Finding the Form with Kristine Sahagun
Where does form begin and does it have a happy ending? I am twenty-five in second year, second time around, sitting in a short fiction class on love, sex and death. We’re talking about a book or a film and I’m waving my pen like a baton trying to complete my thoughts. I find myself spilling, a stutter, a pause—”…her memory of pain makes sense since I was sexually abused by my grandfather when I was four to seven.” The professor stands and shuts the door. I notice my classmates sitting up straighter, some lean forward, some back. We are still a room full of strangers in September. This is the first time I hear the secret I’d held for so long. My voice was my own, yet it wasn’t. I was expecting shame, pity, regret. But I only felt this weight lift from my chest. And for the rest of the year, our class became a therapy session, where people felt safe to speak about what they held close. Did form begin then?
I am twenty-six out of school, with a Keppra prescription sifting inside me, whiskey hidden in travel mugs on the morning commute. In an effort to lift my spirits, my best friend, Kristina, takes me to Bob McNally’s for a reading from an Icelandic author. She shows me a flyer of a competition—write a 250 word story based on this photo prompt and win a trip to Iceland! I download the photo of Harpa Concert Hall. It looks like a dream.
At home, I plug myself in at the dinner table and play Olafur Arnalds on repeat, wanting to heal but not knowing how. Wanting to write again, but my brain is a fog of twisting tree flesh that only calms if I swallow a pill I can hardly afford, whose side effects make me want to stay in bed and never get up. “Kristine, come have breakfast.” My mum at the foot of my bed. “Don’t you have work today? I’ll drive you to the station.”
I am thankful for Kristy, my boss during this time and now good friend, who understood how every step was made of lead. “Kristine, let’s go have a tea break. Are you cold? I have a scarf.”
At twenty-seven the story prompt becomes a poem and Iceland stays a dream. But the photo nestles in my head, an unexpected calm through the nights. Is this where form began?
Maybe it’s more specific. I am twenty-eight and it’s December. My house is dry, my head is clear and dad turns on the light so I don’t write in the dark. The poem becomes a one-page story on the glow of my screen. Charlotte starts out as Beth, but Tomas is the same. And they end their scene sitting at a piano with the curtain stirring.
DAD: What are you writing?
ME: I don’t know yet.
DAD: That’s fine. You’ll get there. Here, have some dragon fruit.
Can I write this truth, tell the world of strangers a story that my father can never know? Please, tell me. What is the right thing to do?
I am thirty, back in school, but with a fresh head on straight shoulders. Beth becomes Charlotte, and Benny is born. I couldn’t help adding my dog, Arnie, in there somewhere. I am sitting in Innis College with a cup of black coffee I brought from home, sending voice messages to my boyfriend, Chris, in between classes. And I’m taking a fiction workshop where we’re asked to build a story that started years ago.
I think of my grandfather.
I am afraid.
Chris texts me: You can do this, Kit.
Yes, but do I want to?
I am thirty-two, finally graduating, and I’m sitting in a bubble tea shop with my head clear, pages of my story marked up. Lines crossed. Words added then taken away. This story won’t leave me alone.
And there is the professor’s thick scrawl: I think this needs to be told.
Yes, but who will read it? Who will care?
Maybe this is where form began; in the hope of being held and accepted.
There’s a pandemic, and when it releases its hold for a heartbeat, I head out with a group of writers on a retreat to Niagara on the Lake. Look at me. Kristine, writing freely again with no lightning storms weighing her down. We spend the days on writing sprint sessions, and nights with bottles and music. Our voices echo around the rooms of the rented house where the floors creak and K-pop music videos blare on the tv. I step outside with two friends, tipsy but controlled.
This is what happiness looks like:
- – How is the story going?
- – Guys, I hate it.
- – Why? Too close?
Yes. It’s too close. It has always been too close. My story is Icarus staring into the sun, Orpheus at the mouth of a cave, Atlas clutching Earth as if she would disappear once he let go.
Form ends when the story feels right, when I exhale and hold it out. After hours on end of self-loathing, sprints of genius or quiet lulls, sitting back, sipping coffee, reading the same lines again and again, maybe then the ending will come. Now, thirty-five. Give it a new ending, send it out, find a home for it.
Now, thirty-six. I am a completely different person. No longer a poem of Beth, and now not even Charlotte. But every word wrung out of me was real. Connie Converse taking twelve steps; days at the piano, childhood ballet memories, my nightmares, friends hidden like easter eggs, and cups and cups and cups.
READER: This is good. I can feel it.
WRITER: Thank you. But is it right?
Will it ever be right?
Kristine Sahagun is a second generation Filipino-Canadian, living with epilepsy and a dog. Her work has appeared in The Hart House Review, Raconteur Magazine, and The Antigonish Review. She wishes she can speak Japanese and is working on her first novel.