Research Notes · 03/17/2017

The Lost Daughter Collective

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lindsey Drager writes about The Lost Daughter Collective from Dzanc Books.

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Two Stories Telling Each Other: On the Liminal

I am taking the assignment of offering my research notes quite literally. What you see above is the first sentence in the Composition notebook that houses my scrawled sketches for what became The Lost Daughter Collective. “In fiction,” it says in my barely legible handwriting, “we have to be striving to write about questions that have no answers.”

What I knew was that I wanted to write about the idea of daughter-as-verb, the act of daughtering, of performing daughterhood, of being daughtered. What I knew was that I wanted to write about the experience of sanctioning a child’s gender transition. What I knew was that I wanted to write a book that was as much about how we read and misread books as it was about how we read and misread bodies.

The next page in my Composition notebook is dated a week later. You can see above that I have come up with “themes” (you will note only one) and the question that ultimately becomes the book’s driving force: “Who has authority in storytelling? How do stories make truth?”

The questions quickly evolved and calcified: Whose stories do we trust? Why do we trust them? What happens when we are forced to believe one over another?

It is at this point that I decide to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a book about a woman who becomes a man, a book about destabilized history, a book written by a women who was daughtered by a complicated father, Leslie Stephen, the man who launched the project that would become the Dictionary of National Biography which was essentially an elegant list of lives. I am interested in the liminal, the interstitial, the spectral. I am concerned with betweenness. This is how the book gets its first title, lifted from the final pages of Woolf: The Region of Perhaps. I am interested in thresholds and limits and borders: where the hand ends and the arm begins, when ice becomes water, when myth becomes history, when a daughter becomes a son.

It is here, two weeks after that first entry, where I find myself grappling with what will become the center of the book — “Whose stories are legitimized? Whose are ‘less valid’?” my notes say — by pairing the canonical voices of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf next to three works of children’s literature: Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. I am finding my footing, slowly. I am coming to see the foundation, on which lie a series of binaries that I want to collapse: adult/child, work/place, reality/artifice, male/female. Here, too, is where I realize the stories have to live in the oral tradition in order for them to morph and evolve. Here is where the questions start to translate into form: I need to use oral storytelling — bedtime tales and self-help group narratives — to question the veracity of the stories we receive. I need to craft a narrative in which two stories are telling each other. Like Escher’s “Drawing Hands,” the book must perform a lemniscate, obfuscating temporalities so that it is clear neither story follows or precedes.

If writing fiction is always an exercise in narrative problem solving, here I am doing the math, showing the work, and to look back at it now is to witness the vortex at the center of the labyrinth. It is to stare directly into the gutter of the book, to meet the seam where the pages cohere and to see in that cleft its amorphous, nebulous past. E.M. Cioran says in The Trouble With Being Born (which is really our sole and only trouble): “Anyone who gives himself up in writing believes — without realizing it — that his work will survive the years, the ages, time itself […]. If he felt, while he was at work on it, that it was perishable, he would leave off where he was and never finish.”

The book will become a book, but I do not know this then. The book will be called The Lost Daughter Collective.

There will be fathers:

And there will be daughters:

And there will be stories: of the Ice Sculptor whose father forgets to tell her when she is five years old that she would lose her teeth; of the Fathers of Lost Daughters whose girls are missing (deemed “Alices”) or dead (deemed “Dorothies”), except for The Archivist’s daughter, who is otherwise gone; of Mary, Charlotte, and Virginia, whose fathers dismissed them as failed and ill and wrong and as such, tried to silence them.

Whose stories do we trust? Why do we trust them? What happens when we are forced to believe one story over another? I have tried to give an artist’s articulation on this project elsewhere, but in sitting down to track its evolution here, in returning to see what I could not know would become a book in all its malleability, when it was merely a whim that turned into a series of answerless questions, reminds me that I have grown elastic, too. To write any book, you have to shape shift, to morph in order to become the body capable of languaging that story. Writing a book is an act of recalibration, and these notes remind me of who I once was.

But I’m not being very articulate. The Room Scholar in The Lost Daughter Collective puts it much more succinctly: “Just as we think we can tell the foreground from the back, the inside from the out, the mother from the daughter, we think we tell our stories. But I am here to tell you: our stories tell us.”

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Lindsey Drager is the author of The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015), winner of the 2016 Binghamton University / John Gardner Fiction Award. Originally from Michigan, she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the College of Charleston, where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction.