The Passion That Drives The Green Shoot Through The Flower: The Reason Many Women Take Writing Workshops

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 The Passion That Drives The Green Shoot Through The Flower: The Reason Many Women Take Writing Workshops

October 2011 is Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Why It Still Matters

A while back, or per­haps it was more than a few years ago, we all became aware of the epi­demic of vio­lence against women in this coun­try, and mem­oirs began to be writ­ten as the sur­vivors felt empow­ered to describe what they had gone though, bat­tling through shame and the fear of fam­ily reper­cus­sions. We all have our lists of these titles, some of them bit­ingly effec­tive, oth­ers less so, and per­haps I was not alone in imag­in­ing that writ­ing about the prob­lem would make the prob­lem go away, or at least dimin­ish it.

I’ve been rudely awak­ened dur­ing these past weeks of teach­ing writ­ing work­shops, pri­mar­ily to women, and women of a cer­tain age.

Because my newest book, “Mending”, in a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, I’ve been teach­ing the writ­ing of fiction—but that is not what most of my stu­dents want.

At first, I thought this was due to the fact that now many peo­ple don’t seem able to dis­tin­guish between fic­tion and non-fiction, and my def­i­n­i­tions don’t seem to clear up their confusion.

Slowly, it has dawned on me that the rea­son is more pro­found: the sto­ries these women are des­per­ate to write can’t be fic­tion, as they under­stand fic­tion, because they have expe­ri­enced acts of vio­lence at such a deeply per­sonal level it is impos­si­ble for them to imag­ine trans­form­ing these piv­otal events into short sto­ries, or nov­els, or any­thing other than raw pieces of memoir.

Raw, because by and large they have not been exposed to writ­ing as a craft. They have tal­ent, as was shown when each of the ten peo­ple in my class this morn­ing in Lexington, Kentucky, wrote, in five min­utes, the first sen­tence of a short story. Their sen­tences were rich, and var­ied, and seemed to remove them from the red hot cen­ter of their pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, which is why those first sen­tences will never turn into com­pleted stories.

The heat of their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, their fear of reveal­ing it, and their intense desire to be told that they have a right to their own expe­ri­ences, is what, at least poten­tially, would yield pow­er­ful writing.

But Chekhov advised in a let­ter to his brother that to write effec­tive fic­tion, the write must be reserved, detached, objective—and my expe­ri­ence tells me he was right.

So how are these sur­vivors, some of whom may not really have sur­vived, deal with the pain and shame of this preoccupation?

If the very inten­sity of their emo­tional reac­tion to what hap­pened means they can never aspire to detach­ment or objec­tiv­ity, writ­ing is never going to be help­ful to them—beyond the uncen­sored out­pour­ings in jour­nals which they have already prob­a­bly tried.

Journals have their place, but at some point, women who have been abused need read­ers to jus­tify what they are expos­ing, to make them feel (if this is pos­si­ble) that they have a right to their own lives, includ­ing these mem­o­ries, which inevitably blem­ish the men in their fam­i­lies, alive of dead, who have man­aged to keep their behav­ior hidden.

As one woman explained, her fam­ily has arrived at a hard-won truce, a peace­ful sur­face that allows them to enjoy get­ting together; their mother is now viewed as a saint, a matriarch—which of course is part of the truth.

When I asked her if she had ever talked about what hap­pened in their child­hoods, she said that she hadn’t. No one had. And if she brought it up, the sur­face would surely be bro­ken, and she might suf­fer the con­se­quences, as one of my dear friends did when she told what she remem­bered, and her fam­ily refused to have any­thing more to do with her.

Writing is not ther­apy, can never be ther­apy; it is an art. But when so many are suf­fer­ing from silenced mem­o­ries, mem­o­ries that will not “go away”, what other out­let is there? How can they be healed? And, per­haps more to the point, how can they ever develop as writ­ers if their main point of inten­sity is blunted?

As another woman said, she is writ­ing an his­tor­i­cal novel—but some­how it doesn’t seem to mat­ter, and she is hav­ing trou­ble fin­ish­ing it.

Will this ter­ri­ble pat­tern of vio­lence against girls and women never be bro­ken? And how am I, as a teacher of writ­ing, to respond to this over­whelm­ing need?



Image from For more infor­ma­tion, visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

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