Being present in your own writing
My exceedingly talented former classmate Richard Gilbert got me thinking, after reading his blog post “The leverage of persona in memoir” on his blog Narrative, about the role of the writer in writing. Memoir is currently really the only genre that allows the writer to make himself/herself present, although the Internet and blogs have certainly opened new doors in that respect in journalism and fiction. As Richard argues, and I would agree, the most compelling memoir has the perspective of the writer as the person sitting at his/her desk moving fingers across the keyboard, along with the perspective of the memoir’s “character” or the manifestation of the writer that is the subject of the memoir. For me, in my book Safe Haven, this has been a constant struggle – partially because I started out writing the book not as a memoir but as a work of narrative journalism. Now, the book is a hybrid of narrative journalism – telling the stories of three women who came to the House of Ruth in Baltimore to flee horrific abuse – and memoir – telling my story as a teen victim of domestic abuse.
The memoir piece has been a struggle for me largely because one of the keystones of surviving domestic abuse is “disassociation,” which basically means that you separate yourself from what is happening to you and form another consciousness. For me, this went so far as to suppress some of the more traumatic events to the point that I forgot they even happened, in a few cases lasting long after I escaped the abuse. Thus prying out the details from my consciousness – remembering the feelings and fear – goes against the instinct to survive. Yet in so many ways it is a necessary part of moving beyond. Which is how I find myself, 16 years after the fact, reliving events that happened to me, sometimes, as if for the first time.