Contributor Spotlight: Susann Cokal
I wanted to erase myself. Control + Alt + Delete.
Easy enough to do: Twenty years’ worth of handwritten journals, most of them full of angsty self-recrimination, tossed in the recycling bin. And my fiction: I threw out bad manuscripts and not-so-bad ones. It’s even easier with the computer, most of which I don’t bother to back up. Eight years of e-journaling gone with a satisfying crackle in the onscreen trash bin. And short stories and novels-in-progress, none of which were backed up in current condition, they went too. Manuscripts for my two published novels and the electronic edits and galleys; the Renaissance novel now in circulation, which took me seven years to write; the ghost-story novel I’m flogging now, mostly as a way to give myself hope that life is more than migraines while I recover from a couple of brain injuries.
In December, I slipped in the bathroom, fell about four inches, and wiped my brain clean of the abilities to read, write, drive, walk, do math, and remember short-term. They grew painfully back as I taught my classes, until in April, a neighbor’s neglected dog, the one he allowed to roam the streets snarling and leashless, knocked me to the ground and kicked my brain back to January again. I don’t know much about what’s happened recently. But I had all these boxes and files of what I might grandly call archives.
The aphasia, dyslexia, and memory loss from the two concussions made me realize in a primal and hyperbolic way what it means not to be able to express yourself, to slur and stammer like a drunk, to forget what you were saying even in the middle of sentence, the humiliation of asking a friend or a supervisor or a student to repeat what you’d been saying because suddenly your mind misfired … And yes, it’s always a challenge to express exactly what you mean, if not to mean what you express. Every writer knows that. With the trouble I now have getting a recognizable word out, you’d think I were a chimpanzee chained to a keyboard and told to do her best to produce Twelfth Night.
I remember the previous decades much better. And now, a flashback to events and feelings recorded in my lost archive:
When I was in junior high and high school, I had people call me by an alternative pronunciation of my first name. I thought it sounded ugly, but I was glad I could keep my “real” self hidden, the real things I did and tried and wanted; an emotional archive as yet untapped. My desires are obvious by now: I wanted to be a writer (which no one could know about), I wanted cleavage, I wanted to be out of that dreadful little town and away from the bullies. I admit it freely: I was the least popular kid in my high school, which is why I don’t attend the reunions to which I get inexplicably invited. Why relive those memories?
College was great. I got the book learnin’. I got the cleavage. I swam in the Pacific at 6 a.m. I found out that people who didn’t know me from the past were approaching me to talk and be friendly and maybe even date me, not to torment me with some halfwitted insult to make their stoner friends laugh. I used my true name.
But I was still too shy to let anyone know about the writing. Then and after, when my stories were published, I rarely told my friends. I still don’t. I assembled a little archive—very little now—just for myself.
HFR was one of the first places that took one of my stories, “Where You Came From”—about a girl’s relationship with her Barbies, whom she considers her true family. I was dazzled by the staff’s kindness and by the cover, a gorgeous photo of a skull shrine on Day of the Dead. I was in there with Gloria Naylor! But still, I didn’t share the exciting news, because the story was so much about where I came from. It belonged to my memory.
About twenty years later, HFR accepted another story, “Sleeps Well With Others,” a catalogue of failed relationships and strange things men have expected of me or my girlfriends. I was thrilled again. I was even more thrilled when Beth Staples suggested I contribute something to the Archive-themed issue … It meant I had arrived! I actually had a use for my archives (and they still existed, in abundance)! I sent in a bunch of handwritten manuscripts, marked-up printouts, and a few journal pages that, in my then-mood, were sort of funny, from the time “Where You Came From,” came from.
Back in the 1980s I’d written a list of recent achievements; I considered breaking up with a perfectly nice guy an accomplishment to register, along with story publication, heartbreak (not by a guy but by the realization the life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans (thanks, Groucho)). I also, less merrily, accused myself of being a no-account hack, an idiot, a person who wanted too much from my writing and who would never be Great.
Of course that was what the editors chose to feature, along with the flashes of inspired note taking and draft writing by authors of far more consequence. I was fine with the selection—actually, I don’t remember seeing the galleys; that was during the time my brain retained nothing.
I forgot about it. Note: Flashback ends abruptly. Imagine a barking brown dog has jumped you on your way back from the trashcan.
This spring, after what felt like several bullying experiences in a row (work, dog, Life), I wanted to throw in the towel and everything that went with it—hence Control + Alt + Delete. Everything I’d written since I started a novel in a notebook at age thirteen should be gone, it deserved to be gone, I deserved for it to be gone—no one should ever see into that secret part of me anymore. I could do nothing about what was already published, but I accepted that printed work belonged to others now.
I erased myself. I was gone and forgotten, perhaps for the good, though of course I burst out weeping when I realized what I’d done. (Then again, frequent weeping is a classic symptom of a concussion.)
And then, mere days later, here came my new copy of HFR, the one with the beautiful ghost on its slick dark cover. I remembered I was in it. I read my entry. I recognized the person I was twenty years ago and saw she’s the same one I am now—with exactly the same handwriting, exactly the same worries and fears and wishes and practiced self-loathing. It was what Freud would call unheimlich, uncanny, the sense that the familiar has been defamiliarized. I knew myself, and yet with the wobbly brain, I didn’t.
And so I began bullying myself for doing it, angry that I’d shared something that might give someone matériel with which to embarrass me (but that I hope makes other writers feel they’re not alone). It was also uncanny, but appropriate, I thought, that this should be what survived of my attempt to wipe out the long-term memories along with the shorts. I bullied myself some more, starting a new journal and then crackling it into the computer’s trash.
Flash forward, without memory or dog:
Weeks later, some things reappeared. My boyfriend confessed he’d pulled most of the journals out of the recycling bin. I remembered I’d emailed the Renaissance novel to my agent, and I could get the attachment out of Sent Mail. The current novel, the ghost story, was in my bf’s inbox. (I will never consider it an accomplishment if we break up.)
Still, all of my stories from about twenty-five years, and all of their drafts, are gone forever, including two that I rather liked, plus one that I worked on all last fall and realized was the opening of another novel.
I know that I’ll always remember lines from them, and I’ll probably always wish to resurrect them so I can fiddle some more, or so I can just have them, but I’m pretty sure I never will. Because as I said earlier, I am the same person and also not the same one who wrote those manuscripts. They have no place in my new-name archive, the one that began when two simple accidents wiped away the life I’ve lived recently.
In fact, I have no place in my remaining archive. I shouldn’t go poking around in there; if I really am going to do something wonderful, I have to begin completely blank. Onward into the great unknown…
Should I begin with a list of recent accomplishments? I can’t remember.*
*(I don’t know where the phrase “Control + Alt + Delete” comes from. My computer doesn’t even have an Alt button, and I tried myriad combinations of terminal-sounding keys to see if they’d erase anything. The command is useless. But clearly it means something to me deep down, so I’m keeping it; maybe it’s my new beginning.)
Susann Cokal is the author of the novels Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and of many stories that have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle, Quarterly West, and Painted Bride Quarterly. One of her very first publications was "Where You Came From," another short story involving Barbie, in Hayden's Ferry in 1990. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and serves as the director of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.