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.”
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.”