Cupboards. Skeletons. Etc.

I read this post by Diane Becker a few days ago, and it struck a chord with me – having recently had a fairly horrible stay in hospital myself. (There aren’t any nice stays in hospital, are there? Or should I save up for BUPA?) I don’t go into things like that in my blog, or too much in real life either, and I never thought about how that linked to my writing method until I started reflecting on Diane’s post and the way she chooses not to talk about things and how she feels that affects her writing.

I hope my writing isn’t formulaic, but there’s a knack to working out a good first person narrative – deciding what the person thinks they are telling you, and what they are actually telling you. What they don’t want to say, and what seeps in around the edges anyway. What they don’t want to talk about might be near death experiences or trauma. It is just as likely (in my stories, anyway) to be secret humiliations, sins of omission and social failures. How does it seep around the edges? How do you show what they don’t want to tell?

There are a couple of things in my life that I’ve very deliberately decided I will neither think nor talk nor write about. It is like editing a novel (everything feels like editing a novel right now, though) and cutting out the bits you don’t like and rearranging the rest to cover the gaps. It’s very important and makes the rest of the whole wobbling edifice possible. Not amnesia. Editing.

Perhaps you will find some of this deleted material seeping in around the edges – in jokes, dreams and stories I make up – but not, I think, if I am vigilant. Not if I am really good at what I try to do. But if I can spot the way the truth seeps in around the edges and replicate it for my pretend narrators, I should be able to get a handle on it in real life, shouldn’t I?

It is lazy thinking (it is, isn’t it?) to go through a writer’s output and circle the recurring images and themes and label them as autobiographical – as the juicy trauma they’ve edited out of their real lives and allowed to seep into their fictional ones. I don’t doubt lots of writers make conscious and unconscious use of their secrets and unspoken events like this. But it isn’t quite what I am talking about.

I reject the Romantic and romantic notion that a writer is more hurt, more embarrassed and more traumatised than the rest of the population and good writing comes from their working-out of that trauma. Life is often humiliating and frightening and crap for everyone and people who shuffle words are not special or more sinned-against. Trauma is boring and ordinary.

But trauma, or the things we don’t want to talk about, is important to writing. It doesn’t matter what the content of the trauma is. One person’s car-smash is another person’s disastrously violent c-section (plucking an example off the top of my head…) is another person’s wrong-shoes-for-the-party is another persons saw-my-parents-shagging. We have all got the things that we edit out of the stories we tell about ourselves.

It is important to writing because understanding the way this works is understanding one of the basic things about writing and noticing the way it is done in real life is practice for being a writer. In other words, writers are not more hurt, they are just more cold blooded about noticing the way they deal with the hurt – the editing is never complete because writers look at how they self-edit and replicate that when they’re dealing with sentences and paragraphs.

Having a sad secret isn’t unique. Picking the scab of your sad secret in front of the mirror (on a blog, in a poem, during a novel) is possibly a little bit more unusual / narcissistic / healthy / unhealthy / interesting / pathetic / useful because nothing makes you notice the difference between what we tell and what we show more. I’ve been invited back to the hospital for a chat with a professional that will, apparently, prevent me getting post-traumatic-stress-disorder. No thanks, says I, I’d rather suppress it, watch myself doing it and then blog about the process. Could come in handy for the next book (this is why writers don’t have friends – I’ve never heard of anything so vain in my life).

Body language experts call the signs – the ticks and twitches – the body makes when we are lying / omitting parts of the truth ‘tells’. They aren’t tells. They are (some of the) shows. Creative writers are instructed to avoid one and encourage the other – better teachers advise writers to be aware of which one they are doing, and control it. My narrators are all ‘tell’ and the interesting bit – the ‘show’ is the bit that is between the lines, the silent bit, the unwritten part.

How else did you think I learned how to do it?

The blog post was a response to Too Much Information which you can find, along with many other illuminating ruminations, at Not Designed to Juggle. The photograph, which is not as good as Diane’s, was taken by the Mr – who was slightly baffled by my weak laughter and insistence he take this snap for me because I wanted it for my blog. 

12 responses to “Cupboards. Skeletons. Etc.”

  1. sara crowley says:

    This is such an interesting post/topic. My writing can be autobiography disguised as fiction, or absolute made up from my noggin tales, or a mix, or whatever. I realise that I write fiction in an attempt to make sense of the world, and I seek some version of truth in my writing. But but but…there is a huge part of my life that I keep private that bleeds into fiction sometimes in obscure ways. I assume they are impossible to pick up on, but who knows. I remember when I first got into Sylvia Plath’s poetry and I went through her zillion biographies and pieced together meanings in her poetry and wondered how the hell she ever expected anyone to understand *that* dish was important because it had contained placenta once and so on.

    It is sometimes what is unsaid that is important, but sometimes, equally, it’s what is said. There’s no right or wrong, I think, there’s just words, and communication.

    Love this: “My narrators are all ‘tell’ and the interesting bit – the ‘show’ is the bit that is between the lines, the silent bit, the unwritten part.”

    (By the by – I suffered awful flashbacks for quite some time after a very difficult pregnancy/birth. My stay in hospital was prolonged and traumatic, I had pre-eclampsia and an emergency c-section after which my bubs were whisked away from me, 6 weeks premature, and I mainly lost blood, hallucinated, and got iller. It was so very awful but I don’t think I have spoken about it or written about it. I wonder if some things get absorbed by us, carried deep inside. Big (stupid/bloggy) squeezy hugs to you.)

  2. Hi Sara!

    This is what I’m interested in – the idea that anything can ‘bleed’ into writing – because once you’re aware of the bleeding in, it isn’t unconscious any more, but an effect you’re aware of and an editorial decision you make concerning themes / issues / structures in your writing. Do you see what I mean? If it really was bleeding in without you being aware of it, well, you wouldn’t be aware of it. It is the fact you know that it is there and you allow it to be there, you edit it, you structure the stories so they dovetail with the missing parts of your life (perhaps) that makes you a good writer.

    Maybe I’m not making much sense…

    I think Sylvia Plath is a brilliant example of this kind of thing taken to extremes. She’s extraordinarily cold blooded about using private trauma as the content of her work – or at least giving that impression.

    The thing that I’ve always disliked about much of her work is how much it invites and to some extent requires, the reader to go digging into the facts of her life in order to give her work meaning. Like you say, some of the poems don’t make any sense unless you know exactly what that dish was used for… and how would you unless you did a bit of research?

    I don’t think any poems or novels or stories stand completely on their own two feet – but usually we need to go to other poems or stories or myths or histories or whatever in order to get the most meaning out of them. For Plath’s poems, we need to treat her life like another book and for me there’s something fairly distasteful and attention seeking about requiring that amount of intrusiveness from your reader in order to make sense out of the work.

    I don’t think you’re going to agree with me 🙂 What do you think?

    Thanks for the kind words and well wishes x

  3. Max Wallis says:

    I always find it interesting when I write something, or use consistent imagery, which people then take for being fact. I’m never entirely sure whether that means I’m creating engaging, real, characters or that people just presume I’ve been through all this alleged trauma. 😀

    I agree re: Plath. I got quoted for saying that she’s a big influence on my poetry for a website … when really she’s not at all.

    Personally I try and remember that what we do as writers is not only write but create something that is then going to be read … which a lot of people don’t really seem to realise.


  4. Maybe if you’re writing about something authentically, then you can fool your readers into thinking that what you are writing about comes from your experience – that it is true in a factual way and not just an emotional way.

    I agree with you about being read – Plath certainly wanted to be published, so why make her work so obscure for her reader unless she wanted people speculating about her own life?

  5. Daisy says:

    Really interesting post Jenn! I’m a suppresser too and I think it’s quite healthy actually! There was a study four years after 9/11, looking at those who had suffered PTS and they found that those who regularly saw a therapist since before the incident were still suffering from increased levels of stress and anxiety, whereas those who only briefly sought counselling early on had largely recovered. Their conclusion was that by continuing to discuss the incident every week/ month they were keeping the pain raw.
    But I will be thinking now about how this affects my writing, and whether or not all the things I don’t want to write about are somehow bleeding through… Food for thought!

  6. Okay people – I know it was me that started it, but enough of this talk about ‘bleeding through’


    Daisy – I’ve heard of that study. I started to train to be a therapist around the time they did it… I didn’t think it at the time, but now I do think that a certain amount of suppression is a healthy defence mechanism, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it. I also think there’s a lot about going to see a therapist to pour over your most painful moments that is infantilising – but that’s another topic all together.

    I suppose I’m less interested in people who don’t keep secrets from themselves (the worried well who are crowding out the therapy rooms), but those people who do, and know they do (which is different to people who are so traumatised by something they can’t remember it, isn’t it?)and how that affects the narrators they create in their fiction.

    It doesn’t matter what you are keeping from yourself really, but the idea of keeping something from yourself is kind of interesting to me as that’s what all my writing is about. I wonder if I’d be able to do it if I didn’t have things I wanted to keep secret from myself.

    Nope, still not making sense, I don’t think. Perhaps all this navel gazing is getting a little silly. 🙂

  7. […] and Jenn Ashworth has posted a response to that post here (also, the image she has chosen is […]

  8. Daisy says:

    No it does make sense – we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
    I think I killed ‘bleeding through’ by following it with ‘food for thought’. An unfortunately vampiric clash of metaphors.
    PS I love the photo!

  9. haha – I like the picture too. We didn’t steal the stickers, but I wanted to. I kind of liked the idea of classifying all the things I owned with these stickers. But that’s the librarian in me.

    Diane has just put up the rest of her photographs from the set. They’re good.

  10. sara crowley says:

    “This is what I’m interested in – the idea that anything can ‘bleed’ into writing – because once you’re aware of the bleeding in, it isn’t unconscious any more, but an effect you’re aware of and an editorial decision you make concerning themes / issues / structures in your writing. Do you see what I mean? If it really was bleeding in without you being aware of it, well, you wouldn’t be aware of it. It is the fact you know that it is there and you allow it to be there, you edit it, you structure the stories so they dovetail with the missing parts of your life (perhaps) that makes you a good writer.”

    No- it’s not conscious choices that I am talking about. I may write something, let’s say a flash that reads on the surface like a lover leaving. And that’s what I see it as. Only, later, maybe a long time later, maybe after it’s been published, I’ll re-read and have one of those “oh!” moments as I realise that whilst ostensibly it’s a lover leaving, the coffee pot and pyjamas and rain are all pointers to XY or Z. This is very much a subconscious thing. And it’s where truth seeps into fiction.

    Of course other times I shamelessly dissect my life and pain, and I don’t think that’s an ego driven thing (look at me, isn’t my pain just so fascinating) rather, as dramatic as it sounds, it’s a necessity to my sanity. It’s how I cope.

    As to Plath world, yes, it is voyeuristic and uncomfortable, but it’s also superb writing, and maybe it’s how she tried to manage things too. I don’t know.

  11. Sara

    But then I thought about crime fiction, which I love to read and have always thought, despite the gore and violence and death and evil, is a very comforting, conservative genre because it more often than not shows all the bad stuff being solved and tidied up and cleared away. The plot contains it.

    So it is possible that good writing can perform this working out, clearing up, containing, cathartic function for its reader as well as its writer. It has been a long time since I studied Greek tragedy but safely containing and working out violence and evil and disorder is, apparently, one of its functions.

    I think I’m just repeating your point and agreeing with you in a drawn out way – you can use your own horror to make good writing that is meaningful to other people and works for them in a similar way to the way it works for you (general ‘you’ meant here). So it’s either good, or it isn’t – no matter how you come up with the goods.

  12. […] something to write home about. I could store it in the place where I repress the rest of my trauma, but that drawer is getting full. So for your reading pleasure: the class. A kind of yoga / circuits / physio / new circle of hell […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *