Writing about our past experiences requires reflecting on them and accepting them for what they are―human experiences. Exposing our true identities may feel less than cathartic at times because of the shame and guilt we carry. We hold back for fear of external judgment from our readers, but when the past meets the present, we find the opposite. The real conflict is an internal struggle with our judgment of self.
I’ve been staring at white space for a few days now. The problem isn’t that I can’t write. It’s Anna. Ten years ago, I killed her, but she’s still here, demanding that I recognize that she’s not going anywhere. She’s persistent that way.
Sometimes we call upon the muse. Sometimes the muse calls upon us.
In late 2001, I enrolled in an introductory fiction writing course at a small community college just north of Atlanta. It was my first semester back after flunking out nearly a decade before, and I sat there twice per week and ate pudding, not for the taste, but because it was the only item at the student center that didn’t crunch. I stared at the in-class assignment, a prompt which required me to write about internal conflict. “Write what you know,” Schachner said. I swallowed another spoonful and journaled a few things I knew and others I thought I knew.
- I haven’t been on more than three dates with one person since Geoff broke my heart five years ago.
- I need to be married by next year or I’ll never have kids.
- I can’t tell my parents or friends I’m here because I faked a college graduation. I won’t even be in a “real” math class for three more semesters.
- If I get drug tested tomorrow, I’ll be fired.
- A few weeks ago, terrorists hijacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center.
I settled on the only one that didn’t make me look or feel like a pathetic loser: 9/11. As a flight attendant, I knew I could tell the story. In fact, I had a lot of airline stories. What I didn’t know was that 1. The stories would never be viewed as fictional even though I wrote them in third-person point of view, and 2. Over the next ten years, that third person, Anna, would expose everything on the list and far more.
PALINDROME ANNA: EMPLOYEE #150051
Coming and Going
Palindromes are words, numbers, or phrases that read the same forward or backward. The word is derived from the Greek roots “again” and “direction.” Palindromes aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been found in archaic texts in multiple languages. While often used as code language or brain teasers, different forms are often present in literature, movies, and music, too. Linguists who study palindromes often view words as images and with practice can view words and sentences forward and backward with the same fluency. It’s like reading through a dyslexic lens.
In the post-9/11 airline world, fire extinguishers were no longer for fighting fires. Oxygen was no longer for medical emergencies. Freshly brewed coffee and Cokes were no longer complimentary beverages. They were all potential weapons against people who were no longer passengers. I needed a character in a navy blue suit with starched white cuffs extending just beyond the blazer sleeves and a ponytail at the nape of her neck, earrings no bigger than dimes, and black socks that rose from a minimum of a ½-inch heel and hit mid-shin. She didn’t wear nail polish, and she was taught to wear minimal makeup by a Mary Kay specialist after ditching from a mock airplane into a pool.
I gave Anna my Delta Employee Number, 150051, before I named her. During the first year, she was Grace, Bree, and Bryn. They felt as awkward as a first date with no spark. I thought I found the perfect name for a flight attendant when I called her Gypsy, but like the others, I broke it off after a story or two. The palindrome name of Anna wasn’t intentional, but whether coincidence or fate, there was an instant connection.
Beginnings and Endings
Anna peeked around the Boeing 757 mid-galley wall from her cabin jump seat and practiced the “but-for” test. Are you eyeing him because he looks Middle Eastern, or are you suspicious because of his actions? Her eyes shifted to the passengers seated at the exit rows. Twelve broad shouldered males with puffed chests and furrowed brows were certainly “able and willing.” Seatbacks were upright, tray tables were stowed, and there was no luggage at their feet. They weren’t slumped left or right or awkwardly restrained by neck pillows. There were no bare feet creeping up the bulkhead walls or cheeks pressed against windows. Running shoes had been paired with slacks. They were united, almost locking elbows atop armrests. They were ready to roll. Anna received notes from two air marshals who looked like imposters in sport coats several sizes too large and another from the gate agent about the non-rev pilot in plainclothes at 27C. The marshals stared at pages within books to avoid seatmate interaction, but the pilot, like Anna, scanned the cabin continually. Typically exhausted, fear kept them awake. Anna slipped him the seat assignments of the marshals. “I just wanted to let you know your dog is on board,” she said.
Takeoffs and Landings
Apparently, a voyeuristic peek into an unfamiliar industry in crisis or even not in crisis is intriguing to some. It’s like a peep show in Vegas, complete with track lighting and filthy carpet. When the passengers settled into the new normal of “safety and comfort” and strike-anywhere matches were banned, a pubic hair on a soap dish and another on the fitted sheet in a random Holiday Inn in Allentown, Pennsylvania, were suddenly exciting. Readers wanted to see the captain do a cannonball into a hotel pool shaped like Alabama in Montgomery. They likely never ate airline food again after Anna wiped potato salad off her shoe and placed it on a first-class tray after forgetting to secure the meal carts for takeoff. They partied in Shannon, Ireland, during a mechanical delay. They smoked weed in a tiny bathroom at the St. Francis in San Francisco. They went to brothels, bathhouses, and pharmacies. They met prostitutes and perverts. They played Farmville in the secret world hidden beneath Concourse A in Atlanta. They saved George Jones’ life. They might have dreamt about hotel fire alarms. They rode jump seats to forty-nine states, countless countries, and six continents.
Anna wasn’t meant to stick around, but when I gave her a voice, she knew what to do with it. She had an eye for detail and her experiences drew readers in. Initially, she made my life easier. She earned high scores and praise. I liked that she was preserving my travels through creative journaling in the process. It felt like cheating, but if she could do a better job than I could, then that was my own subgenre of fiction: distanced nonfiction with no threat of exposure fiction. Anna became my co-pilot and my muse.
Pass or Fail
During my Senior Seminar course at Georgia State University, I received some harsh feedback that was difficult to chew on. “Tell it like it is, and it is,” Russell said. “Remember, we’ve seen your peer reviews. You’re not doing any of the things you’re telling them to do. And, is that pudding?” It was my third course with Russell, and he had gotten to know Anna pretty well.
“Yes. And, I hate pudding,” I said. “It’s the only snack that doesn’t make noise.” It wasn’t like it was comfort food. I wanted to cry in the silent blob of brown. I wanted him to move on to the kid who wrote about the two tennis-playing lesbians having sex in front of the fireplace.
I knew what he meant, but it wasn’t until then that I realized I was writing scenes, not stories. I had the background and experience, but that wasn’t enough. I was avoiding the story. Anna was distancing herself from the actual story. The classic definition of story goes something like this: a character wants something, sets out to get it, faces obstacles of outer and/or inner variety, succeeds or fails, and is changed by the experience (Payne, 2010).
Anna was born from a prompt on conflict, and wiping potato salad from her shoe and putting it on a first-class tray didn’t count. The eye for detail and the voice couldn’t make up for the lack of story. At that precise moment, I knew what she wanted. She wanted the closest exit. The failure hit hard. Russell didn’t say, “I know this is you, and I know you have stories because we all do.” Instead, he punctured the one story where I had done all the things required: I set out to get a degree a decade after flunking out. I hurdled 9/11, failed relationships, Delta bankruptcy, and narrowly escaped being laid off. I came clean to my parents and friends about the graduation lie, and I managed to buy a home and graduate. I was changed by the experience, but the new decade was filled with even messier experiences. I studied the craft for six years, and it felt like Russell threw me into a gutter filled with chocolate pudding.
I’ve been staring at white space for a couple months now. The problem isn’t that I can’t write. It’s Anna. Ten years ago, I killed her, but she’s still here, demanding that I recognize she’s not going anywhere. She’s persistent that way.
The past is always in the present.
Past and Present
I can typically write a damn good essay in two hours, but only if it’s within my comfort zone. Want me to teach you how to write more concisely? Want me to teach you how to peer review? Those are two-hour, comfort-zone essays. I could write an essay on how to ride a bike, and the bike would have streamers, a basket, and gears or no gears, but if you think anyone learns to ride a bike by reading an essay, then give your kid the essay, a bike, and have the camera ready. When he or she crashes, you can say, “What happened? Didn’t you read the instructions?” The kid can read the instructions fifteen times, but in the end, you’ll still have to run alongside a hundred times and push until you can’t feel your arms and legs, and finally, at some point, they’ll remember to pedal and won’t faceplant into the gutter and weep.
The white space is my gutter. It feels like an early morning walk of shame down Main Street. I have grocery-store feet, and one eye is bigger than the other. Maybe it’s the big fight I had with my husband last month when he said 95% of what I said wasn’t important. Fire. Right Engine. Maybe it’s the big fight I had with him shortly after we married when he snuck and read my novel while I was on a trip. Fire. Left Engine. Maybe it’s the fight we had in the JFK airport when he met one of the characters, a pilot who I previously dated. Terrain. Terrain. Maybe he’s never sure which one he’s going to get. It’s getting more difficult to tell us apart.
In May of 2008, I arrived at Queens University of Charlotte. Most writers had stories to tell and they knew how to tell them. I had scenes. The stories were there, but I didn’t know how to tell them, why I needed to tell them, or if I even wanted to tell them. The goal was to have work published, and plans went into action early. I made it in without Anna, but I needed her quickly. I had a novel to write.
For the first six months, I worked with Elizabeth Strout, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge. On the first day, she returned feedback on the stories I submitted in my application packet. I received two “mehs.” They were kind mehs, but there were multiple issues that I didn’t know how to resolve. After all, I had a series of ghosts floating through the netting of a dreamcatcher.
I was scared to bring Anna back. Sure, her escapades worked well enough for undergraduate writing, but to reveal her to a Pulitzer Prize winner seemed entirely ridiculous. Anna wasn’t the literary type. In fact, she was a traveling shit show. She drank too much and took too many pills. She sabotaged relationships. She sabotaged entire decades. She was impulsive and often shared things I wasn’t comfortable with. She was wildly inappropriate. Anna was not only not likable. She was a total asshole, and I was embarrassed by her.
I was desperate, though. And, she had been as dependable as aces and eights when it came to creative details and scene setting. I just needed her to settle down and act literary. I needed her to fake it like the rest of us. She’d already screwed up most of the decade. Plus, it was Strout. Elizabeth Strout. Write what you know. Tell it like it is. Just don’t make me look stupid or undesirable. This is important.
Ups and Downs
I introduced Anna to Strout and my peers on our first submissions, but she wasn’t alone. There were four flight attendants from her training class and a pilot.
- Jeb was Anna’s roommate. He was gay and HIV positive.
- Mia’s husband committed suicide while she was on a trip and he was caring for the kids.
- Kate had been trying to get pregnant for ten years. Her husband was cheating on her with multiple women.
- Heather was obsessed with appearance. She was anorexic and aged gracefully through surgeries.
- Sean was a pilot they all knew from flying South America. He found Anna’s body when I killed her.
I thought my plan was brilliant. I could alternate characters and that would shift some of the weight off of Anna. She still didn’t really know what her motivation was, but the others did, so I knew I had at least four stories according to the definition. I also needed some emotional distance from her. I didn’t want to think about her stories much less share them. I needed to view her as a character separate from myself. Everything seemed safe.
It went quite well for a couple chapters. Then, my characters (friends) all freaked out. They didn’t want to be there, in print. It was a struggle to get them to share details they knew were going on pages. They didn’t want to be exposed any more than I did. It didn’t matter that they were disguised or that no one knew the characters were based on them. It didn’t matter that they weren’t sitting in the classroom. We hadn’t even left the ground, and they panicked. It put more weight on Anna. I couldn’t write their stories like I could hers. I felt the growing pains, but still thought I was pulling it off.
By Chapter 13, I was emotionally exhausted. In small doses, I could handle her stories, but they were like a full cargo jet trying to take off out of a driveway when combined. It had been far from a cathartic process, and I was done. I don’t think she really wanted to die, but I don’t think she really cared if she lived, either. So, I killed her in Chapter 14. I thought it was my best writing ever. For the first time, she failed me. The details were lovely, though. There was even a Gideon Bible on the nightstand.
Beginnings and Endings
Anna was already dead when security opened the door to her room in Quito. The mirrors were steamed and water flowed through cracks between tiles and settled on the marbled floors. Several dozen bright-colored roses with unopened petals, wrapped loosely in brown paper, were propped against her suitcase. Her pressed uniform hung above her polished shoes, a pair of socks tucked within.
“Anna?” Sean stood in the doorway as the security guard disappeared around the corner. He removed his hat as he entered. He didn’t hear the water until he heard the absence of water. “Anna?”
The guard spoke Spanish into a walkie talkie. He held up his hand and shook his head as he backed away. Anna’s eyes were closed, and her hair floated above her sunken body. Sean turned his head, frightened by her naked state. A slight breeze slipped between the individual hairs on his arms, and through the window, the Virgin de Panacillo watched in stoned stillness.
Forward and Backward
“You can’t kill Anna,” they said. “Are you okay?” Lauren Groff, my thesis advisor, and my pod members had all etched similar comments on the chapter.
I felt naked. “My plan was to kill Anna all along,” I said. “You know it wasn’t suicide, right? I’m fine.” Anna was my character. It was my novel. Of course I could kill her. For the next three months, I took “defending a thesis” to an entirely different level. It was my favorite chapter, and I had looked forward to killing her since I worked with Strout.
“It’s selfish,” Groff said. “The other characters would be furious.”
“It’s a tragic flaw,” I said. “How literary is that?” Anna’s path to self-destruction wasn’t hidden. She even passed out on a curbside couch on the corner of 10th and Juniper. Who were they to write the story?
“She’s the character we relate to most. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” I repeated over and again that last semester. I wasn’t fine. I was humiliated, addicted to pills, and angry. Anna told it how it was, and it was. According to Susan Shapiro, if family members are angry, and people are worried, you’ve written something well. The other characters hadn’t done their jobs, though. I wanted my readers to worry about them, not me. I had unintentionally exposed twenty years of reckless behaviors―my reckless behaviors―and over four hundred pages of them.
She could have died on any page in that novel, but the readers didn’t get that. I wrote what I knew, and they knew I wrote what I knew. I could have died writing any page of that novel. I never admitted it because I was so embarrassed. Instead, I tried desperately to convince them that she was a fictional character. I was the fictional character. I wanted the closest exit.
“Maybe kill one of the others?” one reader suggested. I couldn’t do that. They had motivation. Anna didn’t.
“If you’re that hell bent on killing her, you need to do it in chapter 1, like The Big Chill” was offered up. In a writer’s world, that means an entire restructure of four hundred pages. It meant I would have to write the entire novel backwards. She was the realistic one to kill. I thought killing Anna was the climax of my novel, but it became the climax of my writing for a long period of time. I was in a gutter filled with Anna’s bathwater.
Inward and Outward
Until now, I haven’t made eye contact with the novel. I couldn’t process why Anna had to live. I was also unsure about revisiting the stories that highlighted not only things in my personal life I’m ashamed of, but also the failures in my writing. It forced me to ask myself some tough questions. Why did my readers love Anna? Why did I hate Anna? The answers mingle: Anna is anyone. Anna is me.
Her experiences are human experiences, and as humans, we’re more alike than we’re different. In my case, I had the “Self” that I wanted to show: professional, put together, capable, desirable. I had the “Self” that I wanted to hide: impulsive, reckless, self sabotaging, filled with resentment. My internal struggle with Man vs Self morphed into Man vs. Man in Chapter 14 because of my unwillingness to acknowledge my path toward destruction. I was fine. I had detached completely from Anna in order to portray myself as something I wasn’t.
My readers were much more forgiving of Anna’s flaws. They saw her as real. They didn’t need to see things end perfectly for her, but they needed to know she would be okay. Page by page, beginning with 9/11, I judged everything she did for the next ten years. I never cut her one ounce of slack. I bullied her continually. I never gave her credit for her willingness to be the voice I needed, her vulnerability, or her resilience. She wasn’t who I wanted her to be, so I killed her.
I’ve been staring at white space for a few months now. The problem isn’t that I can’t write. It’s Anna. Ten years ago, I killed her, but she’s still here, demanding that I recognize she’s not going anywhere. She’s persistent that way.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Introvert and Extrovert
I see myself in the white space. The stories in the reflection required forced effort and some resilience. They required acceptance and forgiveness. There have been uncomfortable silences on top of uncomfortable silences. It felt like peeling the layers of an onion. A navy blue uniform was the outermost layer that represented my identity as I wanted others to see me, but not my true self. As an extrovert, sitting in the quiet space with the introvert within was as frustrating as learning a new language. I had to view my stories of pain, guilt, shame, regret, and fear through a dyslexic lens that would allow me to view them for what they were: normal, human experiences. At the core, I found Anna, and I was no longer embarrassed by her. In fact, I was proud of her. It took ten years for me to recognize why I couldn’t kill her. I’m glad she persisted. Somewhere in the whiteness, I realized I was finally pedaling.
Bruschi, Richard. “The Mystifying ‘Sator Square’: a Combination of Mathematics, Symmetry, and Religions.” Medium, 30 September 2020, medium.com/the-mystery-box/the-mystifying-sator-square-a-combination-of-mathematics-symmetry-and-religions-515282888fc1. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Gibson, Brittany. “26 Palindrome Examples: Words and Phrases That Are the Same Backwards and Forwards.” Reader’s Digest, 29 March 2021, www.rd.com/list/palindromes-list/. Accessed 10 May 2021.
McConnell, Michael. “Outer Reaches of the Palindrome.” UNT Digital Library. December 2003, digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc4407/m2/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Payne, David. “Fiction Writing.” December 2009, Queens University of Charlotte, Charlotte, N.C.
Shapiro, Susan. “Make Me Worry You’re Not Okay.” The New York Times. 31 December, 2012, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/make-me-worry-youre-not-o-k/. Accessed 10 March 2021.