Amie Barrodale's outstanding debut story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, perfectly captures the complications of modern relationships, rife with comic and bizarre miscommunication, from a New York psychologist caught between a privileged young female patient and her controlling mother to a saleswoman encountering an off-putting customer in a Japanese antique shop. Here, Barrodale discusses how her life and her writing are ultimately inseparable.
When I was in college, I imitated the work of Ben Marcus and Samuel Beckett. This went on for a while, but then one day I began to notice that my mind was not quite that lofty, and the work I gravitated toward was about ordinary life. I became absorbed in writers like Mary Gaitskill, Richard Yates, and Akhil Sharma, to name a few. This was a sad time for me. I was isolated, living in this strange building ten blocks from campus, having taken a year off college, with no friends, and all kinds of disorders that made people not want to be around me.
One thing I liked about those writers was that I could see that their work was based on their lives. Sometimes later I even felt frustrated when a writer I admired would refuse to admit that his work was autobiographical. Now I understand the hesitation, and the world has changed and many writers are very honest about where their work comes from.
My work comes from my life. But after my first collection of stories, I made a vow to myself: no more of that. I began to think about writing a novel about a pedophile who undergoes some kind of elective treatment, some kind of brain surgery, some kind of stimulation of his illness that forces him to basically go through the hell of his own mind, his own sickness, to come out cured. I began to read about pedophiles. But on the side, as I worked, another story emerged, about a miscarriage, a miscarriage I had last year.
What I mean is that for me, for better or for worse, my life presents itself as a story sometimes.
As a matter of fact, it is sort of happening right now, as I write this, though I am not sure I will write it all down. I recently missed the launch of my book in New York because I heard of a retreat that I wanted to attend in a cave, and now, about a week since that retreat ended, I am at another retreat at a small center in Canada.
At this meditation retreat, my husband and I are both learning how to participate in the ritual aspect of the practice. That means we are learning to light incense nicely and carry bowls from one part of the room to the other. We are two of four people learning this here at this retreat, which comprises about thirty people. The reason I say all of this is that I noticed something here that I have noticed a lot of times on retreat. It is the way tiny tiny emotions snowball into dramatic upheavals.
On the first day, some small miscommunication happened between me and one of the other beginner bowl carriers. It was something like, she said you carry the bowl this way, and I said you carry the bowl the other way, and then we both went stony silent. She is an intelligent, no-nonsense woman my age. An equal. I felt like she was bossing me around, and so I let her know that she couldn’t boss me around. (Later, incidentally, I did learn that she was right about the bowl.)
But no matter, by then it had snowballed. It snowballed from small interactions that were under my control—my choosing to say things to her in a sharp way, or correct her if given the chance—and then in ways that were not under my control—she misunderstood what I intended as a peace offering, and took it as a provocation, and she barked at me, and it really hurt. And then it erupted last night, when a complete innocent—not even the girl in question, not even a person I really know—said, “Are you okay?” and I nearly burst into tears. A few minutes later, at dinner, when I saw that they were out of salad, I deliberately dropped a serving spoon from too high, and it made a loud clang on a bowl, and several people noticed that I was feeling emotional. A man commented: “I guess she really didn’t like the olives.” I felt humiliated. Angry. Confused. Resentful. Self-righteous. Remorseful. In the wrong. In the right. Wanting a narrative. Wanting to construct a story to say why I was right and why she was wrong and why it all made sense. When I was a girl, I would turn to my mother in these moments, and she would construct it for me. “You’ve been doing so well,” she would say. “I am so proud of you. You spent ten days in a cave in Nepal, flew thirty hours, had a twelve-hour layover in the Beijing Airport and six in Bangkok. You took a bus here and showed right up and started working. This stuff is hard, and she has been bossing her. Everything you did was right, and you just have a tender heart, and that is what I love about you.”
But at some point, around when I was thirty-four, I stopped believing her when she said those things to me. It helped, it soothed, but deep down, I knew.
Still, I spent all night tossing and turning, using a flashlight to study my manual for how to carry bowls. (“Two can play at this game.”) I constructed all different versions of the story and just abjectly whined to myself about how unfair it was that I have to wash the bowls every night. I didn’t sleep.
If I were a real artist, I would have said, “Ah! Fantastic. What a great opening. Where will it go from here?” and I would have let the drama swirl out of control.
But I am a chicken, and after a night like that, I made up with her.
Nevertheless, the story continued. We meditate in sessions. During the session after we managed to make up, I noticed that two other women, in a role similar to ours, but far senior, were going through the same sort of conflict. They had begun by correcting one another gently, with good intention, but they’d gotten lost in some horrible snowstorm of interrupting and finding fault, so intense and out of their control that they had to stop thirty of us from meditating all the time, over and over—probably for an hour in total out of four hours—to bicker with each other. Sometimes some of us tried to intervene, but we either got pulled into the debate, or we were misunderstood—we were taken to be on this side or that. It sounds so overt, so unbelievable, but actually it was extremely subtle. If I were a real practitioner, I might have recognized this as my own perception. (First it’s me and the bowls, then it’s them and the lines of text.) But I just thought, “Look at those idiots, arguing away.” And I made some notes on my sadhana (my chant book). I wrote down what they said.
I don’t know. Is this self-absorbed. Is this a lack of artistry. Is this a lack of imagination. Or is life a fiction?
One thing I would like to do, one day, is be able to describe what is happening in my mind. Sometimes I just make strange sounds in my head, I notice. One day I’d like to know what happens in there.