Sometime last year, I flipped open a book I knew nothing about that had been recommended by a Twitter acquaintance. The book was Lidia Yuknavitch's 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, and if a rawer, more honest contemporary author exists, I have yet to encounter her. I felt myself circling further and further away from the little coffee shop I sat in and into a rebel galaxy where the rules — in life and in writing — no longer seemed to apply. Several hours later, I was still reading, hot-glued to my seat.
From her time as a would-be Olympic swimmer to college dropout and onward, Yuknavitch chronicles a ferocious life; she has a creative irreverence and a willingness to expose the ugliest self-truths that will jolt you long after the last page. She has two "epically failed marriages" and "two brief but lovely staycations in jail." But her most gutting experience arrives when her daughter dies on the day she is born. In a state of what she describes as "zombie grief," Yuknavitch lives homeless, beneath an underpass. The resilience of water to take on new shapes becomes the metaphorical thread weaving together this patchwork tale of love and loss, womanhood and willpower. Whenever I feel afraid to take risks in my own work, bumping up against the truth rather than just telling it, I return to her writing for courage and reinforcement.
Primarily a novelist — Chronology was followed up by Dora: The Headcase and The Small Backs of Children — Yuknavitch has emerged as a trailblazing literary voice that spans genres and dives deep into themes of gender, sexuality, art, violence, and transcendence. Her work is a refreshing alternative to the hero's journey, offering instead what she calls the "misfit's journey."
Over a crackly phone connection, I spoke with Lidia about her wayward path to writing, sex, suffering, art, and the beauty of sticking out in a crowd.
Suleika Jaouad: In The Chronology of Water, you wrote: "Aspiration gets stuck in some people. It's difficult to think yes. Or up." When did that absence of hope hit you the hardest?
Lidia Yuknavitch: When my daughter died on the day she was born, a traditional definition of hope was sucked out of my body. I'm not saying I'm proud of this, but it just happened. For me, what became important was learning to breathe again in a way that used regular air. The word aspiration has a breathing sense to it. It dawned on me that we have to breathe and to find reasons to stay alive on our own terms. Sometimes that doesn't come from what we've been told our whole lives.
I believe in art the way other people believe in God. I'm not trying to make a tricky sentence. It's just true. I have found reasons to breathe again by living in communities of people who choose self-expression over self-destruction. It's another way to form hope, without hierarchizing it so that you're looking up toward a God, or someone smarter or more famous than you are. It's a lateral definition of hope where you just need each other, and you need to stand up and not leave each other hanging.
SJ: I think a lot about how much pressure there is to be someone who "suffers well." There's a mythology surrounding the "survivor's story" that can be inspiring to some but can make others feel like they're suffering the wrong way.
LY: Boy, I hate that narrative so hard, to be honest. The truth is, suffering sucks and it can take you to a place of wanting to kill yourself, and there's nothing beautiful about that. Suffering is not beautiful. Suffering, from my point of view, is about a real place in a real body where you face the other side of living. How you choose to understand that story probably determines how you're going to live the rest of your life. I feel kindred with fellow sufferers, and I don't ever want to romanticize the story of suffering, because then you're just playing into making it a good story or a sellable story for a culture.
SJ: You've had an unusual path when it comes to school and education. How important was it for you to study writing in a classroom setting?
LY: Oh, this is a terrible answer! In some ways, it wasn't important at all for me to study writing in a classroom. Since I teach writing in classrooms, that's a weird thing to say, but I flunked out of college, I'll just say, more than two times. It wasn't anything to do with college — it was me. It was an inability to sit still and to have a reason to be there. Until I had a reason, I really wasn't listening or engaged in any way. I just thought it was something people made you do when you hit a certain age. What brought me back to college was feeling engaged by literature and realizing it was a world I could inhabit. From that day forward, I was hungry, and I loved everything about being in college.
I think if you want to write, you should write. What path or what form that takes is incredibly individual. If you're an artist and you're searching for forms of self-expression, you have to invent your own path. My life experiences, if you wrote them down on a list, look a little crooked, and who cares?
SJ: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
LY: I think compared to some people it was kind of late. I didn't consider myself a writer until my writing came back and bit me in the ass. I experienced some serious grief and trauma and even psychosis when my daughter died in 1986. One of the things that came out of me during that period of time was a bunch of gibberish writing in notepads, written in really tiny letters, Ted Kaczynski–style. Later, when I got help and some more stability in my life, I looked back in the notebooks, and embedded within the gibberish was some storytelling. I could see it, and I liked it. [Later this would become the material for The Chronology of Water.]
I really didn't stand up and say, "I'm doing this thing. I like this. It's good," until I was somewhere between 26 and 30, but maybe stories always lived in me. My mother was very good at telling "fictions," so maybe it was already genetically coded in me. I have no idea. I was not a person who dreamed of being a writer in the same way that people say when they were little they did. I didn't have that. It emerged for me during a period of crisis. I do feel grateful that I was awake enough to see it and step into it, because I'm really not very good at anything else.
SJ: You write with so much rawness and honesty about your life, but I'm interested in the experiences you touch on but choose not to delve into, like the specifics of your father's abuse and your relationship to drugs and alcohol. How do you decide what to write and not write about?
LY: You don't have to read very far into my writing to find those things, but you won't find them literally represented. There's no scene of actual sexual abuse by my father in my writing. On the other hand, that sort of paternal sexual violence is threaded through every word I write. It's as if it's in the language. It's in my habit of being. It's a structure of my consciousness.
You don't have to always name the explicitness or literalness of a thing to represent the essence of it to a reader or listener. That's the reason poetry works and it's the reason painting works. It's not explicit. It's figurative, and it gives you the whole soul-body experience without naming it in a literal sentence. I think the work of art is to push for that so that the reader feels it in their body to be true, whether or not the explicit sentence is there. That's how I work with material, but I am filled with respect and enthusiasm for people who also represent it explicitly.
SJ: In your most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, you talk about art as a means of expression but also about how it can be a destructive force. What are we doing when we make art?
LY: Oh my God! I've spent my life asking that question. What's important to me is to struggle with the question you just asked. If you stop struggling with that question, then I think you've missed the opportunity to truly engage with what it means to make art.
Let's see, how do I want to say this without offending the entire universe? I do think it's a good time historically, and maybe it's always been a good time, to ask ourselves why we make what we make. I am least compelled by representations that serve capitalism, and I am most compelled by representations that engage with and struggle with questions of who we are and why we're here and what in the hell we've done to the world and each other. I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive. I think there can be art that makes money and serves the human culture and this planet we're on. It's not enough to just make beautiful things and put them in the world, from my point of view.
SJ: I think of you as someone who rejects tidy narratives and who doesn't seem to care about the rules. I'm curious about where your outlaw spirit comes from.
LY: If there's one phrase that I should probably tattoo on my forehead it is this: "I'm not the story you made of me." The more people I can convince to hold that mantra, the more I'll have been of good use in my life. We don't have to accept the stories we inherit, the ones that tell us who we're supposed to be. We can stand up and say no at any point, even if we've been saying yes our entire lives. It's never too late. We can always reject the story placed on top of us, and we can always revise and destroy one story and restore another. It's a never-ending possibility.
SJ: It seems almost impossible to write a sex scene without clichés. In what ways are you interested in changing the script about how we write about sex and sexuality?
LY: I think the worst lie of all that we've inherited about our own bodies is that the stories of sexuality and sexual identity are already written. The reality is, we haven't even finished figuring out who we are yet as a species — let alone what to do with our bodies. For me, sexuality is a whole terrain or territory that you explore your entire life, from birth to dirt. We've yet to even begin to liberate the full story lines of our bodies.
I don't sit in my office and go, "I'm going to write a really cool sex scene." I hope we leave behind forever the idea of the sex scene on page 49, which is a market invention. If you want to write an excellent sex scene, you have to liberate it from the idea of a sex scene. Like I was saying before about violence, you have to thread sexuality through every part of a character or a person's life, rather than limiting it to a titillating few pages where something juicy happens. You have to understand that sexuality is omnipresent in your body — your entire life.
SJ: What are your best words of advice for fellow misfits and aspiring writers?
LY: I'm trying to help us remember that we invent our own beauty and our own paths and our own crooked, weird ways of doing things, but that they're not nothing and they matter, too. We're the half of culture that doesn't take the paths that are sitting right in front of us. Our song may be a little off-key, but it's a kind of beauty, too. I know I'm not the person who thought that up, and I'm not the person who invented that as a truth, but I can sure stand up and help remind us not to give up, that we have a song, too.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Suleika Jaouad is a writer and the New York Times' "Life, Interrupted" columnist. For more of her adventures, on and off the road, follow her @suleikajaouad.