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.
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.
June 13, 2016 § 8 Comments
(in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, Sunday morning, June 12th, 2016)
This is who we are:
WE are thousands lined up to give our blood to the wounded.
WE are first responders, grief counselors, doctors, nurses and friends who carried dying friends and lovers out of a bloody nightclub.
WE are millions of human beings who cried and screamed and raged and hugged and spoke up yesterday as if we’d lost our own children, friends and lovers.
We are millions who love our LGBTQ sons and daughters and friends and lovers fiercely and don’t you dare hurt them again.
WE are the president who declares WE WILL STAND TOGETHER IN SOLIDARITY, NO MATTER RACE, GENDER, RELIGION OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION.
WE are millions who are profoundly sorry we didn’t’ wake up sooner, who are only now recognizing the sleep in our privilege, the blood on our own hands.
We are millions signing petitions, calling legislators, voting, protesting, writing, painting, filming, creating, and speaking up to stop the bleeding.
WE are millions who won’t stop loving each other hard, until everyone is safe and sound.
We are survivors desperately trying to find a language that might somehow bring us all a little closer together.
THIS IS WHO WE ARE. -anna
March 30, 2016 § 2 Comments
trust your writing.
even if you don’t want to go there
even if you don’t know where the beginning is
or the middle or the end
even if it’s hard
because there will be days
when it’s fucking hard
that thing you want to censor?
that’s where your art lives
writing is a a powerful thing
allow it to take you somewhere
allow it to care for you
trust your writing.
November 24, 2015 § 7 Comments
I’ve been a hot dog vendor, a shoe salesperson, a middle-school teacher, and a catholic school principal, but owning a bookstore has given me moments with the most eclectic tribe of humans of all.
There’s the crime scene cleaner who talked to me about the delicate line between detachment and sensitivity while I rang up her pile of fantasy books,
and the human statue who paints himself silver by day and writes poetry by night,
and the teen girl who builds wells in Uganda every summer and keeps a journal in her back pocket.
There’s the molecular gastronomist who began her career as an ice-cream tester (gah!),
the organic farmer who lives in a school bus and donates her harvest to a food kitchen,
the six-year old botany expert who arrives each month to buy the latest plant book,
and the bingo manager who fights for housing equality.
There’s the Iraq soldier without arms who still believes the world is ‘awesome’ and before he goes to college next year he wants to read one book every week,
and the father who resolved in 2015 to read to his children every night and hasn’t missed a night yet.
There’s the 14-year old playwright who had her script about a transgender teen accepted by a local theater,
and the grandfather who brings his six grandchildren into the bookstore each year and gives each one a book bag to fill with books of their choice,
and the locomotive engineer who doesn’t wear a watch.
There’s the eleven-year old who organized a youth empowerment book club,
the soil conservationist who fell in love with a snail farmer,
and a photographer who films sea creatures I’ve never heard of,
and the twenty-two year old man, who chose to communicate only through writing for 365 days and when we met, he was on day 224 and feeling like his entire mind and body had changed—in a sacred way.
There’s the child who sat by me for an entire hour and told me about the rare birds she’d seen in Puerto Rico and how someday she’ll be an ornithologist,
and the clown who struggled to be taken seriously,
and the firefighter who worked at ground-zero for three months and read Emily Dickinson every night she was there…
so many stories…
and I am beyond grateful for every single one of them, and each of you. Your words matter more than you know. Thank you from the depths of my heart for walking into our tiny bookstore and believing in books and making the world we work and play in a little less chaotic and a little more beautiful.