On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”

December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

detraBy Detra Damskov

I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.

After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen.  She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.

Write about what you can’t write about.

I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy.  Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything.  My story needed to breathe so I could do the same.  So that night, I exhaled and began.  What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.

I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests.  Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.

But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.

Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.”  Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.

Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.

If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.

While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.

Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.

Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism.  Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity.  Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this.  Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.

As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame.  In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.

Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few.  Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.

If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.
____

Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction.  She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.

Scar Tissue

December 11, 2018 § 7 Comments

Headshot of a white man with short white hair, wire-frame glasses and a light turquoise shirt, against a background of leavesBy Jeffrey Seitzer

In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.

Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.

In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:

As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.

I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.

Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.

Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.

I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.

As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.

But the ending.

I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”

I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.

A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.

But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.

I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.

I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.

Tick, tock.

Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.

After all, people will want to know what really happened.

__________________________________________________________

Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.

A Parting Letter to My Creative Writing Students

December 6, 2018 § 12 Comments

By Matthew Burnside

Burnside Author PhotoDear Student,

Certain lessons you will learn only with time, earned like scars, as you discover the weird little nuances and idiosyncrasies of your voice and what you have to offer total strangers through your words. My hope is that you do not forget that writing, more than mere therapy, can be so much: (1) an act of resistance to a material world at times, seemingly, bent on destroying the integrity of your spirit, your faith in something ineffable and unspeakable. (2) A way of making sense out of the great tumbling chaos – with all its inscrutable runes, myriad ecstasies and agonies. (3) And/or, more importantly perhaps, a means of helping others to make sense out of their own gnawing loneliness, grief, misery, madness . . . a way of reaching one’s hands across the careless void to haunt your readers with love—a depth of decency, empathy, understanding of which perhaps they didn’t even know they were deserving.

A quick note on rejection: It will come, and you will live beyond it, I promise. As it staggers you though, racking you with ruin, I pray you will not shirk from your task but develop thorns, as the blooming rose, and swim through those perceived defeats to discover the value of your struggling. Of always moving toward and not ever standing still, in love with your searching, with departing and not arriving. My hope is that you embrace all that is difficult and bursting with ambitious failure, unafraid to risk your ego in order to better your craft, and learn something about yourself, your style, your ideas about being a human being in a world full of other human beings. But my greatest hope is that you never settle, or cheapen your art, or suppress your youness in exchange for useless applause or popularity. Better to have your work – that which comes ripped straight from the roots of your heart – read and understood truly by three people than misunderstood but loved by fifty. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Art is only for those willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it”.

Always ask yourself why you’re writing. Are you telling the stories that matter to you? Exploring for the sake of exploring? Playing for the sake of playing? Getting lost for the sake of getting lost? Reveling in the unmappable mutations of your words and constructing language cathedrals on blank page tundras to lure the wild wolves to prayer?

Don’t worry if your book hasn’t been published yet. Don’t worry if you have no fan club. If you’re writing, you’re doing your job. You’re building a thing immutable. You’re working toward holy somethingness. You’re carving a soul out of smoke and skulls. You’re being a writer, and I promise someday these ink scars will thank you.

Life has taught me that success, contrary to popular belief, does not consist of a single meteoric leap forward overnight but is rather a series of excruciatingly tedious baby steps so slow you’re convinced at times you’re not even in motion, with an occasional embarrassing trip that knocks you several large steps backwards to leave you reeling—your ego-equilibrium atilt and confidence sore. The “successful” person then is whoever doesn’t buckle under the weight of their own skin, with enough patience to stand firm in their own two shoes. To resist the temptation to choose the easier path, or sit on the curb cursing gravity for not rewarding them with instant gratification, instead continuing to lurch stubbornly toward their dream at a snail’s pace.

Remember that the most precious of all human elements is imagination, second only to love, for in imagination, as in love, all things are possible.

To this I would add: cynicism may be fashionable but it is also cheap. Easy. Retain your sincerity. Store it up. Salvage it. Do not lose that luster of Yes that keeps you buoyant among the blood-fanged sharks of this world who would rather see you sinking, faithless for all your fellow kin and kind.

In short, strive to be that which helps all beside you float onward through the storm.

This and so many more things I wish for you, as you go out into the universe and make it your own by wrecking it and rebuilding it with words conjured from that deepest, most intimate part of you.

May you leave it kinder than you found it.

Sincerely,

Your Professor Who Knows You Will Accomplish Wonders
___

Matthew Burnside is the author of a few books and chapbooks, including Postludes (KERNPUNKT) and Rules To Win the Game (Spuyten Duyvil Press). He resides in Texas and is currently finishing up a novel about a girl who raises wolves in an abandoned theme park.

Making It Through the Loneliness on a Solo Writer’s Retreat

December 5, 2018 § 14 Comments

Linda C. WisniewskiBy Linda C. Wisniewski

The young woman’s face on my laptop screen smiled encouragement. Look at the sky if you’re near a window, she said, or remember the sky if you are not. Write about what’s happening.

I picked up my pen and spiral notebook, and wrote about the palest of blues beyond the trees outside my window. I described brown, orange and green leaves clinging to branches. I wrote that I felt as if I were in a bowl of blue, the sunlight to my left a warm beacon.

I did not write about this: My breath was shallow, my body cold and tense. Alone on a solo writing retreat in the Pocono Mountains, I struggled for calm.

I’ve been anxious all my life. What made me think this was a good idea? The friend who stayed three days in a cabin where her food – and beer – were delivered to her door. A famous writer who checks into a hotel room for days at a time to work on her novel. A friend who drives to her second home in the wilderness to write and canoe alone.

When a week-long stay at a mountain resort came up at our church auction, I made a tentative bid, not sure I wanted to win. It was the only bid. I imagined myself writing and reading all day, stopping only for meals or a walk outside. Maybe even hiking on the nearby trails. But it was gray and cold and miserable the first full day. I walked the hilly roads alone; there was no sidewalk or walking path. Cars passed at low speed but I felt unsafe and vulnerable.

At home, I have the same distractions all writers do: laundry, email, Facebook. Cooking, shopping, the need to exercise. The phone. Anything and everything. I’ve been trying to complete my second novel for a year. My romantic soul imagined me alone in the mountains with pen or laptop, a cup of tea, and long empty days to pour words onto the page.

Blue, blue, I wrote to the live prompt, inside the bowl of sky. See the blue beauty now, the dancing pink leaves on shrubs near the ground. There is beauty here for me to see, above and below. My frantic attempts to follow instructions yielded trite phrases.

I had the time I said I wanted. And I couldn’t breathe. Okay, I could, but I had to concentrate. Deep breath, Linda. In and out.

The online instructor asked us to respond to a quote from Audre Lorde and another from a Whitman poem. My writing was all about the light: looking for it, finding it, needing it. Three longhand pages, not bad for an hour’s work with 29 people on a Zoom chat. But then they were gone. And the rooms around me were empty.

Even though my son was due to arrive on the fourth night, the crashing loneliness was like a thick blanket threatening to smother me. Where were my inner resources? I’ve lived seventy years and must have some by now. But I couldn’t settle to meditate. I read a book. Journaling about my fear made it worse. I watched the clock until my son arrived in the middle of Grey’s Anatomy. Thank God for TV.

The next morning, he logged into his office and worked at the kitchen table all day. I got some real writing done, and later, we went to the indoor pool where happy families played with toddlers jumping under a mushroom shaped fountain. When I told him about my anxiety, he recommended his two-minute rule for worry: Stop after two minutes. I’m glad it works for him.

I like being home alone, my favorite things all around me, my trees outside the window, the white noise of traffic on the highway. My cat snoring on the floor beside my desk. But alone on this self-made writer’s retreat, I watched the windows and doors. For what?

I tried to make sense of my panicky feelings, researched them on the web, and read about fear of abandonment. I tried hard to work through my anxiety. I told myself I shouldn’t feel this way. And then I cut myself a break and went home.

I left with organized files of essays and stories and a revised chart of paying markets. I got clearer on my writing goals. And I learned that it doesn’t matter what other writers do. Sure, I’d like to lose the anxiety. But in the meantime, I don’t have to write alone.
__

Linda C. Wisniewski lives with her retired scientist husband in Bucks County, PA where she volunteers at the historic home of Nobel prize author Pearl S. Buck. Her writing has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, gravel, bioStories, and The Sunlight Press. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press.

You’re Not a Loser: Advice for Emerging Writers

November 30, 2018 § 16 Comments

tersonBy Jessica Terson

Years ago, I wrote a personal essay for Cleaver Magazine exploring why I persisted in dating total losers. Read the first few paragraphs of that essay and you’ll find a laundry list of questionable lovers. Whether I was dating a man with a heroin addiction or one with a tendency toward violence, I could always poeticize falling in love with a scumbag. And although I ultimately acknowledged that I dated losers because I thought of myself as a loser, I left out an essential detail. Why did I feel that way?

Writers often feel like losers too.

Last night, I received a distressing phone call from a girlfriend. She had just received her fourth rejection letter in a single day. “I feel like such a loser,” she told me between tears. “It’s bad enough getting rejected on Tinder.”

Then there’s my coworker. She never broke down crying. But she did mention that everyone from her old graduate school, besides herself, has a book deal. She said this while we laid out pastries at the coffee shop where we both make minimum wage. “I just keep thinking, am I wasting my life? Do I have what it takes to make it? Or will I be here ‘til I’m sixty?”

And it’s not just women who suffer from self-doubt. A man whom I went to graduate school with—over a decade ago, mind you—recently posted a Facebook status bemoaning his lack of success in creative writing. Thinking back to our graduate school days, I can’t help laughing at our naivety. I suppose I always saw myself winning the National Poetry Series straight out of school. Universities would line up outside my front door and beg me to come work for them. Sooner or later, someone would nominate me for the Nobel Prize. So you can imagine my horrified surprise when I spent the next decade blindly sending off work to literary magazines and receiving nothing but form rejections in return.

Maybe a professor should have warned me. A thesis advisor at DePaul University Chicago once told my girlfriend that she was more likely to get bitten by a shark than become a professional opera singer. Sound harsh? It is. But it’s also reality.

Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. Like many other writers that I know, I aim to receive 100 literary rejections a year. That’s right: 100. One-hundred rejections means 100 submissions. And the more I submit, the more likely I am to find a journal that enjoys my work.

When I wrote my essay for Cleaver Magazine all those years ago, I hadn’t published anything in over a decade. Since then, I’ve received enough rejection letters to cover more than a wall in my living room (apparently, wallpaper rejections letters are actually a thing). But I’ve also had some success. Every year I add a few more publications to my name. And in December, one of my poems will appear in The Georgia Review. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it’s a pretty good start.

Once I learned to make peace with the fact that writing was going to be hard, and that publishing was going to be even harder, I felt like less of a loser. Partaking in the various writing support groups available on Facebook also helps me to feel less isolated. It turns out that most creative types feel like losers, even the ones who find frequent success.

Success won’t happen overnight. The chances of winning a big prize or a book deal straight out of graduate school are probably slim to none. More likely, you’ll get enough rejections to break your heart (so take my advice and don’t double the pain by dating scumbags). There will be days—and these never completely go away—when you’ll consider giving up completely. But don’t give up. You’re not a loser. You’re just an artist figuring out the best way to proceed. It’s a hard road, but it’s worth it. And in the meantime, think of all the things you can decorate with those 100 rejection letters. I’ve seen way worse wall paper out there.
___

Jessica Terson’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, New Orleans Review (web feature), River Styx, River Teeth Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

 

 

4732 Millas de Distancia

November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

By Erin Clark

Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.

Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.

November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.

“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.

Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”

When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.

“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.

I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!!  Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”

He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.

“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”

Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.

I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.

“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.

I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.

It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.

“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.

“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.

Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.

I had hated the waiting.

I resisted his notes even more.

I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.

“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”

“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”

“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?

I broke the paragraph in two.

Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:

To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?

She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.

When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.

If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.

_______________________________________

Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo credit: Diego Moncayo

Tales That Echo Through My Bloodline: Telling Family Stories

November 7, 2018 § 18 Comments

MTHshot_400x400DENIMby Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

In sixth grade, I wrote stories on wide-ruled notebook paper and read excerpts to my friend Coral on our morning walks to my bus stop. Back then, gaps in my memory were filled with settings I conjured up by opening the Thomas Guide, picking a city, and making up events that would take place there. These stories bore no resemblance to what I knew and lived. True stories—treasure troves already imbued to me by blood—didn’t seem appropriate material for anything I’d write. Writing, I thought, would set free my imaginations.

Years later though, on a trip to Mexico when I was 20-years-old, I was offered stories by my aunties and cousins, family memories they entrusted only to me. I knew that I needed to handle them like papel picado, perforated paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. My memories now contained the songs of my aunties, the aromas of grease in the air of their Guadalajara kitchens, the tiled floors of places that welcomed me. The impulse to write became electrifying. Their words were prescribed to me like a medicine—an antidote to the tyranny of displacement.

I learned how to tell stories from the ladies in my family—their histories all dotted on a line like birds on a wire, infinitely poised to take flight and ascend over the rooftops of time, and then glide, descending onto my sensibilities. I internalized their memories, their markers of memory, and emboldened them onto the grid of my own story, my space. I didn’t quite know how to shape their memories into the written form, but I knew that I needed to try.

Their stories share a common rhythm, a rich optic for the uncanny which bellows out of the holes of traumas like poverty, neglect, rejection, abuse, prostitution, addiction. These ladies are a relentless force of matriarchs, where men occupy the shadows.

Sensitive to the world that was opening before me, I knew I had to do something with all I was offered. What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that impacted my soul the most? It was too unnerving and utterly selfish to keep the stories buried in the ground. I would need to dive into the great blue sea and search for the diamonds that slipped out of my hands. Too much was at stake.

If you only knew all the things I know, all the stories people I know have shared with me, my aunties would say, you would have a saga no one would ever forget. As I hear this, my heart races faster. I need my equipment. I need my gear. I need to listen deeply to save these diamonds in the sea from oblivion.

I remember a sense of dread—not about the content of the stories—but about my inability to remember them, to record them accurately. I fretted about misplacing my notebooks, my sensibility, my empathy. I would lose sleep and feel the urgent tug of responsibility burden my shoulders. I had the relentlessness of a journalist, but the isolation of a creative writer.

I’m certain now that the tales that echo through my bloodline are stories that were meant for me to hear. Otherwise, why would my aunties ever unearth a past so traumatic that time would be the salve to keep it from resurfacing? I learned not to fear their pasts, as dreadful as those pasts may have seemed, because I realized that their legacies were not exclusive to our family.

Many others of their generation tell their own stories, and they are just as haunting as ours. There are stories trapped in the confines of family secrecy, or shame, that I wrestle with and don’t need to tell, despite my disbelief in coincidences, in chance, in mistakes. I’ve recorded stories told to me by aunties and my mother; I don’t have the appropriate rhythm or recall that these storytellers do, but what I do have are vignettes—snapshots captured by the speed of a camera’s shutter. I can place them, then, into stories of my imagination where my pen meets the paper. I complete them with my own stroke of color to make something new.

“She took a small step over the curlicues and geometric patterns of the olive and blue encaustic tiles that have seen years of foot traffic, rain, and sun. I’m sure they had once been lovely under all those layers of dirt,” I write. These curiosities color the descriptions in my short stories, fictional tales that complete the picture of recorded lists, places, recipes, and names.

Now, my manuscripts will be comprised of these vignettes, some shaped out of the gems bestowed to me orally, reinvented through memory. I continue to hold safe these stories that haven’t been imparted to the world yet, these fragments of perforated paper so delicate in their beauty, colorful tissues of paper that wrap like bunting to declare celebration.
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Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Millions, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal, and elsewhere. She writes fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews. She is an alumna of the Mills College MFA program. She hosts the Afictionada podcast and is co-founder of Burning Bush Press. She is writing a novel. Find her here.

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