September 9, 2018 § 18 Comments
I step up to the microphone. There’s an audience of maybe thirty people here to listen to me read from, and talk about my first novel, The Night Child. Sometimes there are more, sometimes fewer. Once there were only three people and one was my husband, and the other two were booksellers.
I fumble with the microphone. I always fumble with the microphone. I hate the shape of them and how I can never get them to be where they need to be.
Hours before every event, I believe I won’t be able to speak—like seriously not be able to form words, which is a little strange because I’ve been a teacher for decades, and I’ve rarely had this kind of anxiety. But topics in The Night Child are personal and talking about them to strangers has tested me in all the ways.
To draw closer to calm, I tell myself things like: be brave for the child within, be brave for all those bright, imaginative, inventive children hiding under beds every night hoping no one will hurt them again.
Once the microphone is steady, I welcome everyone, thank them for coming, and somehow, I deliver enough of the words I’d hoped to say, even though I sometimes stammer and feel slightly dissociative the entire time. I tell them about the origin of the novel, and why I chose to write my story as a novel instead of a memoir. I’ve written about that here:
But then comes the scary part—the Q&A.
I told my therapist before I left for the book tour how much I dreaded the Q&A, not because of questions about writing or publishing, but because of the questions about the book. The themes.
“You’re in charge,” he says. “You can skip it. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
But in the end, I couldn’t skip the Q&A’s—because, I don’t know—it seemed like I’d be letting the children down, and I don’t know how to change things if we don’t talk about them.
From the audience, a young woman in the second row raises her hand.
“Anna, you said your book was informed by your own life. So…was it…was it…hard to write?”
Her black hair falls across her face, but even from here, I can see the sad in her eyes.
I tell her yes, it was hard. Sometimes, excruciating. But not writing about it was worse. I’d fallen in love with the characters—Nora, Fiona, Margaret and Elizabeth, and I so badly wanted to give them a voice. To have them finally heard.
The young woman has a follow-up question:
“Was it…ummm…was it hard to tell people? You know, when you told people what happened to you? I mean, it just seems like, well…that sometimes it’s harder to tell a secret than to keep it?”
I am asked this question at almost every event. In one form or another. I’ve received hundreds of emails asking this question. I know people need to know things turned out ok when I told, I know they want to know that if they tell, they’ll be okay. I know because I’d asked myself this question millions of times before I finally spoke out.
I tell her that the truth is I don’t know if she’ll be okay. I don’t know if her loved ones will stay with her. I don’t know if breaking silences will save another child from being hurt, will keep another child from holding in a horrible secret. In my gut, I think it will, but I don’t know.
But I do know that breaking the silence changed me, in a way I’m still reflecting on—it’s a good way, a strong way—a way that’s allowed me to love better and more expansively. Allowed me an authenticity I’ve never before experienced. Without sounding too corny, I felt kind of new.
Also, breaking the silence allowed me to place the shame where it belonged—with him.
I say that breaking the silence was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my entire life. Breaking the silence meant inviting the possibility I wouldn’t be believed, or I’d lose people I cared about, or I’d be shunned, called a liar, called crazy, dismissed, disappeared.
Some of my fears came true. I did lose people I cared about. Some couldn’t forgive me. Some worked hard to discredit me, some turned away—people I would have bet my heart on, wouldn’t have turned away. But they did. We weren’t able to find the healing language, and so we had to leave each other.
Thankfully, I had people who believed me, who believed in me, but I think every day of survivors without support systems. Every. single. day. I want to work to change that.
The young woman’s eyes fill with tears as I speak.
In her eyes, I see a hero. She sends me a tremble smile and I send her one back. In my heart, I wish her all the light, all the strength.
A woman with white curly hair, and a gentleness in her eyes raises her hand.
“Anna, you’ve been out on the road for months. What’s it like to talk about abuse over and over and over again?”
I tell her that I try to speak from the lens of healing rather than the lens of abuse, and that overall, it’s been an extraordinary experience, a positive one, that talking about Nora’s story, my story, has been a good thing.
Which was true.
Except when it wasn’t.
I tell her I thought I was prepared for it all, the talking about it, people listening, people taking me seriously, but I kind of wasn’t.
Before publication and the launch and the tour, I’d spoken with other authors about what to expect when you send a book out in the world, let alone one that contains painful personal subjects. I’d felt geared up, psyched, ready. I knew to avoid reading reviews and following rankings and “best of” lists. I believed I had strong coping skills— I was prepared to create safe spaces wherever I went. Diagnosed with PTSD from childhood sexual abuse decades ago, I knew my triggers, my strategies. I knew to go directly to my hotel room after each reading and have a quiet dinner (preferably something that involved pasta and wine, and maybe brownie a la mode) with my husband, and read poetry in a place where I could lock the door and feel my boundaries again.
I was all set.
And the truth is, I was fine most of the time.
But then, sometimes, once I was back in the hotel room, I wasn’t fine. I was wrecked. Sometimes I couldn’t stop crying. Sometimes I’d numb out. I’d have nightmares and wake up, screaming.
In another audience, an older man in a black tee shirt and jeans raises his hand.
“Hi Anna. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to thank you for your book. Watching Nora navigate adversity…tremendous adversity…well…it helped me. And some of the topics turned into family conversations about how we talk about difficult topics. Also, I think what happened in your ending is probably the hardest thing for any of us to do. Anyway.” He folds his hands in prayer over his heart.
I bring my hands together too, and send gratitude back to him.
A woman in a flowered sundress and dreadlocks wrapped up in a bun, says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about why Nora’s mother didn’t protect her. I mean, I grew up in that sort of family, you know where the patriarchy is set up from the start, where the men can’t be wrong, so you must be…” She hesitates while we wait for the rest.“ That’s all,” she says, choking on her words. “I…I…just wanted to say you can’t really underestimate the power of patriarchy.”
I might have said, more than once to audiences this past year, we need to smash the patriarchy and smash it fucking hard.
In another audience, a young woman asks, “Anna, I’m curious, how do you handle all the reviews?”
I say I try not to read them, because they hurt my health and creativity, but the truth is, sometimes I do read them and I begin to feel like that woman, Lacie, in the Nosedive episode of the Black Mirror series—the episode where everything Lacie does, every action she takes is scrutinized and rated from 1.0 to 5.0.
Many of The Night Child reviews are insightful and beautiful, but a few are cruel, and those reviews sometimes cut my heart and I can bleed for days because I’ve not yet learned to shrug them off. And when I say “cruel” reviews, I’m not talking about constructive commentary, I’m talking about harsh things you’d never say to someone’s face unless you truly were an asshole.
Cruel reviews make me recommit over and over again to kindness. There’s enough hurtful energy in our world and I’m going to try not to add to it. Also, the last thing I want to do is be part of someone else feeling insecure or defeated about creating art.
Sometimes, I read this quote by author Janet Frame:
“…a writer must stand on the rock of herself and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth: there must be an inviolate place where the choices, however imperfect, are the writer’s own…what was the use of my having survived as a person if I could not maintain my own judgment?”
A young woman with a guitar leaning against her chair, and tattoos up and down both arms, raises her hand.
“Hi Anna. Without spoiling anything, I just want to say how much I loved David, (the therapist) and James (the brother) and John (Nora’s friend). I loved the things they said—you know, that they didn’t just tell her to let it go, you know?”
She sits down abruptly, stares at her Doc Martens.
For a moment, my brain flips into the intellectual part—the part that understands traumatic experiences are encoded in our brain—the part that makes it nearly impossible to let it go.
But then I see the way the young woman is looking at me now, her watery eyes, and my brain flips to the emotional part, which isn’t hard, because let it go is a trigger phrase for me. After taking a huge breath or two, I say, “Yeah, sometimes people who say let it go are well intentioned? but mostly it’s a silencing thing—they need you to let it go so they can be comfortable again—it’s part of the argument invested in keeping us quiet. It was part of keeping Nora quiet. And Maeve. And Margaret. And Elizabeth. And millions of woman before them. Listen, who doesn’t want to move forward with their lives? Recovering from trauma can be extremely fucking hard. And childhood sexual violation?”
Now, my eyes begin to fill. My eyes always fill when I say childhood and sexual violation in the same sentence. “That kind of violation runs soul deep. Not everyone makes it. There were times when I didn’t think I would. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let it go. I’m learning to manage, that’s all.”
The young woman is sitting so still. I worry I’ve said too much. The wrong things. I look at her guitar. Wonder what music she plays. If she sings. What she sings about. Someone in the audience coughs and I realize I need to wipe my eyes, and say something. Eventually, I say, “All I know is to take all the time you need—no matter how long it takes. There are no short cuts. Everyone’s trauma experience is different. Surround yourself with people who understand you, who listen, who would never say you are broken, or damaged, or a liar, or crazy.”
She nods, whispers thank you.
A woman who has been knitting the entire time, raises a silver needle and asks, “Anna, you mentioned advice your author friends gave you…can you share something with us?”
I will be forever grateful for the support and wisdom of my writing tribe. Forever. Grateful. Someday, I want to write all their words in one place. During all these events though, there’s one piece of advice I’ve repeated to myself often. It’s from my dear friend, Rikki Ducornet. Right before I left on the tour she took my hands, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Anna, trust your story will take care of you, like you have taken such deep care of it.”
And the truth is, she was right. Even when I broke apart, forgot shame wasn’t mine, wondered if I could go on, I could feel my story—built upon thousands and thousands of other survivor stories—had wings strong enough to carry the all of me back into safety, and with any luck, carry another child too.
December 26, 2017 § 6 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.”
July 21, 2015 § 22 Comments
When I first laid bare my personal writing in workshops, I puked before and after each meeting. I’m not talking about exposing my nature poems or opinions on the current state of education—I’m talking about writing with a truth stake driven through its heart.
I puked before the meeting, because I had no idea how the other writers would respond, no idea if they’d appreciate, reject, ridicule or judge. I puked afterward, (even if the critique was good, maybe even more so) because in some weird way, I felt I’d betrayed self, stopped protecting self—I’d allowed the dangerous, naive part of me to dance naked in the streets, arms open, face lit with desire and possibility—I’d unlocked the door of the safe house, knowing she’d run out, knowing she’d get hurt.
And when I signed with an agent to sell my novel?—the story of disrupted identity and power imbalances that might cause people to speculate about who the main character really was, I puked for three days straight.
My therapist told me puking was to be expected. Apparently, I was tearing apart some pretty hard-ass wiring. Apparently, it wasn’t the dangerous, naive part of me dancing naked, it was inner warrior woman, and like pupae ripping from industrial strength thread and bursting through membrane, discomfort was inescapable.
“You’re creating a new person,” he’d say. “You’re acting as if you are worthy. That’s no small thing.” He’d pass me Kleenex, shake his head and say things like, “The dangerous part of you isn’t naked woman or warrior woman. The dangerous part of you is underground veiled woman.”
He encouraged me to continue putting my voice out there—to say what I felt like saying, in the way I felt like saying it. To consider vulnerability as strength. To trust more. To say “fuck it” to anyone who thrived on tearing down, rather than firing up. To tell myself, “Your voice is beautiful.”
And so. With each new page of writing I exposed for review in groups, with each essay and social media post I didn’t delete, each time I said, “Fuck it,” and “Your voice is beautiful,” I felt less susceptible to harm. I began to taste, feel and smell the intoxication of a sturdier more resilient infrastructure. And as corny as it sounds, I felt different, in a sacred kind of way.
There are still plenty of days I worry about what people think, and my sentences crumple to dust and blow away before I can grab them and hide them under the bed. And there are nights I fail to believe I’m more than a story, rating or ‘like’, and lay awake in a hot sweat, cheeks wet with doubt and shame.
I will never again underestimate the power of saying fuck it and your words are beautiful—because it feels like something wrong is slowly being righted.
June 9, 2015 § 19 Comments
My husband and I own a little tugboat, named Annabelle, and no, we didn’t name her, she came that way—which was both swell and uncomfortable at the same time, but there we were. Our idea is to someday live on her, or come the revolution, fly to another world aboard her, but for now she’s an intermission between work, crusades, and expectations—a vessel assist—a way to resuscitate what almost died (or did die) during the week.
Also, for me? She is more than this. Annabelle is my writing space. I am convinced my best writing emerges within her hold. Maybe it’s the rocking cradle of her, the perpetual smell of diesel, the oil lamps flickering gold. Maybe it’s floating in salt water, the dead internet, the cognac—I don’t know, but tucked into her, I achieve a fusing of mind and body, and words rush like blood from a deep cut.
Annabelle’s home moorage is adjacent to a boatyard. The shipwrights begin work roughly at dawn, arriving with coffees and lunchboxes and a camaraderie I envy. As they begin to labor, the reliable vibrations of pound cut drill grind sand pound drill cut grind sand, makes me want to build something too.
And so I write.
I want to mention now, this about the boatyard: a hundred yards away, shipwrights are overhauling the Western Flyer, Steinbeck’s science expedition boat. I’m not going to get into why the Western Flyer is here in this particular boatyard (Google “Port Townsend and Western Flyer”) but shipwrights are transforming her into an educational vessel. When I think about all the kids who will tromp aboard this seventy-six foot ship and disentangle their hypnotized eyes from cell phones, while they interact viscerally, and absorb the stories and ghosts within her timbers, I feel hopeful that at least one of them will disembark trembling with epiphany.
I slip away to Annabelle often, and write until there’s somewhere else I need to be. Sometimes I stay overnight on her, alone, covered in piles of flannel and quilts, watching the stars through the skylight, imagining I’m a long way out to sea, close to the answers, and far away from the fucked up civilization shit. I’ll allow sentimental thoughts and listen to sailboat wires twang against metal masts, each rigging another pulsating tone in the symphony. I’ll hear the man who lives on the boat next to us, as he tramps down the ramp each night—around midnight or so, and greets his cat—always in the same way, “Well Cap, time for a nice glass of gin wouldn’t you say?” Later, I’ll listen to the rattling of ice in his glass as he sits on his aft deck, the cat occasionally meowing.
And now, as I write in Annabelle’s salon, the wind at a stand-still, Annabelle soft-breathing, I look out the small windows to the hushed gray water and whisper all the lover things—thank you, forgive me, I can’t make any promises, I love you.
“Yes,” she whispers back. “I know.”