An Incomplete Dictionary of Words That Make Me Think About My Body as I Try Not to Relapse
Kirsten Reneau graduated from the University of New Orleans with her MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has been featured in The Threepenny Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, and others.
I stepped into a bath so hot my skin believed it was cold and prickled upwards at the touch.
I imagine the soles of my feet turning red underneath me, inflamed by the water.
My back aches.
I am too young to have back problems, I told my mother earlier that day.
No, you’re getting older, she reminds me. Her back was nearly broken once, almost failed her body and slipped away before I was even a thought. Of course, you have a bad back. So do I.
I do not tell my mother that I feel like I am slipping away; I am worried that the years of recovery were wasted and I am back to where I began.
In the bath, I sit up and my boyfriend walks in.
Hey, he says.
Why are you sitting like that?
I look down at my body, leaning forward like a child, back curved, legs crossed. My stomach, white, soft, pushes out under the shell of my arms.
I don’t know, I answer.
Okay. You should stretch your legs out instead. He kisses my forehead and closes the door for me.
Recently a woman at the grocery store asked me if I was expecting. It took me a moment to realize she meant with a child. I was in such shock I just said, Not yet! and laughed as if I was trying. It was a lie, but I have been thinking about having children lately. I think I would be a good mother. But I do not know how to raise sons, and I am a little afraid to have a daughter.
The woman at the grocery store said she would pray for me.
I said, Thanks! and thought about burning the dress I was wearing.
In the bath, I watch my body turn darker under the shadows and ripples of the water.
My first instinct is to hate it, my second is to apologize to it.
Last week we swam in the ocean, and I thank my legs and arms for their work. My parents used to take us to the ocean every summer, and there we learned to fight the waves, jump the surf, our bodies bright and alive with the energy of childhood, the unawareness of self. On this trip, I wore a one-piece and a cover-up because I did not want to expose my body to the world.
Suzanne Rico's Commentary
My mother, a pioneer of the genre of creative nonfiction, loved stories that didn't follow the norm of beginning-middle-end. An Incomplete Dictionary of Words That Make Me Think About My Body as I Try Not to Relapse is indicative of how far the genre has come! Not only is the essay an honest, emotionally raw look into the heart of the severe issue of eating disorders and body image, it hones the rhetorical device of following the alphabet to a sharp point, drawing the reader in and keeping them there. If writing is, in part, a way to bridge the gaps between us as human beings (and societies), this story of love and hate, pessimism with a bright slash of hope, and dawning understanding that sometimes we can bear what seems unbearable, hits the mark.
in conversation with
One of the first things readers notice in “An Incomplete Dictionary…” is its adherence to a unique form: a glossary of terms, each with their own vignette of meaning. What came first? The idea of defined terms, or the vignettes? How did this influence your process?
I have always been interested in form and how form can inform or shape the content, and I’m very drawn to writing about language—thus, the dictionary format was one I had been considering and toying with for a while. While I think many start with content, I often begin with form. From that, the words came first. This gave me the freedom to work on different vignettes out of order, to jump around to sections I felt particularly drawn to at the time.
I don’t know if it deeply influenced the writing process—I did change words in some sections as the piece took shape over time—but it certainly helped a lot with editing. I was able to look at each word as a guide to the vignette, allowing me to cut out anything that felt vaguely superfluous or slightly out of place. The dictionary format has innate restrictions, which imitate the subject matter, and I knew I wanted the vignettes to stay very focused.
With this being an “incomplete” dictionary, how did you decide which elements were included in this piece? Were there any themes or words that didn’t make the cut?
In the first draft there was a much stronger underlying religious theme about the concept of biblical evil and forgiveness. Originally “Exercise” was “Evil”; “Language” was “Love”; there was a section about the expulsion of Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pieces of this remained, but as a whole I ended up cutting a lot of it because it just wasn’t gelling the way I wanted it to, and I realized it worked better to stay in that exact moment rather than a constant revisiting of this tangentially-related-but-maybe-only-in-my-head matter.
In exploring your relationship with your body, “An Incomplete Dictionary…” also explores how this relationship was informed by women around you, starting with your mother. Were you nervous about including her in your story? Has she read this piece? If so, did it lead to any conversations?
I was very nervous—I think it’s really natural, especially with nonfiction, to want to shield your loved ones, especially when they’re not always the saints of the story. I have a wonderful relationship with my parents, which maybe makes it extra difficult for me to share uncomfortable truths about them. When I started writing nonfiction, I requested that they not read my work, and they’ve been really respectful of this. I’m very thankful for it—it’s given me the freedom to be completely honest with myself and in my writing.
As a rule, I usually don’t send them pieces unless they (1) are generally happy and/or (2) really deal with one parent head on. With that in mind, I haven’t sent this to my mom yet and I honestly don’t know if I will. Maybe one day, when the feelings aren’t so freshly opened.
The ending to “An Incomplete Dictionary...” avoids platitudes and finality. In many ways, it suggests a circularity, or return to the start. What sense were you hoping to evoke in the reader, and how did you know when the piece was complete?
I knew I didn’t want to offer a sense of finality, partially because I find that to be cliché and partially because I don’t have that sense of finality about the subject matter. My complicated relationship with my body is one that will follow me for the rest of my life and trying to wrap it up nicely wouldn’t be true to my experience.
I hoped to evoke a feeling of being “let in” to the reader, for better or worse. My favorite nonfiction essays have almost nothing to do with the literal content and everything to do with the idea of seeing something through someone else’s eyes with complete vulnerability. As far as when it was complete—I think when I could come back after a few months, make a few cuts, and feel good about what the piece was saying. Usually there’s just something in my gut that says a piece is done. But if I had more time, I could probably find four more things to change and it could be “complete” all over again!
In your piece, you write: “I do not view myself and my body as one anymore.” This divide or separation adds to much of the tension in this piece. Do you still feel that disconnect? Has that influenced your writing?
That’s a concept that follows almost all my writing around, a feeling I am only just now learning to shake. It has influenced my work in unquantifiable ways, as much of my work is focused on the body, and so this core idea—that there is not a connection in the way I perceive most people having innately—comes out frequently.
The topics of disordered eating and mental health are often stigmatized or expected to follow specific tropes. Did this affect how you approached these topics or what you felt comfortable sharing?
I wasn’t super worried about following or subverting specific tropes, which I think is the freedom of nonfiction—you’re able to address things directly in a way that sometimes becomes meta. The stigma of it was scary in that while I am very open about some less-than-awesome parts of my life, disordered eating and body image is something I hold very close to my chest—in part, I think, because it is ongoing.
The most important thing that informed how I approached these topics was that often, especially when writing about disordered eating, it can become a blueprint for readers dealing with body image issues. So it was crucial for me to focus on the incredible pain of possible relapse and that the desire is for recovery in this piece. I want to avoid even a hint of a positive association, because for me, there is none.
For some writers, their work can be a space to process their struggles. However, some say that this processing isn’t art until the writer is able to transform that personal pain into something more profound. Do you agree with this?
I try to write something that makes me feel really bare and vulnerable and uncomfortable at least once every few months—not only to process those feelings, but to explore them more intentionally with the idea of Writing For People, not just in a diary or something. A lot of my work is about pain. It’s a great way for me to deal with that pain, and so I have thought about this question in many ways, and the honest answer is that I don’t know!
I think writing can be a wonderful space to process struggles, and that is a practice I often engage in. But I don’t inherently believe that pain must be profound or that it has to be. Sometimes pain is just pain, and the profoundness of it is that there is nothing profound about that pain.
Which nonfiction writers inspire your work?
So many! Brenda Miller, Jesmyn Ward, Kim Adrian, Scott McClanahan, Annie Dillard, Kiese Laymon, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lydia Yuknavitch, Joan Didion, and James Baldwin are the big names.
I am also very fortunate to have a nice little group of nonfiction writer friends in person and online. I’m constantly reading work published online in various lit magazines by them and by others. I’m very inspired by currently publishing nonfiction writers because it feels like we’re all in the trenches together, and there’s a really lovely sense of comradery about it.