The Diarist (as most of my writing) uses expected tropes in the same way that virus technology programs a benign cell to carry a deadly disease. I intentionally embed these themes of oppression in familiar, palatable tropes: romance novels, stylized 1950s story worlds, and relationships that looks so much like intimacy that you “feel” love you should not feel. At least, that’s what I try to do.Years ago during an acting class rehearsal I stood on an empty stage and looked out at an empty black box theater space. The tech folks were adjusting lighting and no one was really concerned with actors mulling about waiting for rehearsal. I was experiencing a quiet and intense epiphany. Theater as political action. This -of course-is not a new concept but to me, a survivor of trauma including sexual assault by a stranger, I realized that if you can write well enough to “suture” your audience into the story, relate to the characters, and experience the events with empathy and compassion then maybe people will understand. Yes, this is hijacking our emotions, “catharsis.” Again, nothing new here, but new to me.
You see I have always-desperately- wanted people to understand the truth. I have always been spell-bound (in a bad way) by the cognitive dissonance associated with being a victim/survivor of child abuse and later violent sexual assault. One problem was -obviously- that some bad people did cruel things to me. Believe it or not, that wasn’t the most traumatic or damaging aspect of my traumatic experiences. The worst part was a silent world of witnesses.
I have always been someone who either didn’t get social cues so well and missed the taboo topics in my dysfunctional family. I’ve also been someone thanks to ADHD that cannot suppress my thoughts and feelings. Finally, I’m -by nature- gullible and that made me prey to all sorts of gaslighting. These qualities or defenses also gave me a “Casandra Complex,” spilling oceans of truth to a world that reacted by blaming me and calling me crazy.
So there I was, looking out into the empty theater and was struck with the powerful desire to become a playwright. This was no easy goal. At that time I’d only written short stories and those were still in the painful early beginning of the learning curve. I was not always a strong writer. In fact, due to dyslexia and ADHD (I’d find out at 50), reading did not come easy to me. For some reason -ironically- writing was always a psychological, spiritual, and emotional mandate. I started writing at 13, first diaries scribbled on loose leaf paper in red or blue pen, things like “why does mom have to get drunk all the time,” and “maybe I should become a slut.” I remember these two entries in particular, the first an obvious reaction to a painful home life. The latter, the desire to become promiscuous, likely some distortion of my emerging puberty and the effects of sexual abuse. I’d crawl under my 1970s, Sears, maple canopy bed and I’d write my secret desires and thoughts. With no boundaries and the risk of the worst kind of exposure, I’d fold the papers and tuck them deep inside the box spring through a small opening I’d made by ripping the fabric on the bottom. There they stayed. Years passed. I moved out. I didn’t retrieve the pages. I don’t know where they went.
As the years passed I started writing fiction and my stories came as if channeled from some remote region of the collective unconscious. The point of view was always a woman, often in some dysfunctional entanglement with a man or with a family. Two Cent Return (the story of an orphan girl who runs away to find a ‘tramp’ living on the train tracks, she found an unlikely father and together they collect bottles and return them for the 2 cents. Unfortunately, a social worker finds out the abused child is living with a railroad tramp and removes her from the only family she’s ever known). Shamrock (the story of a girl who’s mother is mentally ill and the girl watches the mother out in a field of daisies and realizes she can never truly know or understand this person who was supposed to love and care for her but never could). Mr. Buckley Hasn’t Gone Mad (a middle aged man makes the two hour trip once a week to visit his mother who’d abused him all his life. He feels trapped but cannot get out of the relationship. When she pours him a glass of milk, he knows she may have drugged or poisoned it. He stares at the milk through the whole visit while his mother prods him to drink it. Finally, the milk is warm and Buckley drinks it and heads home). These are the earliest stories I remember writing. I have no idea what happened to these either. I am guessing I left them in the trunk of a 1970 Dodge Dart I abandoned when I bought a one way plane ticket and moved from Massachusetts to San Francisco at 23 in 1988.
I eventually moved on to long-fiction then play writing. Both pursuits were long, painful, and humbling. I wrote and re-wrote and re-worked, trying to figure out how in the hell to do it. I shared my work with friends or other writers who looked at me quizzically; could they have been any more disorganized or lacking basic elements of effective story telling. I had characters. Often I had plots, but technical skills, I lacked. I wrote novels and plays on thousands of pages of paper. I read book after book on “how to” write.
Then, one day I was driving along the coast of northern California and I was in that absent, good-dissociative state. I realized I was thinking of a plot of a play. This play would come to be “Love is Enough.” In this story, a 1960s housewife, living with an abusive husband, dreams of becoming a Harlequin Romance Novelist. When her best friend tells her of a contest, she gets to writing. In the process she inadvertently brings to life and falls in love with a character (Marcos Van Der Burn) from her book “Love Is Enough.” (Love is enough to make this love affair real). As the story progresses, her husband Mike grows more and more furious and controlling. He doesn’t like Gladys’ new self confidence, one which allows her to “find herself.” Gladys is faced with a choice, but it it between Marcos and Mike or is it between oppression and interdependence.
Let’s fast forward ten years. In almost the same way that Love Is Enough came to me in a lightening bolt moment of inspiration, my series of novels that follows the trajectory after a 1940s widow’s trauma at the hands of an obsessive and violent lover. Constrained by a society where her rights are less than the man who raped and caused her so much harm, the protagonist Eve can never really disentangle herself from Jeff. Instead, she bonds with the abuser, and lives a life (spanning 1940s-1970s) around and along side a relationship that is both ecstatically passionate and crushingly violent. This series of five books have been read over 100,000 times on wattpad, a platform I’ve used for my unedited first draft stories. By the fourth book, readers forgot the physical and sexual violence perpetrated by Jeff. Instead, many readers started rooting for the “love affair” commenting that “they’ve been through so much together” and “they really do love each other.” As the writer, I had an epiphany, if I can get readers to see an abusive marriage as a love affair, then I’ve been successful. Why? Because I know from personal experience that many of us do confuse trauma bonding with love. I know from experience that nothing is one dimensional, and while it would be neat and easy to digest if people could be reduced to good or bad; but, we know that is not the case. We distance ourselves from the truth of trauma, racism, misogyny, homophobia, violence (these days from sedition and police brutality). We “Casandra-ize” the victims by ignoring the truth or reducing it to sterile political rhetoric.
We must feel the truth, we cannot describe it.
Now, my journey as a writer has taken me to adapting these stories to audio fiction. My first show, The Diarist, adds a twist to the Mad Men genre, placing an ambitious 1950s secretary in the orbit of a psychopathic executive. Andrea Davies enters the misogynistic 1950s workplace with the belief that she can pursue a career in advertising if she works her way up. Along the way she catches the eye of one of the partners at Roth, Hayes, and Johnson and not too long after he seduces her and as she becomes entangled with his life she meets and befriends his “lunatic” wife. Andrea cannot see that Richard will draw her into the same fate as his first wife. That through the vehicle of the fairy tale love trope, he will systematically take her power and offer only a gender role that is growing increasingly obsolete in the 1950s zeitgeist. Richard is afraid-as men were-that they were losing their dominance. Yet, the gaslighting reality becomes another malevolent force, one that is far more destructive than the abuser himself. The women at the firm turn on Andrea. Her mother turns on her. Richard begins to exploit Andrea’s growing desperation and convinces her of her inadequacies and even toys with the idea that she is insane (like his first wife who has by the end of the season taken her own life, making room for her replacement).
The Diarist (as most of my writing) uses expected tropes in the same way virus technology programs a benign cell to carry a deadly disease. I intentionally embed these themes of oppression in familiar, palatable tropes: romance novels, stylized 1950s story worlds, and intimacy that looks so much like intimacy that you “feel” love you should not feel. At least, that’s what I try to do.
As I explore audio drama as a medium for story telling, I am delighted by the opportunities to harness cultural anchors to reinforce the experience of the female characters. Tropes were more salient and less apologetic during the early 20th century in America. Rules were different and consequences far more grotesque, unjust, and existential. In my new audio drama “Exuberance Is Beauty” I’ve attempted to apply long-form storytelling (novel) to the audio drama format. I see this experiment as a literary podcast so listeners are immersed into the world of the story through dialogue and sound-scape, but the narrative stretches across a season as you would experience in a novel. The narrative arch starts out a little slow, allowing for exposition and getting comfortable in the world of the characters and story. Yet, there is escalating tension and finally a climax that has been built in much the same way as a traditional novel.
Admittedly, I don’t know if this experiment in literary storytelling will work for the fiction podcasting platform. It’s not an audiobook. It’s not a serialized story. It’s a scripted long narrative. Listeners will need patience (and interest) to get deep into the world of the story as foreshadowing, exposition, character, setting, do their alchemical work to “suture” the listener in. This is akin to a television mini-series drama. I am happily grappling with the challenge. I am excited by the potential to elegantly weave social, feminist themes into a compelling listening experience.
Exuberance Is Beauty Literary Fiction Podcast
The Diarist Fiction Podcast
Enjoy my random posts. These are pieces of writing that don't "fit" in any of the other categories or posts updating what's new in my world.