We all have them: hard truths we swore we would never write about. This is, after all, the nature of silencing: we are conditioned to muzzle truths society shames and blames us for. Ironically, these same subjects are often the ones that urge us to the page in the first place: they want to be written because, beneath the shame and silence, they hold deeper emotional truths. But how to write difficult subjects that are cloaked in fear and shame?
In their craft book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola include a section titled “Permission to Speak” in which they say, “Our role as writers can be that of witness. … Think of yourself as a witness and your writing will take on greater weight and urgency.” They suggest writing as witness in the context of writing about others, such as members of your family, who are part of your difficult material. Writing as witness—someone observing from the outside—can indeed lend a new perspective from which to approach difficult material.
Another challenge in writing difficult material is crafting your narrator—your younger self—as a complex, multi-dimensional character who has both internal and external reactions on the page. It can take the distance of time—as well as the emotional distance that comes with healing—to see with clarity who we were when we knuckled through a hard experience. This, too, makes sense in the context of silencing: when we silence our truth as a means of self-preservation we can end up “not seeing” our own experience in our effort to blot it out and move on.
Last month while prepping for a Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Inner Circle Guided Writing Retreat, I revisited “Permission to Speak” in Tell It Slant, and it occurred to me that Writing as Witness could be an excellent stance from which to write not only about others but also about your former self. So I adapted Miller and Paola’s writing prompt to Writing as Witness to Your Younger Self. The writing that resulted from this prompt was profound. Several women reported that Writing as Witness freed them to write hard material in a way that felt liberating.
And since liberation is always worth sharing, I offer you Writing as Witness to Your Younger Self, adapted from Miller and Paola’s “Permission to Speak” and extended into two parts.
Writing Prompt: Writing as Witness to Your Younger Self
From Tell It Slant: “Write a list of the subjects you would ‘never’ write about. What are the silences that can’t be broken? Begin each sentence with ‘I would never write about’ or ‘I am slow to write about.’” Even if you have previously written about—or are currently writing about—a subject you once swore you’d never write about, put it on your list. You never know what hidden truths it still holds for you. Write for 5 minutes.
Circle one of the subjects on your list. Write about it for fifteen minutes as if you are witnessing your younger self’s experience. Think of yourself as an outside observer witnessing your then-self’s experience unfold. What do you see? Smell? Hear? It may be useful to do this exercise in the third person. Write for 15 minutes–if you hit a liberating vein, keep going!
How did this exercise go for you? Feel free to share in the comments below, or join the conversation over at the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Facebook group.
Much writing love,
P.S. Want to write within the fold of a phenomenal sisterhood month in and month out from the comforts of your own home? Check out the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Inner Circle monthly membership program. We gather by teleconference call twice a month to write together. We’d love to have you! Join us here.
P.S.S. Looking for an in-person writing retreat for women that promises sanctuary and sustenance in a farmhouse surrounded by beautiful prairie in Iowa? Pamela Sampel, a founding member of the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Inner Circle, is hosting her annual Sanctuary and Sustenance: A Writing Retreat for Women in rural Iowa this October. I have witnessed Pamela’s presence in writing circles for years, and I tell you this: Pamela has an unwavering belief in women’s voices and stories. She lives by a conviction that we are all deeply connected by something larger than ourselves and that our writing taps us into this divine power even as it returns us to ourselves and connects us to each other. Here’s what Pamela has to say about her retreat:
“I have a fierce and fervent belief in the power of women’s stories—and the voices that emerge when committed women gather in an intentionally created and resplendent environment to write, connect, and witness each other’s work. The alchemy that occurs is unexplainable—and unique for each writer. I’ve been privileged to design and facilitate these retreats for the last four years, and the power and magic each year’s circle creates is unlike anything else—and both the writing work and experience never cease to take my breath away. I also have an unwavering commitment to each writer to be able to listen to her inner voice, do her best work, and have her needs met for the week. This means all events and activities (outside of the first evening’s circle) are voluntary—each writer decides for herself what/when she needs to participate—no questions asked.”
See what I mean? For more detailed information, a short video to watch about the experience (made by a first year participant,) and to register, please visit www.pamelasampel.com/retreat