April 8, 2017

The Novice Writer’s Quandary.

The lodgepole pines groaned as they swayed overhead. 

“He raped me, and you must tell that part of the story,” she whispered. My heart clenched, and my legs froze in place on the narrow wooded path. Once again her beloved and youthful voice wove through the forest, imploring, “He raped me. Write about it.”

We’ve all heard the advice—write what you know.

I do not know rape. I fear it, but I do not know it. Even as a mental health professional, I can scarcely begin to understand the dark glassy hole of shame and terror which is sexual violation. I’ve strained to do so, but there is no reaching across the gap of understanding between myself and those whose bodies have hovered in endless moments of utter defenselessness.

There is no grasping how the mind processes, sorts, and digests the inconceivable sensations of violation. There are no words to express how it feels when the spirit crumples and tucks itself into a darkened corner refusing to come out until it is safe months, years…lifetimes down the road.

Hearing even one single heart-rending story of sexual assault is far too many. I have bore witness to hundreds, and the sorrow does not calcify. Inevitably, my regret-sodden heart knuckles under, knowing I cannot reverse time and take it all away.

And so, as I walked through the woods and heard the shimmering insistence of my protagonist, I responded, “Don’t ask me to do that. Don’t.”

The cement of my resistance was manifold. It reached beyond not having the experience of sexual assault marring the pages of my intimate history. My doubt dragged in my embryonic skills as a writer. How dare I think myself capable of giving adequate literary witness to unimaginable torment.

As I wrestled with my slippery sense of inadequacy, I also felt a bristling of protectiveness. Vigilance for all the women who have pulled back scar tissue to uncover the raw depths of their wounds to me. And for the first time in my burgeoning writer’s life, I felt what seasoned authors may know well—a palpable attachment to my fictional character.

Suddenly, there was a ferocious need somewhere inside of me to hunch over this beloved and imagined young woman and deflect the driving icepick of shame. How could I expose her—tell her story? She was given to me as a diaphanous gift, and it was my intention to fill her with lightness and magic. Not willfully shred her spirit.

Eyes clenched, I shook my head in defiance. I refused to write what she asked, claiming inexperience on all levels. But soon my eyes fluttered open only to see my hand clamped over my darling’s mouth in an effort to “protect” her. I was perpetuating the silence society finds comforting when it comes to sexual assault.

“There is no protection in silence. Only isolation,” I heard her say.

Writing her rape scene was gruelling. Exhausting. Humbling. A blessing. It required stillness and flawless listening. It pushed and stretched the edges of my patience as we walked miles through the trees. When she needed cooling, we sat with our feet in the stream. When she spoke, it was only in shimmering barely audible whispers. I tearfully transcribed what others would only hear as the wind through the pines.

Pouring over the words, the sentences, and the paragraphs of this tender chunk of the novel, I am not satisfied. No one with a heart should be smug about their assemblage words to describe the desecration of innocence. But my beloved finally fell silent of her own accord. And the collective emotional voice of the women I have held inside for years has fallen from the roar of a hurricane to the weeping of a gentle rain.

Despite my darling’s affirming silence, the caustic voice of my inner mud-slinger still calls out and cajoles: What of writing what you know? Are you thumbing your young writer’s nose at what real authors exhort as literary truth? Bah!

My response to all the tedious insecurities is simple. I am a new writer. I am not a new compassionate being. There is a voice of wisdom I have heard often enough to trust as I sit with those who suffer, and it speaks gently of what needs to be said in moments of great anguish. And the longer I stand in knowing this voice, the surer I become that a portion, great or small, of what is written does not come from explicit or implicit memory, the pages of history or a Google search. Rather some collective wisdom chooses us, our style, our passion, our voice as the scribe.

We simply must agree. And agree. And agree.

Author: Melanie Maure

Image: Marko Milošević/Flickr 

Editor: Lieselle Davidson

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