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Burnt Girl


Blanche McCrary Boyd

Words are abstractions and dreams defy description, so what we call creative writing is contradictory at its core. Language is an analytical tool that comes from the part of the brain where math and abstract thinking originate, but stories and images come from the side of the brain where dreams live.

Words frame what we see and attempt to describe how we experience the world, but they are crude devices. A simple phrase like Move that table might mean Push that table away, or it might mean Knock that table over, or even Slide it carefully. And that table might be an art deco coffee table or an ornate dining table that seats 12 or something small with a little lamp on it. Any writer is always forced to summarize and abstract, and who knows what that author thinks she’s conjuring? Was the table even wood? Maybe it was glass.

Images and stories arise from the dreaming part of the brain, and most dreams occur during sleep. Dreams dislocate what we experience while we are conscious (whatever consciousness is), and it is impossible to translate dreams accurately into language. Haven’t you ever waked up in the morning and tried to tell your dream to the person beside you? They are bored and you are frustrated because what has played through your mind is now trying to slip back into unconsciousness. Maybe you’ve tried to write your dream down. You might capture fragments, but dreams don’t occur in words. The words alter your dreams, make them into something else. In you’re writing in English, it’s all done with 26 letters and a space bar. Just a bunch of marks.

(There are exceptions to these generalizations. I know because when I was 23 years old and just starting to write fiction, I awoke one morning shouting, ‘Lena slept and sleeping dreamed. She dreamed that the world dissolved, leaving only its colors!’ I leaped from my bed and scribbled onto a piece of paper what became the opening lines of my first novel, Nerves, a book that is now mercifully out of print.)

My consciousness is flimsy. I live much of the time in a stream of words and images that can easily overrule my sensory perceptions. I often forget where I am, nor do I care, and right now I can’t even hear, unless I choose to, a workman in my bathroom chipping a hole in a cement wall with a very loud drill.

Consciousness is a twig floating atop the deep river of perception, and creative writing requires me to thrust my hands repeatedly into that river, trying to catch living fish. Whether I find anything useful or not, it is precious to me to stare down into that river. I’m 78 years old, and I’ve managed to write five novels, only three of which I think are good. Each book took a very long time because I experience my work as something that already exists, and I try to locate it, seize it word by word, image by image, sentence by sentence.

Oliver Sacks, a brilliant neurologist and science historian, studied several subjects born blind who then had their sight restored. These people never learn to see ‘correctly.’ That is, they did not learn to see the way those of us who are sighted from birth do. What they saw instead was a mess of perceptions, of colors and lights and darkness that rarely organized itself according to what we might call the rules of perspective. For these blind and newly sighted subjects, objects appeared neither near nor far but were jumbled and strange, and to orient themselves, the newly sighted had to fall back onto techniques they were familiar with, like touch and hearing.

Even people who lose one eye lose their depth perception, because the brain is so busy measuring the distances from each eye and making furious calculations. (Who knew the brain had this extraordinary skill? Could we bring it to consciousness?) My own depth perception is functional - I see objects as well as anyone who wears trifocals - but I am often called ‘distracted’ because my eyes want to watch 180 degrees, and what fascinates me most is my peripheral vision. This can, of course, be problematic. Luckily, driving a car is mostly body memory.

Recently I was the speaker at a New Year’s Eve Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (I’m 42 years clean and sober) and, in describing how I, who had formerly considered myself a very bad-ass lesbian character, ended up having children and driving a minivan, said, “Before I met my wife, I had accomplished the things I had set out to do: I’d written books I thought were good, I had job security, a wonderful place to live, and money in the bank. I hadn’t understood yet that there was a gaping, bleeding hole in my heart, and I was stunned to fall in love (whatever falling in love is), but the prospect of a life without this woman I met seemed empty and too painful to contemplate. And when Leslie decided she wanted to have a child whether I was on board with her plan or not, I realized I had to change. So I gave up my wonderful place to live, accompanied her to artificial insemination sessions, learned to give her hormone shots, and before I could genuinely grasp what was happening, we had twins and were living in a big house with a big mortgage and that damn minivan.

For the next 15 years I stopped writing. I had to learn to focus on the external world, or to focus better, since I never got very good at it. I hadn’t understood how much hard work would be involved in keeping those little fuckers alive, child-proofing the house, trying to feed them, change their diapers, get them to sleep, check on them in the middle of the night over and over to see: Are they okay? Are they still breathing? We were both so exhausted and happy. I was still working full-time, and sometimes I’d stop in a parking lot on the way home to cry and read The New York Times.

Once, when the kids were about 4, I fell asleep on the sofa when I was supposed to be watching them, and they drew all over me with Magic Markers. Even my face. Leslie was worried by this lapse, but nothing bad had happened, and the kids thought it was hilarious. I did too.

When the children were around 12, one of my tasks became driving them to school, a distance of only 4 miles. One morning my son, now tall enough to sit in the front seat beside me, said sadly, “Oh Mom, I wanted to see if you could drive us correctly 10 times in a row, but this is only number 7, and you just went past our turn.”

Consciousness drifts over the chaos of perception, but it is necessary if we are to navigate the world. I still miss a lot of turns.

The children are 24 years old now and well-launched into their own lives, and I’m spending most of this winter alone in a house in the Caribbean, trying to remember who I am, when I am not accountable to anyone else.

It turns out that I am still a writer.

Not long after speaking at that AA meeting on New Year’s Eve I went to a women’s meeting here on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico. We were gathering on a beach named Gallito and sitting in beach chairs we bring with us on the narrow band of sand between the ocean and the road. There were 6 of us this morning, and we had to shout to hear each other clearly over the sound of the surf.

Maybe it was the lulling roar of the water that caused that image of the gaping, bleeding hole in my heart to reappear. I suddenly missed Leslie with an awful anguish, and then I was amazed, because as I sat there, I saw, in my imagination, my heart gushing blood through the hole, so much blood, until the flow slowed and turned into a black tarlike trickle.

AA provides a safe and confidential space, so when my turn came to shout over the roaring surf, I shared - do wonder when we started to call speaking ‘sharing’ - this experience that had just occurred and said that images like this sometimes happen to me that seem fascinatingly vivid and, although I am sometimes frightened by them, I cultivate and cherish them. And after my bleeding heart emptied itself, I felt good again about spending these months away from my wife.

But a bleeding heart? Really, that is so corny.

Because there were so few of us, I spoke more than the usual 3 minutes. I described to these women how, after I was 5 or 6 years sober, a series of imaginary children began to appear in my peripheral vision. Because I welcomed them, I started to see them in more detail. The first was a chubby girl, maybe 8 years old, with greasy, stringy blond hair. She was blind and walked with a cane, tapping it in front of her. I was driving past her and stopped my car. Uninvited, she climbed into my back seat. I saw that her blindness had been a trick. Her eyes were gray and awful. I’m your appetites, and you’ll never get away from me.

My appetites? Such a ham-handed line. Couldn’t my unconscious be a bit subtler?

The shrink I had been seeing was uneasy – maybe she wondered if I was developing schizophrenia - so I found a different shrink. You’re not hallucinating, this wonderful man said. If you were hallucinating, you’d believe these figures are real. Your imagination is bringing you visions. It’s a gift.

Talk louder, one of the women on the beach interjected. We need to hear this!

The next child who had appeared resembled me, but her hair was styled into ringlets like the Little Lulu character in my childhood comics. She was as chubby as the other one, but she stood with her chest thrust proudly forward. She was wearing a little red, white, and blue Supergirl suit, and she had tied a white bath towel around her neck as a cape. She did not speak but looked happy to see me.

The next child lay on a wooden floor. Her body was covered with gleaming silver louvers, and her breathing was harsh, labored, threatening. When I tried to touch her, the louvers popped up, and I realized that they were razors.

I see how you get seduced by your own imagination,the wonderful shrink said.

Several other children appeared, but the most significant one I found was stored in the trunk of my car. She had been wrapped in bandages like a mummy, and when I unwrapped her, I saw that she was heavily covered with burn scars. She should have been dead. Watch me, watch me, she said.And she spun round and round until she turned into a cone of light.

There’s a lot more I could say about these imaginary children. They appeared significantly in the first good novel I produced, and after that book was done the kids faded from my life, except for the one who looks like Little Lulu and wears that towel tied around her neck like a Supergirl cape. Sometimes I can still glance over and catch sight of her sitting beside me while I’m driving. I wish she didn’t wear her hair like that, but I don’t say so.

After telling the AA women about these imagined children, I suddenly realized how cruel I had been, to keep that burnt girl hidden in the trunk. What could I have been thinking? So, as other women in the group began to address the importance and vitality of their own imaginations, I lifted this child out of the metaphorical trunk and held her to my chest. I’m so sorry, I prayed. I didn’t realize how badly you were hurt. I was thrilled by your light, and I wasn’t thinking. Please forgive me.

One of the women in the group noticed tears forming in my eyes but I shook my head that I was fine.

Terrible things can happen to children, we all know that, and maybe something actual happened to me, or maybe it did not. My shrink thinks that whatever happened, it occurred before I could speak, and maybe he’s right, or maybe I am, and I just made it all up. It doesn’t matter. We know that a single blade of grass can crack a sidewalk, but under that sidewalk the single blade is connected to enormous webs of experience. For human beings, Carl Jung called this the collective unconscious. As I grieve for the burnt girl, she pulls a piece of scar tissue from her shoulder, and I am stunned once again by her brilliant light.

broken image

Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist, essayist, and professor. Her most recent novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 2019. Find more of her writing at The Redneck Way of Knowledge: Redux.

Art is James Turrell. Of course.

Brian's Dreams Began Responsibilities Playlist

Words ::: The Bee Gees

Burned ::: Buffalo Springfield

Dreams so Real ::: Gary Burton Quintet

Dreamsville ::: Henry Mancini

Children of Darkness ::: Richard & Mimi Farina

Calling our Children Home ::: Emmylou Harris

Imaginations ::: The Quotations