There’s a line in “The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation” by Ann Beattie: “You think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem.”
Since college, when I started seriously studying writing, I haven’t been able to get around the wall of artificiality involved in trying to relate a story—particularly one belonging to a person you make up yourself. My professors (including Ann Beattie), who were brilliant writers and often famous for being brilliant writers, completely elide this in their own work. For me, it was hard to write without feeling like a little girl designing a wedding dress, or a sketch artist drawing a hat and thick eyebrows, leaving out the rest of the face. How can you write into the base level of what constitutes an experience?
The thought eventually slipped into the way I conceived of my life, and it does so even more in Kyrgyzstan. Here I’m alone most of the time and must relate things with the idea that the telling has a point. I can tell you that a man pushed me into a taxi telling me he was going to make me his wife, but why would I? Only because it sounds like a good story. It sounds like something entirely different than what it actually felt like: a hangover, a cloudy day, a dirty man wearing a leather jacket, something that registered only as dull, sad annoyance.
Still, like a liar, I do like to shape things, and I like to write. Last fall I started a novel that I had gotten deep into by this point, a year later. I’m a tough sell but I was beginning to think that my book was decent, and whether it would turn out to have any literary merit or not, I was sure that I could eventually get it published. Then last weekend, two men stole my laptop while I was Skyping at an Internet café in the capital city.
I have excuses for not backing up my work, but they’re just excuses. Here’s where the artificiality kicks in: I can say that I’m devastated to have lost all that work, which is true, and that I lost un-posted book reviews (sorry) and grants in progress and a dozen small projects and an essential teaching tool, which are all true statements as well. I can say I’m writing this because I want to explain why I am letting this blog slip.
But you think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem. This is a major theme of working for Peace Corps. You have a hard time understanding where your priorities should lie, what your perception of an event should be. You’re constantly creating a narrative for yourself that keeps derailing under these unexpected problems. You thought work would be hard until you realized you have to create the infrastructure first. You need to brush your teeth, but first you need to haul some drinking water, then you find that the well is dry. You think your language will be inadequate to speak to the police about your recent theft, then realize they only want to talk to you about your love life anyway.
You think the biggest problem will be rebuilding your novel, only to realize that you are barely capable of telling a story truthfully. In this I have somehow managed to make it appear that life is hard for me, as if that’s what was important.
The first week I got to my village, a drunk man threw a baby against a metal gate and it died. A month ago, my bus hit a person on the road and didn’t stop. Two close friends of mine (one of them a girl) were beat up on the street after leaving a club. Last night in my village, a drunk driver ran over a person on the street and in the resulting fight two more men were killed. There is no word for “woman” in Kyrgyz other than “wife” and there’s a wife down the road who always has at least one black eye. When I complained to my twelve-year-old sister about a man grabbing my crotch, she sighed and said, “Yeah, Kyrgyz men are like that.” There’s been a funeral in my village every day for weeks.
You think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem. What a minor tragedy, losing a novel that you probably would have reviewed as sophomoric. What a major travesty, to be in the midst of death and violence and only be able to know your own story. Still I don’t think I can help being sad about this. I have enough trouble convincing myself that I can actually write without losing the first real thing I’ve ever written. And like all problems in Kyrgyzstan, it exfoliates outward endlessly, magnified and connected to sadnesses that I have no right and every right to feel.
I’m already telling myself that it’s better I lost my half-finished book so that I didn’t waste any more time on what I’ll call a warm-up exercise. That is not true at all, but I’ll probably believe it within a week. The mind can do easily what the author cannot. The story is done with, and like all the best ones, it makes me feel better about myself—which is always proof that it’s leaving too much out.