Elizabeth Ellen

from Persona

What are you working on right now?
I have, for several years now, been working on a three volume novel that began as one (volume) in the fall of 2009. Then, that first volume, was “done,” I believed, at around twenty thousand words. I suppose it was a novella, though I have seen works of similar length described as novels. At any rate, I didn’t work on or look at the original work for a year or two, and when I took it back out in 2011, my feelings had changed, I had changed, and I no longer felt the book represented me. I no longer felt “okay” with publishing it as it was. I began editing it and as I edited, I added and subtracted so that it evolved into something else. I also began to pester friends about it, the original novella, subsequent drafts, the ethics and morality of writing, of being married and a writer, of being a woman and a writer, of being honest and a married female writer, of (potentially) hurting people by being truthful in one’s writing, and I began including these conversations (with mostly female writer friends) in the book itself, mostly in Volume Two, so that Volume One became (in oversimplified terms) a sort of The End of the Story, Volume Two became akin to How Should a Person Be, and Volume Three, in which the narrator has secluded herself in a hotel an hour from her family for two months in order to finish “the novel”, became not unlike Lunar Park in its horrific, isolated conclusion. I’m using the past tense here, as though the thing were completed, but of course it isn’t, I’m still working on it, feel as though I may always be working on it. In the past I was calling it alternately “I Am Running Out of Me” and “Isolationists,” but have taken recently to referring to it as “Persona,” despite that being the title of a foreign film I have yet to see. I like the trickery that word implies.


Lauren doesn’t think I should publish this. “You have some interesting ideas in here,” she says, after I send her the first hundred pages, “but I think you’ll be embarrassed if you publish it. I worry on your behalf.” Lauren is a writer and a filmmaker and she is currently at Sundance with another filmmaker and we are gchatting. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “Parts of it are really compelling, and I like how you show the effects of the Internet and texting and email on modern relationships, how they’ve transformed this kind of relationship and the exchange of emotion…I’m just concerned. Why did you pull this out now? Why publish it now?” I don’t have any answers for her. I have become incapable of answering anyone’s questions. 

I had begun thinking of the book obsessively. Thoughts of the book had become a near constant conversation in my head. (How is this the same/different from having near constant thoughts of Ian? Of thinking obsessively of him?) I don’t know how or when this happened.

This is about this woman, this character, ‘Elizabeth Ellen,’ not me. This is what I tell myself. I am constructing a defense for the future. For Lee’s parents. And everyone else. For Lee.
     I have already used it on Eli. “’Elizabeth Ellen’ is not me,” I told her. We were standing on the curb outside the LAX airport. We were waiting on a Town car to take us to our hotel. My eyes were hidden behind an oversized pair of sunglasses. It seemed the most opportune time to tell her. 

A month earlier I had sent the book to a man named Horatio, a known acquaintance of Ian’s. Horatio said he wanted to publish it, but he wanted me to change identifying traits and characteristics of the man in the book, namely: his profession. This request came after he had sent the book to Ian. I had given my permission for him to do so. I cannot go into all my motivations and the psychology of it all right here, or ever, Lauren. 

“Why is Horatio’s instinct to protect Ian?” Lauren wants to know when I tell her. “He is, in this case, your publisher. He should be protecting you.”
     It did seem a conflict of interest at the very least, one I had instigated, but still. 

I’m not sure Eli believed me. The Town car had arrived seconds after my explanation. We’d slid onto the backseat. Eli and then I. Eli had his earbuds in. We were in L.A. to tour colleges he was considering. But I wanted also for him to understand me before he left home. I didn’t like thinking of my son out in the world, misunderstanding me.

“I think you should make Ian a musician in Volume One and a writer in Volume Two but that E. should be a daughter throughout,” Katarina says. “I think the relationship between the narrator and E. is less creepy if E. is a daughter.”

But this is what attracts me to alternating E.’s gender. The understanding that readers will be less accepting and ‘okay’ with E. being one gender than another, due to the intimacy of the relationship, though the roles, that of mother and child, do not change. 

In February I fly to Miami to meet my friend, Sofia, who is also a writer. I think Sofia is against my writing this book but she does not say so aloud. Instead she says she has decided to stop writing about herself, to start “making shit up!” She acts as though this is a decision she has come to on her own volition, borne out of some sort of maturation on her part, but I don’t believe her. I am pretty sure Virgo, her boyfriend of the past six months, has decided this for her. 
     “He doesn’t want me to write about him or us,” Sofia told me a month after they started dating. “But I’m so happy I don’t care.” 
     Today Sofia is less happy. She stares at her phone with a worried look on her face. Virgo hasn’t called her since we’ve been in Miami. He has barely texted her either. I think maybe she is blaming herself, blaming her writing, on things not working out. She is trying to be someone else for him and wants me to be someone else for Lee. 
     “But Lee and I had the agreement when we married,” I remind her as we lie reclined in rental chairs on the beach. “We agreed I could write whatever I want.” 
     I am prone on my stomach and if I lift up on my elbows and open my eyes I get a straight on shot of several European women in their early twenties, topless. There is a middle-aged man who resembles David Hasselhoff with a slightly younger blonde woman setting up chairs and drinks in the sand a few feet in front of us. They have a portable radio and are listening to popular songs from the 70s and 80s and throwing a Frisbee. They have wine glasses and a cheeseboard. I am thinking that this is where Lee and I should move when E. goes to college, if he holds to his end of the bargain, if we make it though the publication of this novel. 

I wake in the middle of the night, from a nightmare of broken teeth. I reach to feel inside my mouth. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t tell if I am crying or not. 
     I barely sleep and when I wake in the morning, I am too anxious to get coffee. I blame my mania on the sun. I am unused to it, I tell Sofia. It is winter back home. I don’t tell her I have been having trouble sleeping since Horatio said he wanted to move up the publication date to May. I haven’t mentioned anything to Lee. I don’t know what I am doing. I have an appointment to see a root canal specialist when I am home. My teeth are cracking. This is all I know. 

“I am all into the idea of sacrificing people’s feelings for the sake of ‘my art.’ I think this is important. I think Lee will be upset at first but then will come around and understand because he loves you and because he writes too.” – Katarina writes in an email while I am in Miami with Sofia. 

“I think you should change him back to being a writer,” Sofia says, meaning Ian. We are in a taxi on our way to the Miami airport. 
     “I think it’s more honest and relatable if he is a writer,” she says.

     But I don’t care about honesty or being relatable. Changing him back would be a lot of work for me at this point. I have grown used to this myth he has become in my mind, of this myth of myself as creator.

Elizabeth Ellen is the author of Fast Machine (SF/LD).

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