I have a small pink-white scar at the base of my thumb. It curls at the end like a question mark I may have drawn to remind myself of something. It is an important reminder. And it’s proof—of an event I had forced myself to forget as a child and, now, cannot forget. I am compelled to rewrite that real-life scene again and again in my fiction, as if memory, and even the past itself, can be revised.
There is a chapter toward the end of my new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, in which one of the main characters, Maddie, is beaten by her father. He hits her with a broom. The metal broom head cracks apart and cuts her hand, and she is left with a scar in the shape of a question mark. Like Maddie, I, too, was a sixteen-year-old girl living on an islet off the East Coast in 1992. What the reader cannot know is that this scene between Maddie and her father, though only a few pages long, took me two and a half decades to write, and rewrite. Only now, after many tries, has it provided me with a glimmer of redemption.
The real-life event took place in 1992, the day after my junior prom, when my father, rifling through my backpack, found a pack of Camel Lights, a discovery that fueled our worst, and final, physical confrontation. But the first time I put the scene on paper was over a decade later, in 2001, in a short story I wrote during my first year as a creative writing student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I hadn’t had much time to produce new material during that first semester, and I had been feeling paralyzed by the talent and confidence of my classmates. I procrastinated all through winter break but finally wrote a new story in one sitting and, unusual for me, by hand. The story was about a teenage girl who, like Maddie and me, was growing up working class on an idyllic island, home to the elite upper class. The teenager, also like Maddie and me, was a troubled girl in an unpredictable home where violence seemed to crouch around the corner of each day, ready to spring, claws bared.
I handed the story into my workshop when I returned from winter break, certain it would be shredded by my classmates’ criticism. I was shocked when the story was praised, not only by my fellow graduate students but also by our professor, a distinguished author whose final verdict was often damning. I’d never had a workshop critique as positive as that one, and the story, titled “The Girl Who Walked on Water” (I cringe a little now at the heavy-handed symbolism), earned me a coveted fellowship that year, the attention of my peers and professors, and a shaky confidence I would cling to for the rest of my time in graduate school. The sacrifice was worth it, I told myself. And I did feel as if I had sacrificed the “unnamed girl” (Maddie Version 1, we’ll call her—I hadn’t even allowed her the power of a name) in the story. I let her be abused, raped, humiliated. In return, I’d received praise. I had also sacrificed myself—the part of me who was that “unnamed girl.”
I was grateful for the response and relieved my acceptance into the Workshop hadn’t been a fluke, a suspicion I’d harbored since I’d received the acceptance letter, but I still had a growing fear that I was a fraud. I’d written the story at the last minute, after all, and even more worrisome, I had felt so little as I wrote the violent scene my professors and classmates admired the most. How could the story be any good, I asked myself, when it felt as if I’d turned off my mind—and my heart—in order to write that scene? The girl’s father striking her with a broom, the twisted metal cutting into her hand. The rest of the story was unremarkable and bordered on cliché, just like the title, but my classmates and professors were right about that particular scene, I knew that much—it was exceptional. Yet as I’d written it, my hand cramped from clutching the pen, I had felt as if I were on autopilot. The sensory details I’d experienced in real life—the scent of my father’s English Leather cologne, the tinny taste of blood, the cheerful jingle of a toothpaste commercial on the TV set, the bite of the metal broom head slicing my hand—appeared on the page, but it was as if someone else was writing; I was simply the vessel through which the words flowed. How could the story be good (the definition of which seemed so elusive in workshop)? How could the emotion be authentic when I knew I should have wept as I wrote?
I was familiar with the phenomenon of emotional disassociation that victims of trauma, specifically childhood abuse, can experience. In the years after I’d left home for college, memories of my father’s episodes had returned—his lashing out when his obsessive fears erupted, often climaxing in violence, and always against me, never my mother or brother. I loved and admired my father. He is a survivor—of war and poverty, of famine and disease—himself a witness to constant domestic abuse in his own childhood. I still love him. I had wanted to ignore those violent memories that visited me in dreamlike fragments those first years away from home, the first objective distance I had from what I quickly realized had been a dysfunctional family. I doubted myself. “Could I be making it up?” I chided myself. “Get over it, Julia, plenty of kids had it way worse.” But I only had to look down at the question-mark-shaped scar on my hand to see the evidence.
Some of my MFA classmates asked if I was the girl in “The Girl Who Walked on Water,” and I played coy, not revealing or denying. I suspected they wanted me to be her, but I was too ashamed to admit it. After all, that girl was a victim; she didn’t fight back. Instead, she forgave her father. She comforted him as her torn hand bled, rubbed his back as he cried and apologized and said he was better off dead. She begged him not to kill himself, fearful he would. This was what had happened in my own life, this is what I had done—no wonder I felt ashamed as I watched that scene replayed on the page.
When I’d arrived at the Workshop, I’d read only works from the so-called literary canon. Other than the novels of Edith Wharton, I’d read few stories with young women protagonists, not since my teenage years when I binge-read V. C. Andrews’s melodramas and stole my mother’s romance novels. A few days after my arrival in Iowa City, I visited a used bookstore and left with bags of books. Most were collections of contemporary short fiction written in a minimalist style. Stories by Raymond Carver, James Salter, Lorrie Moore, and Lydia Davis. I fixated on one collection—Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips, who, it was rumored, had been a favorite student of Frank Conroy. I studied those stories, so spare they seemed starved—stories about young girls who were abused and molested, used and discarded. I’m sure I had those broken girls in mind, as well as the emotionally distant style—what we called “restrained” prose in workshop critiques—as I put that unnamed girl in “The Girl Who Walked on Water” through hell.
In my final workshop, I studied with professor Marilynne Robinson and learned the most important lesson of my writing life, one I carry with me still, passing it on to my own students: the necessity of having compassion for your characters. I’ve always been the type of reader who wants drama, conflict, and serious stakes, all of which provide the complete escape I crave in books. No surprise, I want the same escape in my own writing. I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder in my early twenties, and I’ve always experienced life with an emotional intensity that has crossed into my fiction. This means that bad things happen to my characters. They live in worlds where danger lurks, just as violence did in my childhood home, around every corner. My characters lose loved ones, homes, fortunes, and sometimes their lives, and it is my job, my responsibility, to make sure their suffering is not for nothing.
While the emotional distance I felt in writing “The Girl Who Walked on Water” allowed me to record that violent memory in meticulous detail, I can also see how it prevented me from treating that broken “unnamed girl” with the compassionate care she deserved. I promised myself I’d do a better job in the future.
After years spent helping other writers unlock the doors that lead to a deeper emotional understanding of their writing, I’ve learned we must give ourselves permission to fail in that first draft, especially when recalling a traumatic event. We have many terms for it in workshop—underdeveloped, sketchy, vague, stereotyped. I know now that incomplete first draft—Maddie Version 1—was a placeholder I would return to when I was ready, and I wish I could go back in time, tell my twenty-three-year-old self, “That’s okay, you did your best. Try again later.”
Ten years later, I rewrote the scene, a summarized version told in flashback, in my first published novel, Cutting Teeth. Allie (or Maddie Version 2), a new mother to twins, is struggling with her ambivalence toward motherhood. She recalls a traumatic moment—yes, you guessed it, she was sixteen when her father hit her with a broom—a scene that is in stark contrast to her own children’s blissful lives. She goes so far as to imply that perhaps children today are given too much love. Having had ten years of retrospection between “The Girl Who Walked on Water” and Cutting Teeth, I knew that the most significant part of the scene wasn’t the girl getting hit with the broom but the aftermath—her father, his head on the kitchen table, weeping into his arms, begging the girl for forgiveness. This moment of forced empathy, I realized, was even more brutal than the physical attack—not only for the character experiencing it, but also, I was finally ready to admit this, for me. I knew I had a responsibility to this new version of the “unnamed girl.” I wouldn’t let her be a victim again. I worked on that flashback for a week. I revised until I felt so close to the girl’s consciousness, experiencing her every thought and feeling, smelling and tasting and hearing as if I had crawled into her skin. The revisions exhausted and thrilled me. I knew I hadsucceeded. While that first unnamed girl, Maddie Version 1, had been objectified—used by me, consciously or not, to shock the reader—this new girl was real.
Now, four years later, having rewritten the scene in a longer dramatized form for my new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, I hope the unnamed girl (Maddie Version 3, Final) has the redemption she deserves. The broom scene in The Gypsy Moth Summer is the most difficult scene I’ve ever written, and the most important. I forced myself to linger in that dark kitchen for an entire chapter, made myself feel every blow of the broom, wrapped myself in the girl’s terror so the reader would feel trapped just as she does. Just as I did. So that, instead of pity, the reader will share the girl’s pain, making it impossible for the girl—victim or heroine or both—to be dismissed. The scene has a new ending. It may be difficult for readers to understand the triumph this recent finale represents. For me, it is everything. The girl hits her father back—a battle neither I nor the first two versions of Maddie had the strength or courage to fight.
The Gypsy Moth Summer has been out for only a short time and I am still waiting for someone, a Cutting Teeth reader or a former Iowa classmate, to call me out. Wag a finger at me and exclaim, “You can’t rewrite a scene again and again like that. You can’t rewrite life!”
To which I’ll answer: I’m finished now. Maddie is free. That was the last time her father hit her. I am free too, and at the end of a decades-long journey—if not to rewrite my life (though I haven’t given up on the possibility), then to make sense of a moment in time that has shaped me. When I was forced to forgive my father in that long-ago kitchen—a burden no child should have to shoulder—I knew the power of empathy, and that understanding has made me into the person, and writer, I am today.
Can that glimmer of redemption leap off the page and into real life? Perhaps it is a necessity for a writer, even the most cynical, to believe in a little magic, to believe that she can rewrite the past. Rewriting that scene from real life hasn’t changed the past, but it has taught me to hope. As a younger writer, I wrote fiction to reveal the flaws I saw in the world, and in myself. Now I write in the hope that I’ll discover a better world, and maybe if I keep searching, the unnamed girl I find will be even stronger and, finally, safe.
Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer, published in June by St. Martin’s Press, and Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Glamour, the Millions, Time Out New York, and other publications. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in 2002 she founded the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop home to more than four thousand creative writers. Her website is juliafierro.com.