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Lowering The Drawbridge

On writing about trauma

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

It started when I arrived at the new school, aged eleven. I was singled out to be picked on, and soon most of the school was calling me names and humiliating me. It lasted several years. It damaged my self-confidence, but most importantly it established certain defence mechanisms at an early age. I pulled up the drawbridge.

It would now be called homophobic bullying. It’s taken me till now to frame it like this, because it began long before adolescence, before I could discover for myself how I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. Also in the early 1980s, in small-town England, homophobia was seen as natural. In inner-city Glasgow too: in Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain little Shuggie is repeatedly described as ‘no right’ by the neighbours, and Stuart has described what it felt like for him to be othered from an early age. For me, it was undermining, frightening, but also a situation I had to accept and adapt to immediately. Bullying was seen as inevitable, children as less important.

My drawbridge functions in a number of ways, none of which aid the production of bold, gripping writing. I’ve tried writing both fictional stories, nothing to do with me, and highly confessional accounts. The response is the same; why are you reining it in? A writer friend once gave me the feedback that ‘Every time you start to set up tension, you diffuse it again’. A poetry mentor identified a metaphorical ‘inability to cry’ in my poems. Sure, I’m unable to cry. Another gently encouraged me to ‘touch the wound’ to shift my work from an intellectual to an emotional level, from outline to detail. I’d like that. As a reader, I don’t respond to unemotional writing; why would I write it? My poems have been described as ‘clever’, but I don’t like clever writing; I like it intelligent. There’s a difference.

So, I’ve returned to that formative experience in my writing. Intellectually, I believe I have to write these things out, so I can grow as a writer and move on. Emotionally, I’m scared of the process. Trying to write about something I don’t want to talk about is not a good place to start. The blank page becomes a nagging therapist, prodding me to stop holding back, to open up and get to the root of the issue; we only have fifty minutes.

The worst things that have happened to you might be your best material too. It’s your best material because it’s unusual. It disrupts the dominant pictures of how things are meant to work. The wrongness makes it stand out. And what makes it yours is that you know what it felt like — if you dare touch the wound. Writers from Douglas Stuart to Edward St Aubyn, from Sharon Olds to Pascale Petit, have transformed bad experiences into good writing, giving readers the impression this was something they had little choice about, that the work demanded to be written, and going on to win prizes.

It cannot have been easy, however. Dredge this stuff up carelessly and you are soon wading through sludge, in a viscous mood which stops you writing clearly. Readers are increasingly offered trigger warnings; writers have to fend for themselves. Feeling emotions is one thing, but if they plunge us into depression, it becomes hard to form sentences. And form we must; our job is to create. We will reshape the story, change details, major or minor, but unfortunately the feelings are the bit we need to keep.

I wrote about my bullying trauma in my first poetry chapbook, and that was a start. Some of it is now contained there, shaped into new entities which replace those memories, but there’s a reason it was just chapbook — a lot of the poems didn’t work and had to be dropped. They were either too bolshy and raging, too on the nose, or so oblique no one grasped what was meant, because I didn’t actually want to go there. I’m now working on the next chapbook, and a full collection, but it’s been bumpy.

In a letter Keats wrote, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways.’ I disagree, I think. Certainly not at the time you are trying to write, and not unless the pains and troubles have been overcome. But does anyone need that kind of schooling in the first place?

So, how do you step into the water and stay safe? Poet Joelle Taylor suggests in workshops that you ‘Take control of your own narrative’. This means inverting the designations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and being inventive. In one poem I voiced an imagined callous schoolteacher, with rigid ideas of gender conformity and Darwinian thoughts on bullying. Any reference to the child’s feelings was indirect, but the reader might imagine them. This is one way to get to the emotions; lead the reader to the door, open it for them, but let them look through themselves. Similarly, there’s the poetic approach of evoking particular details, and leaving the reader to imagine others, along with the accompanying feelings.

Or you can talk a lot about plants, and see if the personal experiences don’t find their way in. Plants are my passion, but substitute them with whatever you love to talk about; Pascale Petit likes birds and animals; Alice Hiller is fascinated with ancient Rome. Both sandwich these obsessions into poems about some shocking childhood experiences. Alice Hiller also collages found texts, documents and quotations, into her work, to do some of the ‘heavy lifting’, as she puts it. But sometimes you have to be direct; blunt raging statements may squeeze out of the sandwiches, and that may work well, may be needed to sharpen the poem’s form. Brené Brown says, ‘Shame hates having words wrapped around it.’ It loses its power immediately you take control of the narrative.

Shaped and reframed, wrapped in words, all this ends up in the hands of readers. If it’s still at all personal, it’s only personal to them now. Do they feel the same ambivalence, both wanting and not wanting to read about difficult experiences? They might be encouraged to step past the trigger warning in the hope the poems will prove ‘useful’ as Brecht put it. The use-value will of course transcend the utilitarian criteria Brecht archly applied when, judging a poetry competition, he favoured a poem about cycling over various romantic verses. This was like the artificial distinction between ornamental and edible gardening. But a poem or novel we can connect to our own experience, or from which we can learn of others’, is useful indeed. It makes us feel less alone. ‘Connection’, Brené Brown says, ‘[…] gives purpose and meaning to our lives.’ Being told for years you shouldn’t be the way you are is a common experience for queer children, but we only know this if we talk to each other. Queer poets such as Jeremy Dixon, Simon Maddrell or Ian Humphreys have dared to touch their wounds, to talk, to wrap words around shame, creating images we can relate to. And in the hands of readers, Shuggie’s lonely experience makes for less loneliness altogether.

Now, I start with small details, and take it in steps, daring further, because I’ve seen people want the full impact. I’ve realised I’m part of a whole generation who experienced or witnessed similar things. They want to talk now. The poems are building, and the exciting thing about forming a collection is that simply the arrangement of them does some of that ‘heavy lifting’; context can ratchet the ante up a notch. I’ll never get over that time, but awareness of the details needed for poetry gets them out of my memory, gets words wrapped around them, and white space around that; they become images in the world. If in doubt, planting them within a garden of flourishing greenery always helps. ‘Making is our defence against the dark’, wrote Ruth Padel, and it’s creating things which keeps me buoyant; at one point I thought I should give up the unequal struggle and write a prose account, a ‘misery memoir’, but now I see I’d have much more fun with the material in a novel — once the poetry collection is finished. And look, I wrote this piece, spoke up, and joined the conversation.

Steph Morris’s pamphlet Please don’t trample us; we are trying to grow! is published by Fair Acre Press and his translation of Ilse Aichinger’s collection Squandered Advice is out with Seagull. His translation of Brigitte Reimann’s diaries, It All Tastes of Farewell, came second in the Schlegel-Tieck prize.

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