When Your Memoir Wants To Be A Novel
December 26, 2017 § 5 Comments
In our “Breaking In” column in Writer’s Digest magazine, we talk with debut authors—such as Anna Quinn, author of The Night Child—about how they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. Discover more in the February 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest.
When Your Memoir Wants To Be A Novel by Anna Quinn
The Night Child, a novel, was born from my memoir—a narrative of my personal history with dissociation, sexual abuse and survival. For more than a decade, with the support of my psychotherapist and trusted writing mentors, I wrote to make sense of what happened, to understand the impact, and if I was lucky, to finally live a life free of deep hypervigilance and detachment—to believe I had a life worth saving.
Writing the memoir was revealing and agonizing and achingly healing, but in the end, something was missing—an emotional truth I could vaguely sense, but not articulate. A truth that I needed if I was to thrive, a truth I needed if I was to contribute to the larger conversations of mental illness and sexual abuse—conversations that meant everything to me. Well aware of the research conveying how trauma can physiologically distort the functioning of the brain, how our brains can hide and erase memory to protect us from unbearable pain, I worried I had forever blocked elements I needed to fully access those necessary truths.
Frustrated, I let go of the memoir, and began to explore the themes of dissociation, memory, sexual abuse and resilience, using different forms—poetry, essay and fiction. I wrote hundreds of poems, dozens of essays—I became obsessed with finding the missing conceptual knowledge. Perhaps this drive was related to Freud’s suggestion that traumatized people will attempt to revisit the injury in all its complexity and form, in order to master its terror and regain emotional control, or maybe at some level I still didn’t feel completely safe telling my entire story—no matter what though, I kept writing—my way of working into and toward truth.
Writing poetry and essays inched me into new and startling depths, and there were moments when I thought, Yes! This is different! This is something! But it was only when I began to describe my earliest experiences of dissociation and betrayal through fiction—through imaginary characters—that an unexpected story began to insist itself, began to push out beyond my singular experience, beyond the story I’d been telling—images, sights and sounds began to stream out faster than my fingers could write. First, the image of a young mother sitting on a cold kitchen floor, late at night, swallowing spoonful after spoonful of artificially sweetened ice cream. And then a young girl dressed in an orange sweatshirt, jeans and red Keds with purple laces appeared, ready for Thanksgiving Dinner. Next, a teen girl, in a classroom, drawing skulls on the cover of her notebook and darkening the eyes sockets, her fingers thins as pencils, her nails bitten to the quick, the stubs of them painted pitch black. Character after character walked onto the stage, announcing themselves and presenting scenarios, conflicts, attitudes, and beliefs without scripts—some of which were familiar to me, and others, unsettling and mystifying.
And I sat there onstage in the middle of it all, invisible, yet feeling their hearts beating in my chest and viewing everything through their eyes. I tried not to think about who they were or why they were appearing—I only wrote what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, touched. It was bizarre and fantastic: I’d passed through some kind of portal—a place of a calming clarity—a place of beholding a story beyond a story.
That’s when I realized the memoir wanted to be a novel—or some genre blurring the edges of memoir and novel. Virginia Woolf, who often drew from her own memories, once wrote: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’. A new—by Virginia Woolf. But what?” (Diary 3: 34) Yes, what should we call The Night Child, Virginia? It’s not an autobiographical novel—i.e. the changing of names and locations, and dramatization of real events that happened to the author. Only two of my characters—Nora and Margaret are modeled after real people. The central plotline and settings partially mirror my life, but much of the narrative was unfamiliar to me. The Night Child had its own life, its own magic and its own intelligence. It urged me to write forward as a witness and without exerting control over the arc’s trajectory. I watched as each character, including Nora and Margaret, answered my memoir questions, but this time from a separate and shifted consciousness. What do you want? What do you feel? What do you carry? What do you most want me to know? What are you most afraid of? Why? What do you have to gain by changing? What do you have to lose? Their stories consumed me—the characters insisting themselves into being, as if to say, I want out, I want to breathe, I want to live.
The lens of fiction freed me.
Fictionalizing my work wasn’t new for me. As a child and a teen, I didn’t write stories about my life, I wrote myself into the stories I wanted to live in. In my childhood stories, I wore black cowboy boots, fought monsters with a shiny silver sword and rode a flying white horse named Brigid (named after Saint Brigid of Ireland who stole her father’s possessions and gave them to the poor, turned a fox into a pet, and prayed to be ugly so no one would marry her). In my teen-aged stories, I wore Doc Martens, smoked Marlboros and wore a black leather jacket. I was fearless and no one dared mess with me. This is how writing saved me. This is how I survived.
The transmutation of lived experience into fiction for further introspective work isn’t uncommon: Sylvia Plath did it in The Bell Jar, Alice Munro in The View from Castle Rock, Carrie Fischer in Postcards from the Edge, Dorothy Allison in Bastard out of Carolina, Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, and Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse—I could go on.
These authors used their personal experiences as seeds for stories, but most of the characters and events were intentionally changed for purposes of a deeper exploration—they separated out their own narrative and used it as part of a larger, more universal story.
Changing point of view also mattered. Switching from first person to third person limited, allowed me to explore fears from a new frame of reference—fears that often paralyzed me—the relentless possibility of a mother’s death, an abusive father lurking in the shadows, a husband’s betrayal, thoughts of madness and suicide, and the dominance of patriarchal culture. Fiction allowed me to explore trajectories different than my own, particularly the impact of being believed and listened to with intent and love.
Best of all, turning to fiction to unlock story allowed me to finally draw closer to my emotional core. I’m not all the way there, probably not even close—that’s lifelong work, but fiction helped me uncover at least two truths, which I cannot write about here without spoiling the book. The bottom line is that opening to the form where words flowed most naturally through my bloodstream led me to the story I most wanted to tell. As Doris Lessing said, in her novel, Under My Skin, “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”