19 Mar 2021 / The Stories We Tell
On Writing Memoir: Do You Feel Better Now?
As a boy I carried secrets – they slid to the bottom of my backpack, already crammed with every book I could get out of the library. All the things I was supposed to know, and all the things I was not, pressed into my back as I made my way back to the new flat occupied by my mum’s new man, the place I never ever called home. One step forward, two steps back. This way I could make half a mile last until long after all my classmates had sat down to their tea.
Sometimes I still feel that burden. It’s not so great now and I’m a lot more able to carry it. But even this relative lightness signifies I once was weighed down and never should have been. This leaves me feeling angry and grateful – an awkward combo, wearily familiar to any survivor.
Do you feel better now? is the question I’m asked most often and most urgently by readers of Maggie & Me. Where to start? It comes from real concern for you, and also from that part of themselves which is always thinking about their own story. Should I…could I…how would I? So, let’s start with starting – with fumbling around in the depths of that backpack.
I was 27 when I finally began Maggie & Me – young, gay and working-class from a village in the post-industrial west of Scotland. I’d grown up lying about my bruises, tugging cuffs down over thin wrists and telling myself I didn’t like boys, not really. My first, and hardest, task was to give myself permission to tell my own story. Growing up I was told over and over I would be hurt (over and over) if I ever told anybody what went on at home. Telling anybody what went on in my head, with my friend Mark, was unthinkable—I didn’t have the right words. All I had to hand were the ones spat at me from the back of the class. Or the medical ones I looked up. Here is a moment from Maggie & Me, where my wee sister Tinie and me are waiting to be picked up by our Dad for his custody weekend:
“It’s not a holiday, Damy,” my Mum shouts from the scullery. All the kids in the flats and at school call me Gaymian and Dame Barr and Barbie. I don’t know what all the words mean but I know how they’re said, know they’re meant to hurt me and they do. I run and tell her and she says ignore them, they’re cruel, they’re stupid. She never says they’re wrong. She’s the only person in the world who calls me Damy and I love her for that. “Ye’ve still got some things at yer Daddy’s.” Maybe she’s left some things there too? I smile triumphantly. Teenie is napping by the time my Dad pulls up, late again, hunched over his steering-wheel; this car, like all cars, too small for him. Once he drove a mini with his head out the sun-roof. He pips the horn. My Mum flicks the scullery light on and off to show and walks me to the front door pulling me into my duffel coat. I wonder if they arranged these signals or if they just acted together without talking like they always did before. Teenie is limp with sleep but I’m big enough to carry her now and for once my bigness feels useful as I go carefully down the steps and over to my Dad who’s opened the back door for us. I can feel my Mum watching us from the dark scullery window so I can’t look too excited because I know this will somehow hurt her feelings. When my back is turned I crack a massive grin at my Dad which he shoots right back with a ‘sssshhht’ so we don’t wake Teenie.
I was surprised to learn that Diana Athill, a privileged woman from a privileged background, felt similarly fearful when embarking on her first memoir: ‘you are not the only pebble on the beach might have been inscribed above the nursery door,’ she wrote in Somewhere Towards the End (2008). If a woman born in a country house was afraid to speak up, then it was no surprise a boy from a council house also felt intimidated. We do not all grow up expecting to be heard. Rarely does adulthood encourage greater loquacity. Every time I sat down to write, I heard over and over again every voice that had ever told me to shut up. Don’t do your dirty washing in public, my Granny Mac tutted, arms folded, a rosary always dangling from her hand. If only I’d heard instead the exhortation Melissa Febos gives in her essay ‘The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act’:
Listen to me: it is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or beating a dead horse. Believe me, I wish this horse were dead.
Again, you probably know how this feels. How many of us really feel free to speak? To say things we know others don’t want to hear. In the end I only started because I couldn’t carry it all any more – I was buckling. Shame is the densest and most powerful form of dark matter in the universe. It is invisible but its effects are not.
With support from a therapist and my agent, encouragement from my partner and friends, and a truce with my family, I began an ongoing process of what I call self-privileging: I might not be the only pebble on the beach but I am the only pebble that is me, to paraphrase Diana Athill. I took on paid journalism and copy-editing work I didn’t want so I could buy time to ‘write’. I allowed myself to put one word in front of the other with no clear sense of the way forward (or back). You can self-privilege too – you don’t need anybody’s permission. Except your own. It works for memoir and, with some tweaks, fiction.
In some helpful corner of the internet, I read that setting the ink on your writing programme to white stops you reading your words back, which stops the feedback loop of shame, which can halt your writing, and it works! Some days I manage a few minutes or a few hours and some days, I manage days. Now, fifteen years, one memoir, several short stories, countless articles, many Salons, and one novel later, here we are.
Do you feel better now? Ask me today and I’ll give you one answer. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you another. You might very well believe neither – that’s up to you. Accepting that any reader you might be lucky enough to net may very well not believe you is a vital and painful part of the process of writing and publishing memoir. This is very different from somebody simply not liking your novel – the memoir feels more personal because it is. If you’ve grown up not being believed or being told that telling the truth will hurt you – or the person or pet or thing you love – this can be especially hard to hear. No editor or agent is every going to tell you about it, so I am. I want you to be ready.
Do you feel better now? Yes, mostly. Very much and mostly yes. And it’s largely thanks to finally putting many, but not all, of those shameful secrets into a book I didn’t know I could write and for the longest time never imagined I would dare to. The secrets I once carried now freight the pages of my memoir, and I can leave it on a shelf if I want. The writing down has got to be the thing that helps you because none of us are guaranteed readers. And although they are, mostly, very lovely people, and their engagement and approval is generous and joyful, you cannot write for them. You’ve got to write for you.
And remember to leave just enough space between the lines to let light in, and for the reader to lay down some burdens of their own. A benefit I did not anticipate: once you’ve got all the really shit stuff down, lovely forgotten joys bob to the surface: a stolen afternoon in Glasgow where I laughed so hard I nearly peed myself; a friend for a summer, a summer where the sun actually shone. Thank you: several therapists, one loving husband, many kind friends and my family for letting me write my truth even when reading it, or reading about it, hurt you.
But did I feel better while I was actually writing it? No, not at all. Very much no. At least not to start. Too little is said about the emotional labour undertaken in (re)presenting trauma and healing, the therapeutic possibilities of testimony, and the need for catharsis that typifies (some say tarnishes) memoir as a genre. When I started writing, I imagined (foolishly) I would simply be retelling stories I already knew – after all, this had all happened to me, hadn’t it? A few months in, and precious few words later, I began realising I was going to have to do much more than try to remember – I would have to relive, then recount, then reconstruct my experiences as a story using the tools of fiction.
I came to think of memories as scenes and my family as characters. This helped me engage with the emotional intensity of, say, my stepfather almost drowning me in the bath – while still being able to step back from it after. Writing revealed things I had never allowed myself to consider before. For example, it had never occurred to me, until I had to write it, that it was possible Logan, my mum’s boyfriend, had done something to the soup he cooked to make me sick. Only when I read it aloud to a trusted reader and this thought occurred to them and they shared with me did I allow myself to countenance this possibility, which is all it could be because I’ll never know the truth. The possibility is bad enough.
“Leave it,” commands Logan, steam curling round him. I put down it down, noting proudly that it does not spill. “Strip,” he says. I peel the clammy trousers off leg by leg and step out of them. I’m covered in my own sick and freezing. “In,” he says, pointing at the steaming bath, white cast-iron like all the baths in all the flats in Marion Drive but boxed in with plywood not claw-footed like in the Flake advert. “In,” he repeats, grabbing one of my arms, dangling me up over the edge before dropping me. It’s boiling and I leap right back up gasping but he pushes me back. He sits on the toilet lid staring at me. I look down at myself. My skin is now as red as his face. I see my bald willy which refuses to catch up with the other boys’. He catches me looking and laughs. “Wash,” he says quietly, rhyming it harshly with ash. He’s no longer shouting. I stare at him and try standing up again because I think I’m going to be left looking like that Simon Weston off the news. I jump up, sloshing water over the sides. Logan stays sitting but lowers his eyes slowly and I find myself sitting down again, under a spell.
Chunks float in an oily scum and the steam carries their stench. I start focussing on details, noticing lumps of carrot and wondering why there’s always carrot in sick, then realise there must have been some in the soup. The soup. The soup he made for me but did not eat. The soup he gave me a whole bowl of. The soup I’m now sitting in.
When I turned to my diaries, I discovered a different self yet again, and then was immediately beset by chronology anxieties: what happened where and more importantly when? Each stage of the process – writing, editing and publishing – brought (brings) new questions. The act of writing about my past was so radically different from talking about my past that I wondered if I could be relied upon as a narrator. My story was even more complex and painful, but also unexpectedly happier than I had worked through in therapy — and writing was revealing this. I spent the first three years gaining much (usually unwelcome) knowledge, but felt no closer to comprehending what my book might be. Only after realising that my story had to be something more than everything that had happened, and that I was allowed to be at least as (un)reliable as any other narrator, did I feel able to begin to carve my story out of my life. To really begin writing.
The disclaimer on Maggie & Me says: ‘This book is a work of non-fiction based on the life, experiences and recollections of Damian Barr. In some cases names of people have been changed to protect the privacy of others.’ I chose this wording for the same reason I chose not to publish my story as a novel: I wanted to proclaim – this is true. Life, experiences and recollections. This is my truth, which is the only truth any of us can ever tell. My mum could write a different version of events, as could my dad, my sister, my brother, any of the people in those pages. Memory is relative and every relative has different memories. Their truth is their own, although my own truth is the only version of events published, and that moral responsibility weighs on me still – I particularly do not want readers to think ill of my mum or dad. To me, their divorce created a space in my life for everything that happened after, and bad things happened.
I no longer blame them and don’t want readers to either, but that’s not how I felt at the start. I only arrived at this more peaceful place after several angry drafts. Writing changed my feelings about my past, if not the past itself. To begin with, I very much did blame my parents. In fact, I was furious with them. Those first drafts were rages. But in writing and rewriting, I was forced to let go of the comfortable certainty of blame and get closer to the actual truth, which was, perhaps inevitably, much messier and even darker than I had been telling myself.
So, do I feel better now?
Start writing. It’s the only way to find out.
Find out more about The Stories We Tell.
Damian Barr is an award-winning writer & broadcaster. His memoir Maggie & Me was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ and Sunday Times ‘Memoir of the Year’, and won him Stonewall Writer of the Year. His debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a ‘Book of the Year’ in the Observer, Irish Times and on NPR. Damian has hosted a variety of events, including The Man Booker Prize, IPG Awards, and the PEN Quiz, and he has presented the live coverage of Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sky Arts. He has written columns for the Big Issue, High Life, the Guardian and hosts his celebrated Literary Salon at The Savoy and most recently online, and is presenter of The Big Scottish Book Club on BBC TV.
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