December 26, 2017 § 3 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.”
April 28, 2017 § 15 Comments
Strangely, I’ve had a good amount of good news lately. I say strangely because the negative political energy right now is thick as a skull, and it’s hard to imagine anything good squeezing its way in.
Anyway, in late December my agent called to say we had an offer for my novel, a good offer. From Blackstone. I was thrilled, but enough of me doubted the deal would actually go through, that I just went on about my business. Weeks later this came out in Publishers Weekly:
I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t stop saying holy shit. My husband made a lobster dinner. We drank a great bottle of wine. Tiramisu for dessert. I couldn’t stop smiling. He couldn’t stop smiling. Friends congratulated me on social media. I called my kids. The pride in their voices.
That this could happen.
But then, all I wanted to do was hide.
For some of us, building confidence is no small thing. It can be exhausting really. And if you grew up hearing who do you think you are, if you grew up in a home where calling attention to yourself could get you broken apart broken into, the realization of large scale public exposure is enough to send your body flying to the ER where there’s a nurse who will hold your hand and call you honey and remind you to breathe deep and give you a bunch of little white pills to take home just in case.
I’ve been writing this novel for a long time. Over a decade. Sometimes I tell people it’s because I write slowly—which is partially true. I’m kind of like a haikuist novelist. But the bigger truth is, it’s taken me this long to believe I could handle the reader’s judgments and interpretations of my imagination my mind my body my heart.
My birthday was the day after the Publishers Weekly announcement. March Fourth. Yeah, ha, I was born with a directive: March Forth.
I woke up that day remembering the Publishers Weekly photo. Mouth dry. Cramp in my gut.
I took a long hike along the ocean. The sky a pale gray. March air snapping at my face. A gull pecking at a crab broken on the sand. For some reason I remembered then, how the little girl inside me used to march around the yard of childhood yell-singing The Battle Hymn of The Republic, a stick sword in her hand, yell-singing as a way to safely rage at a mother who used a daughter to rage at a husband, who used his daughter’s body to soothe his rage.
I’ve promised to protect this little girl. I owe her. Putting my book out there and basing a character on her, felt a little like throwing her to the wolves, because you know, people can be, well, cruel. Look at the way the world kills children every single day.
When I arrived back home, my husband handed me an official looking envelope. On the corner it said “Blackstone Publishing.” “Pretty sure that’s your advance,” he said.
I kid you not, the check for the book advance arrived on my birthday.
Too much real all at once. Fear like a large hand covering my mouth and whispering in my ear, Trust me. I won’t hurt you. Trust me.
I sat down hands covering ears.
My beautiful earnest husband, kneeling in front of me saying “Hey. Hey. You know, Gordon (my agent) asked to represent you because he loved your book. And Blackstone offered you a contract because they loved your book. He taps the check. “They believe in you. Big time. And I think maybe you can trust them. And respect their integrity. And also? The integrity of the people who will read it.”
Stopped me in my tracks.
One thing my therapist would often say to me: My wish for you is that someday, you’ll see yourself the way others who love you, see you.
I took the envelope from him. Opened it. The check. The weight of it. The way it looked at me—as if it too, was gauging my worthiness.
“You’ve been writing all your life,” my husband said. “You’ve worked so hard. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. You deserve this. You’re allowed to feel good about it. ”
“So hey, you want to dance?” he said.
I laid the check carefully on the table as if it were glass but not fragile glass more like window glass. Stared through it for a minute, and said, “Hell yeah,”—suddenly knowing bone deep,the safest place for that little girl, was on my shoulders.
December 21, 2016 § 9 Comments
Lately, I’ve been thinking about contemplation and its role in activism. In a period of political urgency, when there’s so much work to be done, how much time can we afford to spend in reflection about what’s working and what’s not?
Can we afford not to give deep consideration to our emotions and motives? Will the lack of contemplation cause us to drop into the very groupthink and confirmation bias that may have been partially responsible for getting us here in the first place? Will it cause us to skim over analysis and critical evaluation because we relish feeling tight and right with those on our side? Is our constant outward participation undermining our confidence and capacity to create new solutions?
Once the election cycle officially began in 2015, like many of you, I spent a significant part of my daily life campaigning, debating, doorbelling, obsessively reading the news, and worrying about people losing their dignity and basic rights. Since the bolt from the blue bombshell of Nov. 8th, I’ve pushed myself fast and hard through the grieving cycle, in order to write senators, participate in protests, sign petitions and research the “facts” of an endless “breaking news” cycle.
But amidst all this external movement, I’ve felt myself neglecting an underlying level of power—the power that grows from taking time to deliberately review what’s going on, and consider my interpretation.
Obviously, during this presidential campaign, social media provided an ample platform for political dialogue, and there’s no denying the value in it, but far too often, when someone bold dared to question a concept, dared to cast doubt, there was an immediate piling on of those on the same team as the original writer, as though we’d all forgotten the best path to truth was to disprove our hypothesis, not prove it.
When I was nineteen, I spent several months teaching in the Havasupai Village in the basin of the Grand Canyon. I met a woman named Maya there. She was a local artist and spiritual instructor with spectacular green eyes and long, disheveled red hair. Her gentle ease and confidence caught my attention immediately. Maya must have seen the sadness and anxiety I carried, because she spoke with me frequently about the power of contemplation. She taught me contemplation was a simple practice, a way of listening and witnessing—of using all the senses as a way to observe self and others without an agenda. “It is not avoidance nor apathy nor naval-gazing,” she said. “Gaze not to improve yourself. Gaze for no particular reason beyond breathing in compassion.” Maya took the art of contemplation even further, saying there was no such thing as a separate self. The self, she said, was yet another construct, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves—while the truth is, we are all residing in the movement of a single heart. She said that even assholes were part of the heart—that they brought issues to the table we’d been avoiding, issues that needed attention and healing, that assholes offered us opportunities to be fearless and face our discomfort. “Take time to contemplate other perspectives,” she said. “And then, proceed with love and strength. And don’t forget this,” she said, opening her arms wide to the lime-green of Havasu Falls, the little bells on her bracelets jingling. “This land. This water. Stay close to this,” she said, “and you will have continual awakening.”
When Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to enforce civil rights laws, a man rejected for confirmation as a federal judge in 1986, after testimony surfaced of him saying the Ku Klux Klan was “Ok, until I found out they smoked pot,” I decided to take a media break.
I retreated to the ocean for some serious soul-searching. For three days I beheld the force and curve and blue of water. I observed without any sentient exertion. And, in and out of breathing ocean, I wrote. I wrote my heart out. I wrote pages and pages about my visceral loathing of Trump and my fury at those who voted for a narcissistic, misogynist racist because they might get a tax cut. I wrote how he stood for everything cruel and violating in my girlhood. I wrote about too many bodies—black, transgender, gay, sexually assaulted bodies dead, immigrants punished, in hiding, in crisis. I wrote about the time in my forties when my ability to cope almost drowned me for real, and how I finally learned that crisis can provide a turning point, a chance to move in a new direction and create a fundamental shift of perspective. I wrote that maybe I read my kids too many fairy tales and too much poetry, when instead maybe I should have taught them to stand up to rubber bullets and water cannons. I wrote about my whiteness and the undeserved privilege of staying comfortable in my little, mostly white town, where I could walk anywhere I wanted without the fear of being threatened because of my skin color.
And then, I wrote terribly uncomfortable things. I wrote about how maybe Trump is the thing that propels us into a tremendous untapped power, because there’s no way we can turn away now, because we’re so woken the fuck up. I mean We. Lost. To. Donald. Trump. What if he, as the identified patient—the one in a dysfunctional family unconsciously selected to act out the family’s inner conflicts; the one who is the split-off carrier of the family disturbance, pushes us to evolve at an extraordinary rate?
Because what if Hillary Clinton had won?
If Hillary Clinton had won, what would we be doing right now? Would we have called five senators before breakfast and be organizing buses for protests on Saturday? Would we be fighting this hard for human rights and economic equality and the uncontrolled abuses of the environment? I’d like to think so, but sadly, I doubt it. Is it possible that this precarious time will finally make us look critically at ourselves? I mean, we can hate on Trump all we want, but jesus, maybe we should also acknowledge our own fuck-ups and confusions and selfish desires? Maybe it’s time we refuse to look away, and work on finding out what’s underneath thousands and thousands of Democrats changing their registration to Republican since the start of 2016? And why 53% of white women voted for Trump? And why 46.6% of our population didn’t even vote?
I’d like to say when I came out of hiding I had some profound new ideas, you know, like constructive alternatives to dismantling the incoming oligarchy, but ha, yeah, no. However, I did surprise myself with one thing. I thought I’d come out calmer, but instead, I came out more outraged—blood-boiling ready to stare the beast down in steel-toed boots, ready to double down on the resist, and do whatever it takes to protect the environment and prevent the vulnerable from being trampled, made invisible. But, it was a centered outrage, not the chaotic, blurred outrage I started out with.
In the midst of the Iraq War, John Sweeny, then President of the AFL-CIO, who sought leadership opportunities for women, people of color, immigrant workers and students, wrote in the Huffington Post; “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Could contemplation be the soul mate to outrage? It’s definitely part of learning to pay attention, to say nothing about how it opens up space for innovative solutions, and dares us to reassess our assumptions, illusions, and avoidances. As for me, water and writing?—ignited an unexpected energy, a potent force that urged me into greater political action than ever before.
Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them. We need to require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
I’m saying it’s kind of essential to take the time to sit alone at the beach, by a river, in a forest, or on a mountain. Fill yourself with the gift that supersedes all—the sacred breathing in of nature. Give yourself that permission. It may be the most necessary step to solving humanity’s sufferings and the most potent step in proceeding forward with engagement, love and strength.
November 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
Last week, after the election, I invited participants in my workshops to write through their strongest emotions during this time. Today, each writer read their responses aloud.
Ache and raw despair.
Honesty, strength and commitment to love.
And the question threading through all: How far would I go to stand up for what I believe?
I walked home in tears—not tears of sadness and trepidation, but tears of thankfulness. Thankfulness in knowing there are so many, many extraordinary people in this world around us.
November 14, 2016 § 3 Comments
Today when I was out walking, a stranger with broken in her eyes, came up to me and thanked me for recommending a book to her—Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. She said it brought her beauty in a hard time. I don’t remember recommending the book to her, but I will remember her kindness for telling me that, and the way her words carried beauty too.
September 22, 2016 § 1 Comment
Fear, anger and uncertainty are escalating, and lately, I find myself caught between extremes of being scared shitless, profoundly sad, and trying to hold onto enough courage to stay present, listen, and take action.
But this I am certain of:
Abusers and misogynists and bigots count on our silence. They count on our fear. In our silence and fear lies their opening for greater intimidation and exploitation.
PLEASE do not allow yourself to be silenced. We have struggled to claim our voices and no one has the right to shame us for having found them. In telling our stories and claiming our voices we’ve had an epic impact in claiming equal rights and will continue to do so until equality holds all our names. Please let us not become divided against ourselves and retaliate with assumptions, combative words and aggressive actions. Please let us go out of our way to help each other and convince each other we are resilient and extraordinary. Please let us stay the course, however uncertain, and raise each other up with gentleness, sensitivity, and love.
PLEASE let us soften, and trust our fundamental goodness.