Becoming Realer: A Conversation with the Surreal

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" cover shot by Helen McFadyen

Earlier this month, Beijing-born storyteller and essayist Yiyun Li came to Saint Mary’s for a craft talk and reading. One of the things she said is that we write to be in dialogue with writers whom we admire. Li’s words reminded me of something similar I heard in high school from a screenwriter, who said writers write because they love actors. I couldn’t agree more.

Before our summer hiatus, I wrote about feeling like I was finally a part of the Asian American movement in San Francisco after meeting Flo and Nellie Wong at an art exhibition last spring. After such a grandiose rush of historical connection, my thoughts have turned inward once again, mainly to ideas about persona and “the dialogical self.”

One of the first books of poetry recommended to me was Open House by Beth Ann Fennelly. In her long poem, “From L’hotel Terminus Notebooks,” her speaker has an internal argument with a man who represents the critic’s voice. The voice is antagonistic and imaginary, yet also a part of herself. Psychologist Hubert Hermans considers this, the relationship between all the disparate voices in our minds, to be “the dialogical self.” The self in dialogue.

When asked which authors her work is in dialogue with, Yiyun Li cited William Trevor as one of her major influences. She also named Milan Kundera, though, as she put it, she no longer feels the need to converse with his books. I wondered if someday I too would no longer feel a need to converse with his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book that has inspired my writing persona for quite a few years now. Despite new developments in my persona (something I wrote about last spring), Sabina and her bowler hat still represent something I yearn for: an eerie sadness follows her character, but so does a sense of freedom. Sabina is a woman burdened with weightlessness, and despite the fact that I crave concreteness in my work, I can’t stop my desire to defy gravity.

It’s been about a month since I last wore my bowler hat, but I’ve started wearing it again because I miss the woman I used to be when I wore it. The woman who read a book and fell in love with an idea, knowing that it was Kundera who warned, “A single metaphor can give birth to love.” The woman who sat all afternoon at a mosaic coffee table, wearing a bowler hat and hoping to discover some greater truth about herself through the character played by Swedish actress Lena Olin in the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I can still hear that woman’s voice in my head, and she certainly has a soft spot for actors.

Several months into my second year at Saint Mary’s, I am witnessing a slow evolution in my writing process. Perhaps this is what’s responsible for the re-emergence of the bowler hat—I’m not ready to let go of the metaphor. Maybe I haven’t figured it out yet. Whatever the cause, I have decided to embrace the more airy, abstract parts of my personality because they too are part of becoming realer. In this strange process of abandoning some of my most fundamental ideas about writing and clinging tight to others, sometimes I’m not sure which voices to listen to: those I hear, those I read, those of others, or the many that compose my vast internal monologue. In the past, I’ve wanted to converse with all of them, but that has led to endless possibilities—and beginnings with no endings.

6 thoughts on “Becoming Realer: A Conversation with the Surreal

  1. Thanks, Lois! It’s certainly been a journey, and that’s one of my favorite things about writing.

  2. Fascinating work at the interface of novelistic literature and psychology.
    Maybe, you would like to present something at the 8th International Conference on the Dialogical Self, 19-22 August, 2014, in The Hague, The Netherlands?

  3. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so honored! The 8th International Conference on the Dialogical Self sounds like an amazing experience, and I would love to present something next summer!

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