In “The Experimental Essay and Personal Trauma: Navigating the Gaps” (QAE 17), his reflection on the difficulties of writing about his wife and son, who died in a car accident, Joel Peckham describes how narrative, a form he had once trusted failed him:
The problems came when I turned to face the lives of my wife and son, to try to put down who they were, how they lived. When I tried to tell their stories, I found I couldn’t do it. The direct gaze was painful and fraught with too much pressure. I felt that I needed to write eulogies and couldn’t.
And I felt that anything I had to say would be a failure. After a while I began to realize that the attempt to tell a story was the problem—one only exacerbated by a therapeutic culture that sees grief and recovery as a process with a beginning, middle, and end and “identity as a narrative achievement.” Still, as I wrote about my experiences, I began to distrust the appropriateness and even the honesty of linear narrative.
By writing essays that were “frenetic, unsettled … episodes from different moments in time, poems and pieces of poems, scholarly inquiry, and flights of fancy and fantasy” Peckham found a way to avoid “termination—a forestalling of the inevitability of death through a series of moves that continually pull the plot back to the beginning.” Peckham’s “sequences of narrative fragments that drove towards indeterminacy were, Peckham writes, “inherent ‘failures,’” but he means that in a good way. “I don’t believe I succeeded in creating an understanding of who Cyrus and Susie were. I was, in fact, actively resisting that impulse…They were not, I insisted, characters in a story.”
He goes on to celebrate the possibilities experimental forms created as he wrote about grief and trauma:
Non-linear form allowed me to create with honesty. Not only could I fully play with repetition and to, as Freud wrote, “make ever more complicated detours,” I could continue to cycle back and forth and resist closure—and death. More importantly the form performed the paralyzing difficulties at the heart of the play. All non-linear narrative must deal with silence. Must deal with the sudden stops and starts and the gaps in-between…
So many of us who write face this struggle to tell the story of our lives even as we realize our lives are not stories, our loved ones are not material, our grief doesn’t end with a single epiphanic nugget of wisdom. Does this mean linear narrative is an inherently flawed form for the expression of personal trauma? Is experimental writing uniquely suited to these sorts of subjects? Peckham doesn’t go so far as to give yes or no answers to these questions, but he does insist that avoiding linear narrative is not the same thing as avoiding truth, clarity, or genuine communication with readers.