I was trying to explain what had happened, and I got up, and I turned on a livestream and I started watching it, and at some point I just started sobbing. It hit me harder than I expected. And I was like, maybe I should write, but I couldn’t.
So I spent the whole day making dinner. I hand-made pasta, I basically just made food all day. And at the end of the day we had an ordinary-sized meal that I had spent eight hours preparing. It tasted fine, it wasn’t amazing, but I had made it with my own hands. Obviously yes, we should be acting, but also it’s okay to just need to make something. Whether it’s taxidermied animals with hats, or writing, or a meal—just that process of creating, where there was not something before, to make it and bring it to the world—and I think that’s actually a good way to sort of channel that energy, and it’s okay.
MS: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the election—when I have these moments of despair or fear or frustration or outrage. I absolutely believe that yes, we constantly need to be making art. But there is a difference between the practice of art making and the choice of if and when and how to share it. What we don’t need right now are hundreds of reactionary novels about what’s happening right now. I think both Carmen and Pascale have talked about writing to understand your own heart, and your own feeling, and the work that you need to do—that we need to do as individuals—and that’s part of this too, figuring out what we need to read and what voices we need to listen to. But I think for me most importantly it’s, when can you tag in and I tag out, and how can we help each other? And what does that look like on a mass scale?
MF: You’re talking about letting other people share and create as well, not just thinking of your own art. I teach creative nonfiction classes, and there are many fears that come up with my students, with writing about their own lives, and you know, it’s scary to commit the truth to the page, even if they’re writing fiction, they’re writing truths. Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, there’s truth in all of it. It’s scary to do that, and to share stories that make you seem vulnerable or flawed. So here’s my question for all of you. How do you not become paralyzed by fear but instead let the fear feed the writing?
AA: I think about how many books literally saved my life. The Chronology of Water saved my life. Janet Fitch novels saved my life. Right now, Layli Long Soldier poems are saving my life. This idea that you have to be fearless kind of seems irrelevant when you think that maybe the book you’re writing is the exact book that somebody else absolutely needs to read. So that book is in you, and it’s waiting for you to fall in love with the sound of its voice, and to just put it on the page. So when I think of it that way, well, I think, my fear is really not the point at all.
PK: I never feel fear while I am writing, but when the book is finished—because I always choose difficult topics—suddenly I’m like, wow, what will people think of me? What will my mother think of me? I like authors who take risks, that’s the kind of book I like to read. Books where it makes you uncomfortable, you can tell the writer goes somewhere nobody went before and makes you think differently, and I think that’s when I like books, so I try to do the same.
MS: This is the “how I did not succumb to paralysis during the past year” question? Okay. All last year, I got to work with a group of creative nonfiction writers at Northwestern. The day after the election, I sent an email to everyone in my class saying, hey, we can call off class today, nobody has to come in, I for one am still drunk. So we don’t have to come in, but I am going to come in, and I’m going to sit in our room and read some books, if anyone wants to come, I’ll be here. And everybody came. In the class there were 12 young women, 2 young men. And the two young men—independently of one another, one of them stopped and got 13 cupcakes, one for each one of the young women and me, and the other one went to Jewel-Osco and got some of the cheap fake dyed daisies and gave each one of us a flower.
After the Access Hollywood tapes, I had received a lot of essays about sexual assault, and that’s a conversation we started having. Those two young men sat there and listened to all of these young women tell their stories. The first thing they thought about on election morning was us, and how they could do something little to make us, not feel better, but to let us know we were seen. And I carried that moment around like a life raft, because that right there, that moment, on that day, that’s what let me know that what we do here—it matters, it has value. They listened to our stories, and it changed something.