On violence and trauma and repetition...
When I was nineteen, I went to dinner at a friend’s, and afterwards, her father invited us all upstairs to see his attic art studio.
There were so many canvasses in that room, each about knee-height and rectangular. Many of the finished paintings had been hung on the walls, but newer paintings crowded the floor, casually leaning up against the walls and furnishings. The latest painting, unfinished, waited on an easel, catching the light on a slant.
The attic had this peaked roof and there was a small square window set in the triangular wall through which poured all of the light in the world.
When I walked into the attic that day, I meant to become a lawyer. I was also young—so young that my shadow had not yet crawled out of my mouth and lay on the ground behind me.
I was also moving in time towards a terrible kind of violence that would deeply change how I experienced the world—or rather, unseen, that violence was hurtling towards me. And in the aftermath—during my slow and painful break-up with who I’d once wanted to become—I re-centred my life on the arts, began writing every day, and that daily practice changed things. For one, the writing slowed me down enough to really take in what was around me, suffusing my present tense with reflection, and two, when I picked up an old book, one I’d previously thumbed, I found entirely new registers to the stories inside.
* * *
On the first day of a new creative writing class, I usually talk about my own writing practice a little. Each of my novels is really different—and I point this out as a way of opening up the space a bit, making room for different writing modes and concerns.
My first book was part faux-memoir and fairy-tale, the second, a novel-length prose poem, and the third, an intentionally unresolved story of a missing girl. The latest, Girl Minus X, is apocalyptic and poetic, a feminist action novel set during a pandemic of forgetting.
But the last time I summed up my books, offering a little connective tissue—I realized all at once that my novels weren’t so different after all. Deep down, at core, every book I’ve ever written is a meditation on violence. Whether that’s through the lens of identity, the stories we tell about ourselves, complicity, or memory—I am essentially writing about violence and its affects.
Realizing this, I stopped and took a breath.
“So, I guess, on one level, everything I write is about violence,” I said, and then we moved on.
* * *
One night, in my late twenties, after a potluck at a friend’s, a writer asked me what I was working on.
I struggled to answer. I was writing about violence and silence and story, and yet I couldn’t articulate why. I was doing everything I could to avoid looking at the violence I’d experienced, yet that violence was everywhere I looked. Trauma can operate a little like quantum physics—i.e., that nasty thought experiment of Shrödinger’s—only it’s violence, within memory and consciousness, that both is and is not a dead cat in every room.
“So, what old trauma are you mining now?” the writer responded.
I mumbled something. Moved elsewhere. But he was right. Violence was all I wrote about. Certain acts of violence run deep, their affects last a lifetime, changing who you are and what you write and how.
In that moment, I didn’t have the perspective required to reframe the question. What I had was shame.
Why was I writing about trauma yet again?
Why didn’t I just get over it?
* * *
I remember walking into that attic studio and seeing the paintings.
I looked at the first. Paused to take in the bold use of yellow in the foreground. Then I examined the background, a bleeding grey that somehow suggested, but did not represent, rain.
When I looked at the painting beside it, I was surprised to see that it was pretty much identical to the first. I blinked. Compared them. Then my gaze raked the paintings on the attic walls and combed the row on the floor.
I wasn’t seeing art, not anymore. I was flipping through a deck of cards, fast, because I wanted to see if this one card made up the entire deck.
* * *
There is a quantum logic to trauma. I can see this especially when it comes to knowledge, to the way one can both remember and avoid a memory at the same time. I also see this in the fractal repetitions that follow trauma, ones that aim, perhaps, at mediating or titrating an experience that otherwise threatens to literally overwhelm.
I can also see how the way I write shares similarities with the way my friend’s father paints. In my case, the writing is a conversation across decades, each new novel, however different on the surface, is responding to and growing out of some failure in the old. For me, writing happens the way red huckleberries happen. These wild shrubs can’t be domesticated; they grow in one place: the rich sediment of their decomposing cousins. I know I will only ever be temporarily satisfied with any book I write, but that’s okay. The work feels worthwhile.
I also think about the ways in which repetition itself can be powerful.
I wasn’t yet equipped to see it at the time, but when I walked into that attic studio, I became immersed in a visual narrative that only unfolded itself to me much later, the understanding slowly gathered over time. The paintings themselves could be viewed like a series of graphic novel panels. Each background, compartmentalized inside the bounds of an individual canvas—slipped those bounds via repetition to become immense. The repetition also collected up time: the implied time of composition, the time needed for viewing, the time taken for this viewer to understand.
Time stood still inside that room, in more ways than one.
And in a singular act of generosity, there, in the foreground of each painting, a yellow object—small, when figured against all of the grey—but offering up a temporary and fragile kind of shelter.
* * *
The other day, I was talking on the phone with a friend, a writer, and they told me they were worried that their new novel was too similar to their other books, that they were once more writing the same old story. I recognized the signs of first draft despair; I’ve felt it every time. No one, I told them and I deeply meant it, no one would ever see your work as repetitive. Because it’s true, their novels are important and powerful, each entirely their own. While, at core, the books do share concerns—these are concerns this writer sees with more clarity than most. This is inescapably part of that power.
Mine are all the same, too, I said.
Maybe there is material, different for each of us, that needs to span multiple works or even a lifetime, because there is more necessary thinking to be done, a fuller understanding to be found. So maybe it’s not surprising that, under the surface, a writer’s successive books are another essai—or attempt. However small, however flawed, however temporary, a book offers shelter for thinking, so it makes sense that—in a way that may only be felt by the writer themselves—each book is another yellow umbrella in an attic room.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Anne Stone is the author of four novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998), and her newest book, Girl Minus X. She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.