A Nuclear Rage in Me
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Lidia Yuknavitch on writing candidly.
By Billie Forester
Lidia Yuknavitch is a renowned writer, especially well-known within the feminist movement. In addition to her memoir titled The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch has also published Dora: A Headcase, The Small Backs of Children, The Misfit’s Manifesto, The Book of Joan, and a multitude of essays. She has created her own writing program rooted in her own creative experiences.
Content warning: This piece includes descriptions of sexual assault and child abuse.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
B&W: On your website, you have a list of things that you say have “informed, deformed, and reformed” your writing. The seventh one states “I believe in art the way other people believe in god.” Have you always held this belief? If not how did you come to discover your faith in art and discover your voice as a writer?
LY: Well early on in my life the “systems” around me broke down, became useless, or brought me directly to injury. For example, my father was our abuser, my “family” fell apart (sister left home, mother an alcoholic, me acting out, father abusive), my so-called religion (Catholic) became an unsafe space (I thought the whole thing was dubious at a young age… all the stories about women and girls kept them quiet and obedient and subservient).
So when I was coming of age in the world and entering young adulthood, I had a nuclear rage in me—a giant energy I didn’t know what to do with. Self-expression in the form of making art saved me from self-destruction (the counter impulse). I found this path around the age I went to college–after I flunked out twice and clawed my way back in–I found this path through painting and drawing and writing. Making images and stories gave me a place to put pain and rage when the world didn’t offer much to me as a girl/woman.
B&W: Your memoir deals with a lot of the very difficult challenges you’ve faced in your life. How did you make the decision to delve back into all of those memories and then to publish them and share them with the public?
LY: Well, the struggle to hold them all in and not explode was overtaken by the desire to express them in the hopes that even ONE more person out there in the world might feel less alone, wrong, beaten, misfitted to their own lives. To be honest putting the pain and trauma of my life experiences into an artistic form of expression likely helped me come back to life as a person. The thing about NOT giving your life struggles a form of expression (it can be running or skiing or writing or painting or music or whatever), is that those struggles tend to live inside you and eat at you from the inside out. MOVING the pain or trauma or difficulty is a form of recognizing that what has happened to you is an energy system you carry around in your body and life. You can move the energy. You can even change/transform it.
B&W: Within the past several years you have become quite a public figure, especially within the feminist movement. Do you feel that it is important to keep a separation between yourself as an individual and your figure as a prominent writer, or are they one and the same for you?
LY: That is a good question. It’s a little bit of a painful question. The reason is, I have always experienced a RIFT between my public and private self. Perhaps with more therapy and maturity I can heal that rift or integrate more successfully. I am a DEEPLY private person who has chosen a life that requires a LOT of public labor. I wouldn’t say I’m performing something different from who I am when I am doing public labor, but it is labor. When I am at home alone with my family or my art or just sitting around in my underwear I am my deepest form of self. So I suppose where I am at right now at age 55 is: My public labor of art and heart is for others, to help others find their own voices or forms of expression. My private life is where I can fold up and create with abandon. If I could, I would stay inside the artistic process and never come out. But that’s likely not healthy and there are good reasons to come out (the people I love for instance and collaboration).
B&W: You teach writing in your workshops—Corporeal Writing. What makes these workshops unique? How did you develop this innovative way of teaching writing? Has teaching influenced your perspective on writing or even your writing itself?
LY: I don’t use the word “teaching” much anymore—when I retired from academia and created Corporeal I was looking to shift my energies more toward collaboration. Sometimes it works great and other times not so much (ha)—I’m still evolving the idea. Hoping to write a book about it to help myself understand alternative artistic processes. After I wrote The Chronology of Water I learned so very much about how we carry our entire life-stories in our bodies. There are writing and art-making strategies that we can tap into that correspond to our embodied experiences. I’m exploring those with anyone else who wants to give it a shot.
B&W: What influence did your participation in Ken Kesey’s workshop have on your writing style and your teaching style?
LY: Well as I think you know, the particular group of people in that workshop created a kinetic bond that I’ll carry the trace of in my heart the rest of my life — especially Bennett Huffman, Jeff [Forester] (ahem), and Meredith [Wadley-Suter]. It’s a bond made from heart and art. I think the big influence Ken and the workshop had on me was something like, um, you can do this? Be a writer? Make art without apologizing or asking for permission? This idea was a very, very big deal to me.
B&W: You have been very prolific over the past several years, publishing an impressive number of highly ambitious and complex works. What advice do you have for writers trying to stay committed to personal writing in the seeming deluge of academic writing required of college students?
LY: OH MAN. Yes. That is difficult. And yet, partway through getting my Ph.D. in literature, I started to realize that all the theoretical and academic stuff I was required to read and write was also actually a portal, an opportunity space where I might gather more art-making juice. I can see my Ph.D. work inside all of my novels. I can see how the helix made from intellectual pursuits and artistic pursuits made me who I am. So my advice would be don’t make a battle out of it. Make a portal. Also make them let you do some hybrid projects where you combine academic and creative modes — like criti-fiction. Or hybrid forms of writing. Enough fancy people have books out in the world now where we can ask for that as students.
B&W: I understand that you swam competitively as a child, and even was on the Olympic team, which you document (amongst many other things) in your memoir A Chronology of Water. How does your identity as an athlete interact with and/or influence your identity as an artist?
LY: In my athlete years, swimming got me out of the dreaded Oedipal death house; as an older woman, swimming is like a meditative practice for me which helps me not go nuts. Writing made the rest of my life possible when I thought I didn’t want to be alive any longer. I’d say water and writing both brought me back to life.
B&W: You mentioned painting and drawing as well as writing. Do you still make images as well as writing? How do you feel that the art of writing interacts with visual art and other art forms?
LY: If I wasn’t a big chicken I’d produce work that contained both image-play and word-play. For instance I’ve always wanted to create an illuminated manuscript (old school, like Blake). But I’ve very chicken when it comes to my own visual art. My father kind of killed my joy about it so my joy is very private. Maybe when I’m 85 I’ll “risk it.” Ha…I will say this–or I’ve been told this too–my writing is highly visual. I see stories in images and image systems. Likely why I’m such a film junkie. I see narrative.
B&W: You mention that you feel your private time is when you can immerse yourself in the creative process, and also that you have been looking to shift your energies more towards collaboration. Does collaboration feel natural to you or do you have to work in collaborative practices into your creative process?
LY: NO it does NOT feel natural to me because I’m a HARD CORE introvert! Ha… RUN AWAY!!!! Once I’m inside the motion of it though, I love it. It’s as if my body remembers something that I do not. Perhaps it’s a pack or squad feeling.
B&W: After flunking out of college how did you get the motivation and strength to try again and again and to fight for your education?
LY: I’m not sure it was strength. I think it may have been rage mixed with desire. Rage in terms of what had been done to me and who the culture asks women to be and the desire to write like I was staging a break-out from cultural inscription, or a break-in to retrieve my own heart.
B&W: What was the first story you remember writing and what was it about?
LY: The first story I ever wrote was when I was in High School. My mother talked me into entering a city-wide contest. I wrote about it in The Misfit’s Manifesto…The story was about a blind man and a kid who both witness a crime but neither has the full means to understand it–they have to create the story of what happened from sharing their pieces. They are both outcasts, shockingly. ha.
B&W: Which of the published novels you have written was the most challenging project? Do you have a favorite or one that was the most fun to write?
LY: Well they are all challenging. They all feel like creative crucibles that could either kill you or bring you back to life or both. I will say that Dora: A Headcase was the most fun to write. I laughed a lot writing it. Because fuck Freud. I also needed to write something with some kind of levity in it directly after writing The Chronology of Water. Dora is actually a quite classical literary farce. Here is the definition of farce: “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations. The plot in a farce is likely to be improbable, and maybe even incomprehensible. The physical humor, which is high-energy horseplay, reinforces the exaggerated, stereotypical characters.” Farce seemed like a good retort to Freud’s handling of Ida Bauer’s case study.
B&W: Which artists have inspired or influenced you and how has their work shaped your own art?
LY: Well, literarily speaking, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Toni Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Kathy Acker, Carole Maso, Anne Carson, Dorothy Allison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Elfriede Jelinek, women like that when I was coming of age as a writer…
The five books that blew me away most recently: Tommy Orange, There, There. Terese Mailhot, Heart Berries. Kiese Laymon, Heavy. Justin Torres, We The Animals. Han Kang, The Vegetarian. I mean….dayum. These books alone could change someone’s life…
B&W: How do all of the people in your life as a writer, from your family to your readers, influence your writing?
LY: I think it is true, or mostly true, that everyone I have ever known and loved lives inside my language and storytelling. Literally and figuratively. It’s like the people who have impacted you the most are part of your body and lived experience, so they become part of your language and artistic practice.
B&W: Do you feel that writing is something you do for yourself that you then share with the world, or do you keep your readers in mind as you write?
LY: I guess I sound like an asshole if I say I don’t think about readers when I write, huh. Sigh. I will say this: I think about trying to create word and story bridges out toward the world. I’m a fundamentally alienated person at heart, and writing helps me imagine that I too am still a part of the world. I’m one of the people working on bridges between us. With legions of other people, mercifully.
B&W: How do you feel that being a female writer has shaped the way that you your writing is viewed (by the public, publishers, or teachers)?
LY: I’m not sure you have the 300 pages it would take me to answer this? HA. I suppose the short answer is, if you identify as a woman writer, buckle up, fortify, invent the strength you are going to need to blow a hole in the whole shebang. Oh and never surrender. I’d also say that I was only half listening to all the people (so many people) who told me I was doing things wrong. I’m so proud of my self for only half listening. They could not have been more wrong. You can’t invent a voice or vision without making what others may regard as a mess.
B&W: Your retelling of the Joan of Arc was so innovative and made a historical character feel so present and relevant to me as a reader in the present day. How did you encounter this idea? How did your Catholic upbringing inform this novel?
LY: THANK YOU! That book was very important for me to write. Well, I was originally visited by Joan of Arc in a dream. We were standing together outside of my childhood home, which was also on fire. She turned to me and said, “No one is going to save you.” The dream scared me but later in life after I researched the hell out of her and learned everything I could I felt lucky. She was right, of course. I had to get myself out of that house or die. It is a truth that has served me many different times in my life. My literary interest in her when I wrote BoJ had to do with our current Zeitgeist, my concerns about climate change and power systems and my boredom with superhero movies (I love some of them but am weary of the unending narratives and tropes that keep us inside very old and very tired ideas about heroism, gender, identity). We don’t need another hero (thunderdome!!! ha). We need to bring ourselves to life with fierce fire.