The feelings are intense and unexpected; the crushing grief, pain and longing. And rising beside it, equally unexpected, is a voice that refuses to be repressed: words, sentences and whole paragraphs form in my head as I rush to gather my laptop and exit the house. I’m well and truly on my way to an old haunt to write before the logic part of my brain can catch up and say: you don’t write from emotional anguish.
My logic brain needs a gentle redirect on that thought: I don’t usually write from emotional anguish. I’ve never been one to thrive in discord, in drama or instability. That is why I was so discombobulated in the middle of February when this happened to me. It was one thing to be suffocated by emotion, but it was another to find myself simultaneously wildly spiralling in a creative updraft. As it turned out, I arrived at the top to a different kind of suffocation, I had flown so high into my own creative atmosphere I had a kind of reality hypoxia. The mix of large amounts of coffee, emotion and creative immersion turned out to be a heady but not particularly kind mix.
Last week, my partner handed me his collection of Aphra Behn’s work (the first female to make a living as a writer). The introduction included a dissection of the originating body of criticism leveled at her as an author, based in the fact she was not ‘truthful’ in her writing; she apparently made large omissions about the crossover of her real life with the fictional lives she penned. It was the kind of literary cross-examination her male peers were not subjected to and detracted from the actual substance, breadth and importance of her work.
As writers we are forever at the mercy of readers’ assumptions about the intersections of fiction and reality and how they may (or may not) intersect with the real life of the author. I know I have on more than one occasion been guilty of this – wondering what real event, or actual person sparked or informed what I’ve read. To be a reader is to flirt with the temptation to be a literary tracker, trying to identify the emotional and biographical footprints in fiction. I know I leave them behind in my work, usually unconsciously. However, the fiction I sat to write two days after Valentines Day wasn’t the accidental infiltration of something subliminal rising through my story – this was an intentional act of fiction as comfort, as witness and as a safe place to land. It was fiction-of-the-self.
Until I discover it, I forget I have written it. I come across it by accident re-arranging items in a wardrobe. Here, in the back of this massive hardback day-to-a-page diary from 1987, is me trying to write my way through trauma I can’t write in a journal and can’t share with my friends. It unfolds in my perfect teenage printing; a wish fulfilment version of my life in late 1989, only it’s kind of fan fiction-esque writing, taking my existing life and rewriting it ever so slightly to fictionalise it. I don’t think to erase the trauma though. Instead I am trying to navigate through it. Reading it, I choke up; there is such sadness and despair in that prison of shame and guilt and pain I was trying to write my way out of. But there’s also the glimmer of strength and tenacity which would eventually see me through to the other side 25 years later.
Virginia Woolf once wrote: let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. I don’t believe emotional pain is any less. While I have been a dedicated journal writer since 2014, and have credited a lot of my emergence from the dark years of depression to spending time every day at the page – in contemplation and in bare-faced honesty – there is something entirely different about intentionally using fiction-of-self to engage with emotional pain, and attempt to transmute and transcendent its overwhelming nature.
Even after I opened up to talk to my friends and began to share my trauma, when silence was no longer a co-warden in my experience, there was something that remained missing. In leaning into the trauma via fiction-of-the-self, I found solace. Something no amount of hand-holding, or hugging, shared tears and outrage, conversations or quiet space were able to provide. There was something in the fantasy world where I deliberately wove words around my pain that allowed the unbearable to become bearable.
At the end of the session I can barely breathe. I check and double check what has poured out of me, change a few paragraphs around. Gently rewrite a few sections, but for the most part I leave it as it has disgorged. It is raw and beautiful. In an act of sheer bravery (or stupidity) I copy and paste what I have written into emails to three of my most trusted friends and literary allies. It is almost a way of trying to give voice to what I am struggling to give voice to – how absolutely fucked this pain is, the emptiness within like a black hole and how my memory is already distorting.
The following weekend the same voice rises up in me and I repeat the ritual of café and coffee and writing, despite my misgivings. After the initial purge, and the comfort and solace I found amid the words – both inside and outside of my pain – I am unsure if I want to return and inhabit the space. I am unsure if this is unhealthy and a way of prolonging the pain; of remaining inside stories I really need to let go of. But I trust the call, because the voice is insistent. And I write.
What comes out is subtly different. There is unexpected space between myself and the narrator. At the end of the session (and I can almost laugh at myself when I parse these experiences as ‘sessions’) I see there is a divergence, both in path and voice. Though we share a very similar emotion experience and my experience has connected me to her narrative, we are not traveling the same narrative any more.
The following weekend I return and again, the degrees of separation expand; she is definitely no longer me, she has a name, belongs to a world that is not mine and has a mission I’d never accept. Georgie now has the potential to be something other than fucked up fan fiction of my own life.
There’s distance now, but re-entering Georgie’s world is a potential invitation to re-enter my pain, despite the obvious separation, and I remain undecided if this is where I am willing to go. My teenage self was invested in her narratives in a way I am not. And that’s not to denigrate her – rather than to honour her for knowing how to access what she needed, when every other avenue was closed to her.
Fiction-of-the-self does not subjugate or cauterise the wounding. It offers space for the pain to breath, to be, to gentle itself. It is a compassionate invitation into the embrace of solace, especially when there is no immediate relief available. It is perhaps the rawest and most intimate engagement with writing, because as writer and reader of, we are both within and beyond, autobiographer and weaver of fictions, voyeur and vicarious traveler through narratives we wish had never been written.