Stepping into the Fire

Helping a student write about abuse.

I wrote the following article with the permission of my student, Jessica. She writes:

“What is difficult about writing about abuse is that the wounds are reopened. The emotions I felt were intense and confusing. But I knew I needed to finish each assignment so that I could move out of the past and be welcomed back to the present. Instead of hiding, by writing, I was learning to overcome and to heal from trauma. I needed to write to heal, and I wanted to heal so badly because living in constant pain and fear was detrimental to my growth. Writing became the way I acknowledge the abuse of my childhood, to honor my life now as I have grown and am healing from the abuse I lived through. Own your story: that’s my life motto. I hope by writing my experiences, I am helping to advocate against violence. By sharing how violence affected my life and how I’ve overcome abuse, I hope I can help others overcome by owning their story too.”

She sat alone in the front row, near the wall of windows, her face hidden by a curtain of long, straight, brown hair. She wore glasses and the standard dark hoodie, wristbands, and jeans. She was pale and very quiet, and her name was Jessica.

This was Introduction to Short Story Writing, a college class of sixteen students. We were discussing the importance of writing what you know, and also writing what you don’t know or what you want to know more about. I asked everyone to take out their notebooks and to make a list of things they knew how to do well—singing, skateboarding, playing a musical instrument, making the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Anything you do well, I said, put it all on the list.

“Now, pick one or two of these things that interest you most and write about you, the main character of your story, doing these things very well. If you want, give yourself distance and write this story from a third-person point of view or even a second-person point of view.” As an example, I handed out and read a two-page, one-paragraph story from You Are Here This Is Now, a PUSH anthology. The piece is a how-to essay written by a teenage author who takes the reader through her own experience of caring for her dying godmother. It’s called “When You” and it begins, “When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet.” The class began writing and I gave them two days to complete their stories.

This was not the best prompt in my arsenal of writing assignments. The idea was simply to get them writing with confidence about a subject which they could write about with authority. In my experience, the best writing most often comes from what young writers know best—their own lives.

Jessica turned in a story that starts out with a girl making Cheeseburger Helper for her stepfather while she is studying for a test about US Presidents. The girl is very good at cooking and memorizing. She does well on tests, and she is a good student. Throughout the story, the mother sleeps on the sofa. She wakes two times to ask for painkillers, which the daughter provides. By page three, the stepfather is in the girl’s bedroom. There follows a white space. Then comes the next morning. Tired and bruised, the girl recites the US Presidents on a slow walk to school, the day of the test, and the day of her sixteenth birthday. Jessica called this story “Independence Day.”

I like to think that I keep a comfortable distance from most of my students. These are writing classes, not therapy sessions, I tell myself. Sure, these students write about their lives, but I often pretend that their first-person personas are in fact just that—personas, fictional characters. I only consider what’s on the page, make objective comments, write marginal notes, nudge them to explore deeper. Just give me a story, I tell them. I try not to care if it’s true.

I don’t consider myself to be an unsympathetic teacher. I simply know my place. I don’t put my hair up in a bun à la Madame Librarian, but I do wear mostly suits, my armor, when I teach literature and writing, to make my position as teacher clear. I teach. I assign, then I read their work and make suggestions. And so, when I read Jessica’s story, I made marginal notes just as I would with any student work. How about hearing exactly what she’s memorizing as she’s stirring the pot? I wrote near the opening scene. In the glaring white space, I suggested she write the difficult, missing scene. Knowing what I know now, I wonder if I would make that same request. Revisions were not required for every piece in this introductory class, so I did not expect to see another draft.

Jessica handed me the rewritten story within two days. It was quick, the way first rewrites should be done, while the story is still fresh and alive in the author’s mind. I was more than a little surprised when I read it.

It’s rare that a student takes all the teacher’s suggestions, rarer still when a student goes further. Jessica wrote the scene, taking me through the ordeal, detail by agonizing detail. My teacher/student wall might have felt a crack then, but still I wrote more marginal notes, suggesting yet another revision. After class, she came to my office, asking me to go over the story with her.

It was mid-afternoon in winter and freezing outside, but the sun was out. Jessica wasn’t wearing a coat—just the same hooded sweatshirt. She sat down and drew half the curtain of brown hair behind one ear. It was the first time I saw her face fully. She was clear-skinned, open, but painfully shy. I remember thinking those words because I recall understanding the expression completely then: she was so shy it was causing her pain.

I had a grey aluminum desk with a shelf, which I pulled out between us. There, we laid out the pages of her story. She touched the edges of the paper with her fingertips. I pointed out the scenes she rendered exceptionally well, and I also pointed out sentences where she might make a verb stronger and more precise. “Shall we go through it?” I said, scooting up my chair, drawing closer to the story between us. She nodded.

We went through the pages line by line. We cut away adverbs and adjectives, words such as “very” and “a lot.” We got to the difficult scene she had added. I wasn’t sure how much further Jessica would or could go. I talked about the girl, the narrator in the third person, never once recognizing the fact that she might be the author sitting beside me. As I talked about the girl in the story, how unusual she was, and how strong and independent, Jessica began to cry noiselessly.

I swallowed hard and offered her a tissue.

“This is about you, isn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Oh sweetie, I said. “I’m so sorry.” I never called students “sweetie.” I confessed to Jessica that I didn’t have much experience with this sort of thing, which I supposed was counseling. I was just a writing teacher, and was it okay if I continued to talk about this in the only way I knew how—in writing terms? She nodded again, then whispered, “Be tough on me.”

We went through the difficult rape scene, reading it through out loud. I suggested that the narrator pause here and there to reflect, maybe even consider leaping back into the past or moving forward into the future.

“That’s the way it was too,” Jessica said. “I was there but I wasn’t there.” She quickly wrote notes on the back of the last page. I still can’t believe it. She was planning further changes.

She had stopped crying, perhaps because she was seeing her story differently now. She had editorial distance. Together we marked up the page, writing in the margins, crossing out words and writing in new ones. Jessica was no longer the young girl on the page. She was an artist looking at her own story, and she was meditating on what it might mean. Her real-life story was making that magical transformation into artifact. The words art and fact are in artifact. This particular part of Jessica’s past was no longer just a bad memory; she was making it into art.

I asked Jessica if she were seeing the campus therapist, and she said she was, but she didn’t like her therapist and she didn’t want to tell her anything. She said the sessions were frustrating. Later on, at Jessica’s request, I helped her find other sources of support, but when we started this project, she was just beginning to seek them out. I expressed all of my doubts to Jessica: Are you sure? She said she was sure. We agreed to meet there, in my office. My office would serve as the classroom, her birthing room, her safe zone. This was where she would begin to write about the hard stuff. In Poetics, Aristotle called Place one of the “lesser angels” of art, but still setting is an angel, a crucial element.

Jessica continued to come to my office that spring. She had triumphed over something in that first assignment, and she wanted to have that same experience again and again. We continued to go over her work line by line. We talked about fiction writing. She had not read much. I gave her books, mostly short story collections. But she kept looking at the other books in my bookcase, which of course I gave to her—books such as Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

Fiction is a leap for most young writers. A writer friend once told me that you have to write at least 500 pages of first-person narrative before you can move on to writing from the third-person point of view with any kind of authority. There is a great deal of truth in this, but regardless, many young writers want to head straight to fiction. They want to write about places they’ve never seen or experiences they’ve only heard about. They want to become different people. Like theater, it’s fun and it’s an escape.

But Jessica wasn’t looking for escape. Her fiction was leading her to write about her past. One day she asked what creative nonfiction meant. I watched her listen carefully as I explained about writing the truth using all the narrative tools of fiction writing. I gave her Phillip Lopate’s tome, The Art of The Personal Essay. I went on about Aristotle, and I talked about going back through your pain, so that you take others through it.

“You write what you know of the experience, using your five senses, and that extra, sixth sense, to take me through that time, that experience. Involve the reader so the reader is the one who experiences the catharsis. Catharsis,” I said. “That Greek term for purging.”

I said it was like holding the reader’s hand, my hand, and taking me through what happened, knowing that the reader, me, your Virgil is with you. And even though you will go back through all that pain again, this time you will carefully observe everything and you know you will come out of it alive.

“That’s what I want to write,” Jessica said. “Nonfiction. The truth.”

Later, when Jessica proposed an independent study in creative nonfiction, a class which I was not teaching that fall, we joked that I would be a kind of midwife for her essays, essays she wasn’t sure she knew how to write. I had not done anything like this on such a personal level before, and I was anxious to say the least. I was worried that this independent study might be too intense for both of us. I was no Virgil, and I was certainly no midwife. Jessica had written before in middle school and in high school, but never about her personal life.

mcmullan author photo-sm

Writing is playing with fire. Writing about sensitive or traumatic personal events is stepping into the fire, barefoot. Prompts that lead to real stories or personal essays about the death of a loved one or missing an absent parent are often best started in a classroom, writing with a group, working in the company of others. Sometimes I even want to suggest to writing students: do not try this alone at home. You just never know where a writing exercise might lead. But then again, before Jessica, I never had much experience with teaching young students how to write about the deeply traumatic.

I have a series of one-page writing prompts, which I’ve used successfully in the past. “Writing about Your First Name” led one young girl to write about her father, who never called her anything but “Fatty.” At the end of her one-page essay, she wrote that she planned to find a man, “Maybe an Italian with dark eyes and dark hair, one who is not very handsome and who holds the doors open for me. And he will always call me by my name.”

But with every two or three good writing assignments, there is the one dud. Write your own obituary, I cheerfully said to one class, one year. I gave them examples of clever obits made into poems. One thin girl from the back stopped me after class when the work was due and said that she could not complete the assignment because all she could think about was the time her boyfriend pinned her down and almost strangled her to death. She dropped the class. I stopped using that assignment.

What if I gave a similar bad assignment to Jessica and the results were worse than merely dropping the class?

She came in for our first creative nonfiction meeting, and after we settled down into our chairs, I asked Jessica to get out paper and pencil and close her eyes. She did.

“Did anyone ever give you something you just loved?” I asked. “Go back to that moment when you received the gift. Be that girl again. Write from a first-person, present-tense point of view. Accept the gift. Do you see it? What is it? What does it feel like in your hands? What does it sound like? Taste like? What did you think, feel, hear, say? When was this? Before…what? After…what?”

Usually when I gave this assignment in class, I asked students to write until their hands hurt. I didn’t say anything because she was already writing. Jessica wrote for an hour. So did I, right beside her. When she put her pencil down, she massaged her wrists.

“One last question,” I said. She picked up her pencil again and wrote what I said, “What did you do with the gift?” She scribbled something, gathered together all her notes and went away to finish.

Jessica wrote about the piano keyboard her foster mom gave her as an early Christmas gift one year. She was in the 7th grade, and she taught herself how to play. When she was learning to play the keyboard one day after school, her brother came into her room. “I want to say I don’t remember what happened next, but I really do,” she wrote. “I remember every detail of it.”

She had written everything clearly and well up to that point, again, up to that one traumatic scene. I hated to ask for more details. I really did.

“Slow down here,” I said, willing us both back there in that room, the piano keyboard nearby on the floor. “What do you see?” One nudge, one question was often all it took with Jessica. She didn’t say anything, made some notes, then left.

She wrote the scene in the next draft. She over-wrote it, in fact, and again we spread the pages out on the desk in front of us, scratching out words and sentences, both of us clear-eyed and thoughtful even as we hovered over that twin-sized bed, the Tasmanian Devil boxer shorts, the shivering girl, and the cream-and-lavender-flowered quilt, now stained.

Specifics make a personal story more universal. Specifics pull away from cliché and overly sentimental “purple prose.” Unfortunately, there is so much jargon in our lives that many young writing students can easily explain their trauma, and they often focus on their emotions, not on the specifics of what exactly they saw, heard, tasted, felt, smelled. Jessica couldn’t write the word rape. She only thought in specifics. It was just a matter of getting there. She came to realize that going back to those specifics is where the truth lies. It’s also where the pain is, and therefore, the specifics are much more difficult to return to and write about.

Jessica rewrote her first personal essay “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” five times. In her last and final draft, she found the ending in the gift she had been given, which began her essay. Where is it now? I had asked in her margins. Bring us back to the present.

“All these years, I kept that piano keyboard.  I remember I began playing piano again after he was sent to prison; though, I never played in a church again and I won’t play in front of many people. In life, memories can both strengthen us and hurt us. My memory of my keyboard is torn into pieces, much like that red-felt bow which once covered it. What began as a passionate memory of piano playing shredded into years of darkness. I left that keyboard with my mother under my old twin-sized bed, collecting dust and oozing battery acid from those 6D batteries. I left all my music books on my old bookshelf next to the picture of us siblings sitting all together on our grandmother’s couch in our pj’s on Christmas morning, eight years ago. I left them there so that I could begin my next chapter of life called college. Still, my favorite song to play is Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D.’ I have only memorized up to those last 21 meters.  It’s okay if I don’t ever memorize those last meters. I still love playing.”

I began storing Jessica’s essays in folders that stood upright in a stainless steel file sorter on my desk. She saw them once or twice a week, whenever she came to my office.

In the writing, Jessica didn’t worry for herself so much as she worried for her readers, worried that she was taking them through too much darkness. “You might need some tissues with this,” she told me once, giving me another essay to read. “You might even need some wine.”

We had a simple methodology, which I admit was time-consuming for both of us. When she finished an essay, we discussed it in general and then line by line. She talked about how her essays were like movies now, playing in her head. She knew she was ready to write when the movie stopped and she’d watched it all the way to the end.

Each essay went through a final stage of revision, in what Jessica later called our “arts and crafts” sessions. We sat together in my office with scissors and tape, her manuscript on the table in front of us. She said these helped because she was a “visual learner.” We cut into her pages and moved paragraphs and sentences around, thinking out loud. We taped, untaped, cut, and taped some more. Eudora Welty did this with her own stories—laying out her typewritten pages on her dining room table in Jackson, Mississippi, using scissors to cut into pages and paragraphs, then “sewing” the bits of paper back together using straight pins.

Jessica talked more after she wrote. She said that writing was her way to find her voice, a way to “speak” what she could not say, freeing herself to talk.

There is the logical argument that just because the narrative brings relief or catharsis to the writer, doesn’t make it good reading. And each time I watched Jessica and other students leave my office or classroom, ready to embark on yet another difficult story from their pasts, I would think of that passage from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

“Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Young writers who take on their own past personal traumas write first because they have to, and at their own great risk. They face off their demons in short bursts, one by one, bringing us with them. For every piece Jessica turned in, I thought surely that’s the end of the horrible stuff. But she pressed on, pushing herself. When teachers allow for these stories to emerge, they will not necessarily take pleasure and rejoice. These are rarely happy stories with tidy endings, but the outcomes can be close to joy for both the reader and for the author.

Not every student is like Jessica, either. She has her own stories to tell and she has the gift to tell them, like some other students. But there’s more. Jessica also has to write about her past and about these people and places. She has an uncommon need to exorcise her past. Writing is a matter of survival for her—life and death really.

At one point, Jessica decided she wanted to seek outside help, away from campus. While she was in my office, I called a local women’s organization, one that offers counseling and financial and emotional support for abused women. We set up an appointment, and within a few days I drove Jessica to what was a safe house. She returned there on her own for the several years. Maybe Jessica felt empowered now to seek out her own counsel, in order to heal in her own way.

In her later essays, Jessica became detective and journalist, looking for clues from her past. She went to the local police station and found records of her relatives, including the “apology” letter from the brother, who was now in prison. She went to her old foster care office, where a caseworker allowed her to read through her own case history. She made copies of what she could, and added missing facts, history, or the names of places, which filled in the gaps of her past, grounding her narratives to a specific time and place. By doing this, by researching her own life, Jessica took control of her past, present, and future.

Jessica tells me now that she didn’t realize it then, but she began writing each piece from a victim’s perspective. Then, at the end of each piece, after she wrote herself out of the past and into the present, she finished as a survivor. In her early essays, Jessica describes the designs in carpets and the grains of woods in floors because she was always looking down. In her later essays, she writes about trees and fields. The rooms have windows and doors, and they are mostly open to her.

“This is hard,” Jessica said more than once. It is often painful to look back inside a traumatized life, to recall, to re-remember, but she persevered and, in these later essays, she went further, analyzing herself, measuring what happened, evaluating as though she could see what happened to her in the third person. Jessica learned to be patient with her writing and with herself. Yes, writing is hard work. Yes, writing about the difficult and sensitive portions of your life is even more difficult and emotionally exhausting. But when you patiently, quietly write your way back into these scenes from your past, it becomes a form of prayer or meditation.

Jessica’s essays, like other student essays about difficult, sensitive issues are not just about what the author has lived through and what she remembers. They are about the capacity for endurance and forgiveness, and they show how the author has changed. By writing these pieces, by re-living experiences and really examining what happened, these young writers give themselves the opportunity to reconcile with themselves and with their violent and traumatic non-upbringing. This kind of writing doesn’t have to be about forgiveness either. But by writing about difficult pasts or clearly traumatic episodes, young authors often give themselves an opportunity to move on, even perhaps thrive. They open themselves to friendships, learning, and maybe even love. Perhaps most importantly, they come to understand that we read and write stories to make sense of our lives and ourselves.

At the end of our independent study, the file sorter on my desk was full. Jessica and I took all these essays out of their folders. Her work no longer fit on my desk, so we spread the pages on the office floor. We walked back and forth through her life, kneeling to get a closer look at a title, a page, or scene.

Jessica saw how all the pieces fit together as a bigger whole, a larger story. She put them in an order only she saw, rearranging her narrative into what would be her memoir. I just stood back and watched. She knelt and wrote notes on the edges, making connections. She wrote in plans to reflect more here, and there she would dip back further into the past, for clarity. She moved some pages away from each other. That day Jessica caught a glimpse of her story’s narrative shape. Now she was in charge, the author of her own life story.

Margaret McMullan is the author of seven award-winning novels, including In My Mother’s House, Sources of Light, and Aftermath Lounge, a novel-in-stories about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her anthology of essays by women writing about their fathers, Every Father’s Daughter, is now available. McMullan holds the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana.

2 responses to “Stepping into the Fire”

  1. Avatar

    What is Jessica’s book called? I want to read it!

    1. Avatar

      at this time, we are not aware of any books published by Margaret’s student Jessica. Thank you for reading!