It’s Okay to Hug Your Ten Years Ago Writing Self
I’ve been going through my older writing I never did anything with to see if I can send any of it out. In 2000 and 2001, I wrote my master’s thesis, a short story collection called How Small The World. I wrote a bunch of other, mostly insane stories about, well, most of the themes I’m still writing about. I was 26. I was writing literary fiction for the first time after writing genre fiction, erotica, for years, so I was trying to learn the rules as I wrote and also trying to be less filthy. I only sometimes succeeded on that front. Some of the stories hold up in that I’m not totally humiliated. Don’t get me wrong. There is embarrassment but I’ll survive. The stories are certainly workshoppy at times, a bit ponderous, slow moving, introspective, and far more sedate than what I’m currently writing but they’re also publishable with work. This is how I spent my summer vacation–identifying the strange preoccupations I had ten years ago and pretending I don’t have a whole new set of preoccupations now.
Sighing was a very big thing for my characters, especially the women. They sighed before speaking. They sighed while sitting down. They sighed during arguments. They sighed during sex, whether it was good or bad. They sighed while eating. They sighed while exasperated. They sighed at work. They sighed after looking at pregnancy tests. Sighing was a serious narrative device meant to communicate a wide range of dissatisfactions and sorrows, confusion or hopelessness.
There was a lot of action in the corners of eyes—burning, the welling of tears, dryness, aching, all designed to convey that characters were feeling something emotional they couldn’t quite articulate or surrender to.
Conversations never ended. Many of my characters engaged in Hotel California-like conversations for two or three double-spaced pages to fill in backstory and to explain, in intricate and intimate detail, their opinions on a situation, their motivations for recent behaviors, their issues with their mothers, whatever. My characters, at the turn of the century, were not afraid to talk shit out.
There was also a lot of dialogic exposition. She said pointedly. She said drily. She sighed happily. She laughed lightly. She said sternly. She said weakly. She said <insert adverb>, ad nauseum.
At the time, I was a pack a day smoker (and how I miss it). My characters smoked a disturbing amount and used cigarettes and the smoking, waving about, ashing, and extinguishing thereof as a way to insert a little action into “serious” conversations and emotional situations. They smoked in cars, on balconies, while pregnant, after shooting heroin, on road trips, at rest areas, in a lawyer’s office, at a strip club, in a bathtub, while sitting on the toilet, while sitting on the bathroom counter, on the balcony again. They exhaled their smoke in long thin streams, in perfect, well-timed circles, through their nostrils, in awkward clouds during a coughing fit, and while having an angry conversation. Their fingertips were stained yellow and brown, their teeth bore the yellowed evidence of years of tobacco and nicotine, their clothes held the heavy clouds of smoke they lived in. Smoking was very serious business, you see. It added subtext. This maybe hasn’t changed so much.
The eyebrows, they arched high and often and proudly. They arched to communicate irritation, amusement, bemusement, desire, sexiness, confusion, or anger. The eyebrows were the windows to the soul. They were usually perfectly shaped.
My love affair with the word “that” was very intense. That that that that that that that. Also, I was no stranger to “just.”
My characters were hellbent on having original names not on that Top 20 list of baby names the Social Security Administration releases annually. Case in point: Ursula. Case in point: Feliciano, but he also goes by Happy.
Lips were routinely wet with spit, while being licked, with droplets of water, with booze. Those wet lips were nuzzled against armpits, cheeks, necks, the backs of hands. Those wet lips often had odors. The lips, they were wet. Yes, I know how often boozy lips still find their way into my stories. Thanks.
My characters found solace and guidance in the moon, starting up at the moon, into the moon, thinking profound thoughts about the moon and it’s place in the universe, looking to the moon for answers and ways out of difficult situations, marveling at the beauty of the moon, enjoying that beauty while holding hands, making love beneath the moon, splashing in a dark lake under the moon.
In addition to fiction classes, I was also taking lots of theory classes and sadly, much of that theoretical language wormed its way into my stories. I wore out the word subjective. Wore. It. Out.
Sensations flowed. Gazes were intense. Desire boiled. Thighs clenched. Thoughts ran wild. Emotions soared. Hope floated. Emotions were very, very active. This is awkward.
I used epigraphs to make meaningful statements about the narrative to follow. Along those lines, last year, I unearthed a 109 page project, Love and Other Anti-Depressants, from just before I started graduate school, one I do not remember writing, mind you, with the most ludicrous plot. I can’t get into it but it involved a lesbian art forger and a truck driver. I looked at this project again this week to see if it is redeemable and it isn’t, not even a little bit. The epigraph for this horribly titled opus came from Robert Louis Stevenson—”The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”
Stevenson, man. I have no idea.
Women spent a lot of time with therapists, often antagonistically. They started at the bald heads of therapists. They studied the therapists’ outfits. They studied how the therapists took notes, if the therapists took notes, if the therapists engaged with them inappropriately. Sometimes, they had sex with their therapists. Mostly they hated their therapists. Projection, projection, projection.
The violence was bone crushing, blood spattering, nausea inducing, body tearing, bruises deep and purpling, lips split, scalps throbbing. This also hasn’t changed much.
I had a terrible, terrible, mortifying habit of writing stories for people I was dating or wanted to date. As you might imagine, there were many stories involving friends who fall in love, friends with benefits who become something more, longing gazes, lingering touches, sparks at fingertips, unrequited passions that finally became requited, happily ever afters, happily ever afters, hello wishful thinking. The break up stories are funnier–lots of infidelity, rageful break up sex, ex-stalking, loneliness and bitterness, tormented begging to reconnect, elaborate revenge plots. One of these break up stories was published in an anthology so they weren’t all funny terrible. I don’t do this anymore. I mean, I change the important details more than I used to. Mostly.
I… I wrote @copyright Roxane Gay <year> on my work as IF it needed to be protected for its preciousness and as if such self-administered imprimatur were necessary.
I know better now. Mostly.