WWW Newfoundland: Writing Through Fear Workshop

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
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Mar 17, 2015 / 0 comments

WWW Newfoundland: Writing Through Fear Workshop

For the Writing Through Fear workshop, Carolyn Walker and Jenny Griffin share resources on writing through fear, writing through the hard place,the essay No Name Woman, and several articles on writing through fear. The last part has writing prompts for you to know what will be worked on, in the workshop.

There are four resources in here - the first from Jenny and the last 3 from Carolyn.


Writing through fear

My own experiences with moving through fear – intro:

Standing on a mountainside in the remote Philippines, I listened to the sound of the men singing as we worked, and felt a freedom I had never before known. It was a freedom from the fear that I had carried around with me my whole life, fear that I see now as rooted in the reality in which I was raised. I feared the emotional engagement with life that comes from experiencing things with your whole self, something I hadn’t understood until that moment.

There I was, barefoot and covered in mud, shoveling dirt and rocks which would contribute to the wall the men were building. The sun was shining, and wispy clouds scudded the hilltops across the valley. I felt the fear lift, and realized how it was to be living with the fullness of all my senses at once, feeling with every fiber of my being that sense of aliveness and connection. It lasted for the rest of my time in the Philippines, but as I returned to my life in Canada, the fear, along with other old patterns of behavior, started to drift back in.

About a year after my return, an experience triggered a catharsis that took me back through 25 years of old grief, pain and fear. I finally grieved my father's 1981 death and identified all the things that I had since run from or resisted. I recognized patterns of behavior that I had repeated and repeated, assumedly to learn from, and never did. As I went through the cathartic process of breaking down these old patterns and beliefs, I could pinpoint the behaviors I had adopted as self-protective mechanisms to keep the hurtful thoughts and fears at bay.

It was as if a dam had burst and a sudden understanding flooded in. At the other side of catharsis lies new choices, and I chose to rethink the way I acted, reacted and thought, in turn changing the way I approached the world.

When six of my closest friends went through very similar processes I realized this was not about me, but was an opportunity to embrace aspects of ourselves that we put aside to adhere to accepted norms in our world, and to reclaim them as a part of a whole and healthy self. The process became a part of my everyday; I began to observe around me patterns that led to constant catharses, in the weather, in politics, in the natural cycles of life. Something so simple, and so much a part of everyday life has implications on many levels, and can be used as a tangible connection to the natural world, suggesting that the process of catharsis does not have to be feared or avoided, and in fact is perfectly natural.

Fear around first book – death, betrayal, hurt, etc – felt like lifetimes of confused storylines telling me I needed to be afraid. Chose a dysfunctional and disempowering relationship as a way of avoiding this thing I feared and yet at the same time was aching to do. How we can sabotage ourselves…

What is fear?

According to the OED (online edition: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/fear), fear is defined in the following ways:
[mass noun]
1 An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm: I cowered in fear as bullets whizzed past; fear of unemployment is paralysing the economy [count noun]: he is prey to irrational fears
1.1 [count noun] (fear for) A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone: police launched a hunt for the family amid fears for their safety
1.2 The likelihood of something unwelcome happening: she observed the other guests without fear of attracting attention
1.3 archaic A mixed feeling of dread and reverence: the love and fear of God
[with object] Back to top  
1 Be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or harmful: I hated him but didn’t fear him any more [with clause]: farmers fear that they will lose business
1.1 [no object] (fear for) Feel anxiety on behalf of: I fear for the city with this madman let loose in it
1.2 [with infinitive] Avoid doing something because one is afraid: she eventually feared to go out at all
1.3 Used to express regret or apology: I shall buy her book, though not, I fear, the hardback version
1.4 archaic Regard (God) with reverence and awe: he urged his listeners to fear God
Old English fǣr 'calamity, danger', fǣran 'frighten', also 'revere', of Germanic origin; related to Dutch gevaar and German Gefahr 'danger'.
To draw on my own intuitive understanding of it, fear is an indicator to show us our resistance. It is, in its original form, useful for our physical safety. Looking at the origin, the definition encompasses to revere, which feels like the real (energetic) root of the word. The difficulty is, if we live in a state of perpetual fear, entrained by social interactions and past experiences, we may override healthy fear triggers.
“Don't be afraid of your fears. They're not there to scare you. They're there to let you know that something is worth it.” ― C. JoyBell C.
According to Fiona Mayhill, of InnerLife Health Services in Victoria, BC, fear can be described in two distinct ways: subconscious and conscious. From an interview with her conducted in 2011, she describes the difference, and the way the two affect our health and perception even from a very early age:  “Babies are actually – bodies will grow and develop in response to the environment – their brain will reflect the emotional, mental, spiritual experience of their mother (and their father).   So, if there’s a lot of fear (when I talk about subconscious fear I mean sometimes people are really conscious of, the fact they’re literally in a place, or in a war zone, there’s an actual physical experience of threat of survival). For most people in the ‘Western’ world, that really isn’t there in the physical sense, but the brain isn’t interpreting it that way, the brain on the subconscious level is perceiving threat, which is where the fear is coming from, and where a lot of psychosis and obsession and addiction and experiences of suffering, depression, all this stuff is really – we can’t pin it down to what we experience in our physical world, but the experience is there, these people are truly feeling the fear.   Whether there’s anything to worry about, whether there’s anything to be afraid of, they’re really feeling it. That gets patterned throughout the whole body-mind, throughout the whole nervous system, the whole system is programmed that way, so that when a child is conceived and developed within that environment, most of their growing energy actually goes into developing the centre of the brain, the reptilian brain, the brain that’s designed to handle survival issues, and much less growing energy goes into the cortices and the higher centres.   Women who feel safe, who feel secure, who feel supported, actually grow babies that have bigger frontal cortexes, and the energy can go to different brain centres. So a baby is always preparing itself – if it’s perceiving that its environment is dangerous, then its body is physiologically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually preparing to be able to cope with that perceived danger because the survival depends on their ability to react and respond to whatever their environment throws at them. And that leads into the birth process. So yes, babies are just responding (we all are) to the signals we’re getting from our environment, the interpretation we have of our environment.
… so what you’re talking about is the shift of bringing consciousness to subconscious fear. A lot of times we’re not even aware of what it is that we’re afraid of. People just fear the fear. The fear energy is literally stuck in their nervous systems, it’s stuck in their tissues, it’s stuck in their concept of self – when I’m saying stuck, I’m saying that loosely, because the perception is, well, if it’s stuck, then unstick it – the thing is, that it’s operating, it’s in there, it’s below our level of conscious awareness.
If we knew what to do with it, we probably would, but we just don’t know it’s there, it’s just become a reality, it’s become our experience of self. It’s become who we think we are. And, a paranoid schizophrenic is now given a label that defines this intense fear that is fragmenting the self. The layers and layers and layers of kind of coping with this are really deeply enmeshed in our experience of our world, our experience culturally, socially, environmentally. Yes we create, we perceive the outside world, but it’s this self-reinforcing experience. It proves it to us all the time. I’m afraid, and you see there’s lots to be afraid of, therefore I’m afraid.
… Yeah, each emotion plays a really necessary role, so worry stimulates thinking, fear stimulates survival (the fight/flight response). You don’t want to be in bliss and joy if there’s a Mack truck bearing down on you – you want to be in fear, because that’s probably what’s going to save your life! And that emotion blasting out of all of the hormonal systems and the nervous system, and the whole fight/flight response, it’s what triggers the response to the environment, it’s actually very – it’s a very ‘response-able’ (the ability to respond) emotion.”
Fear doesn’t have to hold us back, in fact it can be a useful tool to propel us into even greater expressions of ourselves. It’s entirely possible to take actions which appear fearless while living in a state of perpetual (subconscious) fear. Distinguishing between the two types of fear is useful, because it means your mind can focus on creating, living and enjoying while your instincts are left to respond in a way that maintains your personal safety.

How do we become entrained to live in a state of perpetual fear? It’s too easy – media, the perpetuation of old hurts/slights/etc. As we keep these alive in our minds, we keep the fear alive. It’s based on past ‘reality’ or potential – it’s not really true in the present moment.

So, for example, I’ve always loved cows. I’ve always believed them to be gentle, loving and fascinating. I love walking, and often take footpaths through fields with herds of cows. I was smart about it, never getting too close to mothers and calves, taking a slightly wide berth so I didn’t startle them, avoiding fields with bulls, etc.

When I moved to a small English village last year, people kept telling me about the two people who’d been killed by herds of cows the previous year. The stories seemed to increase in severity, and I met several people out walking who told me of their fear of cows and of being trampled. Suddenly, I started to develop a fear around cows, and looking for ways to avoid their fields. It wasn’t until I came to a field full of gorgeous calves that I suddenly realised how I had started to unconsciously change my behaviour, avoiding something I loved, based on other peoples’ stories and fears. I walked through, enjoying the curious licks and laughing as they gathered around to see what I was.

That is entrainment. That’s how easy it is to adopt fears from external sources that may have no bearing on our own personal safety or thriving, and yet feel very real. We can pick up the fear without even realising it’s not ours to carry, and then find we’ve changed our way of being in the world to accommodate it.

When the fear is based on past experience in our own life, it can be more difficult to work through. The event is true, in as much as it happened at a specific point in the past. The challenge is untangling the emotions of fear from the present moment. In cases such as abuse, the fear of hurting or exposing the abuser still feels very real, tied directly to the actions that took place.  Fears connected to past horrific events also feel very real, as the terror of that event never truly disappears.


‘The Gift of Fear’ – an excerpt from a book by Gavin de Becker which touches on the differences between unconscious and conscious fear and how we are entrained:

Writing through fear:
Tips and suggestions on writing through fear from Walden Universty: http://waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/writing-through-fear.html

I chose this one because it talks about fear through different stages of writing – it’s not just your first blog post/essay/article/book – it can come at any stage in your writing career.  

‘Why I Travel’ by AGA – I thought this one beautifully demonstrated the idea that despite the fear, we can go out and act courageously. The memories of the things we fear don’t have to be given dominion.

Writing prompts:

1) Where or how does fear manifest in your body? Does it have a colour, or a shape, or a name? What kind of movement and mental/physical exercises can you create to shift the form it currently takes into something nurturing and beautiful, something that benefits the whole of creation? Describe the process.

2) Make a family tree (kinship diagram) for your fear. (http://www.uwgb.edu/walterl/kinship/diagram.htm; http://www.ehow.com/how_8445330_construct-kinship-diagram.html)
Write about the fear’s family and how it came to be who/what it is today. Be as specific and descriptive as possible.

3) Write an essay using one of the following quotes as the theme/guide:  “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” ― Jim Morrison

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ― Marie Curie

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.” ― Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien


Writing Through Fear

HI all!,
The following contains online articles about writing through and from fear, as well as some writing prompts. Looking forward to meeting you all! Carolyn Walker

from: http://www.copyblogger.com/writing-through-fear/

Why We Still Need to Write, Even When We’re Scared, by Beth Hayden

Writing is scary.
Sometimes when we publish something, it makes us feel like our insides are hanging out, for all the world to see. We feel vulnerable. We feel naked. We feel … terrified.
But here’s the thing — we have to keep writing, in spite of the fear. If we let fear stop us, our content will have no spark, no life. And everything we write will be completely unremarkable.
Right now, I’m working on a blog post (on a different topic) that scares the living heck out of me. I am afraid of the strong opinions and passion that are rising from some long-buried place inside me. I’m worried that I won’t write well enough to clearly communicate what I need to say. I’m worried about what people will say when I publish this piece.
Bottom line — I’m scared.
And it got me thinking — if I feel scared, I’ll bet you do, too. And maybe together, we can come up with a way to get through the fear and keep ourselves on the path to continually creating amazing work — even when we’re scared.
Here’s the short, short version:
We are put on this earth to connect with one another. Connection is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
But if we want connection, we have to be willing to be vulnerable. Even though vulnerability is often hard — sometimes even excruciating — we’ve got to put ourselves out there in order to experience connection.
And here’s what very few people are talking about ... vulnerability ... makes us better writers.
We have to be willing to put our ideas, opinions, and deepest fears out there, so we can truly connect with our audiences. Content that isn’t vulnerable — that doesn’t scare us, just a little bit — isn’t necessarily going to draw a huge audience of raving fans. It’s not going to get shared on social networking sites thousands of times. It’s not going to really impact the world.
I think one of the things that makes us vulnerable is being willing to sit down and write a detailed article about something that really matters to us, then finding the courage to publish.
And to do that, we need to keep writing, even when we feel afraid. Especially when we feel afraid.
If we’re willing to write what we truly believe — the stuff that scares us — we get to experience true vulnerability and connection with our readers. And I believe that connection will not only make our lives better, but will also make us successful beyond our wildest dreams.
What to do next
I don’t have a bulleted list of tips to help you break through fear. I believe we all battle fear in our own way.
I do think that being aware of how we feel afraid (and how it slows our writing down) will help us break through when we get stuck, and help us get to the other side.
It’s important to stay awake, to stop being numb when we sit down to create. We need to lean into our fear in order to create our best possible work.
One last thought on fear and writing, from master fear-fighter and writing coach, Natalie Goldberg. In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg says:
Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is . Otherwise you’ll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you’re avoiding the truth. Hemingway said, ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts.’ Don’t avoid it. It has all the energy. Don’t worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.

from: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/08/28/the-four-fears-that-stop-you-...
The Four Fears That Stop You from Writing, by Andrea Phillips
Writers! Today I’d like to talk to you about one of the deep, dark secrets that unite the society of writers as one. That dark secret isn’t bourbon, blood rituals, or sticky, crumb-infested keyboards. It’s the fact that we’re all RIDDLED WITH FEAR.
For now let’s stick to the more ordinary and commonplace fear that doesn’t keep you from living… it just keeps you from writing.
Like home-made ice cream, these anxieties come in many, many delectable and word-stopping flavors. As many as you can imagine! And we’re all writers, so our imaginations can cough up some really impressive and persuasive things to be afraid of. …Go team?
For right now let’s chuck ‘em into a few quick categories. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, my friends.
The great idea I have is too ambitious, I can’t execute on it.
I’m just not good enough.
This thing I am writing sucks, it will never be better, and when I am done writing it everyone will hate me for having produced such a steaming pile of rhino dung.
This is one of the most common, dare I say garden-variety fears a writer must face. The yawning lack of self-worth, the hopelessness, the certainty that any success you acquire is by chance and certainly can’t last.
This is fundamentally how writing is, ducklings.
Writing is an uncomfortable act. You’re making yourself vulnerable — exposing the softest, squishiest bits of your psyche and putting them out there in public where people will know what is in your deepest heart of hearts, and just might stomp on it with extreme prejudice.
Your good ol’ reptile brain perceives this as a threat to your personal safety. No sense hating the reptilian bits of your brain, though. Its job is to minimize risk, and it does it to keep you as fat and happy as it can. So it comes up with tons of fantastic reasons for you to not actually take any risks at all.
But being a creator is fundamentally about acknowledging that risk and then saying “to heck with it” and heading into it heart-first. It doesn’t matter if you (or your craft, or your project) are good enough if you’re not writing. The only way to become good enough is to write more words.
They’re just being nice to me because they don’t want to hurt my feelings.
I can’t even get my friends to read my stuff so I must be really terrible.
Oh no! Someone said something terrible about my work! It is 100% accurate and I should swear a blood oath to never handle language again in my life.
This fear is often first encountered in the proto-stages of your career when you’re workshopping or having beta readers go through a manuscript. But even after publication, these same fears pop up again and again. In impeccable circular logic, [you think] any bad feedback is completely true; good feedback is just people trying to get on your good side even though the work sucks; and no feedback means you’re so bone-grindingly bad nobody can even bear to break the news to you.
This is crazypants.
You will save yourself so much mental energy and so much sanity just by accepting what people say about your work at face value. Sure, your parents may tell you they loved your story no matter what, and maybe even your close friends… but you probably shouldn’t be seeking feedback only from people who love you in the first place. Just sayin’.
And bad reviews… well, you can’t write something that will be all things to all people. Some are going to hate what you have on offer. This is OK, it takes all types. But once you get over the first flush of rage or panic over a bad review or a harsh crit, sometimes you’ll realize it’s exactly what you needed to hear, or at least a fair warning to the kinds of people who were never going to be fans of your work in the first place.
And again: If your work really is in fact that bad… the only way to get better and do better is to write more words.
I will die in poverty at this rate.
I don’t know how to promote so I’m doomed.
I don’t know the secret handshake or which way the pentagram should be facing or how to pronounce “fthagn” so I’ll never be published/I won’t sell.
These are fears about stuff that happens after you’re done writing. Secret handshake notwithstanding, it is actually true that you might not earn a living as a writer, and in this day and age doing a ton of promotion is a mighty effective tool to furthering your career. (You can still have a viable career without it, it’s just… a lot harder.)
This, o luscious rabbits, is why you should come into a writing career with clear eyes and managed expectations. But you know what? This stuff shouldn’t affect your writing one way or the other.
In many cases writers worry about this stuff before even completing a manuscript and starting on the query treadmill. These fears keep you from writing, or from finishing, or keep you writing slowly, all because as long as you haven’t actually failed yet you haven’t lost your beautiful golden daydream where you’re an instant #1 bestseller. Having a dream crushed by reality is hard, yo.
Wouldn’t you rather make an honest go of it and actually find out? Maybe the thing you’re working on really won’t publish, but so what? Don’t borrow trouble; you won’t know unless you try. The only path to succeed is to write more words.
People will laugh at me for writing this kind of thing.
People will finally know how screwed up I am inside if I write this.
The last thing I did was so super-spectacular and well received that I have set an impossibly high bar. I will forever be unfavorably compared to my own rad self.
What we have here are two run-of-the-mill starter fears and one for the newly hatched writer to look forward to one day. But really these are two sides of the same neurotic coin. All of them involve what other people think of your work, and by association what they think about you as a human being.
This is another fear with an atom of truth behind it, alas. Remember how I said that writing is uncomfortable, and makes you vulnerable? Yeah, sure, there’s a chance your great-uncle will never look you in the eye again once he reads that steamy scene where your characters make hot love with three quarts of pickled herring and a set of fishing lures.
But this is a fear that leads you into pulling your punches. You start to back off the intensity of your writing, the truth of it. You’re so afraid to get hurt that you clam up and hide so nobody ever gets the chance.
This makes your writing suck. The absolute best work you have in you is always going to be the stuff that’s closest to your heart, the stuff that’s absolutely the hardest to let another human being read. It’s risky to show people those deep and true parts of yourself, but life is risk. Look that fear in the eye, spit it in the face, and then write more words.

from: http://writetodone.com/the-secret-fear-of-every-writer-and-how-to-subdue...

The Secret Fear Of Every Writer – And How To Subdue It Every Time
Would You Like to Subdue Your Writing Fears?
Do you sometimes sit in front of a blank screen and wonder why your brain just isn’t working?
I can almost hear your response: “all the time”, “in certain situations”.
I think very few writers could respond to that question with a resounding “no”.
I’ve had two conversations this week with would-be writers. The first believes he could write, with just a little practice, but finds every time he sits down that he just doesn’t know where to begin.
The second would love to write, but believes the craft is reserved for those who are ultra creative and talented, so she doesn’t even try.
Both those attitudes scream fear.
Most of us recognize and understand this fear. It’s a fear of the unknown. We feel it when we take a new route in life. And if the fear is successful in overpowering us, we back-pedal right away.
But what about those of us who aren’t new to writing and still feel fear?
Removing the ‘Fear of Failure’ band-aid
Fear is talked about a lot in the writing world.
Often we’ll apply a one-size-fits-all Band-Aid, and blame our fear on a momentary lack of inspiration or writer’s block, which may well be the case on some days. But more often than not, we’re dealing with the kind of fear we won’t admit to, or may not even be aware of.
The fear I’m talking about isn’t to do with writer’s block or lack of creativity.
It’s about believing we have something worthwhile to say.
Comparison—the thief of creativity
When we doubt the worth of our words, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re comparing their value to the words of other authors and bloggers. Comparison is deadly, yet it seems to be inherent in human nature.
If we look at what other writers have to say and value it above our own work, we create a barrier between the page and our authentic words. It’s a paralyzing barrier.
The healthiest type of comparison is to compare our work with our previous efforts and try to build on that.
Why we don’t talk about it
We don’t talk about this hidden fear because if our life is writing, then everything we are is wrapped up in what we have to say. If we doubt what we have to say, don’t we then doubt who we are?
Well, no.
Every writer –every person who shares their art—doubts the value of their work at some point in their career. But doubting what we do is different from doubting who we are.
To write is to take risks
Every time we sit down to write, we take a risk.
–          We risk our words being rejected.
–          We risk our work being compared to others’.
–          We risk revealing parts of ourselves we may not want others to see.
That’s the nature of creativity; we’re sharing a part of ourselves. And sharing who we are is always risky because it makes us vulnerable.
But we keep going, encouraged by our audience and ignited by our passion.
That doesn’t mean we’ll always deliver according to expectations, be it the reader’s or ours.
When an audience is waiting for your words
Every artist has off days.
Think of your favorite musician. I bet you can think of a few songs or even albums that haven’t made it to the iTunes popularity bar; the ones that didn’t really inspire you.
Even well-known authors have books that don’t harvest the reviews they may be expecting.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ll pick up a book by an author I like and there’s a certain expectation. But sometimes I feel let down. I think, “This is not good. Not up to their usual standard. How did this even get past an editor?”
Sometimes we can become complacent with our writing. Often the reader will forgive. At other times it may result in a big fat ‘F’.
The scenario we feared actually happens. It’s normal. Not all of our work will be received with open arms.
The question is: how will we take that experience and use it to better ourselves as artists?
Connecting with your reader
Reaching that place of vulnerability after a setback, or even doubting the value of our words, is a good thing. It puts us back on track and helps us to re-evaluate our goals.
The last thing we want as writers is to be sitting up a tree far out of reach of our audience. In that place, we are unable to hear what they want or need from us.
But when we sit in the fear, ground ourselves, and hang out with the people who scare us the most, we are forced to listen. And then we write what we believe will be valuable for our readers.
If your reader has come to value your words, they will keep valuing them—unless you deliver something completely off the wall that doesn’t align with your voice, style, or who you are.
Writing through the fear
Writing takes courage.
Of course if you’re writing an article about French cuisine or fitness, it’s not such a courageous feat. But if neither topic is your passion, then that’s not where your fear is going to be either.
If you’re passionate about recycling, you’re going to inspire others to be passionate about recycling. Your best work is where your passion lies.
With passion comes emotion. And with emotion comes vulnerability.
If you embrace openness in your writing you’ve done the best you can do. Your only responsibility is to say what’s in your heart and be true to yourself, your audience, and your subject.
After that the world can do what it likes with your words.


from: http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/journal-prompts/journal-pr...

This exercise might make you a little nervous, depending on how deep your fears run and how willing you are to dig within yourself to unearth the smallest or greatest of your fears.
1.    What are five things that make you nervous or uncomfortable?
2.    What is it about each of those five things that bothers you?
3.    Where does this discomfort come from?
4.    Write down one thing that truly terrifies you. Is it keeping you safe or preventing you from living the life you want?
5.    How likely is it that this thing will happen?
6.    Why are you so frightened of this thing?
7.    If this thing happened, what would happen next?

from: http://www.writingthroughlife.com/a-weeks-worth-of-journaling-prompts-fe...

We might be reluctant to take a risk unless success (however we measure it) is assured. We might think of it as a fear of making mistakes, of not achieving, or of simply making a “fool” of ourselves in some way. And if we give in to it, this fear can hold us back from doing the very things we long to do: write, paint, get that new job, or meet that special person.

It is the fear of failure.

1.    Define what it means for you to succeed at something. Describe the opposite of that (failure). Where do you think you got these ideas about success and failure? -
2.    When was the first time you remember experiencing failure? What happened? Who was involved and why did it feel like failure? Did someone tell you that you had failed? Were you derided or made fun of in any way? Did you try again, or did you give up, and how did you feel afterward? -
3.    Do a word association exercise with the word “failure.” To do this, write the word failure at the top of the page, then write the first word that comes into your mind. Continue writing words as they come into your mind — without censoring in any way — until your mind is quiet. Look over the list of words. What do you notice? How do you feel as you read them? Now perform the same exercise with the word “success.” Again, what do you notice and how do you feel as you read the words? Write for ten minutes about this topic. -
4.    Describe a time when you were so afraid of failure that you decided not to attempt something new. Then describe a time when you were afraid of failure, but you attempted whatever it was you had in mind anyway. What were the results each time, and what made the difference for you the second time, that you decided to go ahead with the effort? -
5.    Is failure a subjective or objective term? Explain. -
6.    Do you know anyone who has let a fear of failure hold him (or her) back? If so, describe this person in detail — his talents, gifts, personality, and what you perceive as his potential. If you don’t know anyone like that, make him or her up and describe what you imagine that person would be like. -
7.    If a person continues to try to achieve something, even after they have not achieved that something the first or second or even third time around, is their lack of achievement failure? Why or why not?

from: http://oneminutewriter.blogspot.com/2009/07/todays-writing-prompt-fear.html

Write about an irrational fear you have, or one you have overcome.

One-Minute Writing of the Day:
Writer: Monica Manning

Heart races.
Pulse pounds.
Hairs bristle.
Bile rises.
Jump back.
Scream loudly.
Call husband.
“Kill spider!” -


No Name Woman

The following essay by Maxine Hong Kingston, called “No Name Woman” is one of my favorite essays. It deals with fear on many levels, including the author’s fear of betraying a family secret.

 - Carolyn

No Name Woman – by Maxine Hong Kingston

"You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.

"In 1924 just a few days after our village celebrated seventeen hurry-up weddings-to make sure that every young man who went 'out on the road' would responsibly come home-your father and his brothers and your grandfather and his brothers and your aunt's new husband sailed for America, the Gold Mountain. It was your grandfather's last trip. Those lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbye from the decks. They fed and guarded the stowaways and helped them ofT in Cuba, New York, Bali, Hawaii. 'We'll meet in California next year,' they said. All of them sent money home.

"I remember looking at your aunt one day when she and I were dressing; 1 had not noticed before that she had such a protruding melon of a stomach. But I did not think, 'She's pregnant,' until she began to look like other pregnant women, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her black pants showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband had been gone for years. No one said anything. We did not discuss it. In early summer she was ready to have the child, long after the time when it could have been possible.

"The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was to be born the villagers raided our house. Some were crying. Like a great saw, teeth strung with lights, files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing the rice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water, which drained away through the broken bunds. As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks. The people with long hair hung it over their faces. Women with short hair made it stand up on end. Some had tied white bands around their foreheads, arms, and legs.

"At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Then they threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths-the roosters, the pigs, a last great roar from the ox. Familiar wild heads flared in our night windows; the villagers encircled us. Some of the faces stopped to peer at us, their eyes rushing like searchlights. The hands flattened against the panes, framed heads, and left red prints.

"The villagers broke in the front and the back doors at the same time, even though we had not locked the doors against them. Their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls. One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in red arcs about her. We stood together in the middle of our house, in the family hall with the pictures and tables of the ancestors around us, and looked straight ahead.

"A~ that time the house had only two wings. When the men came back, we would build two more to enclose our courtyard and a third one to begin a second courtyard. The villagers pushed through both wings, even your grandparents' rooms, to find your aunt's, which was also mine until the men returned. From this room a new wing for one of the younger families would grow. They ripped up her clothes and shoes and broke her combs, grinding them underfoot. They tore her work from the loom. They scattered the cooking fire and rolled the new weaving in it. We could hear them in the kitchen breaking our bowls and banging the pots. They overturned the great waist-high earthenware jugs; duck eggs, pickled fruits, vegetables burst out and mixed in acrid torrents. The old woman from the next field swept a broom through the air and loosed the spirits-of-the broom over our heads. 'Pig.' 'Ghost.' 'Pig,' they sobbed and scolded while they ruined our house.

"When they left, they took sugar and oranges to bless themselves. They cut pieces from the dead animals. Some of them took bowls that were not broken and clothes that were not torn. Afterward we swept up the rice and sewed it back up into sacks. But the smells from the spilled preserves lasted. Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The
next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.

"Don't let your father know that 1 told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born.

The villagers are watchful."

Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died
young and far from home. Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.

The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways-always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese 1 know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.

Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is
peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from
what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?

If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether flashy or ordinary, 1 would have to begin, "Remember Father's drowned-in-the-well sister?" I cannot ask that. My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home from the fields and eats food left for the gods.

Whenever we did frivolous things, we used up energy; we flew high kites. We children came up off the ground over the melting cones our parents brought home from work and the American movie on New Year's Day-0h, You Beautiful Doll with Betty Grable one year, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with John Wayne another year. After the one carnival ride each, we paid in guilt; our tired father counted his change on the dark walk home.

Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos and the heads for delicacies and boil the feet in vinegar for party food, leaving only the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining-could such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough. My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.

Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers. She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.

When the family found a young man in the next village to be her husband, she had stood tractably beside the best rooster, his proxy, and promised before they met that she would be his forever. She was lucky that he was her age and she would be the first wife, an advantage secure now. The night she first saw him, he had sex with her. Then h left for America. She had almost forgotten what he looked like. When she tried to envision him, she only saw the black and white face in the group photograph the men had had taken before leaving.

The other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders: she followed. "If you tell your family, I'll beat you. I'll kill you. Be here again next week." No one talked sex, ever. And she might have separated the rapes from the rest of living if only she did not have to buy her oil from him or gather wood in the same forest. I want her fear to have lasted just as long as rape lasted so that the fear could have been contained. No drawn-out fear. But women at sex hazarded birth and hence lifetimes. The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere. She told the man, "I think I'm pregnant!' He organized the raid against her.

On nights when my mother and father talked about their life back home, sometimes they mentioned an "outcast table" whose business they still seemed to be settling, their voices tight. In a commensal tradition, where food is precious, the powerful older people made wrongdoers eat alone. Instead of letting them start separate new lives like the Japanese, who could become samurais and geishas, the Chinese family, faces averted but eyes glowering sideways, hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers. My aunt must have lived in the same house as my parents and eaten at an outcast table. My mother spoke about the raid as if she had seen it, when she and my aunt, a daughter-in-law to a different household, should not have been living together at all. Daughters-in-law lived with their husbands' parents, not their own; a synonym for marriage in Chinese is "taking a daughter-in-law!' Her husband's parents could have sold her, mortgaged her, stoned her. But they had sent her back to her own mother and father, a mysterious act hinting at disgraces not told me. Perhaps they had thrown her out to deflect the avengers.

She was the only daughter; her four brothers went with her father, husband, and uncles "out on the road" and for some years became western men. When the goods were divided among the family, three of the brothers took land, and the youngest, my father, chose an education. After my grandparents gave their daughter away to her husband's family, they had dispensed all the adventure and all the property. They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning. But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space.

The work of preservation demands that the feelings playing about in one's guts not be turned into action. Just watch their passing like cherry blossoms. But perhaps my aunt, my forerunner, caught in a slow life, let dreams grow and fade and after some months or years went toward what persisted. Fear at the enormities of the forbidden kept her desires delicate, wire and bone. She looked at a man because she liked the way the hair was tucked behind his ears, or she liked the question-mark line of a long torso curving at the shoulder and straight at the hip. For warm eyes or a soft voice or a slow walk-that's all-a few hairs, a line, a brightness, a sound, a pace, she gave up family. She offered us up for a charm that vanished with tiredness, a pigtail that didn't toss when the wind died. Why, the wrong lighting could erase the dearest thing about him.

It could very well have been, however, that my aunt did not take subtle enjoyment of her friend, but, a wild woman, kept rollicking company. Imagining her free with sex doesn't fit, though. I don't know any women like that, or men either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help.

To sustain her being in love, she often worked at herself in the mirror, guessing at the colors and shapes that would interest him, changing them frequently in order to hit on the right combination. She wanted him to look back.

On a f arm near the sea, a woman who tended her appearance reaped a reputation f or eccentricity. All the married women blunt-cut their hair in flaps about their ears or pulled it back in tight buns. No nonsense. Neither style
blew easily into heart-catching tangles. And at their weddings they displayed themselves in their long hair f or the
last time. lit brushed the backs of my knees," MY mother tells me. "It was braided, and even so, it brushed the backs of my knees!'

At the mirror my aunt combed individuality into her bob. A bun could have been contrived to escape into black streamers blowing in the wind or in quiet wisps about her face, but only the older women in our picture album wear buns. She brushed her hair back from her forehead, tucking the flaps behind her ears. She looped a piece of thread, knotted into a circle between her index fingers and thumbs, and ran the double strand across her forehead. When she closed her fingers as if she were making a pair of shadow geese bite, the string twisted together catching the little hairs. Then she pulled the thread away from her skin, ripping the hairs out neatly, her eyes watering from the needles of pain. Opening her fingers, she cleaned the thread, then rolled it along her hairline and the tops of her eyebrows. My mother did the same to me and my sisters and herself. I used to believe that the expression "caught by the short hairs" meant a captive held with a depilatory string. It especially hurt at the temples, but my mother said we were lucky we didn't have to have our feet bound when we were seven. Sisters used to sit on their beds and cry together, she said, as their mothers or their slaves removed the bandages for a few minutes each night and let the blood gush back into their veins. 1 hope that the man my aunt loved appreciated a smooth brow, that he wasn't just a tits-andass man.

Once my aunt found a freckle on her chin, at a spot that the almanac said predestined her for unhappiness. She dug it out with a hot needle and washed the wound with peroxide.

More attention to her looks than these pullings of hairs and pickings at spots would have caused gossip among the villagers. They owned work clothes and good clothes, and they wore good clothes for feasting the new seasons. But since a woman combing her hair hexes beginnings, my aunt rarely found an occasion to look her best. Women looked like great sea snails-the corded wood, babies, and laundry they carried were the whorls on their backs. The Chinese did not admire a bent back; goddesses and warriors stood straight. Still there must have been a marvelous freeing of beauty when a worker laid down her burden and stretched and arched.

Such commonplace loveliness, however, was not enough for my aunt. She dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days of New Year's, the time for families to exchange visits, money, and food. She plied her secret comb. And sure enough she cursed the year, the family, the village, and herself.

Even as her hair lured her imminent lover, many other men looked at her. Uncles, cousins, nephews, brothers would have looked, too, had they been home between journeys. Perhaps they had already been restraining their curiosity, and they left, fearful that their glances, like a field of nesting birds, might be startled and caught. Poverty hurt, and that was their first reason for leaving. But another, final reason for leaving the crowded house was the never-said.

She may have been unusually beloved, the precious only daughter, spoiled and mirror gazing because of the affection the family lavished on her. When her husband left, they welcomed the chance to take her back from the in-laws; she could live like the little daughter for just a while longer. There are stories that my grandfather was different from other people, "crazy ever since the little Jap bayoneted him in the head." He used to put his naked penis on the dinner table, laughing. And one day he brought home a baby girl, wrapped up inside his brown western-style greatcoat. He had traded one of his sons, probably my father, the youngest, for her. My grandmother made him trade back. When he finally got a daughter of his own, he doted on her. They must have all loved her, except perhaps my father, the only brother who never went back to China, having once been traded for a girl.

Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had to efface their sexual color and present plain miens. Disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no other, threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof. To focus blurs, people shouted face to face and yelled from room to room. The immigrants 1 know have loud voices, unmodulated to American tones even after years away from the village where they called their friendships out across the fields. 1 have not been able to stop my mother's screams in public libraries or over telephones. Walking erect (knees straight, toes pointed forward, not pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine) and speaking in an inaudible voice, 1 have tried to turn myself American-feminine. Chinese communication was loud, public. Only sick people had to whisper. But at the dinner table, where the family members came nearest one another, no one could talk, not the outcasts nor any eaters. Every word that falls from the mouth is a coin lost. Silently they gave and accepted food with both hands. A preoccupied child who took his bowl with one hand got a sideways glare. A complete moment of total attention is due everyone alike. Children and lovers have no singularity here, but my aunt used a secret voice, a separate attentiveness.

She kept the man's name to herself throughout her labor and dying; she did not accuse him that he be punished with her. To save her inseminator's name she gave silent birth.

He may have been somebody in her own household, but intercourse with a man outside the family would have been no less abhorrent. All the village were kinsmen, and the titles shouted in loud country voices never let kinship be forgotten. Any man within visiting distance would have been neutralized as a lover-"brother ... .. younger brother," "older brother"--one hundred and fifteen relationship titles. Parents researched birth charts probably not so much to assure good fortune as to circumvent incest in a population that has but one hundred surnames. Everybody has eight million relatives. How useless then sexual mannerisms, how dangerous.

As if it came from an atavism deeper than fear, I used to add "brother" silently to boys' names. It hexed the boys, who would or would not ask me to dance, and made them less scary and as familiar and deserving of benevolence as girls.

But, of course, 1 hexed myself also-no dates. I should have stood up, both arms waving, and shouted out across libraries, "Hey, you! Love me back." I had no idea, though, how to make attraction selective, how to control its direction and magnitude. If 1 made myself American-pretty so that the five or six Chinese boys in the class fell in love with me, everyone else-the Caucasian, Negro, and Japanese boys-would too. Sisterliness, dignified and honorable, made much more sense.

Attraction eludes control so stubbornly that whole societies designed to organize relationships among people cannot keep order, not even when they bind people to one another from childhood and raise them together. Among the very poor and the wealthy, brothers married their adopted sisters, like doves. Our family allowed some romance, paying adult brides' prices and providing dowries so that their sons and daughters could marry strangers. Marriage promises to turn strangers into friendly relatives-a nation of siblings.

In the village structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land. But one human being flaring up into violence could open up a black hole, a maelstrom that pulled in the sky. The frightened villagers, who depended on one another to maintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the"roundness." Misallying couples snapped off the future, which was to be embodied in true offspring. The villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.

If my aunt had betrayed the family at a time of large grain yields and peace, when many boys were born, and wings were being built on many houses, perhaps she might have escaped such severe punishment. But the men-hungry, greedy, tired of planting in dry soil-had been forced to leave the village in order to send food-money home. There were ghost plagues, bandit plagues, wars with the Japanese, floods. My Chinese brother and sister had died of an unknown sickness. Adultery, perhaps only a mistake during good times, became a crime when the village needed food.

The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated sizes that fit one roundness inside an
other, round windows and rice bowls-these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family. The villagers came to show my aunt and her lover-in-hiding a broken house. The villagers were speeding up the circling of events because she was too shortsighted to see that her infidelity had already harmed the village, that waves of consequences would return unpredictably, sometimes in disguise, as now, to hurt her. This roundness had to be made coin-sized so that she would see its circumference: punish her at the birth of her baby. Awaken her to the inexorable. People who refused fatalism because they could invent small resources insisted on culpability. Deny accidents and wrest fault from the stars.

After the villagers left, their lanterns now scattering in various directions toward home, the family broke their silence and cursed her. "Aiaa, we're going to die. Death is coming. Death is coming. Look what you've done. You've killed us. Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You've never been born." She ran out into the fields, far enough from the house so that she could no longer hear their voices, and pressed herself against the earth, her own land no more. When she felt the birth coming, she thought that she had been hurt. Her body seized together. "They've hurt me too much," she thought. "This is gall, and it will kill me." With forehead and knees against the earth, her body convulsed and then relaxed. She turned on her back, lay on the ground. The black well of sky and stars went out and out and out forever; her body and her complexity seemed to disappear. She was one of the stars, a bright dot in blackness, without home, without a companion, in eternal cold and silence. An agoraphobia rose in her, speeding higher and higher, bigger and bigger; she would not be able to contain it; there would no end to fear.

Flayed, unprotected against space, she felt pain return, focusing her body. This pain chilled her-a cold, steady kind of surface pain. Inside, spasmodically, the other pain, the pain of the child, heated her. For hours she lay on the ground, alternately body and space. Sometimes a vision of normal comfort obliterated reality: she saw the family in the evening gambling at the dinner table, the young people massaging their elders' backs. She saw them congratulating one another, high joy on the mornings the rice shoots came up. When these pictures burst, the stars drew yet further apart. Black space opened.

She got to her feet to fight better and remembered that old-fashioned women gave birth in their pigsties to fool the jealous, pain-dealing gods, who do not snatch piglets. Before the next spasms could stop her, she ran to the pigsty, each step a rushing out into emptiness. She climbed over the fence and knelt in the dirt. It was good to have a fence enclosing her, a tribal person alone.

Laboring, this woman who had carried her child as a foreign growth that sickened her every day, expelled it at last. She reached down to touch the hot, wet, moving mass, surely smaller than anything human, and could feel that it
was human after all-fingers, toes, nails, nose. She pulled it up on to her belly, and it lay curled there, butt in the air, feet precisely tucked one under the other. She opened her loose shirt and buttoned the child inside. After resting, it squirmed and thrashed and she pushed it up to her breast. It turned its head this way and that until it found her nipple. There, it made little snuffling noises. She clenched her teeth at its preciousness, lovely as a young calf, a piglet, a little dog.

She may have gone to the pigsty as a last act of responsibility: she would protect this child as she had protected its father. It would look after her soul, leaving supplies on her grave. But how would this tiny child without family find her grave when there would be no marker for her anywhere, neither in the earth nor the family hall? No one would give her a family hall name. She had taken the child with her into the wastes. At its birth the two of them had felt the same raw pain of separation, a wound that only the family pressing tight could close. A child with no descent line would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike, begging her to give it purpose. At dawn the villagers on their way to the fields would stand around the fence and look.

Full of milk, the little ghost slept. When it awoke, she hardened her breasts against the milk that crying loosens. Toward morning she picked up the baby and walked to the well.

Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.

"Don't tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born." I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that "aunt" would do my father mysterious harm. 1 have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here. But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have.

In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt's name; 1 do not know it. People who can comfort the dead can also chase after them to hurt them further-a reverse ancestor worship. The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would sufFer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. She would have to fight the ghosts massed at crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral spirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they could act like gods, not ghosts, their descent lines providing them with paper suits and dresses, spirit money, paper houses, paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into eternity essences delivered up in smoke and flames, steam and incense rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to make the Chinese care for people outside the family, Chairman Mao encourages us now to give our paper replicas to the spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter whose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains forever hungry. Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.

My aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. 1 do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.


The following interview piece was published in The Writer’s Chronicle, 2005

On Writing Through the Hard Place

By Carolyn Walker
It goes without saying that prose of quality -- prose which achieves both depth and integrity -- must necessarily, and fairly, explore its components from many angles. To achieve artistic truth, concepts and themes must be fully examined, and characters fully realized. This reality, however, poses an uncomfortable and potent dilemma for the memoirist in that it demands a frank, oftentimes difficult, examination of the "hard place" -- that realm in which exist real and painful memories, embarrassing events, unpleasant people, ugly thoughts and difficult emotions. It then begs the questions, How can I formulate this pain in words and craft? Should I make this "hard place" public? And, ultimately, what is the point of doing so?
For all its dogged discomfort, however, an examination of the "hard place" also serves
several purposes: It provides balance to a literary work, helps to keep sentimentality at bay, and allows the conveyance of intimacy, and sometimes redemption or transformation. Perhaps more than any other quality that can be portrayed in literature, and especially in creative nonfiction, an honest rendering of the "hard place" also provides a noble service: It offers a form of validation and discourse to the reader -- a vessel of expression for those who cannot, will not, or are afraid to voice pain they have experienced and know. Exposing the "hard place" says, in effect, You are not alone.
In his childhood memoir, Firebird, which deals with growing up gay in a wildly
dysfunctional family, and culminates in a scene in which his mother holds a gun on him as a teenager, author Mark Doty might be speaking on behalf of scores of memoirists when he presents the "hard place" dilemma to the reader, outright.
"Why tell a story like this, who wants to read it?” he asks, before answering, "Difficult
experience can be redeemed by the powers of language…. Even sad stories are company. And perhaps that’s why you might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn’t yours. Proximity is the best consolation; place the griefs beside one another and watch them diminish. We seem to need to hear, Yes, I’ve known something like that, too." [Page 183]
During written interviews in January, 2003, Doty and three other memoirists, Robin
Hemley, Laura Shaine Cunningham and Sue Silverman, shared their views by answering several email questions. Their discussion dealt with a range of issues encompassing how they chose to include or not include difficult memories in their prose, what craft or artistic devices they used to put their memories onto the page, how their bodies viscerally processed the experience of writing their pain, how they reacted spiritually, and what they learned about themselves as writers and human beings as a result of their process.
The authors discussed elements from their memoirs, Heaven’s Coast and Firebird [Doty];
Sleeping Arrangements [Cunningham]; NOLA [Hemley]; Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick [Silverman].
In each case, the memoirs dealt with the "hard place" on the large and small scale,
working through not only difficult scenes and images, but difficult themes, memories and lives. Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, his first memoir written after years as a poet, details the profound joy, grief, and renewal he experienced while caring for his lover, Wally, who died of AIDS. In the book, Doty closely examines this period in the couple’s lives, as well as the ramifications of Wally’s life and death on Doty’s own spiritual, emotional, physical and mental being. Firebird is his treatment of his childhood, examining his awakening as a homosexual amid the dynamics of his dysfunctional nuclear family.
Similarly, Silverman found it necessary to write two memoirs in order to convey the separate but linked dynamics of her life. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You is the story of her girlhood, spent at the hands of a horrifically cruel, sexually abusive father, all the while within earshot of an unfeeling mother who chose to deny what was happening to her daughter. Love Sick is a treatise on the after-effects of that childhood, an examination of Silverman’s sexually addicted adult life, and ultimate healing.
Hemley originally attempted to write scenes from NOLA in fiction, but then abandoned that pursuit to write in the creative nonfiction genre. The quirky NOLA, which draws heavily on documentation that includes everything from letters and short stories to automatic writing, tells the life and death story of Hemley’s schizophrenic half-sister Nola, as well as evoking Hemley’s childhood relationship to her, his extended family, his community, and the literary world, in which his parents were major players.
Cunningham’s childhood memoir, Sleeping Arrangements, uses humor and pathos to tell
the story of her upbringing in an atypical family in New York, first as an only child of a single mother (Cunningham never knew who her father was) and then as an orphan raised by two eccentric uncles and her grandmother.
The authors agreed overwhelmingly that difficult topics must be dealt with in literature
head-on, and that to an extent the process of writing about the difficult past requires turning a blind eye toward the future.
What to leave in/what to leave out
When it came to writing about emotionally or personally difficult topics in your memoir, how did you decide which ones to write about and which ones to leave out? What role did rewriting play in this?
Cunningham: I didn’t have a conscious decision. I wrote what I remembered. It was a
 conscious decision to include sections that were risky (to my mind) -- the childhood playacting seemed "dangerous" in a way [“Once in this natural crevice, our pervert drives his own bargain; we have to touch it. ... He demonstrates how to move the foreskin up and down.” Page 53] --and of course, it hurt a great deal to recall my mother’s death. I started Sleeping Arrangements when I was 23, set it aside, couldn’t manage the difficult emotional sections, then tried again when I was much older and felt very much relieved.
Doty: Heaven’s Coast was a very compelled book, by which I mean it was written out of a real sense of urgency and necessity. It was an act of negotiating with grief, of finding my way forward, and so there was just a sense, really, of writing what came next. I didn’t have too much sense of making conscious decisions about going here and not going there. At least up to a point. Along the way, of course, I began to think about the potential readers of the book, who they were and how I wanted to approach them. I had to decide, for instance, whether to say, “Rilke said…” or “the German poet Rilke said…” -- just that little decision implied a good deal about who my readers might be. And I began to think about the book as something potentially useful to people who were themselves in a state of new grief, or anticipating grief; I hoped to make my experience in some way of use. I don’t remember choosing to leave too much out. The book is somewhat unforthcoming about sex, but there’s a good reason for that -- the AIDS epidemic was of course so stigmatized, and I wanted to portray its effect on one couple (and their community) in a very personal way, taking them out of the context of some of the clichés of the epidemic. That’s why the book doesn’t reveal until fairly late in the narrative that the couple weren’t monogamous -- I wanted to draw the reader in to really feel close to the characters before I presented what might be a point of difference from the lives of many readers.
In a way, the whole book is one big emotionally difficult topic! So that intensity has to
be welcomed. I would write a different answer in regard to my second memoir Firebird, where there was less of a sense of crisis, and where there were more characters, many of them living, as more time had passed. Heaven’s Coast is a very focused book, in its own floaty way -- I mean it studies one set of experiences very closely.
In the rewriting, some sections got cut, but not because they were too emotional or difficult, but rather for the sake of moving the narrative along. I’d been writing a very inclusive book, following my thinking process, and I let it go where it will for the entire year of the book’s
composition. So that meant there was a lot of editing to do. I don’t think I edited anything out because it was uncomfortable -- though there were a few names I had to change and perhaps a few assertions that came out of the book because of potential legal ramifications.
Hemley: Nothing was off limits emotionally. I just knew that if I was going to write the best book I could, I couldn’t varnish what I considered difficult material. I’m not saying this proudly, nor am I suggesting I handled it well all the time. It was emotionally wrenching and difficult, nearly every page. What guided me finally was craft. If something enhanced the telling of the story, the themes, or the language, I kept it in. If it didn’t, I took it out. One must always keep in mind when one is writing that ultimately one is trying to write a crafted, artistic work, not a tell-all gusher.
Silverman: When it came to the selection process, my decisions were based on artistic
concerns. Since a memoir is about one part of a life, not a whole life, I had to stay within the parameters of each work -- which is why I needed two memoirs. Whenever I tried to weave the sex addiction in with the incest, the memoir simply “balked.” Each issue has a completely different energy, voice, etc., and I couldn’t meld them together. So, in writing each I had to constantly ask myself: does this scene, “character,” metaphor, etc. reveal my theme? If not, it got left out. It’s important to be rigid in the selection process. Otherwise, a memoir can easily lose its focus.
But I didn’t eliminate events because I felt faint of heart. In memoir, I think it’s important to reveal one’s experiences in all their complexities. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to deluge the reader, either. I became aware of this issue particularly when writing Love Sick. Even though it’s about sex addiction, this memoir is not sexually graphic. Such descriptions would have been gratuitous. It also would have caused the book to lose its focus. In conjunction with this, I didn’t think it necessary to include every example of my addictive acting-out behavior. Rather, I chose those situations that were representative, that best revealed me as a sex addict.
When rewriting, again, I had to be rigorous when deciding what deepened my themes versus what derailed the memoir into other directions. Oh, you know, I frequently have the temptation to put everything in … loving the (sound) of my own voice too much. The trick in memoir is to go deep rather than wide … vertical rather than horizontal.
Questioning the self as writer/creating the self as character
During the writing of this book, what kinds of questions did you ask yourself in an effort to "dig deeper" and to flesh out your characters and topics? How did you honestly work through creating yourself as a character? In other words, how did you probe this material? If and when you were tempted to hold back, what did you do?
Cunningham: I didn’t hold back. Didn’t try to be a character, just to let my memory take over, and the voice seemed to be there … I write a lot at night, so perhaps the semi-dream state helps. I don’t edit myself until the end.
Doty: When I wrote HC I had been practicing as a poet for many years but had never written nonfiction prose, save an essay or two. The hardest part for me wasn’t meditation or exploring a question but narration -- actually telling stories about characters and having things happen, as I just hadn’t much experience at that. Though I found I loved doing it! I think my process of creating myself as a character was twofold; first, to trust the motion of thought. I wanted to introduce this narrator to the reader by virtue of how he thought -- what questions and associations came to his mind, what metaphors he made, what books or songs spoke to him. This seemed a way of inviting the reader in. Second, and probably crucial, I wanted to question my thinking. If I made an assertion, I’d often follow it by a question -- but what else did I feel? Was there another way to look at what I’d just said? By questioning, resisting easy certainty, I hoped to make the work explore further.
I get tempted to hold back, of course, all the time, as a poet and as a prose writer. For me
this takes the form of working on a draft and finding myself saying, "Oh, do I have to go there? Do I have to feel that?” At that point I’d rather stop and, say, take a nap instead of write; it’s the experience of resistance and avoidance, and if I can just stay there, writing whatever, writing through the tension, writing ABOUT the tension, then often I am rewarded for doing so. One thing that helps me with this is keeping a writing journal -- a little notebook, usually on the computer, about how it’s going. I write about what I plan to do, what resists me, and then I’ll make notes about what I did. It just seems a way to gain a bit of distance, and writing about the writing often points out what I hadn’t seen, or need to do next.

Hemley: This is a good question, but I don’t remember the questions I asked myself. I had long thought of certain scenes before I wrote them. Not all the scenes, but some. I don’t know what “inspired” me to write the prologue of the book in which I took various scenes from my life and the lives of my family and wove them together exploring the theme of larceny. There was something almost intuitive in this. In this chapter, as in others, I’m sure I asked myself what I could discover in the next scene, the next sentence. It’s become a bit of a truism that writing is a process of discovery, but the fact that it’s often invoked makes it no less true. I sometimes surprise myself by what I’m revealing about myself as I write. It’s a compulsion. I’m a bit of a show-off, I think. I like to be the center of attention, even if I don’t always display this outright (you see, I can’t stay away from confession.) I don’t ask myself many questions as I write. I simply write, I guess.
Maybe afterwards. Maybe then, I ask the question, “Is what I’ve written any good?” “Does anyone care?” “Is this stupid?” I try to put those questions aside. If any questions arise as I’m writing, I often include them in the prose. “What was my motive?” “Why did she do that?” That sort of thing. I never ask a question I already know the answer to. Impossible questions are the best.
For me, it’s not difficult to see myself as a character. I’ve long told anecdotes about myself and so by this time, making myself into a character seems second-nature. If I knew I was holding back, I gave myself a slap on the wrist, told myself I’d let it go this time but I’d better not catch myself holding back again or there’d be hell to pay.
One caveat. I think there are probably times in the writing when one doesn’t want to be strictly honest, if the honesty as such gets in the way of the story. Sure, you want to be emotionally honest, but maybe you have conflicting emotions or maybe you don’t remember your emotions. So you reinvent what you might have been thinking. Memoir, like all good writing, is crafted. There are also probably some things you’d like to keep private that don’t absolutely need to go in your memoir. Maybe it’s something you know about someone else, a secret that’s not absolutely crucial to the memoir. Or maybe it’s something about yourself. Ask yourself, Is this crucial to the book? If it’s something that merely makes you uncomfortable or something that puts you in a bad light, by all means keep it in. In the long run, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.
In the first place, the reader rarely considers your revelation that you’ve been hiding for
years as horrible as you think …. One must always remember that the impact of a remembered event is different for the author and the reader. A remembered trauma will rarely be moving to the reader simply because of the fact that it actually happened. In the second place, one way to gain readers’ sympathies is to make your characters vulnerable, and that includes yourself. It’s a basic rule of characterization.
Silverman: To be honest, when I wrote Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, I’d never written memoir before and didn’t think things through; I didn’t know how to. It was like following a whisper, and I never stopped or halted or questioned. I kept writing, and the memoir just fell out of me in about three months. Beginner’s luck.
Ironically, Love Sick was much more difficult to write, more of a challenge to “create myself as a character.” This memoir has two voices, the addict voice and the sober voice. Embarrassingly, it was very easy for me to discover (and write) the addict voice. But if that was the only voice, the memoir would have been superficial. I needed the sober voice to guide the reader through the quagmire of the addiction. The sober voice needs to let the reader know why I am acting out with these emotionally dangerous men, why I am doing these self-destructive things.
How did I ultimately discover this sober voice? No easy tricks. Simply time. Simply rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. It took me like five years to write Love Sick, versus the three months to write, Terror, Father. I just had to keep writing until I finally “heard” that sober voice.
I should hasten to add that this sober voice would have been easy to find if my goal had been to write pop-psych. But since my goal was to write literary memoir, that was the challenge. In other words, I had a “voice” that could have explained (like a therapist) “this is what sexual addiction is, this is how I recovered from it, etc.” So the questions I had to keep asking were:
“What were the metaphors of sobriety?” “What was the language of a sober woman?” Let me give you an example of these two voices -- a section (Page 87) where I describe my feelings toward a maroon scarf given me by my married lover. “I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him -- leaves smoldering in autumn dusk -- and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don’t understand why the scent of the scarf … seems more knowable, more tangible than the rest of him.” Here, I begin in my addict voice where I romanticize the man and the maroon-scarf scent before moving into a more sober (metaphoric) voice that realizes that the scarf embodies alienation, loneliness, loss.
In the early drafts of the memoir, for example, I would have had the first part of the sentence, but not the second part. It took me a long time to realize the role of this sober voice, that it had to journey along with the addict voice putting up “sign posts.” While the addict voice describes acting out, the sober voice must establish (vertically) what else is going on in this moment. The addict me wants “this”; the sober voice says “why.” In sum, it is the implementation of multiple voices in memoir that deepens “you” as a character.
I tend not to hold back when writing because I want to know what the events in my life mean. I write memoir to understand myself. If I had all the answers before I wrote, then the writing would be flat and boring. Why bother writing if you already know the answers? I write to discover the truths about my life, discover my metaphors. If I held back, I’d never find answers.
Framing Pain in Words and Craft
In your opinion, how does one most effectively put topics such as sorrow, anger and embarrassment into language that is honest and compelling? How does one balance these
topics? How did you frame your material in words and craft?
Cunningham: It’s probably a form of meditation -- recalling the details. Details and not
“creating fiction” when writing non-fiction. I deliberately tried to remember, not invent. I did look at my photos, journals -- my family wrote -- I read their writings as well, and had the advantage of talking with my uncles and one aunt.
Doty: Whew, big question. I suppose you have to begin from an understanding that intense emotion is volcanic, chaotic, resists form -- and therefore that the work of finding a shape or container for such emotional intensity is crucial. It’s the container that allows the reader to experience the feeling too -- rather than just being swamped by the intensity of what the writer experiences. So -- one begins in the pouring out of one’s own feeling, and soon as that happens, you’ve created a little bit of distance; you have begun to think about feeling in esthetic terms, and to my mind this is the saving grace. This is the place where writing is truly therapeutic. I’ve never been convinced that it does all that much good just to vent your feelings -- well, it helps, but it really just releases pressure. When you begin to craft what you feel into an artifact, then you must stand back from it a bit -- you must look at yourself and your emotions in a slightly removed way, and that is a very helpful thing, because it allows you at least a measure of control -- control over what you are saying, if not over circumstance.
Hemley: I’m not sure I can answer this question. Or else, the answer is fairly simple. It’s in the craft. One learns how to convey emotions through methods of characterization that fiction writers use: dialogue, action, description, thought, and exposition. Creative nonfiction, in my experience, allows for a lot more exposition than in the traditional piece of fiction which emphasizes “showing” over “telling”....
Silverman: The best way to achieve emotional complexity is for each memoir to employ
several voices. I already talked about the two voices in Love Sick (and, really, there are even more than two). In Father, there is the voice of me as a child, a child who is only aware enough to relate the facts of my childhood. In this voice I am saying, in effect, “My father did this (sexual) thing to me. And then he did this.” While I provide specific details, I am unable to comment upon them, for this voice is too scared, young, confused. This “young voice” is then twined with a strong-woman voice who does have the capability to reflect back on this story, this past, interpret the facts, and guide the reader through the maze of an incestuous family -- add the metaphors!
Therefore, I think the best way to convey emotions such as anger, sorrow, etc. is through
metaphor, (i.e., rather than say, "I’m feeling sad” in the maroon scarf scene, I let the metaphoric scarf “say” it for me.) The mature, metaphoric voice that reflects on past events is where your memoir will be deepened with emotional complexity. In general, I think of the mature author as a guide carrying a lantern through a dark forest (sex addiction, incest -- whatever your issues) and lighting the way for the reader, so the reader can see, understand, make sense of the events, actions, behaviors. These various voices interact throughout a memoir to create development of you as a character, as well as your story.
Reacting Viscerally
How did your body viscerally react to this writing experience? How did the process affect
you spiritually?
Cunningham: It was at first exhausting. Beginnings are difficult then the passion takes over. I felt very much released from old childhood grief, very excited by taking chances in the writing style. I write for long periods of time when it finally takes hold … overnight toward the end of that book.
Doty: There’s a lot of body in Heaven’s Coast. In part because Wally’s body was of course the site of the marauding virus, the uncontrollable presence -- and so there was this weird paradox of the body that had given me much joy now being the source of sorrow and of mystery. And my work of taking care of him had really stressed me out, of course, causing a lot of physical tension -- and I had lifted him sometimes, out of necessity, in ways that were tough on me. So there’s much in the book around yoga, massage, feeling oneself as a body -- both because I was trying to heal my wounded back and because I had such a different sense of the body as a deeply vulnerable thing. Or, no, put it this way -- I had such a sense of BEING a body after this, something that in truth had seemed sort of abstract to me before.
Spiritually, it was the work I was doing. Heaven’s Coast was my way of paying attention to this transformative time. I think when we are that close to someone who dies we go out on the edge of living with them; it was a very heightened time for me, both devastating and awful and strangely rapturous, too. I hope that’s all in the book.
Hemley: There is ... a spiritual side to writing in that one is opening oneself up, one is becoming a vessel of sorts, and some force of the world runs through one. Certainly not everyone believes that, but I do. When I’m really writing well (I think), I am at my least self-conscious. I am open to whatever might appear before me. This really happened a lot in the writing of NOLA. Sometimes it was spooky, and always wonderful in that it felt like such a gift. I’d reach into a pile of Nola’s letters or writings and pull out just the right one I needed at that moment.
Everything that happened around me during the writing seemed embedded with metaphor and magic. My daughter Olivia drew a birthday card for me -- I guess she was four or five -- and it had squiggles all over it. On the front, written in big block letters, was the word NOLA -- unmistakable. Olivia had never seen Nola’s name written down before. It was the first word she ever wrote.
Sometimes I cried, though not all the time. I became more nervous, more emotionally raw. I think I came close to a break down of sorts…. But there was a real sense of peace that came to me in the completion of the book. I remember a dream I had which I put in the book in which I saw words, rounded, shaped like balls, falling to the bottom of the sea, hitting bottom and lifting silt, then settling down again as the sea cleared and became still. That seemed like an unmistakable “message” to me.
Silverman: Since I wrote Terror, Father after I’d been in therapy for a while -- and wrote Love Sick after I’d finished therapy -- I can’t say that my body reacted that viscerally. (Not as it did in therapy, where my body did have many reactions.) I guess all I can say is that I felt an intensity to my focus when I knew that I had the “right” voice telling the story. I felt very intense, and maybe my heart beat a little faster, when I knew I was writing my truths and not skirting around the edges. (I did, however, cry when I wrote about my parents’ deaths….)
For me, spirituality is language -- I have discovered spirituality through language. So, by writing my memoirs, once I found the language of sobriety, of recovery, of health, of truth -- these discoveries did deepen me as a person, in a spiritual way.
The Most Difficult Section
What did you consider to be the most difficult section to write, and how did you work
your way through it?
Cunningham: Rosie, my mother’s illness and death -- I took a 17-year break before I could write that. I wrote the teenaged part earlier and then [my childhood friend] Diana….
Doty: The hardest part, definitely, was in the second half of the book, in the chapter which is a quite thorough description of Wally’s death. When the book begins, he’s already dead, and the narrator’s going on from there, but in a way it feels like the whole thing is circling around to telling the story of that hour. I was dreading writing it and felt like it was a sort of mountain I had to climb. It was written very late in the composition of the book. I had been working for nearly a year, and I went to Italy, to an artists’ colony, a very beautiful and lavish place. I took all my manuscript with me, my journals and notes, and I started at the beginning and rewrote the book right straight through, editing and shaping and filling in, and then writing most of the second half of the book from scratch. I felt like I was climbing toward that chapter where Wally dies, and I was able to do it because I was so well taken care of there. I could work and cry all day and just be the wreck I was, and then in the evening it was time for aperitifs, and a beautiful Italian waiter would bring me a delicious dinner in a splendid room in a villa. It was exactly right. I recommend it!
Hemley: The most difficult scene for me was writing about the time Nola tried to strangle me. That was such an upsetting, deeply humiliating experience, and it wasn’t something I generally shared with people. But I knew I had to write it and I had to show why she wanted to strangle me, why she was, in a way, justified.
Silverman: Emotionally, the most difficult sections to write were those when my parents were dying. This may have been because I began to write Terror shortly after they died, so their deaths were still fresh. This sounds superficial or obvious, but the only way I know to work my way through difficult material is to do just that: to go through it, one word at a time. For me, it’s a matter of accepting that I am able to sit in my dark places and know the only way through something is -- well -- through it. To skirt an issue, for me, is to remain in that emotionally vague or unfeeling place where I lived most of my life. Once I committed myself to therapy, once I committed myself to writing memoir and telling my story, then I committed myself to the pursuit of emotional truth. I also think I was so exhausted with living in emotional untruths, that I was anxious to discover who I really was/am.
Technically, as I mentioned above, the most difficult thing for me to figure out was the sober voice in Love Sick.
Learning about the self
What had you learned about the craft of writing, and about yourself as a human being at the completion of your memoir?
Cunningham: How much I loved writing, how essential it is for me to survive … and how
much love I experienced in my family, and how much we enjoyed one another.
Doty: I learned I could write a prose narrative and sustain it; I learned I could talk for three hundred pages! I learned I could move more boldly than I knew, from one kind of discourse to another, and readers would go with me. I learned that people were hugely grateful for directness, for the portrayal of struggle. I felt less alone in the world. I felt that writing had a practical kind of agency -- that is, that it mattered to people and that people USED it, which is not usually the way I’d thought about literary work. I was hugely grateful for this. I got amazing letters from people who had experienced every sort of loss you can imagine, and they were remarkably heartfelt and powerful. They were often remarkable personal narratives of loss. I learned that I wanted to keep writing prose, and to investigate some modes of prose writing I hadn’t tried yet. What else? I learned that it’s a scary thing to transform your life (or part of it) into a story; it can make you feel used up, or that you’ve given your memory away or made it public in an uncomfortable way. Those feelings had more to do with marketing than with writing, really, and they passed. I learned that some people reacted violently to the way I had portrayed them, when I hadn’t really imagined that; I learned that my writing had a certain sort of power in my community -- and that it could be disruptive. There are people who STILL don’t speak to me since Heaven’s Coast, which truly did surprise me. I learned that I have a certain (probably necessary?) degree of dedication to my own work which allows me not to care about this -- at least not to care enough to stop!
Hemley: Whatever I learned is either so much a part of me now that I can no longer articulate it or else I have stumbled backwards and repudiated it. That’s the way life is. There are no perfect lessons. We try and fail, try and fail.
Silverman: The main thing I learned from writing memoir is the need for several voices to reveal a story. What I learned about myself were my own personal metaphors. In therapy or “general living,” I don’t think or talk in metaphor. It wasn’t until writing about my life that I discovered them. Why is this important? The discovery of metaphor is the discovery of what one’s life is really about, how these metaphors link events in our lives. For example, Terror isn’t only about growing up in an incestuous family. It’s about language: repressed language; mute language; language as metaphor. Growing up, I could never tell anyone what my father was doing to me because I had no language to express it. I never heard the word “incest,” for example, until I was in college. Nevertheless, I tried, through mute languages (such as showing my underpants at school), to “speak” aloud what was happening to me. Then, with Love Sick, I didn’t realize until I was writing it, that I’d spoken a language of addiction most of my life (pgs. 161-65 Love Sick). Through writing, I learned a language of recovery. This concept of language -- and language as metaphor -- is something that I learned from the writing process. Metaphor gives events a shape, an organization. By “collecting” all my words on pieces of paper, my life became a tangible entity that I could hold in my hands, look at, and think: Yes, this is my life. I
see it now.
Making choices
In your opinion, if a writer chooses not to address difficult passages, or to skim the surface of them -- as some writers do -- how does it affect the final creative nonfiction product?
Cunningham: I would say, there would be a lack of candor, a gap. Readers pick up on difficult truths, and we all share certain experiences and emotions -- they need to recognize this in the work. If it is on the surface or missing sections, I think it would be unsatisfying. There must be a balance though -- and not exploitational confessional writing for its own sake.
Doty: I think what makes all the difference is being conscious of what you’re doing. My friend Bernard Cooper is an interesting example of this. His marvelous book Truth Serum chronicles growing up gay in a somewhat peculiar family in L.A. in the sixties, and he writes vivid and compelling essays therein without ever alluding to the fact that he had several brothers who died quite young. They just aren’t in the story -- just as in Lucy Grealy’s terrific Autobiography of A Face there is no mention of her twin sister! Obviously these are huge omissions -- but the writer has chosen for this particular book to focus elsewhere, in order to get at a different layer of emotional truth. And that isn’t avoidance but choice.
On the other hand, the writer who simply goes in fear of particular material isn’t making
an esthetic choice but a psychological one, not to confront, and the inevitable result of avoiding conflict is shallowness.
If I may borrow an example from poetry, think of Elizabeth Bishop. She never talks about her loneliness or sense of social exclusion as a lesbian, her struggles with addiction, or the terrible saga of her parents in her poems -- not directly -- and yet her awareness of these things informs the work, charges it. "The Moose" for instance is a brilliant poem about community and isolation that enacts these issues but doesn’t directly name them -- it says more than it says, so to speak. This is only possible when the writer knows what she feels but doesn’t say it; what you don’t know and don’t say does you no good at all, and is simply ignorance!
Hemley: This is a loaded, question, Carolyn. You don’t expect me to say, "If you avoid the difficult issues and skim the surface, you will definitely be a better writer.”
Silverman: The final product would be superficial, would be so much less than it could or should be. Why bother writing -- or reading -- such a book?
Dealing with Loved Ones and the Public
As you wrote, how did you deal with the reality that loved ones and the public would
eventually read what you had written?
Cunningham: I shut my eyes to that, so that I could be free of constraint.
Doty: Oh, so hard. I think we all have to push this eventuality aside as we write. Somehow we have to give ourselves permission to say whatever we need to, at least in the initial drafts -- just to let everything that feels essential get onto the page and worry about the potential consequences later on. That is, the creator in one must be separated from the side of the self that worries about externals, about how the work will be received.
Often when I was writing about a character about whom I didn’t have positive things to say, I found myself instinctively changing that person’s name and blurring their circumstances slightly, just so as to provide a kind of "buffer." Of course that doesn’t mean that this character wouldn’t recognize himself or herself -- HC is, after all, a book that takes place in a very small town -- but it seemed to help me, and at least perhaps give me the sense that I wasn’t denouncing something to the WORLD.
I found it a much different matter in writing Firebird, as two of the book’s primary characters, my father and my sister, are very much alive and of course would read the book. Again, I simply had to write what I wrote; it was crucial that these people, or rather my memory of them, be transformed into my characters. One learns quickly that a character whom you don’t empathize with -- a character you judge too easily -- will simply feel hollow or one-dimensional to the reader. You HAVE to love your characters, or at least you have to feel your way into their skin. I do not love “Dr. Magnus” in HC, it’s true, but I did at least TRY to imagine what might have contributed to his demeanor, what forces might be shaping him. I think it’s crucial that one attempts that. Anyway, I didn’t show my father or my sister my manuscript until the very end, until I was done, really. I would have changed things that bothered my sister, had there been some; I truly would have sought a way to do no harm. I don’t think I would have changed anything to protect my father’s feelings, though perhaps had he asked me to I might have. His response simply was a stony silence, which has persisted to this day. A sad thing. But at least I can report that my sister and I have grown closer as a result of the book. I’ve thought a lot about the memoirist’s inevitable guilt, and in fact am building my way towards writing an essay on the subject that I haven’t started yet. I think anytime we represent another person, we’re going to get some things fundamentally wrong -- at least, we’re not going to write that person the way she or he sees herself. And if we’re writing about the past, about people we can’t consult -- say the speculations about my mother in Firebird [“...she is at such a huge distance from the past, she has traveled to some isolation where no one can follow, and the vodka (does she even need to drink?) and tranquilizers and God knows what else seal off her room, consign her to darkness and murmurs and then silence.” Page 182] -- well, that can only be our construction of the past, can’t it? Perhaps there is a way in which memory is misrepresentation; memoir points up its inevitable subjectivity, its gaps and shadows, its guess at motivation. I love the form; I love how it writes a self into being, but I also think that it’s by nature a slippery, troubled thing -- it comes with doubt and challenge deeply built in.
Hemley: I worked in my nervousness about loved ones reading my book into my book,
 especially in regard to my mother. She was the main person looking over my shoulder. Until I wrote the book, I somehow neglected to realize what a powerful influence my mother was on my life. I didn’t realize what a Mama’s boy I am, nor how loving but troubled our relationship has been. I’m sure that in some ways I felt turnabout was fair play, so to speak, since she had always written about me. But I tried to be loving and respectful. In many ways, I really admire her for what she’s done and what she’s been through. I also told myself that no matter how hard I was on anyone else, I’d be twice as hard on myself, though not to the point of self-loathing, which I think is counter-productive.
Silverman: During the writing process, I tend not to think about friends, family -- or even
publication. I also never assume that what I write will be published. I write because I have to. The act of writing, itself, is what means the most to me. This is where the spirituality lies. So I tend to keep myself focused as much as possible on the words during the creation process. This can be very freeing. Just write from your heart and tell your truths without thinking of family. Worry about the “world” later -- after you have your story down on paper. Generally, after I finish writing, I hope friends and relatives understand my need, as a writer, to tell my stories -- but I also know that I can’t control how anyone might feel about my work. I write what I need to write. I don’t think my job as a writer is to protect anyone’s feelings. Rather, it’s to break silences, to tell my own stories. I think, for all memoirists, we have to know that our stories are important, they belong to us, it’s okay to tell our secrets. For me, only by telling my secrets can I be an authentic woman.
This is the only way for me to be an authentic writer, as well. Women writers, in particular, have been silenced for too long, have been made to feel as if our stories aren’t worthy. They are worthy.
One additional thing I might mention about memoir and telling secrets: I think one of the most important things when writing memoir is to maintain the focus on yourself. Concentrate on your secrets; memoir is about revealing your story. Sure, other people (friends/relatives) play a role in our lives, but ask yourself: how do these people affect me? If you are your focus, then you should, hopefully, be on fairly solid ground when you go public. I would not, for example, reveal a secret that’s my sister’s, one that has nothing to do with me. In other words, I want to emphasize that telling secrets is not about revenge. If you do write your memoir from a place of revenge or only anger, then, chances are, the memoir will be shrill and hollow -- and not reveal the emotional truth we all seek. We write to reveal and understand the complexities of ourselves, of our relationships.
Reflecting on these authors’ comments, it becomes clear that writing effective, textured
and poignant memoir requires the quality of courage. No life is without its hardships, no writing task without its proportionately difficult “hard places.” Satisfaction and accomplishment go to the memoirist who stays the course, unflinchingly -- who writes with an eye on truth, a heart that trusts the process, and a hand on the pen or keyboard, moving forward. The writing of memoir, it would seem, mimics the challenge and flow of life. It both taxes and rewards the resolve, and makes art of the human experience.