writing what’s close

A few nights ago I received my copy of The Victorian Writer in the mail and for the first time since high school, a piece of writing made me weep (I can’t actually recall the title of the book that moved me so much back then, I just remember its effects – strange how memory works – but that’s another post). What I was reading was so raw and brutally real that all I could do was cry. Even when all I wanted to do was look away or put the piece down or just forget. That struggling was there. That grappling too. That inner wrestle that the writer was having with herself was all right there on the page in her words and beneath them. For me to read. A fellow writer but, even more simply than that, a fellow comrade in suffering.

The piece I’m referring to is  Andee Jones’ The Tribute; a memoir piece inspired by a 20 minute creative writing exercise to write about ‘How to talk to…’. And it wasn’t so much the content itself of the piece that set me off as it was the relatability of it. Here was a fellow writer, usually extraordinarily articulate – both with the written and spoken word – who had also studied psychology (Jones is a retired psychologist), and yet she was grappling – and obviously so –  with how best to express arguably her most significant life event. “I sat here for 20 minutes,” says Jones of the exercise, “and couldn’t [write] anything.” The experience that she was trying to exorcise from herself and onto the page was just too damn large and difficult and confronting to translate into any kind of even semi communicable form. It was like the task of writing about the experience was more difficult than the experience itself – perhaps the word I’m looking for here is more real.

For years I’ve tried to come to terms with this phenomenon – whatever it is. The idea that, as a writer, writing about a difficult / traumatic / pleadingly forgettable (clumsy, I know, but there just doesn’t seem to be another way to express that root desire to forget something horrible) experience is more often than not, harder than the experience was to begin with. And over the years I’ve come up with various theories about why this happens – only one of which seems remotely plausible: writing a trauma not only cements it, like a footprint in wet concrete, but – for a writer – it makes it real. Really goddam painfully real. Because that’s how a writer processes. A writer’s words are their life tools. The things that help them make sense of everything. When I write, I digest and if I didn’t, I just wouldn’t function. Imagine if your entire digestive system was to malfunction. You wouldn’t be able to eat or go to the toilet. You wouldn’t be able to absorb any nutrients. You couldn’t live. Even if you wanted to. It’s the same thing for me (and I believe most other writers). If we were to write that difficult experience, we’d have to digest it. And how to digest the indigestible – especially when it’s so unpalatable?

The teacher in Jones’ head urges her to just do it. To just, “write when experience is too big to hold, when you’re speechless with pain and rage and dread, when you want to convey hard stuff…” and the teacher in me has often urged the same. However, in those rare, logic defying, breath eliminating instances it’s not that simple. These are the stories that we can’t, as writers, write. That we “trick ourselves into starting,” only to be left with glaringly blank pages which serve the cruel purpose of reinforcing the blankness inside. It just can’t be done. Or can it?

Jones’ piece ends with the advice of another teacher – this time her writing teacher – who tells her that we simply “must write into the dark… without knowing where it will take us,” and perhaps that’s the sticking point of Jones’ memoir – for me at least. “…without knowing where it will take us.” I just figure, surely the experience itself was bad enough without me now having to owe it something? Surely after all that grief and hurt and difficult stuff I have earnt, at the very least, some control over it now that it’s done? Surely, surely if I’m to pluck up the courage and (finally) get this out of my system I get to decide where it’s going to lead me? But that’s just it, I don’t. “You’re a writer Kat,” the teacher in me says, “you are never in control.”

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