I’ve abandoned the set narrative path. After months of turning over inside my old head, wearing thin a commute between home and work and my ex’s house – a black rubber triangle that tightened with every trip and burnt as summer steamed in – I cut the cord and let go of that man, that lifestyle, that image of my best self. That true white picket-fenced cut-out with less and less wiggle room that I’d so wanted, that ‘everyone’ wants, that suited my stance and complexion and I was good at. I shopped for groceries and put dinner in the oven and packed my things and cried and left.
How can we make sense of and for people who feel like their life is caught in a trap? Confined, limited, unable to make a difference in personal circumstances or on a wider social world? In sociology, people say this feeling is a result of how we individualistically conceptualise our selves and our place within wider social life; it’s a phenomenon that exists because people ‘do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man (sic) and society, of biography and history, of self and world.’ This idea, of course, is tied into an argument for the value of the discipline – that a sociological ‘quality of mind’ is what can elevate us into a realm of higher understanding, freeing our imaginations and increasing our powers of acting in society.
Now, with a doctorate and a mostly finished novel and a new city and new love I am left wondering two similar things: how to write characters after sociology, and how to make sense of my own biography since I’ve been possessed by the sense of a trap, and have now abandoned the script. A nagging seed of want for different, for not-this, for more and less at the same time (more power, less work) resolved itself in me as a process of undoing. I have untied the knots of meaning that propelled the story forward, and now float without that pace or biographical structure. What I search for now are other ways for making a self and characters that aren’t about putting together a coherent and moving story.
The illusory horizon of our biographies as we understand them is ‘bounded by the private orbits’ in which we live. Practical goals and imagined future lives develop from our current personal circumstances, and we project into the future using familiar frames. I wrote a novel where the characters do not imagine radically different futures for themselves, nor work to overcome the conditions of their existence, to consider the everyday ways that power and social hierarchies are ‘passed on’. Personal problems with vague roots and grey borders take precedence over complex bigger issues and characters turn in, happiness is sought, personal development lends momentum, and an upward trajectory is the biographical goal.
And when experience outstrips the data? I suppose the question how do you make sense for me is about writing others, and about being a woman who loves women and making sense of the undoing and limbo that change took in what I research and read.
Sara Ahmed writes that being thrown off course may lead to the opening up of possibility or the loss of a desired future, and that maybe it is when life loses its shape we sense how a life has had a shape. Possibilities also come through the loss of a desirable future, a queer failure to stay the path that’s set. Already highlighted was the shape and path of the one story I left and now it is the story-ing I am stuck on. Ahmed says, the shape of a life might be something we sense only after it has been acquired. What do we do as the acquirer? What does this mean for writing fiction?
The uneasiness that can arise from the depth of a biography may be translated in sociological research as specific personal troubles with connected social issues. This translation still relies on a narrative path in scholarship as it does in fiction. The story-ing structures we use to make experiences coherent do not always best serve us. To think laterally about an experience as a social phenomenon without tying the meaning of that experience to a biographical trajectory perhaps requires not a narrative but a lyricism. What affects us and our characters in the nearness of radical change may be best magnified through moments without stories. In abandoning the narrative we might begin to acquire new shape.
Ahmed S 2017, Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mills CW, 1959, The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.