Sunshine State: Essays
(Harper Perennial, 2017)
In Sunshine State, Sarah Gerard nestles her personal stories within historical, social, and corporate movements that have shaped the lives of Florida inhabitants. The essays spiral out to encompass all of humanity, as she spirals in to excavate meaning in sanctuaries often overlooked.
In our interview, I often found myself in agreement with her. It’s a testament to the way she uses language to bring you to a resting place, without feeling she’s leading you there.
Sarah is also the author of Binary Star, and her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Vice, Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times, among other publications.
Christine Sang (Rail): Sunshine State (Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins) is a compelling mix of journalism and memoir, including over fifty pages of your research in the endnotes and the bibliography. The essays pierce your life in Florida, your parents, and characters from Amway, New Thought, and community kitchens. The essays exist in intersections of corporate and humanitarian movements. As a book nerd, I noticed sections of thoughts were noted with a different font. What elements did you choose to include, and what choices were decided by your editor and book designer?
Sarah Gerard: It was a very different process than Binary Star (2015), which came out on a small press called Two Dollar Radio, owned by a husband and wife. There were fewer parties making decisions in that case. At HarperCollins, I’m meeting with the whole publicity team, and the marketing team. HarperCollins can also afford to send me out on tour for a week and a half in Florida, and to events around the city. It’s a very different process.
Rail: Do you have a preference? Large house, small house?
Gerard: It’s just different. I appreciate the size of the team at HarperCollins because they can do a lot with the number of people that they have. But I also really liked the people I was working with at Two Dollar Radio and the spirit behind what they do. Their DIY attitude is close to my heart.
Rail: It’s almost as if your publishing experience is like your book itself, as in the personal framed within a larger social conscience.
Gerard: I think it’s really cool I get to release a book with HarperCollins, given that Rupert Murdoch is the owner of the company, because some of the things I’m saying in the book, are you know, politically…
Rail: Yes. The Betsy (DeVos) section.
Gerard: Yeah, the Betsy section…
Rail: —And the whole book. How did you chose what was included in your book?
Gerard: I sold Sunshine State on proposal. It was originally to be twelve essays which became eight by the time I turned in the manuscript. The essay about Amway was going to be two different essays. One was going to be about my parents’ time in this organization, and then another essay about residential development and how it has shaped the landscape of the Tampa Bay area. That became, for formal reasons, one essay.
The “Records” essay also started out as two. One about Jerod, one about Mitch. I couldn’t complete either of them, although I rewrote both of them many times. Eventually, I realized they were actually part of the same story.
There was going to be a third essay about my mom’s work with victims of domestic violence and separately, an essay about New Thought. Those things were happening at the same time in my mom’s life, and there was a certain commerce of ideas between the two, so I decided to combine those. Then there was another essay we had to cut.
Rail: What was that?
Gerard: It was about the Gulf of Mexico. I’d attended an oil spill conference in Tampa. I wanted to learn more about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s coming out now in an anthology of writing from Barrow Street Press. The title of the essay is “A Study of Human Responses to Man Made Disasters.”
Rail: What a title.
Gerard: I couldn’t finish the revision in time to turn it in with the book manuscript. So we planned to publish it separately, which happens.
Rail: How did you decide the order of the essays? They have a real shape—like a body, in the way the book’s format also reflects a person; a short entry to begin and end with in page length; and wider sections in-between; as if the book had a head, chest, waist, hips, knees, and feet. The close personal essays are on the top and the bottom, and then you have this body in the middle–a physical new body made of places important to you and have personal lines veining through them.
Gerard: In writing the book, I didn’t know what order the essays would appear. We decided that it would be best to open the book with an essay that was similar to Binary Star stylistically, in the sense that “BFF” is fragmented and nonlinear. And then roughly move chronologically through time. The very next essay after “BFF” opens with my baptism (“Mother-Father God,”) the beginning of a life. Then at the end of a life is “Rabbit,” which is the essay about death. The last essay is “Before: An Inventory,” which takes you back to the start.
Rail: “Before: An Inventory” and its flip backwards through memory, reminded me of Joe Brainard’s I Remember. “Rabbit,” in which you’re taken care of, follows after a moment in which you feel you can’t adequately take care of a bird. There’s an arc of waiting and time passing. Time connects the humanity of your father’s quest for perfection, your mother’s quest for connection, and other characters’ points of view, such as G.W. in the “The Mayor of Williams Park.”
Gerard: Right, he’s talking about people doing drugs, smoking dope, watching porn, and he’s like, those are temporal things. Things of this world.
Rail: Yes, here it is in the book. “Paul says, for men like me, all things are lawful—but are they beneficial? I don’t get freaked out about people swearing, having dope, watching porn, and whatever, because those are temporal things—things of this world. It’s: how do you act? How do you feel? How do you really feel about people? That’s what you have to fix: how you really feel about people.”
Gerard: Yes, G.W. is an incredible human, as an example of humanity. I was thinking a lot about faith, and how it carries us though hardship or hinders our ability to advance sometimes. Within that is an interest in eternity and how do we transcend our temporal bodies and how do we transcend death. Like in “Rabbit,” I was asking the question of what’s the point of love if we’re all just going to die. That’s a really blunt way to put it. But it’s true. It’s the truth.
Throughout the book, I’m looking at religion and this idea that there’s an eternal plane and there’s potential for eternal life, especially in New Thought (NT). They literally believe that you can meditate your way out of death. Pray your way out of your body. I don’t know if this quote actually ended up in the book, but my dad would say for a long time, “I don’t intend to die. I want to become the Body of Light”—which is an NT way of talking about Jesus and their idea that Jesus overcame, he transcended, death. He literally became a body of light.
Rail: When your father decided he didn’t want to be part of NT anymore, was he hoping for perfection?
Gerard: Yeah, I think they were. In NT, there really is a belief that you can affirm and deny away all examples of error on the mortal plane. Error being death or sin or sickness.
Rail: You write about how NT influenced you and your family, and, even our language—as in saying “they made a transition,” not “they died.” It made me aware of the ownership of my use of language. I questioned whether the words I used unconsciously weren’t chosen by me, but integrated into popular use by a spiritual movement.
Gerard: The NT movement really is fascinating. I didn’t know ’til I started doing this research that it was politically linked to the women’s movement. Cool, right! Even Elizabeth Cady Stanton was peripherally part of that world. Susan B. Anthony too. There’s so much in that movement. It’s mostly petered out now. But NT was a large movement for a long time.
Rail: It also interwove itself into other organizations.
Gerard: Yes! Look into the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Swedenborgianism. Many of the origins of NT happened in the Midwest, but a lot of it happened in the U.K. There’s so much that can be written about it. And the way that its shaped—well, it’s a symbiotic relationship—the way that it shaped American ideas of positivity as the cult of positivity, and the confusion of negativity.
Rail: Your book is dedicated to “Mother-Father.” Was that a reference to your essay, “Mother-Father God” or a spiritual belief you still hold?
Gerard: The dedication, Mother-Father? I just dedicated it to my parents. A tip of the hat.
It was definitely echoing that essay. And besides giving a nod to my parents, who figured in largely in this book. I figured it was the least I could do. Dedicate the book to them. They’re so much a part of it. Because I dedicated my first book to my ex-husband. So, my parents were next in line. [Laughter.]
Rail: Oh, how kind of you.
Gerard: Well he wasn’t my ex- at the time.
Rail: That might be even kinder? [Laughter.] You write about your husband in the book. You’re not together now.
Rail: I’m sorry.
Gerard: That happens.
Rail: May I ask if he’s O.K.? You mention his cancer.
Gerard: He’s fine now. He’s not going to die of cancer. It’s one of the most curable kinds. So he’ll be fine.
Rail: You use the word “religion,” but the book is so spiritual. How do you see this?
Gerard: Florida is in the southern states… And Florida is a very religious place. Some came from the characters that I was following, for instance, G.W. He’s a minister and his work is an expression of his system of belief. He’s non-denominational. But he’s a very religious person, in the fact that he’s an ordained minister. I was curious about how his belief would lead him to behave in the world. How his beliefs direct him. My parents too. How they used religion to change their lives or change their mind. How that later fed into their decision to join Amway (“Going Diamond”), which was a very cultish, heavily religious corporation, even as it claims to be voluntarily religiously associated. Participation in Sunday services at the functions that they hold periodically are voluntary but—
Rail: It’s a social pressure?
Gerard: They make it available, but they also suggest that you should go. Built into the philosophy of the company is the idea that people get rich because they are blessed by God. Rich DeVos (Amway’s co-founder) says God has given me this money to do as I deem fit.
Rail: That sense of responsibility to a bestowed obligation echoes throughout the essays. G.W. says, “To me, hell is squandering my abilities.” The characters seem to feel they are destined to fulfill a gift given to them individually.
Gerard: Even G.W. relates this mid-life changing dream/hallucination that he had while he was undergoing lung surgery, and he says it was as if God had sent him a message. “God told me I’m not done here, yet, I’m not done with you yet.” That led him to a religious life where he had never really been religious before. G.W. had always been interested in religion but he says, “I hate dogma.” In general, I was interested in what it means to believe something is true and the lengths we go to act on our belief, even if our beliefs are obviously wrong to any bystander. Look at Ralph, in “Sunshine State,” for example.
Rail: You picked the right people to write about, the right characters. They’re fascinating. When you go into a location, how do you pick the one person you’re going to focus on?
Gerard: I look for the most colorful ones I can find. It’s the one who immediately looks the most interesting.
Rail: What does “interesting” look like to you?
Gerard: For instance, Jimbo (“Sunshine State”): he’s a very colorful guy—literally very colorful, Hawaiian shirts. Bright red Converse high-tops. He smiles a lot. He immediately introduces himself. He’s very open. He talks a lot. I had a hunch about him.
Ralph was obvious because he’s the owner of the [bird] sanctuary. I found out very soon after the beginning of my volunteer gig there [at the sanctuary] that he had been embroiled in scandal for years. So that was a natural.
Rail: You didn’t know beforehand? Juicy!
Gerard: I know, right? I didn’t think I was in the need to know, because I wasn’t writing a who-done-it. I thought that I was just going to learn about ornithology. I read their official literature, their newsletters, and of course they wouldn’t talk about scandals there. Once I got there I found out pretty quickly and just followed the trail, because there was still a lot of shady stuff going on.
With G.W., I’d know him for years already and wanted to write about him. “Records,” was more of a hunch. I started writing about the character of Jerod. I was curious about what happened to him since the last time I saw him in person many years ago. I couldn’t find him anywhere. No paper trail. But I knew he’d been released from prison in Jacksonville around 2014, not long before I started writing that essay. I knew he was still alive somewhere. I’m pretty good at finding people. I’m a pretty good sleuth. It became an obsession of mine. In tracking him down, I came across his very lengthy criminal record. I really wanted to know what happened to him and how he’d got to this point.
Rail: He seemed so hopeful when we first meet him. You wrote, “He knows what he wants and who he is. He has a bright future.”
Gerard: Exactly. Eventually, I found him, but even finding him didn’t make enough of a story. I couldn’t figure out what the point was. I trust that my brain is smarter than I am as a writer. My brain is making associations that I might not even be aware of. I knew there had to be a reason I wanted to find out so badly what happened to him. Separately, I was writing about the person named Mitch in the book. I had the same problem with that essay. I couldn’t conclusively call what happened rape. That felt too dramatic to me. It was an unsure feeling and was not enough to conclude the essay. But then I thought, what happens if I made the framework in the book this entire year of my life. Then, because I had this specific time span, it was easier. I could see the patterns in myself during that time.
That’s how I chose those characters. They rose up from the depths of my past and had impacted me in some way, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
Rail: There’s a similar type of framework within the stories, it seems. With “Rabbit,” you keep returning to the beauty parlor, and each time there, you move into the personal once you have the place defined. You have a year as a framework, and then you go into the personal; you have Florida, the place, as a framework, and then you go into the personal.
Gerard: Right. That brings up framing in another spot. I discovered in my research on NT that the U-P.C. (Unity-Progressive Council, of which Sarah’s father was a founding member) had been founded on the centennial of the founding of Unity. I realized that my parents were getting involved in NT about 100 years after NT itself was founded. That became a framework. I jumped back and forth between this period of NT history and this period exactly 100 years later in Unity, and Unity Clearwater Church, and my parents’ story. You can see the structure of the essay because of that happy accident.
Rail: My parents lived in Clearwater. In reading some of your descriptions, I could smell it, I could see it. It was fun to revisit on the page.
Gerard: Florida is a great part of the world!
Rail: It is! It’s very unique.
Gerard: I wanted to avoid writing about the expected topics when people talk about Florida. Such as Scientology. I was born in Clearwater, but I didn’t want to retread the same ground. I looked for unique aspects of my own personal experiences growing up there. Scientology doesn’t feel personal to me.
Rail: I also don’t see any travelogue moments. The feeling of Florida came through an osmosis of the people and your experiences, rather than something like a travel brochure in a book.
Gerard: I didn’t want to write any pastoral nature-scapes. There’s something grittier and stranger than that. It’s almost a lie to talk about nature in Florida as if it’s untouched or unaffected by human interference.
Rail: Your writing style expresses a confident attitude about your past. Even in disclosing tumultuous moments and crises, you’re able to be very clear about what the facts were at that time, how you worked through them, and what the outcome was. What surprised you as you were uncovering memory?
Gerard: For the final essay, I visited a hypnotherapist to exhume dormant memories of the animals. A lot of them I hadn’t thought of for years. I had no reason to think about them. The hypnotherapist tried to explain to me how I would experience these recurrences of memory. It was really intense for a couple of days. I would be driving to an interview and a cluster would come to me, and I’d have to dictate about ten to fifteen animals in a burst, into my phone or into my digital recorder, which I was carrying at all times while I was doing this research. I actually began to think about time differently too. The recurrences were similar to time in a story as opposed to our lived experience of time. The animals in that essay appear in reverse chronological order but they actually came to me in these scattered bits that I had to reorder in an Excel spreadsheet and then figure out how to write as an essay/poem. The time in our brain isn’t linear. It’s built into our neuroscience. There are all these neurons in a spider-webby cluster that don’t actually make sense, except that they’re linked by feelings. They’re linked by associative imagery.
That was the impulse I was following when I was writing “BFF.” Start with the memory that stands out, even if it seems unimportant. Because I knew that it would lead me to the next piece of the story to be excavated.
Rail: Knowing what you reveal about yourself in Binary Star must mean you come to the stories in Sunshine State with deep empathic resonances for the people you’re interviewing. How do you live with that? Do you feel you need to help everyone?
Gerard: It’s hard because you need to keep a journalistic distance, to an extent. I think it’s a matter of realizing your limitations. Your physical, mental and financial limitations. It’s important to remember that even bearing witness to another person’s story is a kind of help. With Ralph or G.W. or Jerod, I couldn’t have pulled them out. I can be a friend to Jerod. I can listen to Ralph’s story and bring my passion to the telling of it. Because I don’t think Ralph is a bad person. Jerod’s done a lot of bad things. He’s actually a wonderful person with a big heart. Same with G.W. There were some things I could do. For instance, I read his novel and gave him feedback on it. When his computer crashed, I gave him one that I had used in the past, and wasn’t using anymore, because it would be helpful for him to finish his novel. But I couldn’t save all of the people that he works with. It was a matter of realizing that what I could bring to that situation was my ability to tell a story that could inspire empathy in others.
Rail: Is that your intent in your writing?
Gerard: I think that literature aims to inspire a feeling. To build an emotional relationship around the character. If you’re writing your character well, with the kind of dimensions we can relate to on a human level, you can understand even their reasons for doing… We talk a lot about unlikeable characters but I don’t think it’s important that a character is likeable or unlikeable. You can come to like someone you would never like in real life, in the form of a character, because you’re getting inside the psychology. As long as they’re interesting and keep the reader reading.
Rail: I thought you fulfilled that beautifully. I never felt there was judgment, but that they were speaking for themselves.
Gerard: They’re just themselves. Ralph and G.W. are the best examples of this, because in those situations, I was thinking of myself as a journalist. I was looking at them as characters that were carrying the essay, whereas in most of the other essays, I was the character, the protagonist.
I interviewed both of them extensively, and they tend towards very long quotes. They were chunky quotes, too, because there’s no reason for me to interject, or to offer my own interpretation. I think you can really ruin a story if you insert yourself in a place that doesn’t require you to be there. Who the writer is, or what the writer thinks is not always the most important thing, especially as a journalist. It’s really not my place to pass judgment. In those cases, it’s just to understand.
Rail: You’re a teacher.
Gerard: [Laughter.] Yes, I do teach. I teach writing.
Rail: When you write, do you think about the reader or do you put all your efforts into letting go on the page?
Gerard: I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I don’t know how to think about the reader, about who the reader is, because there’s no way for me to know that.
Rail: “The Mayor of Williams Park” is full of facts, but I became very emotional reading it. Fact, fact, fact. The form overwhelmed me. It left me feeling motivated. I would not have guessed that was possible.
Gerard: I wonder if that’s because G.W. cares so much. He is the protagonist but he makes a very good argument for, simply put, treating people like people.
Rail: Yes, but as the writer, you’re choosing the specific facts and voice for the story.
Gerard: It’s a good point. Yes, if I had centered Robert Marbut in that essay, and had explored his philosophy, it would be a very different essay, right? I happened to agree with G.W. on pretty much every point. The factual information I included in that essay was meant to support, or demonstrate G.W.’s philosophy, as opposed to Robert Marbut’s.
And you’re right, they’re just the facts. It is a fact that forty percent of people experiencing homelessness are children. You know, how can you not care about that. It’s a fact that non-white and LGBT people are disproportionately—and immigrants and women—are disproportionately represented in the homeless population. That women of color have a higher likelihood to experience violence if they’re homeless. In a certain way, that if you do present the bare facts, they tell their own story. It’s wonderful if the reader feels motivated to go out and take action after reading this. But I’m not really thinking about getting people to do something when I write. It’s that the facts themselves have power.
Rail: In the essay with G.W., I think the point you make from the accumulation of facts is that the only difference between the success of two peoples’ lives is a home.
Gerard: That’s the only difference, yeah. That’s true, right? The only difference.
Rail: Your craft as a writer in using facts to show the difference between a homeless person’s problems and a person with a home caused an emotional catharsis in me as a reader.
Gerard: I’m not sure what to say about that. I think a lot of that is story craft, too. At the end of a piece, you should have a feeling, an emotional peak. So, as a writer you organize the facts. How can I include this fact, if I’m going to make this point here, using these facts to support it, what needs to precede this such that a reader will understand and empathize and have a sense of progression through the story. At every moment checking, reassessing: where am I now, what else do I need to include before so that this moment makes sense?
I tend to write scattershot. I don’t really have a method or habit. I’m writing a novel right now. It began as a short story and it’s becoming a novel, because I went back to the beginning and I’m expanding it throughout. Inserting scenes here, here, here, here, rearranging whole sections. There’s no linearity as the story emerges from my brain. There’s only a sense of progression on the page. It’s an internal sense of the writer, not really progression; but I’m figuring out what this question means and how to answer it, within myself. But that’s a really messy process. I notice the holes along the way. I have to go back and fill in them in. I’ll notice myself making a statement that I can’t completely substantiate, if someone were to question me, so then I have to go do some more research or find a way to support my idea. The finished product of an essay or a story is a form of documentation of my own ultimate ability to make sense of a very messy question. So that feeling of catharsis that you might have, is my own. It’s the best that I could do to answer the question within myself. It’s really not so much about what the reader might do.
Rail: You conduct interviews as a part of your research. If you were going to interview yourself, what question would you want to answer?
Gerard: I don’t know because I don’t know what I don’t know about myself. It’s hard to say.
Rail: Do you live in Brooklyn now? Do you have any places there you find resonate as Florida to you?
Gerard: I really like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It’s nothing like Florida, except that I get to be around strange plants. It’s the place I can find the most exotic ones. But I have a tradition that every year on my birthday, I go to the Botanic Garden and see the roses.
Rail: You have a dance background.
Gerard: I took ballet, character, pointe classes from fifth grade to eighth grade.
Rail: And you’re a singer. How has that influenced your writing?
Gerard: I think being a singer is a literal analog to having a voice. My favorite aria is Amarilli, Mia Bella by Caccini. And also Lascia Ch’io Pianga, which I talk about in “Records.” My study of music taught me to listen closely. When I’m writing, too, I’m looking for the different sounds words make, and how one word suits another in a sentence and within a paragraph. Or how I can repeat a word and assign its meanings at different points in the story, and observe how its meanings change or transform. It’s like theme and variation in a piece of music.
Rail: Do you read your work out loud?
Gerard: Always. You have to. Otherwise it reads like garbage on the page!
Rail: You have a trained ear to listen with, so it might be a slightly different experience for you than for other writers without that kind of background.
Gerard: It’s possible. Just on a practical level though, a writer should always read her work aloud. You get so used to seeing the same sentence over and over, you might miss when you repeat a word, or might not catch that you use the word, bluebell three paragraphs in row. Because you’re so used to reading on the page, it becomes invisible. You’re snow-blinded on the page. But if you read aloud, you can’t help but hear that this one word stands out.
There’s usually a better, simpler way to say something. My dad, being a journalist, and trained in brevity, taught me that if a sentence is longer than a single breath then it’s too long, unless there is a semicolon or comma or something in the middle. Which I learned in music too– what’s a good time to take a breath. The phrase should be just long enough for a breath.
Rail: Who are you reading right now?
Gerard: Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace (McSweeney’s 2017). It came out in mid-March. It’s a book about suicide but it’s just hilarious, and also extremely sad, but in a way that would never make you feel despair. Her voice is like nothing—I don’t know how she does it. It’s so dry, and funny, but incredibly dark. It’s detached but also so present in each moment. I’m mystified by her. Her book is so good.
I’m also reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I’m interested right now in reading a lot about love. Love, desire, sex. I’m trying to define love. Which sounds so stupid; how could you do that; but—because I recently broke up with my long-term partner—because I’m seeing new people now. I’m also dating women, in a serious way, for the first time. I’m thirty-one. I’m developmentally at my sexual peak. I’m thinking a lot about sex and love from a political standpoint too. I’m also looking very skeptically at our heteronormative values in love and commitment. I’m trying to understand a definition of it, and to see what else there is.
Rail: You’re trying to put it down in words a thing that has no words to it. It’s not concrete.
Gerard: I was at HarperCollins signing a bunch of books this morning, and I was talking to my editor about this. She is aware of this new book I’m writing and she’s also in a long-term relationship that’s different from others she’s ever been in. She and I have become very close, because of writing this book, and she knows my ex- well and she knows my story well. I asked her, you know, Erin, what is love? We don’t know and we only have this one word for it, yet it describes so many things. It’s an insufficient word to describe it. It contains and constitutes so much of the human experience, and because we only have this one word in the English language, it superimposes cultural expectations on situations that can’t sustain or meet those expectations. There are a million examples of this: heterosexual love, polyamorous love, sex that is separate from love, that has nothing to do with love—or relationships that in our most romantic moments meet the criteria for true love, but only last six months.
In Sunshine State I was looking at belief, faith, and religion in the same way. What does it mean to believe that something is true? What does it mean to believe anything at all? Are our beliefs mutable; are they ironclad. These are people who tend to believe the immutable and eternal, but look at my parents’ story. Even their beliefs, as strong as they were, crumbled soon after they left that church. We weren’t indoctrinating ourselves daily so what does it mean to believe at all.
What I observed about beliefs happened in the action of these stories. Something we can believe, is just to observe what these characters do, like Ralph and hoarding. I don’t have an official diagnosis for Ralph, so I can’t actually say he’s mentally ill, but we observe his behavior, and we see that his beliefs fall very outside the mainstream, based on the way that he behaves. Even if he says he believes one thing, we can see that his beliefs aren’t founded in his reality. What does it mean to believe? How do we stand up against challenges? What is the value of how you believe?—that’s what I’m trying to get at: how you believe.
Rail: And does a belief have to go on forever?
Gerard: And what is the expectation? Why is there an expectation? Why are we so afraid of changing? Why are we so afraid of our loved ones changing? Changing their beliefs?
Rail: Speaking of love, can I ask about Ashley. Are she and “BFF” the same people?
Gerard: Oh no, they are different people. “BFF”? I didn’t want to name her as a respect of privacy. But Ashley read the book and loved it. She really came out of a difficult situation, and “BFF” has also come out of a difficult situation too.
Rail: Do you have contact with her?
Gerard: No. We have lots of mutual friends. So they are both doing well now. Thank god, right?
Rail: I wasn’t expecting that. It’s almost a happy-ever-after ending, right?
Gerard: In “Records,” I have that coda at the end, the “after-words,” because I was thinking about time passing and things changing over time. For instance, I got the tattoos that “BFF” and I shared, covered up. Adolescence is a great time to look at if you’re thinking about the maturation of your mind. Then maturation is mapped on to your physical bodies. We carry that effect of our lived life, daily. I got that tattoo covered up by a tattoo, by someone who also affected trauma in my life. I, at the time, was really trying to grapple with the meaning of that, and that friendship. It feels very messy.
Rail: There’s no reason it has to be figured out.
Gerard: Patty Yumi Cottrell said something really smart: writing is not therapeutic in any way. [“Writing Is Not Therapeutic in Any Way,”interview by Claire Luchette, Lit Hub, March 21, 2017] My thought is that it’s not as if once you finish writing, you can leave that experience behind, and that you’ve figured that out now. The memory of it is a part of your neuroscience, which itself is not linear. Whereas in writing a story you reach a conclusion, in your mind you don’t have that. You know it’s not the only version of the story that exists in the world. There’s another version of that story that lives on in your brain. There’s a minor sense of peace that comes with telling a story of your trauma, but it’s not like it erases your trauma. I’m using the word trauma because it’s a single word but, there are things not necessarily traumatic, yet I have to continue to grapple with, as a human being in the world. You know how writers write about the same things over and over? It’s because we don’t figure it out. It’s because the things that we write about are emotional touchstones: we navigate there, and then we move away again, but not because we’ve figured them out and we’re perfectly at peace in our lives. It’s why writers are some of the most troubled people on the planet, because even though it’s the way that we process our lived experience, it’s not a form of therapy necessarily. It’s not like I’m at peace with what happened between “BFF” and I, nor will I ever be. Or with Mitch—like, I still don’t ever know.