More like this

Two hands rest in soapy bathwater.

Image: Canva.

There was an email I needed to send. The email had attached to it a short story, and the short story had a character in it that resembled my friend. I wanted my friend to see the story before I sent it out. Maybe it took too much from our real lives and conversations, or maybe I had inadvertently rendered us both monstrous or revealed something she would want kept private. There was a deadline. I had been meaning to send the email for more than a week. And here I was, sitting with my laptop open. The last light had left the sky hours ago, leaving the screen light the brightest point in the room. It washed out the walls and the furniture, my face: all bluish and terrible.

I was trying to, as my therapist recommended, accurately identify my feelings in the moment I was feeling them. I was afraid, I thought. I was panicking. It made no sense. I had sent my friend many pieces of writing and many of them had similar fragments of our conversations and memories. She had been in the fabric of my essays since almost the beginning. Some okay, some terrible—filled with cliché and self-pity. But I never hesitated. I hit send with glee, flush from the high of finishing something. This sensation was new: shame. It was in the stomach. I closed the laptop and sat in the now real darkness. The shame intensified—working its way up the throat.

The difference between this and the other writing? This was the only time I tried to send her fiction. Fiction was the thing that left me collapsed on the floor.

*

There are two types of fiction writers I have met. One sends stories often, and with confidence. An old housemate was like this: fine with sending a draft to anyone. He slept on his back, his bed facing his door and his door often left wide open throughout the whole night. I’d walk past his room to find him splayed out and snoring, chest totally exposed to the world.

Fiction was the thing that left me collapsed on the floor.

And I am thinking about another writer I know: the other kind. She had sent me a beautiful story. I had only a few notes—errors in continuity, one image that was slightly unclear. Sorry for sending you this, she said, sitting across from me. Sorry, it’s so unfinished. I’m sorry. She kept touching her hair, fixing strands that had not come loose. I thought she was going to cry.

*

The story was set during a rainy summer. The summer we were in was even rainier. More rain than the characters, or I, could ever have predicted. The characters are like us, but they are not us. Their names are not our names, their temperaments are not our temperaments. They live in an apartment we never lived in, though some of the furniture does belong to us. Most of their conversations and memories are fabricated—things I stole from long Reddit posts, or that just appeared in the way sentences sometimes do—but a couple of them are real, or close to real.

One of the real things is a video of two slugs having sex that my friend and I really watched together one night. It was one of the rainy nights, and the rain was so heavy the dip in the steps at the front of our house had overfilled and started to seep into our hallway. The video was narrated by David Attenborough, with two slugs twisting their protruding penises around each other and beginning to glow. They were too entwined and too throbbing. I wanted to look away, but didn’t. Even rewatching it now, I find it difficult. Maybe it’s that the slugs are so unaware of what is around them. How vulnerable they have to be so they can be with one another. The cruelty of their sex being narrated with ‘each slug passes a package of sperm to the other’. But the slugs don’t care. They can’t perceive the camera or what it means, and maybe if they could, they wouldn’t care anyway.

‘Maybe it’s vicarious embarrassment,’ said a friend. ‘You get embarrassed imagining their embarrassment.’

She is also new to fiction, has had similar and intense feelings of shame.

‘I am very sensitive,’ I said.

‘I am such an empath.’ She was being funny.

‘Maybe I am,’ I said.

‘Oh yeah? Then what am I feeling right now?’

I pretended to focus intensely, to receive some kind of signal.

‘Jealous,’ I said. ‘Of my extraordinary empathy.’

*

These last years I had been obsessed with reading fiction that have writers’ diaries or memoirs of the same or similar source material. Texts that allow a tracing, from one to the other and back. Annie Ernaux, Helen Garner, Lucia Berlin, and even Franz Kafka. When I read like this, both texts together, it’s watching the process of fictionalising—how the writer converts memory to story. What becomes salient, what falls away. How time dilates and contracts around a moment and what this says about the moment, the space it occupies in the writer’s emotional landscape. It is the most intimate way to read that I know of.

Maybe shame is good, maybe it is useful.

The intimacy between fiction and shame. Intimacy: a word about closeness, and about privacy. About fucking or not quite fucking, about everything except fucking. I have written essays about fucking, and I have written fiction with no fucking in it at all. And which of these makes me want to close my laptop and walk unrepentantly into the sea?

Maybe shame is good, maybe it is useful. Maybe a certain kind of writer needs to feel more ashamed. Is that the secret great writers have in common—a capacity to find intense shame motivating instead of paralysing?

I know: if it’s so bad, just stop. Just stop writing fiction. No-one is saying: Please, we need more fiction. Please, we are hungry—please, we are starving—starving for more fiction!!!

*

There is only one story I had ever shared in a workshop. There was a couple in it, based on a couple I had overheard fighting on a bus driving from London to Oxford, very late at night. They were trying to whisper. I heard, You always—It’s like you can’t even—Don’t do this on a bus! At that time, I was in a tangle of new love. Move-across-the-world-for-you kind of love, though I am now less convinced by such gestures. When it was time to give feedback, a classmate raised her hand.

‘Your boyfriend is overbearing’, she said. ‘You are clearly suffocating.’

‘It’s not my boyfriend.’

‘Oh’, she said.

‘It’s fiction.’

‘Well’, she said. ‘Okay.’

Two months later I was screaming at my boyfriend that I was suffocating, that I needed him to leave.

A Freudian interpretation: writing as wish fulfilment—as the subconscious asserting its desires in ways obvious to any reader, but invisible to the writer, who believes they are crafting something imagined. Is there anything more embarrassing?

*

In an interview, Ben Lerner talks about how he gave his characters elements from his life. His apartment, for example. Lines from his poems. But then he says he thinks it is possible to write from experiences you didn’t have. This is still autobiographical writing, ‘because the experiences you don’t have are experienced negatively in the experiences you do’.

A Freudian interpretation…Is there anything more embarrassing?

This difference is the difference between memory and a dream. Dreams processing things that never happened, drawn from images and situations that did. Reconfiguring them so they are unfamiliar. And in this reconfiguration suggesting an emotional truth. Some sort of truth. Mostly, I don’t know why I put things in the stories I write. Images appear. Patterns emerge as though from vapour. It becomes obvious later—through being attuned to the ways strange resonances impose themselves on a text.

This is what makes fiction embarrassing, for me: it requires inviting someone into a story, letting them into that time of night where the mind is porous, opening into sleep. They can walk in and feel around, reach out and touch objects, wonder why some things are so outsized, see things I did not intend to be seen.

*

They said La Niña was ending, and then La Niña had ended. The deadline was closer. I thought about not sending the email, not sending the story out. Deleting all evidence and moving on with my life. For a moment, this brought real relief. But those weeks revealed something else was happening: it was no longer just this story, just this email. I was working on a novel, and every sentence felt like an apology. The draft was me turning in on myself, looping back. I wrote and wrote and somehow the novel was disappearing.

Annie Ernaux: ‘Naturally I feel no shame in writing these things’. In her novella Simple Passion, she explains the dissipation of shame. For her, indignity is provisional—something that only exists in the moment someone reads her work. And that moment may never come. ‘This delay makes it possible for me to write today, in the same way I used to lie in the scorching sun for a whole day at sixteen, or make love without contraceptives at twenty: without thinking about the consequences.’ A seductive premise.

But I am not so good at separating the writing from the being read, or letting my shame dissipate. Maybe I like the risk, subconsciously yearn for consequences. Fiction and shame: the way they twist around each other, pulsating and glowing and procreating, more shame and more fiction, more and more and more.

The deadline. The deadline: one day away, and the shame had spread to everything. I was lying on the floor. If I had gotten up and looked outside, I would have seen the moon, and to its left a satellite, and would have written this image down, to be used in something later. But I was busy on the floor, running through my many and multiple failures. I had deleted the last words of the novel. I had hoped it would be a relief.

Maybe, I thought, the relief was still coming. Maybe I would never feel embarrassed again.