Our nonfiction editor, Nina Gaby, recently had this exchange with Elizabeth Gaucher, author of “Dialing the Dark,” an essay featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 anthology. Elizabeth read from her work at our book launch party, Friday, April 21, 2017 at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall.
It has been said that on some levels we write to understand what we know. You write about striving for an adult understanding beyond the understanding in your “child mind.” Are you still looking to make more sense of this evil which eventually did take over? I guess I’m asking if writing about it helps to at least provide some control over your version of it.
It’s interesting that you use the world “evil.” That’s not a word I use, ever, because I don’t have a definition for it that doesn’t bleed over into other things. I don’t know what it is.
On some level, I think if there is “evil,” I was closer to understanding it when I was a child than I am as an adult. Maybe that is why I go backwards into the complexity. I grew out of being able to see and identify something mysterious rather than into it. What that something is I would describe more as a shadow. It falls on us, into our lives. We see it but don’t often know what is casting it.
I think that’s where I was, cognitively, as the narrator in this essay. Aware of a shadow, and wanting it to move away, but not knowing much more. I still don’t know much more.
There is a sense of enchantment that runs through your piece despite the tragedy of its narrative. I may be going out on a limb here, but do you think that is either consciously or unconsciously intentional, to soften it a bit for the reader? Like a child reading a Grimm’s fairytale, as Bettelheim has said, while unreal it is not untrue, and the child intuitively recognizes the difference?
I will confess, I am a huge fan of fairytale and myth, which might seem odd for a committed nonfiction writer; at the same time, I don’t think they soften the truth. If anything, they make the truth sharper and sometimes more painful, unavoidable even. Enchantment for me is no place hide. It’s where there is no place to hide.
Consider “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Never happened. And yet, it is happening every day. You can’t hide from story because it is not even on your playing field. It’s above you, leaving you only to look up and gasp.
You girls had a dogged handle on controlling the mean man. In fact, from going through the editing process with you, “Mean Man” was an earlier title consideration, a theme you deftly braid into this piece. Is it still a descriptive metaphor for the evil lurking in these low-ceilinged rooms without windows, this Middle Earth as you look back through the frames of this story now? Was Bale’s death preventable or did you ever see it as such? “Initiative, control, choice” …are those innocent constructs or viable actions?
No one has ever accused me of deftness before. Thank you!
A writer has to, I believe, at some point let her work go. Release it and let it be to readers what it will be. I never felt, and still don’t feel, that “evil” was lurking in that house. This is where we help one another. Something, but what?
My narrator is less concerned with “evil” than with what seems unresolved. The place in this essay is full of unanswered questions for the child narrator. I think that is why the girls in this narrative are trying to find their own voices. They want to claim some agency in an environment where who or what is controlling the story is not clear.
Children are incredibly intelligent like that.
Whatever this unnamed thing was, it had power. I think now that it got its power from never being identified.
As far as Bale’s death is concerned, I have never tried to judge or analyze it as “preventable.” I am not going to start now. I sometimes wonder if by the time we are talking like this, “can it be prevented,” the answer is no.
And what do you want others to understand about suicide?
I did not write this piece to help anyone understand anything about suicide. I don’t believe that is possible.
But I did write it to share. To share the experience of not understanding, of feeling close but never close enough, to working to spend a lifetime making peace with grief.
In terms of craft, writers gain momentum often by work shopping their pieces and finding support for digging deeper into the story. What supported you as you explored this topic? There is a tendency in the new Medical Narrative genre to “go there.” A bravery in that we are exposing more about mental health, suicide, trauma, addiction, and abuse. Do you think ultimately this will help reduce stigma and encourage more mental health initiatives? Or do you think there is some other purpose or benefit?
I started this piece a few years ago. It has been workshopped in my MFA program, as well as with the outstanding editors with the BWW.
Early incarnations of the narrative did not spend much time on Bale. Looking back, I’m not sure why I ever thought I could avoid “going there” when it came to my own feelings about his death. But I do think it’s a process for most of us, especially in personal nonfiction, to find our footing with what we need to face. Just starting can be a victory. But good editors and classmates won’t let us stop there. “Go deeper” is essentially the last and best advice I received while working on my MFA.
I am increasingly fascinated by the writer/reader dynamic. Writers often seem to be in a place of, “This is what I want to tell you,” while readers come back with, “But this is what we want to know!” I’m getting better and letting go of my need and meeting the reader in the desire to know more.
From what I see, disclosing more seems to be helping reduce stigma around mental health issues. But I think it’s not as simple as disclosure alone. We have to be able to share with a sense of courage, and that can be difficult.
I sometimes wonder if we could see everyone’s depression, addiction, and delusion if we could handle it. The older I get; the more certain I am it is everywhere. Being more open about that in a responsible way—not for shock value or tabloid readership—I think will help in the long run.
And lastly, what are you working on now?
I saved newspaper clippings about a horrific flood in the state where I grew up, West Virginia. This particular flood destroyed the town of White Sulphur Springs. My family has close ties to this area.
There are many gut-wrenching events in these clippings, but there is one narrative about how a teenage girl died that haunts me. (I just got chills writing that.) I want to create an essay about her death, but I am still sitting with all of it.
Sometimes events and feelings have to live in my head for a long time before they find the page. But that’s part of being a writer! The thinking and the feeling and the just allowing things to be is important.
More about Elizabeth
Elizabeth Gaucher received her BA in History from Davidson College and her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. She is the founder of an online journal for creative nonfiction, Longridge Review. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, The Pikeville Review, and Brevity’s nonfiction blog, among other print and online publications. Learn more about Elizabeth at elizabethgaucher.com.
Elizabeth and others read their work from this year’s anthology, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review vol. 3 print launch party on Friday, April 21, 2017.
The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 is the fifth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2017 edition is available for purchase. Learn more or purchase a copy of any past anthologies in the series.