Lia Greenwell’s essay “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You” appears in Southern Humanities Review issue 52.4. The essay recounts a traumatic event in which Greenwell was carjacked at gunpoint, midday, at a gas station in a small town. In the following interview, Greenwell discusses the different ways she has written about this trauma, the stranglehold of fear, and both the limitations and possibilities of form and genre.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: I’m not going to label you a poet, but most of your published work does happen to be poetry. Why did you turn to nonfiction to tell the story of this particular trauma? Have you also written about this in poetic form?
Lia Greenwell: When I tried to shape this experience into poetry, the genre in which I had worked for many years, it calcified. I am not a narrative poet, and the narrative thread that was needed, however fine, constricted the poems I tried to write. It was inorganic.
The nonfiction form in which I ended up writing was native to me in many other ways. I am a letter writer, and the intimacy of letters and what goes on in one’s mind when a very specific audience comes to mind—the natural leap between personal experience, quotes, facts—all of that comes to bear in a natural way. I think the nonfiction I’m writing now has roots in the epistolary world as well as in poetry.
CRT: What do you see as the limits and advantages of both poetry and nonfiction as storytelling modes for this particular narrative?
LG: I find a lot of comfort in metaphor, especially as I use it in poetry. Poet Eleanor Wilner said “the images of the imagination protect what they reveal.” I find that privacy and dignity valuable, still.
That said, I can tend to hide in poems. After the carjacking I felt shameful about the way it was affecting me. I was physically unharmed, after all. That shame was a form of hiding, If I was to write meaningfully about this, I needed to step forward in a way that happened more naturally for me when I wrote prose or letters.
I write quite spare poems, and so beginning with short pieces of prose that emerged and allowing them to connect over time to a larger whole—that expansiveness has been a pleasure. The carjacking has been a prism through which to see many of our society’s urgent issues: mental health, addiction, violence, and incarceration. They loop back on each other and connect and implicate all of us. That sense of connection is the only real way I can think about this experience, and it takes time and space to bring the reader with me. The essay form, and now longform nonfiction, is allowing me that spaciousness.
CRT: You quote several poets throughout “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You.” Did you specifically turn to poetry as a coping mechanism for the events of the essay? What did you learn from these poets about trauma and how did that help shape this essay?
LG: I carry many lines of poetry—and other literature too—around with me. They become like mantras.
I’ve been wondering about reading and how it shapes thinking. Did I have a feeling or idea already forming and then find more evidence of it in text, or did discovering a line of poetry throw a lasso around an amorphous sense and truly bring it into consciousness? Or do they feed each other like a strait going back and forth? How much does language shape feeling?
I’ve been thinking about this finding from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk: “A neuroimaging study has shown that when people hear a statement that mirrors their inner state, the right amygdala momentarily lights up, as if to underline the accuracy of the reflection.”
Tranströmer’s image of the jellyfish being like an untranslatable truth comes to me often. There are things that collapse when brought into language, and so you might either have to describe something approximate or surrender to that speechlessness.
I found Katie Ford’s poem “The Soul”—where the title of this essay comes from—years before any of this happened. It came back to me when I needed it. The idea that just because you don’t believe in something or praise it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, propping you up all along, steadfast.
Collecting these morsels is a constant dialogue in my writing process. I don’t always know where they will end up, but I know because of how they resonated that they are caught in the web of this project and will find their place or bring me somewhere I need to go.
CRT: Your essay published with Kenyon Review, “You Are Here,” is also about the same traumatic event as “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You.” How do you view these essays in conversation with one another and what were you hoping each essay might do differently from the other?
LG: I’ve always been a very cerebral person. I’m amazed that I can take a whole shower and not know if I washed my hair because I’m entirely caught up in thought. That kind of physical automation while the mind continues its wandering was very familiar to me, but after the carjacking, lost. I was extremely aware of my body in the sense that I was carrying it around and it was a liability. “You Are Here” is the first piece of prose I knew I wanted to write—about those poles of being, and what might be between them. Once I came to the form—the outside material and collage—I wrote it quickly.
“Your Soul Doesn’t Need You” took longer. It was rangy and hard to wrangle. I wanted to get at my allergy to the word, and also approach this third thing that wasn’t just mind or body but some integrating force, something precarious and human. It’s about breakdown and healing, and it’s the most earnest thing I’ve written. Earnestness is, in a way, its topic. How do you soften toward yourself and others without feeling that you’ll fall apart? It’s a different kind of strength than I had known or valued before.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that I had to write about the personal and bodily experience in “You Are Here” before I could move into the interpersonal in “Your Soul…” In my writing now I’ve moved into the cultural and societal aspects of what and how we fear, another layer beneath. I keep dropping down. That is where my interest is now.
CRT: In “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You,” you mention your past of hating the word soul. How has your thinking on this changed?
LG: What bothers me in language is a sense of overuse into meaninglessness. Viktor Shlovsky says that this habit-driven use of language causes us to see something “as though it were enveloped in a sack.” Words become dull, and even if important in what they symbolize, they no longer affect us. Soul is one of these words for me, and so is trauma. I’m writing about this now.
I don’t believe in the soul as a literal thing, but I find it a useful concept to think about what makes us human, that bridge between our animal nature and what more we can be. I feel more affinity toward it now, and also have a personal, wordless sense of it. But you won’t hear me saying it much.
CRT: You describe your brain as not being you early on in the essay. What was that like, to be suddenly so aware of the organ which controls your body? Did this affect your writing as well? Did you feel your brain impose its will on your writing?
LG: What was most surprising to me was that being aware of what was happening in my brain didn’t allow me to control it. Insight, in this case, does not equal change. Small, everyday interactions with people would pump me full of adrenaline, shift my focus, change how I was breathing and moving. It was like an out of body experience and yet I was entirely trapped in my body. There was no mind to go to. I have no idea what it looked like from the outside, but my internal experience of the world would change completely.
The part of the brain that triggers this response is not one that can be undone by rationalizing, and so it was a frustrating loop. I have a deep allegiance to rationality. To feel I was being irrational felt almost immoral. I am writing now how about how healing begins in the body. You have to actually feel safe—a profound task that cannot be forced.
When writing is going well, my brain is an invisible puppeteer—I don’t notice it at all and instead am captivated by all the things it brings to my attention, connects, and lets through. Of course, there is a lot of work and a lot of discipline, but still, the brain astonishes me.
CRT: I know you’re at work on a book about fear. Will this be an essay collection, with “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You” included? Or is it a poetry collection? A memoir? Basically, can you tell me what you’re working on right now?
LG: I’m at work on a book-length work of creative nonfiction about fear—its gifts and curses. I don’t think it’s a memoir but could see it lumped in there by the genre-loving. It is about fear in the way that Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is about blue—it is, but it’s also a clean answer that is pleasantly reductive, a sort of protective farce. I like that for once in my writing life I have a one-word answer for what I’m writing about.
Parts of “Your Soul Doesn’t Need You” will appear in the larger book. My task is allowing the ideas I’ve written about in essay form to get larger and more expansive, to break apart and reconnect in the larger form. I’m working on two chapters at the moment—one about rationality and internet hoaxes among other things, and the other about speechlessness and memory.
CRT: What’s your advice for writers who may be frustrated that their writing continues to address the same themes and events?
LG: Fear is a base, ancient emotion that has so much pull on the world. Writing about it is like a hallway that keeps opening more doors. I am enthralled, not frustrated, so I may be the wrong person to ask. However writing in short form about topics that have their roots in the same event, in which the basic elements must be again and again laid out to ground the lyric work of the essay, is a looping back that is less interesting to me but necessary for the reader. It’s why the long form interests me, to have deep roots and grounding that allow the reader and me to drift away from where we started.
CRT: What are you reading right now, and what do you have to say about it?
LG: I am reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. At one point in the book, she talks about the damage done to her childhood home in New Orleans East by the hurricane, and her engineer friend explains that the outward damage of the house—where it detached, how it moved—was actually how it remained intact through the storm: “All the cracks happened so that the house could resolve internally all its pressures and stresses.”
It seems to me a perfect metaphor for how our brains shift to accommodate bad things that happen. What looks flawed from the outside is part of what can bring us through to the other side.
LIA GREENWELL is an essayist and poet currently at work on a book about fear. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review, Kenyon Review online, Witness, and Ruminate among other publications. She is a graduate of the M F A Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Lia has taught creative writing to high school and college students through the Girls Write Now program in New York City and as the 2015 Joan Beebe Graduate Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Detroit, Michigan.