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Writing Taboo

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Last week, I was invited to be a guest speaker in a memoir workshop at Harvard University, to discuss my experiences writing and publishing my story of childhood sexual abuse. The professor and students had read some of my narrative nonfiction as well as an essay I'd published in Poets & Writers Magazine, titled "Why We Write: A Topic Too Risky," about why I've continued to pursue my path even though many industry professionals have told me my work will never be published because, they believe, my subject matter is "taboo."

"Why do they think it's taboo?" several students asked. "It's all over the news."

It is. But most of us are a step or two removed from the news, just as we are from episodes of Law & Order SVU. A memoir is an intimate, first-person unfolding of life experience. It's very personal. Some simply can't handle the knowledge that the terrible truth is actually real.

People are afraid.

I know. For years, I pushed the truth of my life as far away from my awareness as I could. Although I lived through it, I was afraid I couldn't live with it. Yet, I wouldn't really have a life -- or be able to truly write -- until I faced it.

When I was 29 and in therapy and diagnosed with PTSD, and I finally disclosed to my mother that I'd been sexually abused as a girl, she asked me not to talk about it. She said knowing the truth would cause her to be "unable to function." We became estranged.

She was afraid.

When I revealed my truth to a mentor who had, a couple of years earlier, taken me under his wing when he saw I was struggling with anxiety and depression, he withdrew. "I don't want to hear it," he said with startling anger. He barely spoke to me after that.

He was afraid.

I was afraid: I was sharing my story and I was losing people in the process. Why, then, would I ever want to write about it and share it with the world? To me, writing memoir is about more than telling the truth. It's about creating meaning out of what otherwise seems meaningless. It's about transforming tragedy into art.

When I was 35, I attended the Southampton Writers Conference and participated in a memoir workshop led by Kaylie Jones, who spoke about the need to create a writing environment that shuts out the censorious voices of those who tell us we shouldn't write what we are writing. She read my work and encouraged me: "Be afraid," she wrote when she signed my copy of one of her books. "Go through it. The world will be better for your work."

Such words fueled me. I studied narrative technique: structure, pacing, point of view, and other craft tools. I sought and found teachers, editors, and other industry professionals who saw my story as about more than my trauma, as about the human spirit. My work got rejected, as every writer's work does, but it also got published.

I learned to trust people with my story. Still, as I told the Harvard students, there were times when I let fear hold me back in a way that stymied my writing. After reading an early draft of my memoir manuscript, my agent told me he sensed I was tiptoeing around something. I was. I'd been avoiding revealing something pivotal, something I'd never told anyone but my therapist.

"I'm a firm believer in art being as truthful as possible," my agent said. "What's the point if it's not?"

And so I revised and revealed, and culled an excerpt for an essay, which I sent out for possible publication. When the editor of Salon accepted it, I was petrified: What would happen once people read it? I was afraid I'd be shunned. I considered withdrawing my story. But I was done with allowing fear to make my decisions.

When "My Deep, Dark Secret" went "live," suddenly people everywhere were writing to me, talking, sharing. I received letters from prison inmates, women whose own childhood traumas had led them to a life of crime. My essay, they said, had made them realize they could write their truths too, and be free.

***

In Trauma and Recovery, renowned psychiatrist Judith Herman states, "The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable."

How do memoirists speak of such circumstances? How do we make accessible what many in the industry deem "unreadable"? We do it with a consciousness of our experience, our audience, and the art of writing.

Although I've lived through and processed my trauma, my readers haven't. My job is not to traumatize them; my job is to engage and uplift, educate and entertain them. While my narrator-self is recounting past experience on the page, my writer-self must guide readers and infuse the story with a roadmap of meaning.

As writers of memoir, no matter our subject, we must look and write beyond the details of our experiences to illustrate the universal. We must strive to make our material relatable to everyone.

While sexual abuse may be the context of my memoir, it is not my story. My story, in fact, is not about trauma or anything remotely "taboo" -- my story is about transcendence.

One of my colleagues recently read my essay, "Forgiving My Mother," in The Huffington Post. While he'd never had the specific experience I'd depicted, he said he could relate to it. His eyes welled: "You put this private part of yourself out there to share," he said, as if such an act were incomprehensible.

All I could think was, why wouldn't I?

When my time in the Harvard memoir workshop came to a close, I told the students that I hoped they'd commit to writing and publishing their stories. "Don't let fear hold you back," I said.

"You're strong," one commented.

"You're brave," said another.

"You can be too," I replied.

You can be too.

Tracy Strauss is seeking a publisher for her memoir, Notes on Proper Usage, about her relationship with her late writer-editor mother, the discovery of her mother's secret collection of documents and journals, the abusive man who marked both their lives, and her journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Learn more at www.tracystrauss.com.