Years ago, I took my first fiction workshop, taught by the novelist Mary Rakow. At the workshop, Mary gave me my all-time favorite piece of writing advice: “Write toward the pain.”
Those four words are why I continue to write. To process pain. To understand it and try to wring something positive out of it.
When I was a young child, the first of my aunts succumbed to depression in her forties. Then in my teens, my second aunt also lost her battle with depression. The memories of my aunts come back only in brief sound bites, but I remember playing with toys in my room, when through the door I could hear my grandmother fighting with my second aunt, and my grandmother using words like “failure” and “horrible daughter.” My family would talk about “the curse.” In adulthood, I realized “the curse” was just as much about my extended family’s horrific attitude toward mental illness as it was about the mental illness itself.
From a craft standpoint, my piece “Genetically Predetermined Chemical Imbalances” started coming together when I realized Aunty May could come back for regular visitations, even though she died long ago. As a writer, once you embrace the speculative, you have so many more colors and brushes you can paint with. For instance, I think the fear that the narrator has about his daughter’s potential future mental illness is made more palpable when there is an undead corpse gesturing for him to give her the baby. And perhaps his empathy for Aunty May is more effectively expressed when he is able to give her a hug in the cemetery and feel her cold skin. Without the speculative elements, all of Aunty May’s scenes would’ve had to be told in flashback, which might have blunted her impact on the story.
I’ve been told it’s risky to land a story with dark and traumatic themes on a hopeful note. A positive ending often doesn’t feel earned or commensurate with reality. But for me, “writing toward the pain” is therapy, and for my own purely selfish therapeutic reasons, I wanted the father in the story to resolve to love his child like crazy, and to support her and be nothing but kind to her no matter who she turns out to be. I wanted him to break the curse of inherited generational trauma, even if the curse of genetic predisposition cannot be broken.
ELIOT LI lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, trampset, Pithead Chapel, Fractured Lit, pidgeonholes, The Pinch, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He’s on Twitter @EliotLi2.