I don’t really write memoir. Or autobiography. Mostly, I think I’m writing pain. My pain. Poetry, short stories, novels. My characters always have the same inner problem. They have a lot of emotions. But they don’t think they do. And they think the answer is to grind every feeling into nothing – my goodness, a poem in my chapbook is called Obliteration and it’s basically about finding a way to feel absolutely nothing.
The problem with that kind of attempt at control, there’s always a supernova waiting around the corner.
And sometimes that massive explosion, is caught on tape.
I had a panic attack in the shower a few days ago. Remember my termination story from last time? I know, I know. Letting it go. Soon. Promise.
But, all of a sudden, I realized that my termination conversation was probably recorded. Yes, that one. The conversation where I couldn’t speak. Where I cried. Where I feel like I looked like a crazy lunatic.
My own little supernova. Captured. Without my knowledge. To be held in a personnel file for I don’t know, forever?
It’s totally legal for them to do so. Wisconsin is a one-party consent state. Yes, I looked it up. Totally legal.
But they didn’t tell me.
They could’ve. Maybe they thought they were being kind to me. Maybe they wanted back-up in case I did something. I don’t know.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is how I’ve felt since. Betrayed. Afraid. Angry – at me. I’ve been holding in the supernova for so long, it knows exactly where to direct the explosion – at me. “I should’ve known better.” “I was so stupid.” “I was an idiot.” “Organizations don’t care about me.”
How could I let myself fall apart again?
And then, I realized something.
This is what I write about. Emotions overwhelming my characters. Engulfing them. In front of unsafe people. In front of parents that don’t understand. In front of friends that aren’t true friends and don’t want to help. In front of teachers. You name it, it happens to them.
My characters suffer from an abundance of emotions that they can no longer contain. And those emotions – whether you’re Else and Joey, Sophie, Maeve or Cassandra – spill out of them and make them vulnerable and often, that vulnerability gives rise to them being hurt.
And then, my stories fail. My characters stop. They’ve tried so hard to obliterate themselves, they’re exhausted.
Guess what, me too.
But I think this whole knowledge of having my latest supernova on tape is giving me an answer. For me and for my characters.
Maybe instead of a supernova, my emotions are one of those volcanos in Hawaii. The ones where the lava oozes out and slowly rolls to the sea. You can watch it happen. Red hot sticky rocky crawling through the landscape. It’s dangerous, for sure. Hot and painful and a bit destructive.
But isn’t it building a new part of the island?
Writing is that oozing lava for me. I am my characters and my characters are, well, basically me.
The answer – their happy ending – doesn’t come from suppressing the supernova or taking the brunt of the explosion. Maybe their answer – and mine – is to feel those feelings. To listen. To themselves.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot – that’s why I’ve created a class I’m teaching for the first time this spring. “So You’ve Got Experience You Want to Write About?” We will look at our own personal experiences and how we harness them for the stories we want to tell. How do we let that volcano go – and use craft to shape it into an explosion of character.
I need these lessons. Maybe you do too?