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Expansion

Expansion

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions many moons ago. For so many people, they are just sticks to beat themselves with. They are something else to fail at. So many people make resolutions before they are ready to keep them – otherwise, they’d have made them before the new year. Anyway, who says that we can only make changes to our lives at the beginning of the year? That seems a bit restrictive to me.

This year, instead of a ‘resolution’ (or a list of them!), I have a word. Just a single word that I will use to guide me throughout the year. That word is ‘Expansion’. Even thinking it makes me smile, it makes me breathe deeper, it fills me with excitement.

Expansion is, perhaps, the first cousin of Abundance, but this year, it was expansion that demanded my attention as a theme for 2016. Choosing a word as a theme feels like a much gentler thing to do with, and for, and to, myself than giving myself a list of ‘resolutions’.

Expansion is going to be fun; it will probably throw a few challenges at me, but that’s okay – I enjoy a challenge. Expansion is a good, inclusive, word. The more I expand, the more I have space for: More space for more relationships; more space for nurturing the relationships I already hold dear; more space for more learning; more space for more ideas; more space for more books (!); more space for more thinking; more space for more loving; more space for more action.

If you were to choose a word to guide your year, what would it be?

Ten Things Writing a Memoir Taught Me About Writing A Memoir.

As you know, I published my memoir, Gullible Travels, in November. This book is my first memoir, but not my first published work by a long shot. Memoir writing, however, is very different to the other types of writing – academic writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for a variety of magazines from financial to parenting – that I had previously done.

So, while writing Gullible Travels, I learnt a few things about writing in this genre, which I am delighted to share with you here:

Do your therapy first!

I have very strong feelings on this one – it’s a complete non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to write about something that’s upsetting or difficult, don’t use writing your memoir as therapy. Do your therapy first, work through your stuff, and then write your book. Your reader’s job is not to work through your shit for you. That’s your job, and yours alone.

Sure, writing is therapeutic, keeping a journal is good for all of us, but do that work first, before you write you book. The way you write for yourself and the way you write for an audience are (should be!) very different.

You don’t have to begin at the beginning.

Years ago, I read that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former covers your entire life – from when you were born until the time the book is written. A memoir, on the other hand, covers a specific time or event; whether that’s a decade or two in your life, your recovery from an illness, or your year travelling through Africa on a goat.

When you have decided which part of your life story it is you want to tell, bear in mind that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Drop in in the middle of your anecdote, if that makes more sense, or is a more interesting point to start. Hit the ground running, and take your readers with you.

You can be honest without being cruel. 

One of the women who made more than a brief appearance in my book was a champion farter. It didn’t matter where she was – her home, your home, a friend’s home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or the bus – she would happily, blissfully trumpet away without as much as a ‘Pardon me’ the entire time I knew her!

Of course, I could have included this piece of information – but to what end? (oops!). It would just embarrass her, and it wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the narrative. Even though it’s completely true, I had already given plenty of indication of how difficult our relationship was – so this piece of information wouldn’t have shed any new light on the situation.

Not every anecdote needs to be included. 

I have quite a few funny stories that didn’t make it in to Gullible Travels, but they don’t need to be included in the book.

Doubtless, you have a sackful of those kind of anecdotes as well – interesting, amusing things that have happened to you along the way. Don’t put yourself under pressure to include them; you’re not concealing material facts by doing so. Keep them for your book launch, for interviews, and for when you’re speaking at events. Or even just for sharing with people over lunch, or at parties.

Two can become one without it becoming a ‘lie’ or a fiction.

There may well be certain people who need to feature in your memoir that you don’t want to identify, but who are necessary to the narrative. Beyond changing their names, you can change the sex of a person and their relationship to you. For example, your raging alcoholic Aunt Bertha can be transformed into your raging alcoholic Uncle Benny (who also happens to be a priest). Or you can turn two of your boyfriends from when you were 16/17 into one boy.

In Gullible Travels, for example, ‘The Horrible Boy’ is actually three people amalgamated into one. While all the events attributed to ‘The Horrible Boy’ took place, the abuse by one was very similar to the abuse by another, so it would have added nothing to the narrative to have separated them out – in fact, it may well have confused the reader trying to keep so many abusers straight in their heads. Having just one identity also supported the repetitive nature of the abuse, and the dissociation that is mentioned in the book.

Writing in dialect can be a distraction.

If someone in your life/book speaks in a particular dialect, or with a specific accent, it’s probably best not to try to reproduce it on the page. As well as being a distraction to the eye, it may not be ‘heard’ in the reader’s ‘mind’s ear’ the way you hear it in your memory. The best thing to do, really, is to write the words that the person meant, fully and completely.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that writing in a dialect or reproducing an accent on the page can also present problems for your translators further down the road.

When recounting dialogue, the rules of fiction apply.

When I started writing my memoir, I thought I needed to be completely faithful, in my recounting of conversations, to what was actually said. Halfway through the first draft, however, I realised that wasn’t useful. Just as when I was writing for stage and screen, I needed to keep dialogue to the essence of what was said: The meaning needed to be conveyed to retain the truth of whatever conversation I was recounting, but every word did not have to be set down on the page. Actual speech can be very repetitive, full of half-finished sentences, thoughts that aren’t completed, and meanderings that aren’t necessary to the story you’re telling.

Sometimes, the conversation itself doesn’t even need to be recounted at all. You can simply say ‘We shouted at each other for two and a half hours without resolving anything’. Or ‘By the end of the discussion – which we returned to on a daily basis for a week – we decided boarding school was the best option.’

Even though it’s a memoir, your job is still to entertain your reader. 

Your memoir might be dealing with the darkest, bleakest of human experiences, but it can still be entertaining. My book, for example, is about being sexually abused (by several people) as a child; re-victimisation; abusive marriages; miscarriages, and lots of other un-funny subjects. Even with those subjects as the material for the book, the one thing I repeatedly hear from people who read Gullible Travels is that they can’t put it down. Some people even tell me that they laugh when they’re reading it. Good! I’m delighted.

I want to entertain the people who are giving their time to me and my book. That, I believe, is the contract between writer and reader; they read your work with the expectation that they will enjoy it, and you must do your best to render unto them something that will amuse them.

Be clear about your motivation. 

One question you need to ask yourself is why you want to write your memoir.  It doesn’t have to be something deep and profound – having a cracking great story you want to tell is reason enough.

I wrote Gullible Travels because someone else told me that – in spite of it being my story – it wasn’t about me. The point of writing that book, I was told, was (among other things) so that other women could identify and remove themselves from abusive relationships; so people who haven’t been abused could better understand how it affects those of us who have been, and so people who have been abused would realise they are not alone.

Of course, you don’t have to write for publication. I know quite a few people who have written memoirs in order to preserve their memories for future generations of their families. These books are prized possessions by those who are entrusted with them.

A word of caution, however; a desire for revenge is not a good motivator. If that’s why you write your memoir, then you can be sure that your writing will appear bitter, mean-spirited, and will make for squirmy reading.

Remember, it’s your memoir.

The book you’re writing is your memoir. It is your story. It is yours to tell the way you want to tell it. You are under no obligation to explain, excuse, interpret or analyse anyone else’s behaviour.  Write your own story, write it in your own voice, and write it with all the integrity you can muster.

Consent

Listening to Louise O’Neill chatting with Seán Moncrieff today had me thinking about consent again. Particularly and specifically consent in the context of sexual relations. Now, when I say ‘sexual relations’ I don’t just mean penetrative sexual intercourse. I mean everything up to, and including, penetrative sexual intercourse; and, yes, that includes snogging.

 

It really isn’t okay to lunge at someone and ‘lob the gob’ (as the young people say), stick your tongue in their mouth and swish it around a bit. Uninvited, unwelcome, that’s assault.

 

I remember the first time someone asked me if they could kiss me; it really surprised me, and I thought it was a bit quaint and slightly old-fashioned. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was probably the most respectful thing a man could do before kissing a woman. Now, I expect it. I don’t know if consent is such a huge issue for me because – for most of my life – who touched me, and when, was not something I had any control over; or if it’s simply because it’s a respectful way of going about things.

In discussions about consent, I have heard people dismiss the obtaining of it as ‘not sexy’.  Personally, I find it really sexy. I find it very sexy when a man doesn’t assume that I’m there to be touched as, and when, and where, he feels like it. I find it quite sexy that he considers me important enough in the proceedings to find out before touching me that it really is something I want.  And, let’s face it, if I’m in a position (no pun intended!) where a man is asking consent, chances are it will be granted. There again, it might not be – I might say ‘no’, or ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ but at least I have been consulted about what happens to my body. The effect that has on me is intoxicating. Knowing that nothing will happen to me until I have granted permission for it to happen also means that I relax and am much more in the moment – and much more open to enjoying it – than I would be otherwise. I’m not tensely on guard, aware that the moment might well arise where I have to fight someone off.

Also, it’s so much nicer to be asked for permission than to be in the situation where you have to stay ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t’ or push someone away. Particularly for those of us who have been sexually abused, and where having things done to us without warning, and without consent is triggering. It can be very difficult to stop someone who starts to do something unwelcome when your historical experience is that your pleas will either be ignored, or met with more force. In those instances, we’re less likely to feel as though we’re active participants in a pleasurable exercise than we are to feel that we’re objects being subjected to activity. This can result in ‘stop’ being screamed in our heads, but never making it past being more than a lump in our throats. It can also result in dissociation, meaning we’re no longer even in the room – which is a bit sad when you fancy someone and have been looking forward to a good spit-swapping session (or more).

The last time I snogged someone, I tried to discuss how I felt about consent. I explained that, if his hand was to end up anywhere between my neck and knee, I either wanted to be the one who put it there, or to be asked first if it was okay. He was surprised.

‘I’d hate you to be uncomfortable,’ he explained. I knew this already. The reason we were kissing in the first place was that I’d decided he was one of life’s nice guys, and that I was probably as safe with him as I could reasonably expect to be with any man. ‘But I’m kissing you. And when I’m kissing you, it feels natural to want to touch you, and to want to run my hands over your body. If I do something you don’t like – then tell me to stop and I will.’

I have no doubt he would have stopped if I’d asked him to, but – really – that’s too late. You’ve already done something to me that I don’t want you to, you’ve already breached my trust, you’ve already made me anxious. Also, as I explained earlier, for those of us with a history of sexual abuse, saying ‘stop’ can be difficult.

At the other end of the spectrum, I renewed an acquaintance with a very lovely man about six months ago. We hadn’t met since 1999 (we live thousands of kilometres away from each other) – and the last time we’d seen each other, we’d been kissing. I was hoping we’d pick up where we’d left off. We did.

In and of itself, that was lovely; but what was lovelier was the fact that he did nothing without making absolutely sure first that it was something I wanted. It started with him telling me – when we were arranging to meet – that he wanted to kiss me, and asking if that would be okay; to asking permission to hold my hand when we were out walking, to checking with me, when we alone and getting cosy, that his intentions were acceptable before acting on them.

After about a week of this wonderfulness, I asked him about it.

‘Consent is really important to me,’ I told him. ‘But why is it important to you? Why are you so aware of it? Why do you always ask me before you touch me?’

‘Because I was raised to have respect for women – and I respect you,’ came the response. ‘And I can’t just presume that because I want something, that you want the same thing at the same time. I would hate to hurt you or upset you, so I need to be sure before I do something that I am allowed to do it, and that it’s something you want as much as I do.’

Still intrigued, I asked a bit more. It turns out that he was raised to treat women with respect not because we’re weak and need ‘minding’ but because we’re strong and formidable. As such, we need to be treated with due consideration, and as equals.

Of course, consent is a two-way street, and I would never dream of touching a man without his permission. I often find, however, that my requests are met with puzzlement, amusement and / or surprise. On more than one occasion, requests for consent have been answered with

‘Just do what you want with me!’

Once I’ve explained that I’m uncomfortable with that, and why, they have come around to my way of thinking; and enjoyed being asked as much as they have enjoyed the acts they have given consent for.

Dear Reader

I just had an amazing phone call from a woman who read ‘Gullible Travels’ yesterday in one sitting. She was in tears as she spoke about how it had affected her. *I* was in tears as she told me how it had affected her.

 

Then her partner got on the phone and told me that *he* bought the book, but she took it and read it first. He won’t get a chance to start reading it until today, but he’s looking forward.
‘Write another one, Hazel!’ he said. ‘There was no talking yesterday, there was no television, it was great! She was just reading all day until after midnight.’
‘I was more affected by your book than I was by his,’ my reader chimed in, from the background.

 

*That* left me speechless, because this is his book:Bigger Belsen

Emotions

Facial Emotions

In recent weeks, I have fallen in love with the Irish Times Women’s podcasts. These invariably feature interesting women who have done (are doing) interesting things, and who have interesting things to talk about.

Yesterday, I listened to the marvellous Aisling McDermott and the equally wonderful Laura Kennedy. They were interviewed by Marian Keyes, who is one of the funniest writers I have ever come across. I nearly burst my post-surgery stitches I was laughing so much when I read one of her books a few years ago. Anyway, this podcast did provide a few laughs (before I forget, the link is here) but what really grabbed me was the raw honesty with which Aisling spoke about her illness, and Marian’s compassion and kindness in the moment.

At one stage, Aisling’s voice caught on the tears in her throat, and Marian apologised for distressing her. Aisling brushed the apology aside, saying that she wanted to talk, she wanted to share her story, and she wanted to explain what it was like for her to have to deal with a debilitating illness. She was not embarrassed or ashamed or annoyed with herself for crying. And I, in my kitchen, cried too, and applauded Aisling for her pragmatic attitude to the display of emotion.

I have often thought it’s a bit daft that we are embarrassed by crying in public (unless it’s with laughter). We are expected to apologise for, or hide, our tears. Yet we aren’t expected to apologise for, or hide,our frowns, smiles, eye-rolls, gasps, giggles or laughter.

In my family of origin, the manifestation of my emotions – all emotions, but especially sorrow – was ridiculed. I learnt to swallow my laughter because it wasn’t lyrical. I learnt to hide my smile behind my hand because it wasn’t pretty. I learnt to bite the inside of my cheek and tilt my head a certain way so I wouldn’t shed tears. I learnt it was far, far better to cry myself to sleep at night (which I did – every night), than to do so if there was a possibility of an audience.

I decided to stop that nonsense about eighteen months ago. I was addressing the annual conference of Barnardo’s and, in the middle of my piece, I started to cry. Not a full on break-down, not sobs, not snot and shuddering. Just three or four tears and a wobble in my voice that I couldn’t successfully speak through. I decided not to hide it, not to apologise for it, not to fight it, just to go with it. I stood in front of this room full of strangers and said ‘Oh look! An emotion. It will pass.’

And it did. I continued on with my presentation and managed to make people laugh again before I stepped down from the podium.

My point is this – I think we would all be a bit healthier if we allowed our emotions to manifest in safe ways (I don’t mean boxing the heads of people when we’re angry!), acknowledged them, and let them go. And if we learnt how to bear witness, in a supportive way, to others’ tears, too.

Gullible Travels

dfw-hl-gt-cover-ebook

From the Back of the Book:

 

Gullible Travels is a book about a young woman who spent ten years running around Asia getting herself into, and out of, various scrapes; married to the wrong men, and desperate to become a mother.

 

That woman is me.

 

By the time I turned thirty, I’d moved from Ireland to the UK; then to Singapore, Jakarta, India, and back to Singapore. I’d married and left two men, had a seventeen-month-old baby, and another on the way – in circumstances that were far from ideal.

 

My relationships were abusive, my self-esteem was in the gutter (and I couldn’t see the stars!). I struggled to believe that I had the right to exist – let alone thrive – and frequently made poor life choices.  A series of flashbacks woven into the narrative – and populated by The Little Girl, The Bad Man, The Mean Woman, and The Horrible Boy – explain why.

 

Gullible Travels is also, therefore, a book about the long-term and far-reaching consequences of child sexual abuse. This memoir reveals how being sexually abused as a child affected me long into adulthood.