On Giving Myself Permission Not to Write
By A.H. Reaume
I know I have to write it. The essay I’ve been trying to write for a year and a half.
I will be in the grocery store or out in the muck of a hike dripping with sweat and a sentence of it will come to me.
Maybe I will jot it down. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I will keep thinking about it. Maybe I’ll brush the thought of it aside.
But each time I actually try to work on it something whispers to me - not yet.
I think I’m afraid of it.
I know that it is an essay that needs to be written. I know this because it keeps asking me to write it no matter how many times I tell it no.
You see -- the problem with writing personal essays is that they are personal. The problem with writing essays about trauma is that they are traumatic.
They don’t get written on deadlines. They sometimes rush out in one long torrent of work but more often they snag. They write themselves in snippets, collect themselves in a drawer like pieces of string and stones found along walks until you have an odd collection of unconnected objects to make sense of. And you are left looking at it all in a panic -- how do you make order of such a mess?
But there is no need to panic. Instead, we need to acknowledge that we can’t move fast through this. It can’t be forced. We need to sit with pain for a while sometimes for it to arrange itself for us into something legible. We might want timelines. We might want linear trajectories. We might beg friends for writing exercises that will nudge us to take this experience and solidify it.
Oh, look, we want to say, I have made art from that. It is smoothed over. I have wrestled with that. I have won.
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But I have tried to write the essay I am trying to write now five times and abandoned it each time. Somewhere among the many drafts is the essay it will become. I have not given up on it. I believe that there is a piece there that will come together and be published one day and go out into the world and do good things.
But this is not that essay.
This is the essay as an interlude. A distraction. An acknowledgment that personal essays are temporal entities. That they accumulate in time. That we live them on one timeline and write them on another. That thoughts of them recur sometimes in our lives like trauma. That they write themselves in flashes. That drafts of them sit waiting for the rest of them to be triggered.
Sometimes you just need more time. Not just to find the words but also to feel you have a right to say them.
The essay I am trying to write is about what it feels like to deal with rumours that I was lying in my writing. That when I wrote the story of traumatic things that happened to my body, that I was making it up. That I wasn’t really disabled.
I am therefore trying to write about the trauma of people believing that my writing about trauma wasn’t real. I am not sure yet how to do this. What remains in the aftermath of what happened feels like an ouroboros of hurt and harm sitting confused and tangled inside me.
I write to try to figure out how to hold myself in tension with the things that have happened to me. And this response to my writing is now one of the things that has happened to me.
Writing personal essays, for me, is a lived process. It involves the gradual rearrangement of who I am. As I write, I organize myself around the hurt and the pain in ways that are different from how society wants me to. I have to -- because I often find the ways I’m expected to perform disability and injury to be even more harmful than the original hurt. So, I make new narratives. I author my own body. I edit the narratives that people and society tell of me to correct them.
To be rewritten in the ways that I have been by people who do not know me but think they know my body better than I do is a violence. It is ableism writ large to bring suspicion and doubt to the work of a writer who is telling you how it is to live inside the complexities of their embodiment.
I could not write anything for months after first finding out about these rumours a year and a half ago -- suspicious of language and all its failures at representation. Certain that I would spend the rest of my life trying and failing to get anyone to believe me when I told them what I was experiencing after two full years before that of trying and failing to get those closest to me to also believe me when I told them I was in pain or couldn’t do something.
The rumours felt like I was being told I have no right to my own story. That disabled people needed to bring doctor’s notes and physiotherapy receipts to every utterance, needed to annotate every written instance of their pain. That writing one’s body was a scam when the pain wasn’t easily legible on the physical text of the body.
Since my injury, my body has terrified me and it has frustrated me. My body has struggled to communicate it’s needs and it has felt like an impediment to receiving love and care. I have been abused because of my body in cruel and vicious ways. I have been discriminated against because of my body in ways that have broken me. I need to say these things in words because I need to do something to stop them from happening to other people. Because I need to do something to stop them from happening to me.
“What does it feel like to be in your body after the rumours?” my therapist, who specializes in somatic practice, asked me this week.
“I feel like I’m constantly being watched even when I’m alone,” I tell her. “I feel like I need to make myself smaller so no one will notice me so that I won’t be a target for harm. I have isolated myself since I heard of these rumours. I stopped seeing friends as much. I stopped going out to most events. I constantly think that my friends might be taking notes and comparing them to things I have said about my disability before so I am constantly explaining things if they might seem confusing. I give so much extra information about my disability to people than they need to know or than I always want to share so that no one will doubt me. It has changed how I hold myself, how I move through the world, how I story my life for others.”
“That sounds like something we need to work on,” she tells me gently at the end of the session. And it is.
I will someday understand how to hold myself in relation to this harm. I have hints of what that will look like. Hand sketched maps of that territory. But I’m not there yet. So, as much as I try -- I can’t write about it yet.
But I know it is coming. I just still need to sit within the silence. I still need the words of all the drafts to patiently sit unarranged on the page.
There is still living to do to get there. There is still the complex work of reassembling myself.
And that is fine. I am letting that be fine. I am giving myself space for that.
So, this is essay is my interlude. But it can also be yours.
The problem with writing about personal things is that they are personal. The problem with writing about trauma is that it is traumatic.
Give yourself space not to write. To sit within the silence or the too many words until they settle into the shape you need them to. Until you settle into the shape you need yourself to settle into to write them. There is no rush. This is patient work. You can move gently through language, you can linger within sentences, you can trace and retrace paragraphs in your head.
And one day they will tell you that they are ready to be set down and arranged. And you will do it. You will give them their form.
Just not yet.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.