A number of years ago, I wrote a story about a baby. It was one of the first stories of mine accepted for publication, the first piece of fiction I felt an almost animal pleasure while writing. When I think of it now, I always think of it as the Baby Story, though the infant I invented wasn’t very babyish. She shoots exasperated looks, barely tolerates her dad, crawls off and freaks everybody out. I was twenty-four years old when I wrote my Baby Story and pretty clueless when it came to babies. I had little idea when infants sprout first teeth or take first steps. Everything I knew about kids came from mercurial, bored stints at babysitting when I was a teenager. But when I wrote that story, I was still extricating myself from my own childhood tangles, still looking backwards, you could say. And I wasn’t very interested in representing babies as they are generally understood. I wanted to think about how children are sometimes convenient vessels for the unspoken fears of the adults who care for them—uncanny projections, clown-house mirrors—and knowing a little but not too much about babies made it possible for me to test these ideas out.
I say this as a way of suggesting a possibility I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve been considering the potential usefulness of not knowing your subject matter as a writer, or, more precisely, knowing enough to do justice to what you don’t know, giving ample space to the test case, the hypothetical. The old adage Write what you know misses something complicated, of course, about the vertiginous work of trailing sentences to their cliff-edge faces and peering down. What’s the point of making up a world that takes for granted the terms of operation upon which others more or less agree? I usually want something else from the fiction I read and write, some unsteadying recognition of how strange and provisional and just plain wrong the accepted terms of the world’s operation often are.
I think it’s okay to be uneasy about realism, in other words, in whatever kind of fiction you write. It’s not that I don’t find it humbling, or pleasurable, to lose myself in research, to swim for a time through medical journals or message boards or Wikipedia articles. What I find troubling is the way truth in fiction can sometimes be confused with old literary conventions that prioritize some experiences as more real than others. I remember feeling a draft of recognition, for instance, upon reading Rivka Galchen’s nonfiction meditation on motherhood, Little Labors. She points out that almost everybody loves babies but literature, where babies and their caregivers go largely undocumented. Galchen lingers on some notable exceptions: Beloved, The Fifth Child, and, thrillingly, Frankenstein.[i] It strikes me as poignant that so many of her examples of babies in literature are also examples of monsters and ghosts. What if we need a whiff of the paranormal to talk with any clarity about our own offspring? What if the alternative is silence?
Let me try putting this in other terms. Nearly ten years after I published my Baby Story, I finished a draft of a novel, a book about a teenager who cares for a small boy. A teacher of mine who read the draft asked me if I had a child myself. I believe she intended the question as a compliment. I believe she meant, by asking me this, that the child I’d made up in my book resonated with her experience of mothering an actual four-year-old kid in both the details and general feeling. But it was a painful moment. I was in my mid-thirties by then and had recently been through a miscarriage. Here’s what that miscarriage was like: I packed up a lump of tissue in a Tupperware, like a lunch, to take to the OB-GYN. I did not ever write a story about the Tupperware, the lump. That year, the third year I’d failed to carry a child to term, I wrote instead about a precocious boy whose parents and babysitter stand by and watch as that boy dies. At the time, the routine details of my life felt almost gothically banal. I felt I knew something about a certain kind of grief. I felt I knew something about one excruciating vein of longing and loss, but I know now that what I knew then existed within a Goldilocks Zone of knowledge: it was enough, but not too much to freeze up my imagination.
I recently learned a marvelous new word, tralfamidorification. It means, according to the artist and writer Jenny Odell, “a disorienting experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network.” Her example is an ordinary beach towel that, for an instant, seems to open up “into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera…”[ii] Though I understand Odell to be talking specifically about the everyday flotsam of our post-industrial economy, I like her word for the way it chimes with what Charles Baxter says about the destabilizing power of certain images in fiction. He writes about finding a type of narrative detail that, through defamiliarizing magic, “resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready-made symbolization.”[iii] Tralfamidorification, it seems to me, might be our Anthropocenic way of talking about the astonishment of seeing the algebrized world upended, if only for one unsettling moment. It is a way of acknowledging, via the threadbare beach towel—or anything overly familiar, and therefore invisible—a snaking portal to unseen places and times.
I am no longer the writer I was when I wrote the Baby Story. Does that need saying? I know quite a lot more about babies than I did, having given birth to one, against all expectations and odds, nearly two years ago. And I’m now in the middle of writing yet another story about a small child, my second novel—though I’ve slowed down, I’ve noticed, writing less and less as my own child has grown. It has occurred to me recently that an inverse relationship might exist between the actual child in my house and the fictional one in my mind. One grows, and the other stagnates, even shrinks, in direct proportion. This is not just because a person is a lot of work to raise, and I don’t have a lot of time to write. It is as if, by necessity, I can never look directly at the peculiar constellation of cells that make up the person wiggling, daily, into and out of my lap. How could I? How could anyone mother a black hole? How could I go through my days subjecting this specific child, with his used plastic guitar from China and his organic applesauce, to tralfamidorification, to the mind-boggling recognition of all the processes resulting in his weird perch at the intersection of capitalism and colonialism and medical science and evolution and entropy and climate change, etcetera? Most of the time, I just need to clean the nipple of his sippy cup, find the right song on the CD. Most of the time, I’m wiping up his shit, his crumbs, his earnestly frowning mouth. But in my work as a writer, when I turn to it, if I do, I try to hold in my mind the negative space all these small acts of mothering bunch around, like the tiny grains of sand that fossilize and preserve the shape of a long-extinct animal’s footprint. As a writer I’ve come to believe that Show, don’t tell is merely a means of painstakingly preserving this negative space, the way the concrete details point like arrows to the limits of the concrete, or the way the tangible and mundane drape like so many beach towels over the lumpy shapes of the unsayable and extraordinary—the Tupperware that is also a coffin, the human child that is always also a monster, a ghost.
When I teach, I sometimes ask my students, how much can you get away with not saying? How close can you get to the black hole of your own awe and fear, your own unknowing? What don’t you understand that transforms how you see everything you think you do? And how can you find ways to write about that?
i Galchen, Rivka. Little Labors. New Directions Books, 2016. See pages 34-38 for more babies in literature.
ii From The Bureau of Linguistical Reality: A Dictionary for the Future Present. I first came across the word on Longreads’ “Against Hustle: Jenny Odell Is Taking Her Time at the End of the World.”
iii Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. Graywolf Press, 1997. See “On Defamiliarization” and page 42, especially.
Emily Fridlund grew up in Minnesota. Her first novel, History of Wolves, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. Fridlund’s debut collection of stories, Catapult, won the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her fiction has appeared in a variety of journals, including Boston Review, ZYZZYVA, New Orleans Review, Sou’wester, New Delta Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Southwest Review. She currently teaches writing at Cornell University.