As I Draft: Choosing One Story (but Writing Two)

In Kuwait I got massage from a Filipino woman named ­Charo. (Her name is not Charo). In our time together she told me stories about arriving to Kuwait, working for an abusive family, finding placement in salons, learning massage, supporting her family back home. For a few years I thought about how to make a story of that story. I was naked. She was clothed. Something about that dynamic – the physical reversal of constructed authority (me, a white woman in the hands of brown woman in a country where racism was daily apparent) and Charo’s interruption of the usual relationship between masseuse and client, her filling all the silence with her story so that I had to listen – something about that dynamic is powerful.

I began to draft the story and yesterday I thought there should be something else happening to the narrator too. Like Charo’s story is a contrast or complement to another narrative. Many of my stories are like this: two or three lines to trace through. One of the stories I submitted to winter workshop is about a woman looking for the hottest water at a public bath in Budapest. But inside that story is another, of the trauma she carries around. Because that is how it works to be a person: we walk through good and terrible days carrying a bunch of good and terrible things.

And events or emotions entangle. I appreciate and examine the complication. There was a year when I wanted to have an affair. That same year a friend’s infant died. When I think of one, I often think of the other. Or when I remember traveling to Australia, I go my grandfather. We were at the gate when I saw my mother’s email. When I think of Australia, I think of a twinned narrative: that I might have canceled a plan and gone home to Wisconsin winter instead. When I think of Australia, I am seven, balancing on the crossbar of Grandpa’s ten-speed, racing down the hill. There was wind and his perspiration and the command not to fidget.

So yesterday I thought about what to add to this Charo story. Give the narrator a separate experience. Entwine the two. But I wonder if the better story is to understate the narrator’s separate life: it is there, given in a few lucid details, but not brought forward.

I consider who is telling the story. And whose story am I telling. The narrator is a white woman like me. I want her to listen like I listened to Charo. How do I write to make the narrator listen, to let the reader hear too? I think now this story is still an entanglement of two: listening is its own story.

Entangled As A Reader

I read The Diary Of Anne Frank when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember laying on the bottom bunk in the room my sister and I shared, sobbing because Anne wouldn’t grow up. She wouldn’t explore kissing or become a teacher. I closed the book and found Mom. I needed her to hold me. I felt Anne’s loss in my body: the abrupt cut in her diary cut me, deeply, because as long as I had pages to turn she and I were the same dreaming adolescent.

As a kid, I lived in my head. I was always making things up (re: imagining, lying, pretending), carrying the make-believe into real life. This a fantastic way to live as a kid. Even now. But a shift occurred in my pretend when I began reading chapter books. I got sucked into The Boxcar Children and The Littles and Little House On The Prairie. These series gave me templates for pretend, the last, a frontier that I held onto long past wearing a calico bonnet Mom made me, tramping through the backyard. Through high school and into college, I continued reading other frontier fiction like O Pioneers! and Giants In The Earth as well as pioneer women’s diaries. I loved imagining that was my life.

Small leap to think that one reason I determined to move abroad was that frontier fantasy.

Most reading is entanglement with an end. Narrative holds me for its pages, and a little after, or when I remember a title. There are books I remember single lines or scenes from, and I close my eyes, remembering two things at once: my experience as a reader (the surprise, sorrow, pleasure, humor) and my experience as a character, when I lived that line or scene. Isn’t that why we read at all? To go live another life, wearing new skin, looking out through another’s eyes? Don’t we read to entangle ourselves in a place that isn’t the one we’re planted in?

I get entangled in these other lives and find characters who aren’t so different from me: Anne in her diary, wanting; Gauri in The Lowland, not wanting. There’s an ache and joy in finding our own secret or fault in someone else’s hand, turning the pages of their loss and gain. Such beauty in recognizing and connecting with characters, practicing empathy.

There is always more. Please post a book you got entangled in.


I know practically nothing about quantum entanglement aside from a short primer via NPR’s Invisibilia at the top of their show “Entanglement” and a hasty Google search. Even so, I’ve been writing around the idea of

as per
writing and reading

for the past week. Writing last week’s fiction workhorse, I thought about my relationship to my characters. Writers show up in their fictional pieces. Always in tiny ways – a snip of remembered conversation, the name of a restaurant. But sometimes we put more of ourselves into a character. And sometimes a character gets into us. I carry these people around. It’s like a joke my mom told (did it happen? or was it only a joke?) about a woman at a prayer meeting, sending up prayers for all these people in terrible situations. Turns out she was interceding on behalf of a soap opera.

Entanglement is interesting enough to me that I’ll keep exploring. Go listen to the episode linked above. The first story, “Mirror Touch,” is a beautiful and complex picture of synesthesia.