Writing memoir is an intensive process of self-examination, conducted for the most part in solitude. So winning the Affirm Press Mentorship, which included living with two editors for five days, was both exhilarating and terrifying.
For weeks leading up to the residency I’ve been asking the same rhetorical questions: How do you live with the people reading your ‘tragedy porn’ without them seeing how ‘flawed’ the trauma has left you?
Turns out, as usual, that I was putting too much weight on myself, unfair expectations on my story.
During my first meeting with the editors, I told them that what I feared most about talking to people who’d read the book was seeing pity in their eyes. I’ve gotten very used to seeing pity over the last 40 years and so
perhaps indubitably project it into places and onto faces. There was no pity, because, it turns out, I haven’t actually written ‘tragedy porn’. Because I’m not actually a ‘victim’.
The other day I wrote about the ‘victim programming’ my mother installed with her abuse:
Living with a psychopath gives you skills. You learn to watch, to wait, to breathe slowly and cry silently. You learn the difference between a real smile and one that hides an about-to-explode rage. You know that all the public laughs are fake; that the only ones she really means are the maniacal mid-beating guffaws. A hand on your shoulder in public can tell the many layers of abuse that will come when you’re behind closed doors. You learn to laugh at the jokes, even the horrible ones where she offers to sell your virginity for a boat. You learn to laugh or pay later. When you finally see American Psycho, you walk out wondering if she thought she’d imagined it all. The constant vigilance and self-censorship – the attempts to be anywhere but where the fist is about to land – gives you a hyperawareness, a shocking ability to read people.
And in doing so, realised that this is not actually ‘victim’ programming, this is ‘survivor’ programming. And the book less a story of tragedy and more an explosion of survival.
Editors aren’t anywhere as scary as I expected. They turned out to be the perfect people to help me think about my story. Astonishing.
This is what I’ve learned living and working with editors:
1. There is less need for me to prove and justify my story than I’d been imagining.
Indeed, in some ways I’ve been undermining myself and my storytelling with these expectations of being called a liar. My rational brain knows this is baggage from childhood, that because the mother monster used ‘liar’ and ‘creative’ interchangeably I’ve transferred her judgments of my honesty onto my autobiographical story. I’ve also, I suspect, let this fabrication drive the fear of rejection that stops me submitting my works for publication.
Working with the editors has helped me identify how the ‘liar’ monologue lodged itself in my brain. What matters most is the ’emotional truth’ (thank you, Sonia Orchard).
I will kill the monster mother liar voice, I will own my emotional truth.
2. Getting the story out hurts much less than keeping it in.
The last two times I’ve been at Varuna, I’ve struggled with letting the other residents see the real me. I’ve called myself an ‘imposter’, ‘the person who shouldn’t be here’, ‘something that crawled up the pipes’. I’ve struggled with seeing myself and my history as valid, and in dong so have created blocks to letting the emotional truth out. On this trip, knowing that both of the editors have read my story and determined to be here more honestly, I have been upfront with it from day 1.
Seeing everything but pity in my first consult – admiration, respect, acknowledgement – made being me (in all my wonderful iterations) easier. It made writing my pain easier to tackle. Workshopping the toxicity in my story with two engaged and articulate editors let me see deeper into the filth and find ways to strip it back and find the life underneath. I’m not ‘broken’ or ‘flawed’ , I’m a writer with a dark story and a humour to match. This story deserves to get out and my feelings won’t stand in it’s way.
I can be me, even when the me I’m being feels ‘wrong’, even when my sinews scream that a mask is needed.
3. Trauma and damage doesn’t mean the story is all dark.
While ‘broken’ and ‘flawed’ may be harsh adjectives that I need to dispose of, the reality is that I will always carry the damage done by my mother monster. I am prickly, defensive, sometimes react before I respond. I’m quick to find the black bits under the glow, the dirty secrets hidden behind smiles, but these traits also feed into my resilience, my bounce-back-ability. In my conversations with the editors this week, I’ve watched myself digging into the dirt of my world and pulling out the beautiful bits. I’ve been asked about the good bits that happened around the bad bits and realised that these moments mean as much to the story as the trauma. These are the moments of my flowering, where the prickles and defences fade to let the happy me shine through.
Shrinkola and I have talked much over the years about how the best flowers grow from the stinkiest soil. What at first felt like attempts to find a ‘positive angle’ has now morphed into a different perspective on my history. I can now say, with an almost straight face, that I’ve been lucky to have lived my life, to have the fortitude imbued by trauma. The editors have mirrored this back, getting excited about my plans to shift the book’s focus just enough to let the sun reach these beautiful blooms.
I can love and tell the happy stories without them taking away from the bad stories, showing my ability to live fully around all the pain emphasises rather than detracts from my story.
Thank you, Affirm Press, Ruby and Kate, and everyone at Varuna for another wonderful experience. This magic yellow house has helped me learn how to human better and being here with the Affirm team has helped me find ways too appreciate that humanity more.
I’ll be getting the next draft off to you by March and no matter where it goes from here, I’ll never forget the softness, kindness and honesty you’ve shared with me.