When a friend of a friend asked me to contribute to a new ‘cyber magazine’, I didn’t really know what one was. I had only just registered for something called a hotmail address and the cyber-world, as it was known then, was being compared to an abstracted library extension. But I was young and preoccupied with my own thoughts and so I wrote a personal piece. The piece was called ‘Sex & the Muse’ and it was illustrated by an aerial shot of me partially naked. The preoccupying thought was a dawning idea that my sexual attraction to male artists, and their seemingly unbounded freedom, was really a type of vicarious love. Did I want to be with them or be them I was asking myself so I wrote about it. Up the piece went and as is the tendency with these things people read it – strangers and friends alike - including an ex. He called to tell me how much the piece had bothered him. Had my attraction to him been like that? He asked why I would make this piece so public, so available for him to read without prior warning. I was shocked and silenced. How naïve, I chided myself later. I had put myself ‘outdoors’, literally naked, exposing him and me in the process. I hadn’t thought about the reaction that someone I cared about might have to something so personal, problematic and true.
I never wrote for that website again and the thought of putting my words out there still makes me feel queasy. I can't say it was my friends’ comments alone that made me cautious. If I had been more aware, I may have had a conversation with him about the article before I had posted it. As the Internet expanded, gorging on our insatiable human need to make ourselves known, my confusion about the responsibility for my own voice has only grown. And somewhere, tugging at my conscience like a hungry child, is the underlying fear that if I expose my words someone might get hurt. There are many writers who admit that contributing to public forums like the Guardian’s Comment Is Free is too bruising an experience. The threat alone of cyber bullying is enough to make the average sensitive writer back away. Thus I am left with a troubling question. If my vocation is to use words to air truths why does the thought of not being liked for it bother me so much?
I'm of Caribbean heritage and respectable Caribbean life pivots around the concept of not ‘telling people your business’. Much is not talked about. Much is not addressed. This behaviour is mirrored in many traditional families especially those which have experienced oppression and persecution. Openness leads to vulnerability and vulnerability is dangerous. Wilful openness, then, is just plain foolish. And while many of us are bred to be suspicious of sharing, a new generation expose themselves with the selective skill of a PR professional. What confusing signals for a writer! Reveal, yes, but only that which presents you in the best possible light.
Virginia Woolf would not be surprised by my Sex & the Muse experience. Writing is much like fishing, she says. We enter a trancelike state, waiting pen in hand, for the water to ripple but, often, before we can land the idea…
Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more.
This describes well the sensation I felt after speaking with my ex. Until then, I had only been intent on finding a language to describe that which my conscious mind had tried to sidestep. The concentration it took to grasp the end of a fragile thread guided only by my curiosity had been fully absorbing. That strange immersive state which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’.
The way our conscious sense of propriety interrupts our flow is one of the ghosts that must be killed before we can truly free our voice suggests Woolf. The other, she calls The Angel in the Home. Today we might know her as our Good Girl and she sounds a little like this:
My dear, you are a young woman….Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.
Woolf had an innate sense of survival and a £500 a year trust fund which meant, she admits, that she didn’t have to rely on her charm for survival, so she did what any committed artist should do – she attempted murder:
I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.
The essay, in which she describes this process, Professions For Women, was written in 1931 and much has changed since then. However our inbred desire to belong has not and that’s what both of these plaguing ghosts represent. Convention provides us with a safe comfort zone. Within it we know the rules, how things fit together and our place within the matrix. It represents conditional love, for as long as we abide by certain regulations we are guaranteed it.
However we know it is the stories that interrupt our cosy picture of ourselves that move us the most and it is those stories we are most compelled to tell. So how can I, and coaching clients that speak of the same tension, over-ride this innate pull to belong in order to liberate our tongues? One singer-songwriter client described this tension in food terms. Usually she only lays out her veg and potatoes, she metaphorically described. If she presented her full rich banquet, she feared, she would prove indigestible.
It made me think of a workshop I attended with the feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. We were twenty strong anti-patriarchs desperate to impress this visionary with our commitment to the cause. We spoke in epithets and presented example upon example of how women are spanked by the hand of patriarchy. El Saadawi halted our rhetoric by fixing us with a characteristic mischievous eye and throwing down a challenge. "Tonight write about your own private shame and come prepared to read it aloud to the group tomorrow. For it is not until we face our own ability to oppress will we truly understand patriarchy.”
Turn upon your own ghosts and grab them by the throat, she dared.
The next day I decided to go first. If I didn’t I might be tempted to not go at all. I read the group a story about being a child ashamed of my own skin colour because it set me apart from my mainly white school friends. I paused and was surprised. Telling that truth aloud wasn’t as difficult as I had expected it to be. Maybe because Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye had articulated that shame better than I ever could. Her tongue had freed my own. The surprise came when I began to tell my second story. My voice began to tremble and my breathing laboured. There was a girl who had been poorer and slower than most of us at school and so, inevitably, was the target of ritualistic bullying. I’ll call her Lisa. Every morning, Lisa walked past my house and I’d watch her from the kitchen window feeling drawn toward her isolated figure. So I began leaving my house when I saw her pass. I’d fall into step beside her and we’d chat happily on our way to school. Soon though my growing friendship with Lisa threatened to set me apart too, even more than I already felt. Those jibes usually reserved for her alone began to come my way too. So one day in PE when the others started in on her, I swallowed my sense of betrayal and joined in too. Just before Lisa fled the changing rooms, her horrified eyes caught mine and she left me with the haunting words: “Gaylene how could you?”
When I finished reading my story I was visibly shaking. It was as if I’d just left that gym a few minutes before. I felt mortified, ashamed and a deep sorrow for the girl and also our story that I had wilfully put an end to due to my own cowardice.
As human beings we are programmed to respond to truths that resonate - the deeper the resonance for the teller, the deeper the effect on the listener. My childhood identity issues, which I’ve faced, addressed and worked through, wasn’t the story that connected us as a group that day. It was the story I had chosen to bury the deepest. I watched as my workshop-mates, one by one, stood and offered their own stories of oppression and, this time, not the ones where they had been the victims.
I cannot change what I did to Lisa that day in the changing rooms but telling our story goes someway to release us both from the memory of it. Magically it also created an intimate connection with those of us present at the telling.
Writing and sharing my work has changed my definition of what love and belonging actually means. I now understand that a transformative love is not a conditional transaction based on our righteous performance of perfection but a mutual respect and recognition of our tender flawed experiences.
Vulnerability, describes Brene Brown, the celebrated studier of the state, is the combination of truth and courage. There is no courage without vulnerability, she believes. You have to place yourself outside your zone of comfort, the space where fear, risk and revelation lies, in order to experience it.
Poet David Whyte in The Three Marriages, a book that re-imagines our relationship to love, writes that vulnerability is in fact the gateway to it.
We have the same strange idea in work as we do in love: that we will engender love, loyalty and admiration in others by exhibiting a great sense of power and competency. We are surprised to find that we garner fear and respect but forgo the other, more intimate magic. Real, undying loyalty in work can never be legislated or coerced; it is based on a courageous vulnerability that invites others by our example to a frontier conversation whose outcome is yet in doubt.
Think about those writers whose works endure and to whom we are most loyal - bell hooks, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, Junot Diaz. Such writers have won hard their reputation because they have opened up a frontier conversation within us. They have invited, cajoled, demanded that we meet aspects of our more conflicted selves. Not only does this mark the strength of their literary hand but reveals a true courage because, before they could ferry us, they had to travel to that frontier first and alone.
In another example, it was only when the singer-songwriter began to include in her songs that experience of feeling too much, too rich, too full for the world about her, did she find her voice freed. Rather than hiding from it, she lyrically grabbed her ghost by the throat.
Audre Lorde the Queen of Speaking Truth said:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood….And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
If we permit ourselves, writing can connect us in the most intimate way to the most vulnerable part of what makes us human. But we need to give ourselves the permission. We need to love our own eccentricities, flaws and brilliance as compassionately as we love those of our characters. We need to have the courage to accept that, as writers, it is our job to shine light on our most tender of places and understand that while our words maybe too sore for some, they will free the tongues of others. As the saying goes, it’s all love.
Thanks to Julia Bell for introducing me to the amazing Professions for Women essay.
Interior Dialogues is being developed as a book and coaching series. If you would like to be added to the mailing list to find out more email Gaylene@writetalklisten.com.