It’s All Finger-Pointing at the Moon: A Conversation with Carolyn Zaikowski


Carolyn Zaikowski’s writing is as diverse and polyphonous as her professional experience. The author of A Child Is Being Killed (Aqueous Books, 2013) and In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), Zaikowski taught sex workers in the red light district of India and political exiles on the Thailand/Burma border. Most recently, she offered services as a Personality Typology Coach.

In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse resonates with strains of her unique interests and encounters, melding the uncanny language of psychiatric interviews, self-help affirmations, and reoccurring fragments of memory.

This interview was conducted via a series of emails during the summer, and has been lightly edited.


The Rumpus: The narrative landscape of In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse is shaped by hybridity: different medical forms, languages, and voices speaking with, and sometimes in opposition to, each other. Many of these forms appear to mimic the language of documents you’ve employed in your own personal and occupational experience. Were there any particular texts that inspired your writing?

Carolyn Zaikowski: Both the self-help genre and academic and clinical psychology texts are fascinating to me. They are cultural documentation of how we try to codify and manage the chaos of the spiritual and emotional world. This urge is so tender and defensive, and should be honored.

My first couple of jobs out of college were in case management and crisis counseling, where we used so many of these flowcharts and checklists for purposes of intervention and bureaucracy. I really wanted to be a psychologist, and I will always feel like a spiritual scientist in some kind of archetypal sense. I love psychological frameworks and typologies because they are so simultaneously absurd and practical, limited and necessary. They point to the boxes we’re in so that we can become aware of those boxes and break out of them. I love the Buddha’s lists of types of suffering and hindrances and heavenly abodes, for the same reason. I even love the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, even though it’s obviously a total shitshow.

There’s got to be some practical way into ultimately unspeakable realms of suffering, healing, and liberation, right? It’s all finger-pointing at the moon. You’ve just got to be real about which is which, and the fact that the finger and the moon aren’t the same thing.

I also spent my first summer out of college in an eating disorder treatment program. There, I filled out worksheet after worksheet, doing so many types of official analysis of my neuroses. The sleep hygiene checklists, the emergency coping plans, the self-care charts, the formal letters to your eating disorder, whom you are instructed to call “Ed” as an experiment in taking away his power. All the cognitive behavioral worksheets asking things like, “What did you believe before you ate this cracker? What did you believe during it? What do you believe now, after it? Is that belief true? How can you reframe your negative beliefs about eating this cracker?” Informational handouts for emotional vocabulary-building. Checklists of ways to practice assertiveness, and you’re supposed to do them for homework—things like, “Go to the deli and order just one slice of cheese” or “Make plans, then cancel them.” All possible Venn diagrams, Likert Scales, and pie charts of the psyche were laid in front of me and I had to contend with them.

Rumpus: Both of your books deal with issues of trauma, gaslighting, and repressed memory in radically different ways. Whereas A Child Is Being Killed follows the lived reality of a trauma as it is occurring, the inciting moments and memories of In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse are—for the most part—elided or embedded within the strangeness of its clinical discussion. Did your radically different approaches feel like conscious strategies, or were they more intuitive? Do you see these books as a conversation between each other?

Zaikowski: Most of my writing feels like it comes from an otherworldly and impersonal wellspring that has given me random access to one of its portals. I think of my writing process like that thing when you breathe on a window in winter, and a patterned crystal world suddenly appears. I’m just the person who decided to breathe on a particular spot of glass to see if a hidden pattern would arise. I know this isn’t actually the way it works; I know I’m an active human doing writing. But I don’t always experience myself as creating the content—just as witnessing it in the correct way, from a place that comes before the subject-object split.

Or perhaps it’s like when you put ingredients together and bake them in the oven. A form congeals and is made obvious eventually, but in a sense it was always there, waiting for the correct conditions and the correct amount of time and space, or maybe waiting for someone to be a witness, stand, breathe, and wait for a shape. Maybe it’s what Carl Jung called “introverted intuition,” the cognitive mode in which humans are oriented towards seeking abstract, subconscious information and synthesizing it into usable patterns.

I like to map internal human states on the page, states that I feel are already there before I show up. I want to create, in written language, representations of the psyche unfolding in real time, from the inside-out, while these unfoldings are still their own subject, before they’ve been objectified under glass. It’s an impossible thing to have a piece of art never become an object, and always stay a subject, but I feel urgent about the need to try. Urgent about mapping the internal experience before it gets filtered by outside lines, containers, and interpretations. I don’t necessarily mean my own internal experience, though that’s impossible to remove. I mean the internal experiences that other humans might be having, too.

There’s something valuable in this mapping gesture, even if it’s impossible. Add gestures of movement and time to a text/body and you get narrative. I’m interested in witnessing the text/body as a process that exists in its own right. I think this exploration throws us deep into a pile of truths about the human condition and can help us minimize suffering in the real world, if we learn the right lessons from it.

I did my MFA critical work on this topic of what it means to represent symptoms of trauma on the page, using language and lack of language. What is the actual subjective experience of a traumatized body, including one made of text? And aren’t biological bodies hugely made of narrative, anyways?

Both my books were written in this light. But A Child Is Being Killed took a few years to write and navigate, and had a semblance of a linear plot to map which I did try to attend to in as logical and conscious a way as possible. To me, that’s the most significant difference between them.

I wrote In a Dream smack in the middle of writing A Child Is Being Killed, entirely in notebooks, over about a four-month period in 2007 during which my life decided to spectacularly fall apart. I transcribed the notebooks and they exposed their inherent form only much later, years after I’d given what was in them enough time to congeal and synthesize into something on their own.

Rumpus: On the subject of elided moments and memory: I’m really interested in the vivid fragments that emerge from these clinical documents in an almost dreamlike way, fragments that are simultaneously illuminated, elevated, and troubled in the course of their repetition. For example, in one of the psychiatric interviews, the subject responds to the prompt “tell me a story” by relating, “In New Hampshire I saw lichens on a rock. This is a true story that happened.” In a case study later on in the book, a disembodied third person prompts the subject in a hypnotic, ethereal search for the lichen: “Now drink the wine from the goblet and wait for the explosion to reach its blur. You will feel a sense of being airborne just before you reach the lichen.” Then, there is an urgent call to “ATTENTION” near the conclusion of the book: “The bulldozer is heading toward the lichens. Please gather all of your loved ones and form a circle around the lichens with your bodies.” Do you experience these moments as plotted shifts in register, or did they truly emerge from your writing as from a dream?

Zaikowski: Yes, they emerge from writing as if from a dream, or from a meditative state, or perhaps some kind of dissociative repetition compulsion.

What does it mean for a textual psyche or nervous system to be stuck, or to engage in obsession and ritual, or to compulsively dip into dreams and subconscious or hyperconscious states? We seem to take for granted that poetry is allowed to act in a repetitive manner. Prose and fiction, not so much. They get in trouble when they don’t act cool and smooth. Lots of side-eye happens. I’ve always loved Gertrude Stein’s story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” for this reason—it forces you to see itself and to remember its body, partly through an abundance of repetitive and compulsive behaviors of syntax that ultimately seem to discover themselves through their own movement.

I guess it’s really about the repetition. Freud said repetition compulsion was a fundamental defense mechanism, often employed in an effort to master the traumatic memory of the loss of the mother. Children who have been symbolically or physically abandoned by one or both parents often repeat self-distressing actions during play, such as throwing their toys out of reach and getting upset at the loss. So you can ask: Who or what was the repetitive text’s parent? If a text is repeatedly, insistently, says the only things it knows, will it rediscover that parent? If it keeps reenacting a simplified version of the loss, will it be able to master and move past the loss some day?

Contemporary trauma psychologists like Judith Herman emphasize society as the creator, narrator, and harmer of the body. So perhaps bodies, whether biological or textual, engage in repetition compulsion as an act of sheer anxiety-reduction in response to intolerable outer circumstances—racism, sexism, poverty, capitalism, ableism, assault, loss, you name it. Perhaps repetitive textual behavior is a stress response to social, political, or spiritual restraints on narrative.

Perhaps these repetitions are a bit like saying, “You may not like it, but I exist. I am in the realm of the real. I’m continuing until I break free.” Or, “You must see these lichens that I have seen, immediately, now, through my eyes. Then I’ll be free because my story will have been witnessed on its own terms.” Through witnessing, we create and free each other.

Or perhaps repetition is an act of dissociation and regrouping. A child throws her toy out of reach again and again, as if hypnotized, and this physical event is a tangible thing to cry about, much more tangible and easy to grasp than the crisis of cosmic betrayal. The child, grown, binges upon and then purges her nutrients over and over, or endlessly picks at her face, or obsessively arranges her silverware, or meets the ghost of her abusive father in all her romantic relationships, or is compelled to keep going down the dangerous street. The child, grown, throws and overthrows herself in response to being thrown and overthrown, then gets up and keeps going, again and again.

The text, as a body, can do that, too. It can pace within its own self-perpetuating vortex, clinging, out of fear and tiredness, to satellite-like objects and patterns that revolve around it. This gives it a sense of its own power within a system that is subjectively experienced as more powerful than it. The child has power over whether or not it throws the toy and picks it up again. It does not have power over the larger system of parents or societies that harmed it, but perhaps if it repeatedly engages in its small act of power, it will subtly shake the system enough to find a crack or hidden exit.

Or perhaps In a Dream, and others that do this kind of thing, repeat themselves in hopes things will be different next time around. Next time, the child will exist, she will be safe, she will be held. Instead of being the necessary telling, and being the necessary telling, and being the necessary telling, she will at last have been told. Maybe repetition compulsion is a process through which we come to develop new ways of storytelling, which is another way to say that we come to develop new ways of telling our being, of telling ourselves into existence. Maybe we don’t always know what we are trying to say and can exist only as a process, a struggle, turning our syntax over and over again until we become a proper form.

Repetition is a way of trying to escape and create something completely new. You go around the same road a hundred times, each time an inch closer to the off-ramp, and you dream about shooting off into that new world. One day, you will make it. Repetition is a valiant effort in the name of learning, healing, and newness.

The desire to be narrated is the desire to be held, to be born, to be repeated. I am amazed by the body’s will to be born in every single moment, even in the most difficult environments. Even when we die, we are reborn again and again, if only by the memories we leave in other people’s minds, and the imprints we leave in ecosystems.

Dandelions grow through cracks in pavement. If you cut them, they’ll grow again and again, in slightly different places, pissing off all the lawn-makers. The world would have to go to so many lengths to truly destroy all dandelions and their urge to repeat themselves. That’s amazing to me. Lichens are composite organisms, case studies in the creativity and determination it takes to merely exist. They can replicate themselves in almost any environment, on almost any surface, and can live for significant periods without water. They can survive unprotected in space. In space! All because of the will to repeat a self, to repeat and sustain an energy until something becomes itself. Repetition is rebirth, is life itself.

Don’t tell my dharma teachers that I am so enthralled by this. I told them I was trying to get liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

Rumpus: With its many different formal modes—the interview, the case study, the analysis, the announcement, to name just a few—In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse generates a lot of interpretive fluidity and freedom. Voices appear, converge, disappear, reappear, and—as the book’s title seems to suggest—collapse under their own accumulated weight. Do you experience this book as a meditation on accumulation? Or something else?

Zaikowski: I suppose this relates to a lot of what I’ve said about repetition. I never thought about In a Dream as a meditation on accumulation, but that makes a lot of sense, especially since all of these forms and patterns dream into themselves, attempt to arise and congeal, and then, in a sense, collapse. But in some senses, where they collapse into is a negative space, which is its own type of accumulation, leading to another story. And so on for eternity.

By the end of the text, energy, patterns, symbols, and lives have been somewhat neurotically generated. What will happen to them? What is their next step?

There’s room for controlled, linear narratives in this world, obviously. I could name one hundred such narratives that I’m in love with. There’s room for novels and stories that distribute their weight evenly and elegantly, or that are masterful regarding their maneuvers of self, or that emerge and resolve politely, or that do not trip over their own bodies, ever. But, as you know by now, I like textual behavior that reflects the actual mess of human syntax and human life. This project of narrative feels urgent to me. Many bodies in the world right now are unsafe, hyperaware of their potential to be erased, to go unsaid. How can we represent the terror, grief, and messiness of that on a page? How can we represent the texture, the lived experience, of that kind of accumulation, of the positive and negative space of that weight? This keeps me up at night. I think to myself, “Goddammit, how can we get readers to see, with new eyes, the pain of others? To meet and soothe and honor that pain where it’s at, instead of wishing it were easier to witness, instead of immediately jumping into an old or comfortable line of interpretation?”

Imagine if we could do that for each other? If we could move towards reality, the story, the page, the Other, and be brave enough to witness those things on their own terms, instead of expecting them to always meet us on ours, to accommodate us? Maybe, if we learn to be different types of readers, to meet these kinds of texts on their own terms, that can be a practice space for being different kinds of humans.

Rumpus: Amidst the various voices of In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse, some seem to stand out (at least, to me) as being closer to your own than others. Are there portions of this text that feel more distinctly “Carolyn” than others, or are you invested in blurring the boundaries between personal and fictional experience?

Zaikowski: As I mentioned, I wrote In a Dream over a four-month period during which my life was like, “Let’s crumble, right now!” What you are reading is the real-time manifestation of a coping mechanism; I was in the acute throes of grief while writing it. I feel like writers are not supposed to admit such a feminine thing, and I’m testing myself here by admitting it.

A dear friend of mine had died in a bike accident two blocks away from my house. We’d been having an extremely emotional conflict when she died and I was stubbornly not speaking to her, even though she was one of my favorite people. Having someone I deeply loved unexpectedly die when I was mad at them paved the way for a very particular type of repetitive haunting which is definitely in the nervous system of the book. It was a flavor of hell realm I’d never experienced before, and to be honest, I’ve never quite shaken it off; it’s sort of just an emotional tattoo I live with.

Simultaneously, my five-plus year relationship was spectacularly falling apart in every imaginable way, and I also had to quit my first “real adult” job as a case manager because one of my clients threatened to kill me in a huge way that involved having to go to court. It felt like a period of little and big deaths everywhere I turned in my personal and community life. So I convinced my partner we needed to move away, because, you know, moving away definitely solves everything, and of course we broke up a couple weeks after leaving. I was reborn in this way into a new life in a new town.

This was exactly ten years ago. When I look back at In a Dream now, I experience it as uncanny container of my mind and life then. Some of it is very obviously connected to me—names and descriptions of real people and places—and some is not—repetitive visions and cognitions that take place only in my mind.

Interestingly, and happily, I don’t relate to much of it anymore. I bow to it as a proof of all of the righteous feminine/feminist claims that art is personal and political, and that it can and should heal. I bow to the object of In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse as fuel for my stubborn insistence that art should not only be seen as an intellectual or cute game we play when we are privileged and bored, but as a force of nature that synthesizes important, and often unspeakable, human elements into something we can individually and collectively use to heal, learn, and revolt. It’s a talisman to me—a magical physical symbol borne of a prayer that went something like, “Please let me neurotically write stuff, or do something else relatively harmless, instead of doing all the harmful things I am inclined to do to when I am in this kind of pain.”

Having said all this, I desperately want to emphasize that just because I rerouted a bunch of personal pain into In a Dream, does not mean this text cannot or does not point to one thousand other things and experiences for one thousand other people. There is a higher energy in the text, too, that I believe went far beyond my personal idea of myself. The risk you take when you talk about your own behind-the-scenes experience as the One Who Wrote Something is that you might limit the text’s interpretations.

In fact, I want to remind readers: There are literal interactive elements in the book! There are all kinds of questions you can answer, checklists you can use, and empty boxes you can fill out to insert yourself into the body of text. I wasn’t trying to be gimmicky; those elements were meant to be actively used. I wanted to break the fourth wall and explore the relational, interactive component of narrative, the narrative movements wherein we create each other. My dream is to see a copy of the book where a reader has thoroughly answered all the questions!

Rumpus: While In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse explores some very dark themes, challenging abstractions, and otherwise decidedly non-light reading material, you channel this material through a consistently (and delightfully) bizarre sense of humor.

Zaikowski: I didn’t consciously try to make In a Dream funny, and was surprised when many people told me how funny they thought it was. When I look at it now, it’s obvious I was using dark and absurd humor as a coping strategy.

Actually, some of the funnier parts of the book are conversations that I eavesdropped upon and definitely misheard in places like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Boulder, Colorado. In these places, if you take your notebook into public and just wait, people everywhere are having these conversations like, “I just got back from envisioning the stream of life as it emerged from my throat chakra. What are you up to today? Want to ride bikes over by this psychic energy field I discovered in a hidden rock quarry?” I also sloppily recorded an unfortunate number of conversations in Cambridge that Harvard University grad students and researchers were having with each other.

Don’t get me wrong; I dabble in this kind of stuff myself, and consider myself a genuine spiritual seeker and serious Buddhist meditator. But I also grew up in the projects north of Boston, with my father’s family. Their parents were Eastern European immigrants who died young, and my father and his siblings were orphans who had a lot of identification with being poor and being self-taught survivors. It was the norm to be crass and messy, and to curse loudly and a lot. To get really serious, and then push everything away with dark humor. There was also this ethos of being really smart and connected to some larger vision of life, while also needing to keep a skeptical eye on privileged intellectuals, the rich, and the religious.

As an adult, I feel I have to take a step back sometimes and look at some of the intellectual, psychological, and spiritual language I’ve chosen to surround myself with and laugh about how far off the mark it is in terms of actually encapsulating the incredible nature of what it’s trying to point at. That includes lots of what I’ve said in this interview. It’s that dance again, the middle path. You’ve got to honor the power of language, but you’ve also got have a sense of humor and humility where existence, the intellect, and the spirit are concerned, or else you just end up sounding like a totally disconnected asshole.

Meghan Lamb is from Chicago, Illinois. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance, 2014). Her fictions and essays can be found in DIAGRAM, Redivider, Nat.Brut, The Collagist, The Rumpus, Passages North, PANK, and elsewhere. More from this author →