One of the creative writing forms I teach is memoir, sometimes called life writing. The commonest issue writers of memoir face is vulnerability. They fear exposing themselves to the reader. It’s common for these writers to fictionalise their life story, or use the third person, in order to shield themselves. A writer once asked me if her memoir was still a memoir if she wrote in the third person. I said no, which angered her. I dealt with her wrongly, thus driving her deeper into her own self-protectiveness. What I should have done was tell her the story of my own struggle to overcome my fear of self-exposure. So, although I have lost that opportunity, I will tell the story here.
Back in 2004, I developed an eye condition that made it hard for me to do everyday things like read the newspaper and walk safely down a flight of stairs. One of the curious things about my eye condition is that I sometimes see objects that aren’t there: flowers, feathers, scraps of paper that might be folded notes. I want to write a story about a woman who sees things that aren’t there―it’s such an odd and magical experience.
It’s normal when you lose some part of your body or one of the senses that you enter a mourning period. During this period you give up hoping for the return of the lost sense or lost limb, and you adjust to a new way of relating to the world and yourself. I examined the way I was living my life and realised I was stuck in a rut. I had to think about what I really wanted from life and how I should go about getting it. In a really meaningful way, my eye condition was the best thing that could have happened to me. It catapulted me into a situation where I was forced to change the way I conducted my life. Some of these changes came about through conscious decision. Some were involuntary, and these have been the most potent agents of change.
As I came out of my mourning period, I was seized by a need to write about my relationship with my mother. It had been difficult; my mother had a mental illness and suffered from psychotic episodes. For years I had avoided writing about her, either directly or in disguised forms. My protagonists are notably lacking a mother. Again and again I write about women who either have a father only, or no parents at all. So the idea of writing about myself and my mother was a struggle. The first part of the struggle was learning how to write memoir when I only knew how to write fiction and journalism. That was tough enough. But still tougher was my struggle to write about her and myself in a true and honest way, stripped of justifications and defensiveness, self-aggrandisement and blame. I had to be vulnerable and that was frightening.
This fear took the form of a prohibition – thou shalt not write about they mother! Behind that hung another prohibition – thou shalt not write about thyself! Every time I sat down to write a short memoir about her, I would stare at a blank document page for about half an hour, type a little, erase it, type again, erase it, and finally close the document and do something else.
Then I figured a way around the prohibition. I was addicted to a reality TV show called Wife Swap USA, in which two couples swapped partners. There was always a crazy mother in there. The show could more accurately have been called Mad Mothers USA. I used to watch this show and see my own mother in these mad women. So I wrote an essay about it. First I analysed an episode, then I took a reality TV camera into my home when I was sixteen and let it roam around, recording what went on there. By starting with the show and moving into memoir, I had sneaked up on my mother―and it was liberating! Even better (because we writers need proof that we’ve done a good job) Griffith REVIEW published it. Before long, I didn’t have to sneak up on her anymore. I could write about her directly, and a few years after that, my book-length memoir, The Lost Woman, was published.
I had got over the fear of exposing myself, of being vulnerable in front of strangers. But something curious had happened. I’m a fiction writer and had struggled to get close to my characters. Since I struggled with that, so did my readers. Insuperable barriers separated me from my characters, and my characters from my readers. But once I had overcome my fear of being vulnerable, I found myself no longer fearing to expose my characters. By overcoming my fear, I had made myself, quite by chance, a better storyteller and a better writer.
That’s a fabulous story, Sydney, and I can highly recommend The Lost Woman. ‘An extraordinary memoir from a ferociously talented writer, The Lost Woman will mesmerise readers with its power and humanity.’
Not being a writer of memoir, I don’t have quite the same problem. Also, I’m the sort of person who can’t help wearing my heart on my sleeve. This causes complications in the real world, but is a gift to a novelist. Because as you say, it isn’t just memoirists who are afraid to expose themselves. Writers of fiction can be equally tempted to protect their innermost selves, writing half-truths, and shying away from things that matter the most to them.They fear being shamed, or embarrassed, or judged.
How much of yourself are you prepared to put on the page? If you truly want to write great fiction, you have to be willing to go deep. It takes courage to do this. Otherwise, what matters most passionately to you will remain hidden from your readers. The words will lack soul. This is difficult, because we’re all programmed not to expose ourselves. We have psychological defence tools to protect ourselves from pain and raw emotions. Some writers even protect their characters, and are afraid to make them vulnerable. But if we write like this, we will pussyfoot around the heart of our story and have no real impact on the reader. Ernest Hemingway understood this when he said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.’
What are you scared to write? Maybe that’s exactly what you should be doing. When I think of my favourite books, they all pack a raw, emotional punch.