[CN: sexual assault]
“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
~Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
My friend S recently had several poems accepted by Storyscape Journal, which asks its authors to classify their work as Truth, Untruth, or We Don’t Know And They Won’t Tell Us. I love this concept. At the same time, I wonder: would I struggle to commit publicly, if given such a selection of boxes?
S, who cites “confessionalist and post-confessionalist themes” as prime influences on her writing, checked Truth. She struggled a bit on her own path, but decided finally that poems could be judged within more flexible standards of truth-telling than memoir. She, like I, often wrestles with the genre implications of her work—that selection of setting that best allows a gemstone to gleam.
Another of her poems (forthcoming elsewhere) is titled, “I want to write a memoir.”
“except all I remember are dreams,” is its opening line.
* * *
When I write out these stories of my life, I am very careful never to lie.
Is that the same thing as choosing to be truthful?
* * *
When the memoir boom began in the late-’90s/early-’00s, I was just beginning a doctoral program at a graduate school of education, in its Reading/Writing/Literacy department. I enrolled simultaneously in a masters-level program through the English department, partly due to my interest in post-secondary literacies and partly out of an enduring adulation for Lit Crit not yet relinquished. (Faculty in both schools had enthused over this coordination when I was applying, though it proved bureaucratically challenging once I’d actually arrived.)
I had unknowingly selected an ED program heavily steeped in feminist theory, and much of my time I spent devouring all I could—especially anything related to embodied knowledge (and other new-to-me ideas of epistemology) and its implications for writing, the ways it justified first-person eruptions into even the most rigorous of scholarship. The rest of my days I buried myself in literature: postmodern novels, reimagined fairy tales, women’s memoirs.
The “boom” was still young enough that these books fascinated not only in their own right. They also represented that most prized of academic arenas: the as-yet-untheorized text. I recognized this, even as I knew my heart’s clamoring had little to do with scholarly potential.
If I had been in a better mental state (for reasons unrelated to my studies), I’m sure I could have made a viable project out of these intersecting spheres. As it was, I found myself tongue-tied and stammering when my adviser raised a perfectly reasonable challenge: “But what does any of this have to do with education?”
“It has to do with my ability to breathe,” felt a meager response to being queried about the marketability of my proposed Grad Ed dissertation.
I ended up taking a year’s leave-of-absence, once I’d completed my coursework, to ponder my way into a viable dissertation idea. At the very beginning of my hiatus, I met the man I would later marry. At the very end, he talked me out of returning. He had completed his own doctorate a few years before and assured me: nothing good would come of it, if I went back.
“I’m telling you the truth,” my not-yet-ex said. “Trust me.”
* * *
I find myself having conversations everywhere about storytelling the self:
I correspond with another poet who deals in personal and familial confessions. We talk about memory and invention. About the ways stories can be both inherited and ruptured across generations. How facts are lost and emotions restored.
What it is to sing with our own voices. What it is to call out in the voice of another.
Y tells me: “I don’t feel like it’s my job, as the poet, to capture all the detailed facts. It is my job to preserve the idea, and the emotion of it all. I hope that I’m doing my grandmother and mother’s stories justice.”
I wonder—not for the first time—about my own insistence on writing in prose.
I hear about a friend’s MFA classmate, a woman who writes life-narrative—work definitely marketable as “memoir”—yet who chooses to enroll in every class as a writer of “fiction.” I understand this tension.
I myself would publish volumes of mythology as Nonfiction before I would allow even a roman à clef of mine to fall under any rubric hinting that it contained Fiction.
I have an extended meditation with D, another blogger of personal and embodied stories, that stretches through snippets of comments exchanged on both her blog and mine: What does it mean to write about sexual pleasure? About sexual shame?
On one post, I thank her for writing in a deeply vulnerable way about masturbation. On another, she remarks that my writing has a “trademark fierce honesty.” I ask about an early piece where she describes how and when she came to own her own voice. She reflects on how that claiming is never simple:
“I know that I’m hiding still even if the ways are more subtle. You definitely are someone who strikes me as unabashed and direct when it comes to saying what you mean and believe.”
I want to explain: the directness she perceives is itself a creation—a willing-into-being—more than any uncovering. Absent words, I feel mere rawness and pieces. To hide would require building first a wall and then a self to crouch behind it, though my materials for both are limited…and of the same stuff.
I don’t know how to say this. I leave no comment in response.
A college classmate I haven’t spoken to in 25 years finds my blog online and writes to tell me so.
“Much of it is powerful writing,” his email says, “even if in some cases it’s painful reading. You’re brave to put this out there. You should write more—about being a rape survivor, and about other topics.”
At first, I am startled. Have I called myself a rape survivor? Then I take a breath and remember: yes, of course.
* * *
No language is truly naked. Every story has been clothed and taught manners—even those that read like a feral child brought to a dinner party.
How could I possibly tell you memories that only howl?
* * *
At the beginning of our relationship, the ex and I collaborated on projects. A musician, he was deep into composing his first opera and concerned the libretto had problems. I was a writer; would I take a look? I did, and it did. Would he mind if I rewrote it? He would be forever grateful.
He courted me through admiration of my words.
Which made his eventual destruction of those words especially bitter. I said everything wrong, he began telling me—and I learned to be silent whenever we were in public. He agreed to stop yelling after every phone conversation I had with my parents—once I agreed to lock myself in the bathroom for the duration of each call. In the final months, he permitted me to sit with my journal at a local café—on the understanding that I would no longer refer to the scribbling I did while there as “writing.”
Writers have value.
I—he made me understand—did not.
* * *
When I was still a doctoral candidate, I said to a therapist: “I will know I am well, once I can write this all down in a memoir.”
“And I will know you are well,” he replied, “when you no longer want to.”
* * *
I wonder if readers ever know which are the stories that most protest being written? The stories I begin drafting, only to find myself once again unable to sleep in the darkness. Certain memories turn to snakes when handled: writhing coils of muscle and fanged venom. Only craft can tame them.
Rape stories, for instance, are always snake stories.
Last fall, nearing completion on a piece that had kept me awake for a near-month of nights, I read the draft out loud to myself, again and again, noting every time my tongue tripped over words or the logic seemed lost. Each time, the same two sentences never worked: So I say 12. I say, “This happened 12 times.”
You see? How the second sentence hinges on a demonstrative pronoun lacking a clear antecedent?
On a late afternoon in early October, I asked a writer friend to meet me for coffee. Quietly, haltingly, I read to her my revised phrasing:
So I say 12.
I say, “I was raped 12 times.”
As I spoke that afternoon, the words became true: this was, at last, a thing I said.
I posted “The Window Bangs” at 1 am that night, after adding a lengthy and pedantic second postscript about memoir-writing and the trope of the unreliable narrator.
I slept until almost noon the following day.
* * *
I am telling you stories.
I am confessing you truths.
“Confessions” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.
[Featured image: Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Artemisia Gentileschi (1638-39). Via.]