jessie cole


Tag: fiction

Unwitting Selfies: Fiction and Self Exposure


Nowadays, it’s a truism that we live in a culture saturated with self-exposure. The spectrum of possibilities runs from simple Facebook selfies, through blogs and feelpinions, and probably ends somewhere in the murky waters of uploading amateur porn. Never before have we had such access to ways of both communicating and controlling the parts of ourselves that others see. But what strikes me, as a fiction writer, is how much that control unravels once you begin to engage in the process of storytelling, otherwise known as ‘making things up’.

The mysterious workings of the creative mind mean that often (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) what comes to the surface when writing fiction might not be what was initially intended. Ideas or pressing issues can dissolve into nothing while the narrative picks up speed in an entirely new direction. There is something about the process that resists the interference of the rational self, and in this way what is revealed is often quite unexpected. Added to this strange phenomenon—and even more alarming—your fiction seems to say things about you that you didn’t even know, and perhaps can only faintly grasp after writing. It’s discomforting, a little like posting a selfie that unwittingly reveals all your subconscious thoughts.

Memoir—where we actively share what we know about ourselves—seems straightforward in comparison. And in a sense it is. We are picking and choosing the parts of our personal story worth relating, and we know where the story goes. There is still a sense of underbelly—a possible thread of meaning or narrative that might go undetected by the writer—but I suspect that the more aligned the writer is with the subtext, the higher the quality of the work.

I’m not so sure this is true for fiction, which seems to involve—at least in the act of writing—a surrender to the unknown. I like to begin a story with several characters of interest in a difficult or precarious situation and then just watch how things go. These characters seem fully formed, separate from me, and they do their own thing. When I write in the voice of a character I feel they are speaking through me. I am listening to their story and waiting to see where they lead. Often I have an inkling or premonition of what’s to come, but it is similar to the feeling I get when a friend tells me a story and I guess at the ending. Even my best guess could be wrong.

Stories seem to lead to particular places, and then sometimes they take a left turn. What I find most confounding about the process is how to come to terms with all of this being a representation of my inner world. Who are these characters who people my novels? Some of them might have initially been based—at least partially—on people I know, but once inside the narrative they tend to take an authority over themselves. And in any case, characters are not real people, but a collection of words on a page. Since I imagined them and then wrote down their stories, are they—in some disturbing way—all just aspects of me? And if so, what private things am I unknowingly exposing about myself?

It might seem strange that in this age of unprecedented self-exposure writing fiction could feel so risky, but it does. When I got word that my first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was to be published I was in a car with my family driving home from Brisbane. For the first few minutes I was ecstatic, speechless and beaming, and then a sudden migraine struck and within fifteen minutes we had to pull over in the car park of a highway McDonalds for me to hunch, dry retching, over the gutter. It seemed the reality of publication was something my body wasn’t quite ready for. And, even now, those two opposing feelings seem to rock and swell in my belly. Excitement at the release of a new novel, Deeper Water, and a sickening fear of all the things I could be saying about who I am, of which I’m only half aware.

In this context it doesn’t surprise me that my girl Mema, the protagonist of Deeper Water, should be grappling so bemusedly with all the knowns and unknowns of her world—that her journey should involve an awakening to the secret things she has kept hidden, even from herself. Writing fiction involves a type of awakening, and I think sharing it is an exposure far more strange and discomforting than any other kind.

First published on the Wheeler Centre Dailies, 27th October, 2014.


The Letter

In the months before he died, Lily’s father wrote her a letter that he tore up before sending, so when the envelope arrived, she tipped it upside down and the tiny fragments wafted down, fluttering over the floor of her small city flat. Lily swept up the white paper butterflies and put them back in the envelope, and then she rang her mother.

“Why does he do things like that? Why send a letter ripped into tiny pieces? Does he want me to stick it together? Is it some kind of test? I won’t do it.”

“Lil, I don’t know,” Alice sighed on the other end of the line. “He’s not well, he’s depressed. He did a lot of things when he was…sick…he feels bad.”

“Well I know, but why does he do things like that now? I’m throwing it out.”

“Yes, throw it out Lily, you can’t try and read a ripped up letter.”

But she stuffed the torn letter in with all the rest in the back of her cupboard, and tried not to think about its maimed black scrawl.

In her bedroom in the house, Lily scrambles through old letters, birthday cards, drawings and notes, searching for the familiar folded envelope of the letter from him. She has held this envelope in her hands many times, folding it up into a tiny square, and then smoothing it out again. Creased with the lines of Lily’s sad thoughts, inside it holds the scraps of the ruined letter she has never read. Finding it tucked against the bottom corner of an old shoe box, Lily pulls it out and folds it again into a tight square, the reflexive habit returning on cue. In a shiny metal box, today she is going to bury it.

Under the cover of overhanging trees, a ridge of land grows from Lily’s front garden like an arm thrown out in sleep. In its eternal meandering journey the creek has shaped and carved it, and now the ridge stands, a thin stripe of unharnessed ground that drops away sharply at either side. This ridge seems to point to some kind of destination but instead ends abruptly in a tapering muddy slope.

Lily takes her sons out along this secret ridge, carrying the metal box and a small shovel. Oscar races ahead, fearless and filled with ease, but Noah clings to Lily’s legs, trembling slightly as he peers over the steep edges. They scramble together down the muddy slippery slope. Lily must half carry Noah down the steepest part, the shovel clanking heavily against her ankles. At the bottom she holds open the barbed wire and they slide carefully through. Once down, Lily’s boys are nimble and they skip across the rocks of the creek and onto the pebbled flat. On the higher land above the creek, under a wide canopy of camphors, Lily begins to dig.

“What are you doing Mum? What have you got in the box?” Oscar is watchful as he slides around the trunk of a wide tree.

“I’m burying this box. I don’t want it with me anymore, but I’m not ready to throw it out.”

“But what’s in it?”

Pushing the shovel into the dirt, Lily pauses to look at her son’s face.

“I can’t tell you about it, Oscar. It’s just something that I don’t want, but I can’t get rid of.”

Noah wanders closer, kicking at the red dirt with his bare toes.

“Mummy, I can help. I can do some shovelling.”

“No baby, not without shoes. This is a job for Mummy. You can help me put the dirt back on top afterwards okay?

Placing the box in the hole, she begins to cover it with the damp pebbly soil. Noah throws small handfuls while Lily squashes the dirt flat with her feet.

“There. Now help me find a stick to mark the place.”

“A big one, Mummy?”

“One I can wedge into the ground, so I don’t lose the spot.”

Oscar strolls over from his tree with a long, slightly curved stick.

“But I thought you didn’t want what’s in the box. Why do you need to know the spot?”

“I just do. That’s all.”

Lily stands a moment beside the stick, wondering if the damp soil will turn her box to rust, and knowing that a flood will wash it all away. She imagines her metal box wedged between the branches of a tree on some lone farmer’s land.

“Come on boys, let’s go for a wander.”

Leaving the shovel propped against Oscar’s tree, Lily and the boys head downstream, watching for stray pieces of barbed wire and the low thorny bushes that always catch against their clothes.

As a child Lily loved this secret place. One year when the creek flooded, a large tree capsized and she made the exposed roots her hideaway. Equipped with a basket of fruit from the orchard, Lily headed down the edge and settled into the welcoming arms of her tree. She took her brother down this rambling slide to the tree, and they played intricate games in the many tangled caverns of its roots. Tiny imagined houses and tunnelling secrets, infinite worlds that exploded in the siblings’ minds until the whole upturned tree seemed to teem with life. This secret space had soothed Lily, free from the sculpting power of her father’s hands.

All along the curving creek edge grew dark green straight leafed plants that thrust from the ground like wild pompoms. Covered in a furred green moss the rocks of the creek sat solidly in their random placement and to Lily their rotund bodies seemed quietly alive. Ferns grew from the rock’s dirt crammed pockets and roots of the trees lay exposed in the ever-changing creek bank. From above ground Lily could see the trees’ private underworld in all their intertwined and sprawling layers, and to her – even then – they seemed naked and evolving. Gazing upon the banks with a kind of inarticulate wonder, Lily was calm in this quiet secret place.

The uprooted tree is no longer there, washed away years before in a flood. Lily and the boys walk along the banks of the creek, weaving in and out of the well-trodden cow paths. Noah stops to poke at the water with a stick, stirring up mud, and Oscar looks across at Lily as though searching for something.

“Mum, what was in the box?”

Oscar’s face is tilted to the side. Watching Lily, he pulls at his bottom lip with his new top teeth. Her children seem to study her for clues to some great mystery she can never explain. They seem to find her incomprehensible, sheathed as she is in this old unspeakable grief. She sighs, a strange sad sound.

“It was something private. Something sad. Something I’m not ready to share.”

“A secret?”

“Yeah, baby. A kind of secret.”

Oscar watches Lily and then shuffles toward her, wrapping his arms around her and leaning against her hips. Used to being too heavy to hold, Oscar cuddles her with a restrained gentleness. Catching sight of them, Noah drops his stick into the creek and runs across to squeeze in against his brother, working his way into the embrace like a wriggling puppy. Both boys press against her then until they begin to jostle until overwhelmed Lily nudges them from her arms, and turns to head back.

“Come on, boys, let’s go up. Let’s go back up to the house.”

And that night lying in bed, sleepless and cocooned, Lily thinks of her special place along the ridge after darkness has fallen. The great shadows of the camphors and her metal box beneath the shallow layer of red dirt. Imagining this place encased in a deathly black, Lily trembles beneath her covers. Remembering her escape plan, the horror of it crushes her.

In the dark years, half way through his first bottle of wine, her father’s face began to change. His skin reddened and his eyebrows protruded. His eyes behind round glasses seemed milkier and his cheeks more jowly. His voice became harsh and soon it would begin. Her father talked and talked, an enraged monologue of grief, and one by one Lily and Joe got up from the table and left. Fifteen and thirteen, they found refuge in the television or their separate rooms but their mother stayed and listened and listened. She did not argue, she did not inflame, but sat unbending and calm beneath their father’s lashing barbed tongue. Lily and Joe went to bed to avoid his incessant monotone, but Lily’s room was closest, and she could hear it as she lay quietly listening in the dark. The menace in his voice carried through the air, though the words were lost and Lily could not breathe for the waiting.

Lily listened in terror for a silence so ominous and deep that she could not mistake its meaning. She waited and waited for the sound of her mother’s footsteps on the walkway bricks so that she would know she had escaped safely to bed, and then Lily waited, her whole body alive with dread, to see if his heavy angry footsteps would follow. She was panic stricken about what she would not hear once her father had her mother alone in their private bedroom in the green garden sea, and the ringing of this waiting silence filled her mind until she could think of nothing but the plan.

In the plan Lily would know the moment when she would need to act. The sound of the silence would inform her, or perhaps a noise, a frightening meaningful noise, and she would creep silently from her room. In all her waiting wakefulness Lily had planned and plotted how she would get Joe out.

Sliding along the back garden in the dark, Lily would slip in through her brother’s half opened door and wake him and urge him up. Joe would be disorientated with sleep and fear and he would stumble out the door behind her. She would drag him quietly through the jungle palms they had watched through the glass as children and when she thought they were far enough from the rage of their father Lily would urge him into a run and they would race out toward her secret ridge and slide down the muddy slope in the cold hard darkness.

In her plan their clothes would tear against the barbed wire and they would graze their backs trying to slide beneath its jagged edge, and once they were in her secret place beneath the ghostly silhouetted camphors they would not be able to stop running. In their pyjamas they would race along the creek, their feet slamming against the sharp edges of the rocks. Blinded by the dark, Lily and Joe would run and run until they were free of him, and then they would huddle together, wretched and shivering, knowing that in their panicked dash they had left Alice behind. They had left their mother to defend herself against the fearsome possibilities of their thrashing drowning father.

In her escape plan Lily could not rescue them all.

But most nights Lily’s father would not follow her mother to bed. He stayed up late instead, drinking more wine and playing old records so loudly that Lily couldn’t sleep. Her father was stuck in a circular broken grief and it played upon his mind like the records scratched against their frightened hearts. He listened to the first few bars of Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ just the first line, over and over again, as though in his drunken despair he was trying to capture this one moment; the one epic moment when the music swells and she begins to sing. Her sister was dead, vanished from their lives, and to Lily’s father this moment was like holding in his palm the smallest particle of her. Every night he listened to this short phrase of notes as though grasping in his hand the skirts of the girl who had so potently left him, as though in these swelling soaring seconds he could almost keep her in the room. And when the line was over he had lost her, she had escaped his hold and his grief returned in a colossal swamping wave.

And then, he played it again and again.

And Lily listened with a fury so large that she felt it rock and swell inside her, and sometimes when her anger overrode her fear she swept out of her room to confront him.

“Dad, we can’t sleep. Do you not understand that we have to go to school tomorrow?”

Her father stood unsteadily in the doorway unable to hear her through the force of the amplified orchestral strings.

Lily shouted then, her whole body shaking. “Turn It Down!”

Her father shuffled to the record player and turned the volume down a tiny notch, and Lily shook her head, holding her body still in stiff defiance.

“It’s still too loud.”

And then his anger roused, her father exploded.

“It’s my fucking house! I can do what I want in my fucking house. You’ve all gone off to bed and I’m just listening to some songs that make me feel good. My favourite songs, you know? Me! I can’t do anything in this fucking house without you all fucking complaining.”

Lily stepped back, her fists clenching. He stood over her radiating a kind of pulsing violence, his lips curled in an ugly snarl. Lily took a sharp breath, her body trembling. She could not let go of her closed fists.

“Dad, I have a test tomorrow and I need to sleep. I can’t sleep with that music, it’s driving me insane.”

Lily’s voice was strung tightly across nails. Her words came out in a monotone. She couldn’t bear the necessity of speaking them. She didn’t understand how her father could not know she needed to sleep. How could be so careless of her, of them all? She wanted to scream, a primal howling cry, but she could only seem to stand before him and speak her quiet angry words. They were deadlocked, and neither could win. Lily turned from him then, her temples pounding in her ears like the flapping of a bird’s wings. She walked back to bed and lay awake the night through, listening to the endless welling of her father’s one sad song. She could not cry, though she longed more than anything to feel the hot slipping release of tears.

Curled tightly beneath her covers remembering of the helpless rage of her adolescence, Lily forces herself to breathe. Stretching her body out like a gently pointed star, slowly she feels herself soften. The tears slide from her eyes and glide across her cheeks, a delicate soundless flow, and she feels them pool languidly behind her ears. They tickle strangely and she rubs her head softly against her pillow, wiping them away.

Lily is, in that small moment, freed from the crushing, unremitting weight.

First Published in Island Magazine “Women,” #129, Winter 2012.

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