Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Amy O’Neil’s fiction piece, Wrapping Around the World Twice
John: You do an excellent job here emulating the chaos of the mind in the structure of the piece. How did you go about writing it? Did you plan everything out beforehand, or do you just let things develop however they want to?
Amy: I tend to let things develop in a loose way at first. I have a few ideas knocking around and I don’t know how they’ll work together yet. So initially I do some note-taking, allow myself to daydream, watch things, read, and generally try to be alert to my environment so other ideas can come in and influence the tenuous ones I already have. I like stories where two or more disparate elements are working together in a new way. In this case, I was already mulling over a story in which a teenager who lived by the sea found fish washing up in her house. I didn’t know the significance of that. Then I had one of those late nights when I was overtired and needed to go to bed, but ended up going down a bit of a YouTube hole. I don’t know how I got there, but I found myself watching some pretty leftfield stuff on multiple realities and Transurfing. This felt like an irresistible leaping off point for a story. I wondered how I’d go about writing something where different realities were bleeding into each other. The imagery of water and being ‘lost at sea’ fit perfectly with the idea of both reality and the teenage mind-state being malleable and a bit leaky. So the two things came together. Structurally, it made sense for the sections and even the sentences themselves to be somewhat unstable. But in terms of the process, I don’t plan. I tend to play with structure and shape in the second draft, teasing it out from whatever is already there.
I love the way this story plays with identity, which, as you point out, is a slippery and strange thing when you begin to examine it at all. Are we just a collection of memories loosely tethered to some current-moment sense impressions, or are we something more?
In fiction, we really are using the material of memory and sense impressions to build our characters, and I don’t see why as real-life characters we are any different. I don’t think there is a solid self behind the culmination of those things, particularly. However, to avoid being completely dissociated and dysfunctional, it’s probably a good idea to live as if we are solid, consistent and fixed in some ways. In real life for example—especially as I get older, this sense of knowing myself feels pleasant and empowering. It means I can better advocate for myself because of this knowledge, this illusion of solidity. But in fiction at least, it’s exciting for me to unravel that a bit. And I’m interested in moments in people’s lives where they become untethered. I think teenagehood is a particularly interesting time where identity is at its most nebulous, and yet people are asking you to make huge decisions about your future.
It seems that trauma tends to have a much stronger hold on us than joy or happiness. Do you think, as we get older, that we increasingly become just a product of our bad experiences, or can we bring something more to our lives?
I think as opposed to trauma, we don’t absorb joy or happiness in the same way. We don’t carry them in our bodies. When others talk about grief for example, it doesn’t come and go like happiness, but gets worked into who you are. So we’re dealing with different beasts. I’m a huge optimist though, and even if we are increasingly a product of our bad experiences, I don’t think that in itself is a bad thing. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth, highlighting that it’s possible to thrive and build resilience from trauma. But there are no shortcuts to the growth part—we have to go through and feel all the pain and grief and trauma fully. I think fiction is a great way to rehearse some of these emotions, these big, impossible life events. I suppose that’s why bad experiences, for a writer, are often so compelling. Those times are the most life-altering, and self-altering, and perhaps then, more rich than joy or happiness. We absolutely need joy too, but it seems to have less heft in terms of who we become.
The Japanese monk Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” Do you agree? And is forgetting the self something to be desired?
I think most things disintegrate upon close examination. So yes, I do agree that the self is very flimsy and forgettable. Is this desirable? I’d also say, yes to an extent. I think we are naturally drawn to things that allow us to forget ourselves: fiction, music, film, dance, salted caramel cheesecake—these are all surefire ways to obliterate the self. Other times, the self rears up and demands a voice—when you’re dealing with life admin—talking to the tax office or payroll or asking for something you think you deserve, it’s useful. Self-preservation is useful; self-improvement can be useful. But, when you’re in the shower or reading a book, it’s just another idea that pops up and sticks for a while before sliding off again. Too much investment can be exhausting and anxiety-inducing. Forgetting yourself is a tonic. Noticing the rain out the window, relaxing your grip on everything for a minute, can ironically be an act of self-care.