Fiction Writing As Dissociation

Sun sculpture on side of house in Mendocino, California

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The excerpt below, from page 181, is a follow-on to yesterday’s excerpt. Noticing how gloomy I felt, Elena suggested that I see the hospital social worker. So I did.

It wasn’t long before the social worker struck a nerve. She described my fiction-writing as dissociation. This is a psychiatric term for the disconnection of our mental state from our surroundings, and it can range from mild detachment while waiting for something boring to be over (such as daydreaming while waiting in a doctor’s office) to a complete shutdown into unconsciousness when challenged by trauma or the memories of trauma. At the time, I was particularly upset by the social worker’s comment because Elena was dissociating in a severe way. She had spent days unconscious and disconnected from reality.

Was the social worker right that fiction-writing is dissociation? Not in the sense that daydreaming is. It’s true that story creation pulls me away from the real world, but then again, so does any intense mental activity that demands all my attention, such as dedicated research, careful reading, or even nonfiction writing. And story creation helps me work through problems I’m struggling with in the real world, rather than helping me escape them.

The comparison of fiction-writing to daydreaming is understandable but unfortunate. Daydreaming is wish fulfillment, and we’ve all done it from time to time, but it has none of the intricacies of story creation. The first thing I start to do when I create is ask questions about the new world I’m seeing, and I have to find consistent, realistic answers to those questions. But nobody asks questions of a daydream. Daydreams don’t need to follow consistent world rules.

My reaction to the social worker wasn’t just colored by my negative feelings about dissociation, however. It was also colored by something every fiction writer goes through: a very common reaction to the word fiction. When the subject of what I do for a living comes up, a sizable percentage of people go out of their way to impress upon me just how trivial they believe fiction is. “I don’t read fiction,” many of them immediately say, and then they go on to observe that fiction is more or less a toy to entertain children. In fact, a certain number of them make a point to say at once, “I never read books,” or “I don’t have a single book in my home,” as if books themselves are toys.

This has always struck me as bizarre. Do these same people, upon finding out they’re talking to a chef, say, “I hate fussy meals”? Do they make a point, upon meeting a doctor, to say, “I hate getting checkups”? I suppose they probably do. But why? That’s what I’ve never understood.

“I feel so old these days,” I said. “Old and dried up. Ancient. It’s as if all the pain and stress have attacked me physically. Some days—the bad days—I can almost feel the cells shriveling and dying off.”

“Have you cried about this?” she asked. “About your daughter in the hospital, about her blackouts and her heart? About your other daughter? Have you given yourself permission to cry?”

I felt taken aback. I tried to be reasonable and evaluate the questions fairly, but then again—they just didn’t make sense.

“You mean, since we got here, to the States? Well—no.”

Obviously not, I thought to myself.

“And why is that?” she asked.

Why was that? Ask the small child sitting quietly in a corner of the room, working on her dot-to-dot puzzles. Ask Heathcliff. Ask Sara Crewe. Ask Florence Nightingale.

Laughter is always appropriate. A wry comment and a quiet chuckle are welcome even beside the grave. But crying is a special dispensation extended to widows and babies. Me, I needed to be doing and planning—not crying.

“Elena doesn’t need that,” I said finally. “She’s going through enough. And besides—well, we’re in public here!” And I tried to imagine myself breaking down in a busy waiting room. Nope. My imagination could picture monsters, but it couldn’t see this.

“It happens here all the time,” the social worker said calmly. “No one would judge you or bother you.”

I didn’t answer. Inwardly, I thought, Why would that matter? This is my code of conduct, not someone else’s.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” she persisted. “Why haven’t you let yourself cry?”

“Because . . .”

But how could I explain it? Why did I even need to explain it?

Why couldn’t this woman just leave it alone?

“Because it’s too much,” I said at last. “I can’t even let myself touch it. All I can do is kind of stand back and look at it for a while. Think about it: think about seeing your daughter, out of her mind. Think of your baby, whose little body you cradled and protected from birth, and now you’re seeing dozens of burns . . .”

I had to pause for a minute. But I found my stiff upper lip.

“So, you see,” I continued, perfectly calmly and reasonably, “there aren’t enough tears for that. If I start crying, you might as well lock me up in a padded room because I’m never going to stop.”

The social worker frowned. “You need to be able to cry,” she said.

What happened to not judging me or bothering me?

“I need to be able to cope,” I countered. “I could scream for the rest of my life, but how is that going to get the bills paid and the insurance arrangements taken care of? I was on the phone just this morning with our insurance company—again. I had to sort out charges from the military hospital for them. Who’s going to do that if I’m bawling in a rubber room?”

And the thought of the insurance company acted on my torn and injured feelings like a cool menthol lozenge on a sore throat. It helped me breathe. It laid soothing coats of logic and procedure over the burning pain inside me.

The social worker seemed to sense my change in mood. At my growing calm, she grew sterner than ever.

“So you turn to your writing,” she said. “To your books.”

“Well, yes,” I admitted, and the thought of my characters completed the job of helping me re-center.

It’s not fair to Paul and Maddie to say that they’re not real, I thought. They’re as real as anything else about me. Their love is certainly just as real, that true adolescent first love that makes the whole humdrum world we grew up with somehow look different overnight. And at the thought of those two shy, serious lovers, a little glow of happiness warmed me.

“But don’t you see,” the social worker said, “that you’re doing the same thing as your daughter? You’re both dissociating! Elena is dissociating by escaping into her blackouts, and you’re dissociating into your books.”


How dare she!

How dare she!

Did this woman have the foggiest idea what dissociation really looked like? Had she ever wandered, lonely and miserable, through a chaotic, paper-piled house while every single person in the world found other things to do? Had she ever sat next to the phone, hour after hour, single-mindedly willing it to ring, while the adults who had been closer than family—closer than family!—stepped away and closed off? Just stopped caring?

That was dissociation: it was pulling away from risk to safety—just flipping off the switch that says I care. And me, I had actually lived through the hell that happens when adults do that to a child. Is that what this woman actually thought my books were—just a spa where I hid to escape my obligations? Is that what she actually thought fiction was—nothing but a pretty little playground?

God, how I despise those people who put on their long “I’m a grown-up now” faces and sit in judgment of the value of fiction! They keep themselves safe inside their rigid little closed minds and live out their rigid little lives. And if anything that they don’t understand comes along, they shrill out their little judgments, and they attack it.

Dissociating into my books! . . .

I took a deep breath. Logic and reason—I needed logic, and I needed reason! I needed to think this through. Why would she attack me? Here was a thought: maybe it had been a bold gambit to try to shock me into tears.

Well, it was going to take a whole lot more than that.

“Dissociation.” I echoed the insult in my stiffest, most unemotional voice. “So that’s what you think my books are. Well, I like to think that there’s a difference between me and my daughter. I get paid to do what I do—pretty well, in fact. My dissociative states are going to put her dissociative states through college.”

And that was the end of my talk with the social worker.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a sun sculpture on the side of a house in Mendocino, California, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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