For years I sat at my desk, and without thought, would write stories that popped out, quasi folk tales that wrote themselves with no prior planning. Sometimes they were long—10-15 pages—I couldn’t stop writing until the story was finished. The problem was: every story contained some form of murderous violence against a child or woman, often sexual, sometimes incest. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t write a story without abuse. I never showed anyone the stories because I was ashamed and embarrassed that I was a “one trick pony,” unable to write more than one theme.
Then, one day, an ex-boyfriend who’d lied to me about having a girlfriend while we were living together, called to ask for a favor. He was openly happy about his new life while I was still suffering. I don’t know if I would have done the favor had I been able, but I was leaving to teach in London the next day so I said no. When we hung up, instead of heading to my bed and going under the covers to tell myself a comforting story, which was my usual response to feeling bad, I went to my desk and with no thought, typed in the words, “Birth of The Storyteller.” I then wrote twelve pages about a young woman who has no name, who is told she is a storyteller and must carry on the family heritage by telling the stories of her grandfather, a renowned storyteller. After her parents die, she leaves her village and begins walking. I had no idea then, and have no explanation now, why I typed in the words, “Birth of The Storyteller,” or how the story emerged. Even at the time I was astonished at what came out, especially because what I wrote had no connection to the conversation with my ex-boyfriend.
And yet, about a week later, after a fierce argument with my mother, I sat down and typed, “The Well,” a popping out story about how Ninan, the young woman now has a name she’s chosen, helps a village find and recover a well, long lost, but remembered in stories told by older villagers. Once again, the story wrote itself with no connection to what had just happened or my anger at my mother’s oppression. I was bewildered by the process that ensued with no consciousness on my part. Now, when I think about how the stories wrote themselves, I’m still puzzled.
After a few more chapters, each emerging after a difficult encounter, I realized there was a narrative and Ninan was the main character, but none of the writing was intentional and I never consciously sat down to write any of the chapters. At the time, I was writing and directing plays for children, teaching, in a bad relationship with a man, and dealing with a difficult work situation. Perhaps writing these stories as I did, served to release some of the pressure and stress, but I don’t know, and can’t explain, how or why the writing happened. The whole experience was and is, mysterious.
At the time, I was seeing a Jungian therapist who became visibly concerned about me as I showed him more of what I was writing. “Nancy,” he said, “it feels as if your character is moving in a tightening spiral with no place to go.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not going back,” even though I had no idea what going back meant.
“You could move the spiral up and out to give Ninan more possibilities.”
Once again I had no idea what he meant, nor could he explain a way to do this. How was I supposed to move a spiral I didn’t understand, up and out, or write consciously the stories that had been popping out. When I tried to create a story, it was as if the curtain came down and the play, stopped. I had to learn to visualize Ninan walking and “allow” the story to unfold, but even so, although the stories that followed didn’t exactly pop out, I didn’t plan what to write. I learned to trust the theatre in my head, that the story would emerge. The last chapter in the novel, "A Woman Walking”, was the only chapter where I knew the story I needed to tell, as well as the story within it that Ninan needed to tell. Although the novel was written as a folktale, in a time long ago and a place far away, none of the chapters deals with situations or feelings I recognized as mine, yet each chapter seemed to eased mental anguish in ways I couldn’t have predicted and didn’t understand—then or now.
Shortly after finishing a solid draft of the novel, my hands began to shake. Someone looking at me might well have thought I had the DTs, but I don’t drink. My Jungian therapist told me something wanted to come out, that I needed to write about it. I poo-pooed this and was even more judgmental about his saying I needed to begin by writing: I forgive myself. I countered his suggestion. “Why do I have to forgive myself? I haven’t hurt anyone or committed a crime.” He gently repeated his suggestion while I shrugged it off.
The shaking got worse. One day a friend came over for tea, but my hands shook so badly she had to carry the tea cups to the table. I was terrified, wondering if I had a neurological disease. After she left, remembering what the therapist had said, I sat down at my typewriter and started to write, beginning with: I forgive myself. No title. No fairy tales. What came out were four perfectly typed, single-spaced pages about living away from home when I was four. After I finished writing I noticed the shaking had stopped.
When I showed what I’d written to my therapist, he asked me to read it to him as I usually did. “I’m not reading this,” I said. “I don’t even know what it is. You want to read it, you read it.” As he read, I watched his face. The lines grew deeper, the intensity of his obvious concern unnerved me.
“Nancy, this is your life. It’s real. It’s not fiction. And, did you realize that for the first two paragraphs you wrote, I, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt—but in the third paragraph you write, the child, the mother, the father, the uncle, the aunt.”
I didn’t realize I’d done it. The writing had just poured out. “So what?” I asked.
“It’s dissociation. You’ve separated yourself from your story, from your life.”
It took until I was 80, doing the vision quest, to begin the process of re-association. Now I know that it took as long as it did to reconnect because I couldn’t emotionally accept that what happened to me really happened. Given my parents’ denial and lying, my father’s and mother’s family refusal to help or acknowledge the violence and abuse with which I lived, and the blame and shame heaped upon me, I took refuge in silence and disconnection for which I paid a high price—believing myself to be unlovable, choosing abusers as partners, living with a catastrophic illness, unable to stand up for myself in too many relationships.
Finding the wherewithal to acknowledge the depth and horror of the trauma I experienced made it possible for me to begin healing, to stop pretending, to dissolve the persona I’d created to feel safe, and to be the person I am, rather than the person I thought I needed to be.
Are there life stories you’re unable to tell? If so, what would it take for you to tell them? To whom might you tell them? What affects your decision?
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Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.