Uncategorized | October 17, 2016

Today, the Missouri Review presents another installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Silas Dent Zobal, whose fiction has appeared twice in TMR. 

For months, I’ve been keeping a Log of Misapprehension. I’m cataloging instances in which I seriously misjudge the substantive physical world. I don’t keep track of all the little things (like misheard phrases or the misperception of color). Why am I doing this? I think it’s because I’m interested in the ways I/we apprehend our world. And also because I’m interested in the way that writers lead their readers to apprehend worlds that don’t exist. I’d like to share two of my log entries with you. The first I’ll call “The Burning Bush,” the second “A Pillar of Earth.”

The Burning Bush

Driving on the highway at dusk in Pennsylvania, I see a fire on the side of the road. There is this billowing smoke. It’s a grand thing, both gorgeous and threatening. But as I get closer, one apprehension gives way to another. The fire becomes a yellow-flowered shrub in the golden hour. The billowing smoke becomes an oddly-shaped cloud. As I move forward, the fire and the smoke separate and go their own ways.

I’ve been suspicious of the material world ever since I was a kid. Do you share my suspicion? Sometimes I’ve thought: the physical world is a brilliant work of fiction told (partly in an act of collective storytelling, and partly as an individual act) with significant variation by each of us. Do you think that’s right? Or do you think it’s wrong? (At this moment, you are likely telling one of those two stories to yourself.) What I’m about to say might seem hyperbolic, but every narrative decision—right or wrong, girl or boy, rich or poor, etcetera—is an act of unavoidable violence. It makes me imagine splitting a log with an axe.

Or let’s imagine, instead, a family story reduced to a single line. Here it is. My great great grandfather, an ill-tempered Norwegian, hit my great grandfather with an axe. It’s a true story. In its telling, I’ve never been given a reason for this violence. Over time, I’ve come to think that the story’s moral is: there isn’t any reason. Or, there can be no reason to hit a child with an axe, but that people hit children with axes anyway. What effect did this event have on my grandmother? And then, too, on my mom? I don’t know. But I do know that thinking about my family’s violence makes me uncomfortably aware that everything I say has been shaped by a past that I have no real chance of communicating to you.

But I’d like to take a stab at it. So: As a kid, my life was sometimes hard. Or my life was hard for a kid who had, unbeknownst to himself, a lot of built-in privileges. (These privileges, the context that provides them, and their ramifications are subjects for another time.) Right now I’d like to give a few snapshots of my early hardships.

On Our Early Poverty

My family was poor. We didn’t have enough money for food, but we had food stamps and visited food banks. What I’d like to tell you about is my self-consciousness. I remember the shame of having old clothes, often donated or cast-offs picked up from churches. My brother and I were dirty and ragged, our pants and shirts a mess of holes. Does that seem trivial? It is, I think, but its triviality didn’t lessen the sting. When I see what few photos remain of those days, there we are still: desperate, dirty kids with lopsided bowl cuts, twice patched pants with fresh holes at the knees, grass-stained elbows, and coats out of 1970s dumpsters. Isn’t it funny how the trivial stings? What kind of misapprehension is this? (Is it, as it seems, the avoidance of other, thornier issues?)

Here’s a question: How many examples of my life’s difficulties do I need to show you to give a sense of how hardship shapes the world? When I was small I understood, given the parameters of my life, that opportunity was rare, deprivation constant, and violence commonplace—each family perpetually on the edge of its next catastrophe. (And this, it must be said, is true. I can still see how it must be. But does it make sense to you when I say that, given the generosity of my present, I also see now how it is not true at all?)

On Our Violence

My parents often fought. I mean fought physically. I remember my mom being pushed/falling down the stairs. I remember bruises and scabs on my dad’s face. Their fistfights carried, sometimes, into the yard and out onto the street. The police came and things usually calmed quickly. If they didn’t, one of the two of them was taken away.

If we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t we more interesting when we fail than when we succeed?

A Pillar of Earth

At my home in ridge-and-valley Pennsylvania, I walk the same country loop every day. I take my dogs with me. We walk by farms and fields and cows—swallows in the evening and bats at night. Last spring on this walk, just past the farm where I buy beef and milk, I looked through a scrim of brush toward the field on a rising hill. I saw a towering mound of dirt. So huge it was impossible really. It took me longer than it should have to sort out that there wasn’t a mound of dirt. There was a newly plowed stripe of dirt running up the hill. (In my part of Pennsylvania, we’re partial to strip farming.) The tilled earth of this strip stood out, darker than the dirt around it. Imagine it. Just a dark stripe running up a hill. My eyes should have seen this in the way we interpret railroad track, or roads, running into the distance until the tracks converge into the vanishing point. But instead of reading distance in a strip of earth becoming smaller, my mind read it as rising.

My Log of Misapprehension has had one distinct effect. It’s made me tenderly aware of how often, and how quickly, my view of the world changes. What I’ve seen, or thought I’ve seen, has often been an illusion. And of course the writer, too, is interested in the creation of illusion. Narrative and description are a single kind of magic trick—a sleight of mind, so to speak—in which we deliver a few details—an ash-handled ax, a burning bush, a bloodied lip—designed to elicit a reader to summon person and place and narrative possibility where none exist.

On Our Insobriety

It’s too complicated to explain, in this short space (or in any space), my parents’ substance abuse. But I’ll try, with a few details, to inadequately sum the unsummable. (Is that maybe part of what fiction does, too?) So before my mom stopped drinking, she went through a phase in which she slept every afternoon. Before she’d go to sleep, she’d ask me to wake her at some appointed time. Later, when I went to wake her, she’d hit me. I don’t think she knew it was me. What did she see from her vantage point in those moments? What did she see when she looked at me? Whatever it was, I learned to duck. To run if she came after me. To lock myself in my room. And I thought it was scary, sure, but I thought it was funny, too. Still do.

In his poem “The Descent,” William Carlos Williams writes, “Memory is a kind / of accomplishment, / a sort of renewal / even / an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places.”

What makes the memory of mom hitting me less funny, at least on the back end, is that it carries with it the memory of my mom having a series of strokes, staying in the hospital for fifty-four days, and dying. I was twenty-four. Mom was in, as the neurologist said, a “semi-vegetative state.” She moved in and out of consciousness. She could think but she couldn’t move. Or she could sometimes move her left big toe. And she could control her blinking, at least a little. So when we “talked,” one blink meant yes, and two blinks meant no. It was a little like this: Can you hear me, mom? Yes. Your lips are dry. Yes. Are you in any pain? No. Are you glad I’m here? Yes. Do you understand what’s happened? Yes. That you had five strokes? Yes. I love you, mom. Yes. Do you need anything? Yes. Oh, okay. You want some ChapStick? No. A friend? You want to see a friend? No. One of the nurses? No. Should I stay here with you again tonight? Yes. You want to go to sleep? No. Do you want a blanket? No. Should I close the blinds? No. No.

Years ago I copied down lines from the mathematical physicist Henry Stapp. He wrote: “If the attitude of quantum mechanics is correct, in the strong sense that a description of the substructure underlying experience more complete than the one it provides is not possible, then there is no substantive physical, in the usual sense of this term. The conclusion here is not the weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world.”

Do I believe this? God, what I wouldn’t give for the simplicity of right or wrong, yes or no, dead or alive. (Here’s an answer: my head knows that it’s true. But my heart knows that it isn’t.) What stuns me is the flexibility of interpretation. That is, the details of the world are only suggestive, and, always always multiply suggestive. And the details are misleading! The candlestick in the library points straight to Professor Plum. But poor Professor Plum didn’t do shit! (He couldn’t have, right? Because he doesn’t exist.)

So let’s say we accept that there is not a substantive physical world (and, as I’ve said, part of me does). What becomes of our injuries and traumas? Do they dissolve away because they never really happened? Do our pasts melt like wayward dreams? Can we let the worst of ourselves go?

Nothing happens at all really. In my memories, replayed and replayed (renewed and renewed!), mom still goes through a period in which she hits me every time I try to wake her. And this remains, each time I say it, unpleasant to say aloud. I still go to foster care. I still have a half dozen scars on my right hand from when my brother and I fought and he locked himself inside the house and I punched through the windows. I still have a brother and a dad, alive thank god. And a mom who—granted!—died years ago but who is with me, now, as I write and remember and renew. I still have my spouse. And my kids, too. I have it all—no matter the course of my mind. It’s both a promise and a pestilence—the way we are bound by what we think we’ve always been. Which means (unfortunately?) that in the ways that matters most, in our heart of hearts, the past cannot be left behind. But it also means that all we love can never leave us either.

Silas Dent Zobal has stories in the Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a NEA fellowship in fiction, won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and been a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His collection of stories, The Inconvenience of the Wings, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. His debut novel, The People of the Broken Neck, is available as of October 11, 2016. You can find him here.