Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When writing takes it out of you

This blog has been rather quiet of late, and it has nothing to do with the topic I am about to talk about. Rather, a steady flow of work travel and speaking commitments has kept me from writing of late. I miss writing. As well as giving me the opportunity to rant on about something, there is also an undeniable benefit of exposition which can take place by getting stuff out there. I often say writing is my default mode of communication, and this is partially due to ongoing ear trouble which meant that as a child it was the method I gravitated toward most of all. But it's also the ability to gather thoughts and express them in ways unfettered by communicative forms which involve instant exchange. So I've always written as a default.

Tonight I imparted a small bit of wisdom to someone who was new to public writing and had written on a raw topic. It was this: writing in this way can sometimes leave you feeling completely drained and vulnerable, but it is more powerful than keeping silent. It's something I have personally experienced time and time again. There have been pieces I have written which have kept me from sleeping at night because they have been so close to the bone (even if they don't read this way) and I find I'm still processing the act of divulging this hours afterwards. I've not regretted writing these (though a year down the track I may shudder at what I've constructed) but conveying trauma or experience, in veiled forms and completely openly, can really take it out of you. And it's not just because you revisit traumatic experiences while you are writing. It's also because you leave yourself open for others to interpret, or misinterpret your words. It's impossible to completely prepare for that reaction from others.

I remember, for example, when I wrote openly about going through the experience of an ectopic pregnancy in Mothers and Others. For the longest time, I was unable to openly speak about that experience, let alone have the objective space to write about it in ways that could potentially assist others. Even then, I chose to modify the discussion. I omitted the related trauma of leaving an abusive relationship at the same time because I felt unable to revisit that experience as well. On writing about ectopic pregnancy itself, I feared being judged for my reflections on my complicated response to being in that situation. There is so much judgement around womanhood and motherhood as evidenced by the stories currently being shared on #shoutyourabortion that sharing a story of epic fail was almost mentally prohibitive. And I was terrified of committing that experience to print for thousands to digest. Additionally, in writing about that time, I mentally returned to hospitals and waiting rooms and felt helpless and hopeless all over again. Yet I wanted to impart it, because there is so much silence around these experiences and how damaging they can be. Ectopic pregnancies have literally cost lives. Therefore if my experiences helped one other person seek assistance or even process what they had been through then it was worth it. I didn't want to contribute to further silence on the issue.

Back in uni, I wrote a one-woman play (monodrama, really) called "Not One Nation" as part of my honours year. It was part political satire, part identity politics and part historical narrative. It delved, in part, into multifaceted Aboriginal identity, with a strong feminist bent, including the finding and strengthening of one's own identity in the face of social ridicule and ignorance. In writing it, I wove a lot of stories together from people who were kind enough to share their experiences with me. My hope was that through the combining of these stories, the piece would resonate with others. Yet every night before I went on stage, I'd chain-smoke out the back of the theatre curled up in a ball. After I finished performing, I'd be unable to speak for at least five minutes. I'd accidentally written so much of myself into this play that every time I performed it, it was like cutting myself open on stage and bleeding for my audience. I was revisiting my own experiences of trauma, of frustration, of rejection, of social ridicule, of craving of historical narratives long blocked. Yet every performance was worth it, not just because others related to it and were so amazing in telling me how it resonated with their own experiences. Rather it was because it also gave me a space to process these experiences and move forward. 

Funnily enough, this wasn't unlike any other time I took to the stage during my acting years at uni. Always I'd be drawing on the long-buried or the deep-down in order to relate to the characters I was playing and their experiences. While it might not have always been as personal as Not One Nation, there was always an element of personal exposition which performance assisted me with. Like writing, I miss acting and the freedom that I often felt while on a stage engaged in performance. Who knows; one day I may end up treading the boards again. 

The thing is, if I am realistic, there are many times when I've drawn upon my own life - blatantly or covertly - to convey something which is important to me for an audience to read in a way which they may relate to. I guess black feminist ranting actually lends itself to this because where would a want to explore ideas such as these come from other than a lifetime of experiences? It's fascinating to me that so often the writings from those who convey personal struggle and suffering are seen as not being objective views and therefore of lesser value than those who speak from outside these experiences. I mean, what are those who allegedly writing objectively conveying if not their own personal privileges? But there is power in writing in such ways. It can reach others in very real ways and it can also help with your own processing and healing. As we move through life trying to navigate its peaks and troughs, what could be more valuable?

So if I'm imparting anything, it is this: if you're writing from a real space, it will nearly always be difficult. You will always feel vulnerable and exposed and may very well need to take some time out to process that you have taken such a stand and shared such a chunk of yourself. None of this is bad. Indeed, for your own self-preservation it's essential. Yet the very things we tend to stay silent about in society are the things we need to talk about more. Our experiences can contribute to shattering this silence and assist others in very real ways. And that in itself is more valuable than we can ever imagine.