Vaccination and Other Metaphors

Catherine Lacey

Winter 2019

They must have seemed crazy—the first person to have done it. It must have seemed like a death wish, a sad madness, a suicide. I don’t mean the first person to decide to write a novel, but the first person to give themselves a vaccination.

Consider it. In order to protect ourselves from a disease, we inject ourselves with that disease. Of all the counterintuitive aspects of modernity, this must be one of the more grotesque, and yet we’ve learned to see it as unremarkable, quotidian.

Imagine if we took this approach in other situations. To escape a burning building, run deeper into the flames. To stave off an allergic reaction, bathe in the allergen. And yet we expose ourselves to mumps to avoid mumps, measles for measles, and every flu season there’s a new permutation of the influenza vaccine, as the virus cracks our codes year after year.

Similarly, a well-deployed delusion vaccinates the committed writer from the disease of total delusion. The same goes for loneliness, and also for anguish.

In her essay “My Vocation,” the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg argues that writing is not a way to shield oneself from grief. “Because,” she writes,

. . . this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.

The delusion that a writing practice is an external entity that will abuse us into our truths is a vaccination against the delusion that we are ever in total control of our work.

I have this problem with craft talks, which is that between the moment I agree to give one and the moment I actually deliver it, I change my mind about everything I thought I believed was true about the mystery of the writing process. This often means that the day before I give a talk I have to throw out all my notes and make up something else, which inevitably leads to a moment during the talk when a sense of insecurity creeps in; I cannot help but fear that tomorrow I will disagree with every word I am saying now.

This is neither a sustainable nor a responsible approach to the task of telling an audience something I’ve learned about writing, or my aesthetic theories or methods, or what I make of the enigmas of literature, but the truth is that I am always in an argument with myself, and writing is the stage for that argument. Perhaps that’s why I’m better suited for fiction than anything else, and perhaps that’s why attempting to say something definitive about craft is particularly difficult for me; I am not in the habit of being in total agreement with the writer I was last month. Craft is always motile, molten, subject to change.

Every time I’ve written anything true, I wrote it while standing on unsteady ground. I wrote it while simultaneously asking myself what writing is, what reading is, what the utility of any text in a reader’s life is, and how a manuscript might function within a writer’s life at the moment of its creation. How can the needs of the writer (who is only one person) intersect with the needs of the reader, who is theoretically infinite?

However, the problem of the craft talk remains. There must be some way, I thought, to come up with at least a few statements about fiction that I’ll still believe by the time a season has passed. This question set off an internal argument, which eventually reached a fragile resolution: I can consent to making a statement about craft if I am allowed to do so obliquely rather than directly. But first, a somewhat admonitory tale.

When I was writing what I erroneously believed would be my first book, a work of nonfiction, I read a book that seemed to do everything I wanted to do with mine, albeit with a very different subject. I decided to dissect this perfect book like a frog in high-school science class. I analyzed it, broke it down into constituent parts, diagrammed sentences, pages, paragraphs, and made graphs of how the mood and plot flowed from page to page.

Two things happened as a result of this experiment. The first was that my adoration of the book was replaced by a more distant sense of respect—I had seen how the sausage was made. The second was that I came to see the book I was attempting to write as essentially impossible to finish. It is no great tragedy that I spent a few years writing a book that I ultimately decided I was then unfit to write, but had I been truly ready to complete that book, comparing my still-unsettled project so intensely to a book that was utterly static and complete would certainly not have been the right tactic. (Something worth telling a child (and therefore worth telling anyone): “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”) The hours were not wasted just because they did not accomplish what I thought I was trying to accomplish.

These days, when writing is going well or when I read something I believe to be ideal, I am hesitant to stomp too heavily around whatever it is I suspect to be at work within those words. A good piece of prose is a card castle—I don’t even want to sneeze within twenty feet of it.

There it is again—a metaphor that says something more specifically by addressing the subject indirectly. It seems to me that everything useful I know about writing or living (which are, by the way, the same thing) comes through metaphor. That is, I’ve learned the most, changed the most, written the most complete work, and thought the most useful thoughts precisely when I wasn’t trying to learn or change or work or think—when an idea sneaks in through the Trojan horse of an image.

This is not to say that hard work and intention don’t play a significant role, but rather, that the moments in which all those years of effort and reading and practice coalesce into something greater tend to arise when a writer is loose on her feet, like a boxer ready to both attack and react at once. A good metaphor is satisfying because it contains a complete story, and when that story is wrapped into a metaphor, the absorption of the idea within that story is easy, immediate, and—at its best—a thrill. With this in mind, I have composed this essay with a series of seemingly disparate metaphors about craft.

>One of the most lasting discussions I had with my editor about my first novel was not about character development or syntax or plot. It was about house music. We talked about how in a piece of repetitive electronic music there are moments in which one pattern gets established, then another pattern is introduced over it, then a third pattern is set down perpendicular to the first two, then after a while the bass might drop out or one of the patterns might fall apart, and the whole song shifts in that turn. When a musical repetition is fully established, the breaking of that repetition evokes a feeling of epiphany.

Through this metaphor, I knew exactly what Eric was referring to in my manuscript without the embarrassment of actually scrutinizing each word of a chapter or paragraph. Talking about my novel was so much easier if we were talking about German electro.

Since we never stop learning how to live, we never stop learning how to write, and since we never stop learning how to write, teaching writing is never a one-sided endeavor. It’s a cliché that teaching others is a way to teach yourself, and it’s a cliché because it’s completely and unremarkably true. And even if you are not currently employed as a teacher, you are still, at least, every day teaching yourself how to live (and how to write). To that end, various pedagogical techniques can be self-administered, and when it comes to teaching creative writing internally or professionally, you can learn almost everything you need to know from professional cult deprogrammers.

When an extracted cult member undergoes an intervention, the cult deprogrammer always begins their work from a place of compassion. No matter what outrageous things the cult member may think or say or believe, the deprogrammer shows no sign of outrage. This is critical. If the former cult member believes they are being attacked or judged, they will go on the defensive, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince a person to lower their guard after it has been raised. A good deprogrammer will patiently ask questions designed to allow the cult member to find their own path of logic away from the cult. They will provide information that cuts a window in the insular belief system the cult has built around its members.

Catherine Lacey is the author of The Answers and Nobody Is Ever Missing. She has won a Whiting Award, was a finalist for the NYPL's Young Lions Fiction Award, and was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. “Family Physics” is part of her first short story collection, Certain American States, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August 2018.

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