Two weeks ago I was chatting to a well travelled 50-something not-for-profit worker and they asked how my writing was going.
‘Fantastic!’ I replied, ‘I’m just in the process of picking which publisher I want to go with for my first book.’
‘Congratulations! What kind of book?’
‘It’s a memoir but it’s also more broadly about women and the law, discussing sexism in the justice system.’
‘But don’t you have to have done things with your life to write a memoir about them?’
I was speechless. That terror of being perceived as some kind of ‘diva’ overcame my conviction and my face burned.
Shame, unlike laughter or fear, is not a natural occurrence. Shame is taught and learned, our cheeks burning when it is put upon us. Shame arrives in our lives around the same time language does – as infants we run around naked, feeling no shame for our bare butts until we learn how to talk and others inform us of our indiscretion – and, like language, it anchors somewhere deep in our psyche, notoriously difficult to unlearn.
I didn’t feel shame for writing memoir until others put it upon me.
I didn’t feel shame for writing memoir until others put it upon me. When I first began writing, I mean really first began, it didn’t really occur to me that writing about my own life was anything other than 100 percent fine. I was living in China for a year and blogging about what I did every day. It would’ve been occasionally interesting and mostly mundane, but it was written for me and my relatives back home. If someone didn’t want to read about my life, they didn’t have to. I was having a blast, sharing my experiences and feelings freely, running around, baring myself, not realising that to some people this behaviour was somehow inappropriate. I was discovering how much I loved writing, learning to build arcs and wrestle down paragraphs, when I started noticing the sniggers and eye-rolls. It was just the beginning of my writing journey, and the beginning of my being shamed for it. In the five years since then I have had multiple people advise me, either directly or indirectly, that a young woman writing about herself was presumptuous, arrogant, self-important, and/or pointless.
One year ago (in my past life as a Judge’s Associate) I was coming to the realisation that I had a particular, big, important story I wanted to share. It started as a personal essay, but I couldn’t reel it in – it demanded a full-length treatment. It was about my own journey within the Australian legal system and the sexism I saw around me every day. Sitting at a café in Brisbane with some other 20-something law graduates, I started sharing my thoughts.
‘Wow,’ one of my peers said to me, ‘I’d never write a memoir until I was older and had definitely done enough with my life. Do you really think you could fill a whole book already and actually make it interesting?’
The group went silent. ‘Well, I just told you I wanted to write a memoir, so obviously I do.’ It was the first of many times my desire to tell my story would be questioned and ridiculed.
I spent the next year telling people I was working on a ‘narrative non-fiction’ manuscript. At parties and on lunch breaks I would spend time explaining what the heck ‘narrative non-fiction’ even is, and I didn’t say the dirty m-word anymore. I also didn’t even say the word ‘book’ anymore. If I was with people I wanted to impress I wouldn’t even say I was working on anything in particular, for fear their questions might force me to admit I thought my life experiences and insights worth documenting. My resolve became a secret. Even if you know you shouldn’t feel shame about your work, it sticks because it’s scary. I pre-empted disapproval and, like most repeated habits, the negativity that started as cautiousness became automatic and internalised.
I can’t accept the shame and soldier on… I must, on every level, reject it.
In Lena Dunham’s MEMOIR (I’m capitalising this word now, to compensate for the 12 months I’ve lost) I have a big dog-ear on one particular page, where Dunham discusses the power of sharing women’s experiences:
There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.
Do I agree with this? Yes I do, that why I run the feminist publication and community Hot Chicks with Big Brains. If I believe it applies to Dunham, and I believe it applies to other women I interview and admire, does it also, by necessity, apply to me? Yes. Does this mean I always have a witty riposte when, yet again, I encounter someone shaming me for writing a MEMOIR? No, not yet.
The universal response to shame is concealment, which is a tricky response to deal with when you’re writing about your life in order to share it. I can’t accept the shame and soldier on. My writing and this shame are mutually exclusive. I must, on every level, reject it.
Thankfully, despite the efforts of douchebags, that pesky self-confidence just refused to stay hidden. In explaining to people why Hot Chicks with Big Brains is important, I always tell them what I believe is true: that giving women a space to have their voices heard is inherently a good thing, and that when we connect our experiences to other people’s, patterns of sexism and patterns of defiance emerge. Interviewing a woman is a way of telling her that her life, voice, and experience, is valued. Getting other women to read her interview provides an opportunity for others to empathise and identify shared experiences. You’d have to be a fucking idiot to shame something so potentially revolutionary.