Last year when I was still at uni, a group of us did a presentation on Writing as Therapy as part of an assignment. We talked about how we made sense of the world through writing, and covered themes such as the process of writing sometimes being a cathartic one.*
I’ve had cause to think about writing and catharsis over the past few weeks because I’ve written a piece of memoir.
I wrote it largely because Fish Publishing now have a memoir segment as part of their annual competition and I want to enter, but also because this particular incident was troubling me. Has been troubling me for some time. It happened when I was seventeen and to a large extent I’d pushed it to the back of beyond for many years, but for some reason – maybe because I am growing old – I’ve been thinking about it again.
I admit that I had no idea how to handle it. I thought about talking to the people involved, but they are elderly now and they’re very dear to me and I don’t want to upset them. They’ve never known the extent of the damage of that day, because they weren’t there, and the two people who were, myself and one other, lied about it at the time. Not so much lied as pretended everything had been rosy, when it had not. I also have a fear that they will see my wanting to talk it through as an indulgence on my part. This obsession we have with ourselves and our lives (memoir writing, autobiography, Facebook, Twitter, blogging) is only fairly recent, and they’re from the generation where you don’t talk about troubling things, you’re stoic and you soldier on.
Writing about it seemed a good way to get it out into the open, to prod it and see whether – after all this time – there were extenuating circumstances. I realise now that I’ve not only wanted to write about it for some time, but I needed to write about it, and the Fish competition was the necessary incentive. Thank you, Fish.
I covered memoir writing in uni last year, and read Joan Didion’s wonderful The Year of Magical Thinking as part of that unit, and I submitted an assignment and did well, so I thought I was prepared, that I knew how to go about this.
Well, I was wrong. I wasn’t prepared. In my first attempt – my first draft – I was in the story, but I wasn’t the narrator. I’ll repeat that in case you didn’t get it: I wasn’t the narrator in a piece of memoir. Well, yes, I know. What was I trying to accomplish? I think I was trying to pretend I wasn’t there. I also had a cast of not thousands but at least ten, as if they could cover up for me, as if they could somehow block out the fact of my participation.
You see, it’s not a pretty story. I behave badly. I was young and immature and I didn’t know any better. In my opinion some adults in the story behave badly, too, by putting me in a position that I wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t able to cope with. But I won't go there today.
Fairly recently, I’ve acquired a good – and becoming dear – writing friend who was brave enough to point out the flaws in that first draft and offer constructive criticism. If I didn’t have that feedback and her encouragement I doubt whether I would have gone any further. I sure wasn’t having any fun.
When I started the second draft I began all over again. That’s a first for me. I don’t think I’ve ever done that; I always work from a first draft. I guess that’s an indication of how bad it was. I’m now at a point, however, where I am fairly happy with the piece. Happy not being an appropriate word because it’s not a happy tale. If it should do well in the Fish competition you will hear about it here. I might even bring myself to put out an excerpt.
I think I’ve proved that writing can be therapeutic. I’ve let go and am ready, not to forget, but to forgive. I think I’ve forgiven myself. I think that was what it was all about, forgiving myself.
The other thing of equal importance is that I owe my writing friend who was unflinchingly honest and so positive and who held my hand throughout this ordeal, an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank you, Andrea.
* In my case, I discussed interpreting travel through writing. Earlier in the year one of my lecturers, who has a blog called Are my feet in the way? – he’s very tall – had kindly published a piece of mine called Letter from Cape Town. You can read it here.