By Siobhan Fallon
There are times when I mistrust myself. There are times when I cannot differentiate between my fiction and my own memory.
Recently my husband was looking over one of my short stories and started chuckling. “Wow,” he said. “I remember when that happened.”
I bolted upright, fingers hesitating over keyboard. “When WHAT happened?” I asked.
He watched me, sensing that Evil Writer Wife was now occupying the body of his loving spouse. Evil Writer Wife who usually ignored him completely when perched at her computer, or sent squinted ‘how-dare-you-make-noise-when-I-am-working’ glances his way when he sneezed or poured himself a glass of milk.
“I remember when this happened,” he said softly, all humor removed from his voice, pointing at the page in front of him.
“But I made that up,” I said, and I even believed it.
Write what you know is that old writer’s adage. What if you know your own writing so well that parts of it eclipse your own life? The writing becomes more vivid, so reworked, so visualized, so imagined, that it obliterates whatever real event sparked it. It becomes the way something could have been, the more interesting and exciting version of events, but also the version that is separate from the self, the unwounded existence, translated into words on a page, safe at a distance.
Last week, my two and a half year old daughter, dressed in a Snow White gown, climbed up on a coffee table. Before I had a chance to yell, “Get down from there!” she tumbled backward and smashed her head through a window. Suddenly there was an inordinate amount of shattered glass, a gaping wound at the back of her head I could not look at, and my child reaching for me amid the princess tulle and blood.
That night, after the Emergency Room, after the nurses wrapped her in a sheet and held her down (it took two of them to restrain her twenty-nine thrashing pounds), after the doctor cleaned the wound and removed glass shards with tweezers, after he closed the gash with a staple gun reminiscent of Home Depot, after the day was done and my baby was in her crib, safe and asleep and hopefully having non-violent dreams, I had a singular and perhaps terrible epiphany. I stood at her closed door, one hand still on the knob, and I thought, “I can use this.” In an unspooling moment, I imagined the protagonist of my novel-in-progress touching a scar at the back of her head. The scene spun on, how my heroine had fallen through a restaurant window when she was a tiny girl, the glass, the blood, her father holding her in his arms, afraid that he would lose this small being he had created, holding her as her blood wet and then dried on his forearms, kneeling on a sidewalk and waiting for the ambulance to come. As an adult, when she is nervous, my heroine will touch the raised scar at the back of her head, feel the scalp that was once held together by staples, remember staring up at her father and hearing a siren in the distance.
Certainly I won’t forget the day my little kid got ten staples in the back of her head. But it made me aware of how my mind takes hold of reality and shakes it, peels it away from the ordinary. I stole a moment out of my life, a moment from my daughter, and refashioned it, made it something different, made it something I could control.
Made it fiction.