This piece was first featured in http://booksbywomen.org
As writers, we are always being advised to show up naked on the page. This, we are told, leads to powerful writing, words that come alive on the page. But the question is - when our pens have laid the truth on the paper, and the publishing process has churned us through its cogs, when our story lies glossy and new on readers’ bedside tables - what are the after-effects?
I spoke to three authors who have been published in the past year: Tracy Going’s - an award-winning former South African TV and radio news anchor - haunting memoir ‘Brutal Legacy’ tells of her brutal assault by her intimate partner and delves into her childhood with a violent father.
Désirée-Anne Martin’s book, ‘We Don't Talk About It. Ever.’ is a harrowing memoir of a good girl’s descent into drug addiction.
Niki Malherbe’s book ‘Somewhere Inbetween’, is her second self-published book and explores the elusive concept of ‘work / life’ balance for women.
DM: It's been both magical and mortifying. Writing the story was like opening up a wound. Releasing the story out into the world…it was as though the wound was still open and it took a while for it to heal. That was the mortifying aspect. I made myself vulnerable to people I didn't even know.
But the magical aspect is that I have spoken my truth. It's a lifelong dream come true. I've had amazing feedback from strangers. I've had no negative feedback. It's a huge risk - and then it was surprising that people, from different circles and walks of life, were relating to it.
TG: Where I'm lucky is that my story has been tried and tested in a court room, and I've stuck to court records. So it can't be challenged on that level. I was very aware when I was writing the book that I had to be as specific and as truthful as I could be.
My motivation for writing the book was in outrage and protest. I never wrote it as a form of catharsis or healing. So I think that also protected me.
Although it took me a very long time to write it…to be able to live with being looked at differently. I needed to get sufficient distance between me and my story so that it wasn't one of bitterness and anger.
My most vulnerable time was during the editing process, just before the book was due to be released. I had an enormous moment of asking myself, ‘What have you done??
NM: Because my book is not a memoir as such, it's not quite as revealing or as anxiety-provoking as Martin or Going’s books.
But I do feel like it has gone against the grain in terms of what I share about being a woman in the world. Before I wrote the book, I'd been this poster girl for something I believed in (what? …can you fill this in, in a few words?) and suddenly, I was writing a book saying I didn't know if I could be that person anymore. So that, for me, was quite hard to stand by.
DM: At the beginning it was quite difficult to field questions about my book, but now I'm quite comfortable. My no-go zones in interviews are my children. But no one’s gone there, so it's ok.
I've found that, because my book is so honest, readers proceed to tell me their life stories. People are as open with me as I am in the book. So, being a counsellor, I've had to put in boundaries at work: if a prospective client has read my book then I refer them to someone else.
TG: I was very careful when I wrote it, not to tell other people's stories. And then, when I got to writing about the terrible things that had happened to me - that to this day I'm still mortified by - I pretended that I was writing about somebody else. And even now, I pretend that it's not really me.
Talking with these three women, I see that expressing our truth renders us vulnerable. Yet at the same time, it strengthens us. When that truth of ours is packaged up into a book and travels along the publishing channels to land on a reader’s lap, sitting curled up on the couch, mug of something warm in hand, the truth the author has told can make tears well up in the reader’s eyes, or bring a rush of warmth to her heart… It seems that truth shared is never wasted.
Next we explored how each dealt with the vulnerability of having their truth published and in the public eye.
DM: I am blessed with a very supportive husband, who held and contained me. Therapy was a huge help, both during the writing process and afterwards. And a good support network of nurturing and loving friends.
TG: I have to detach, and I'm constantly redefining my boundaries. I've learnt to keep a little distance between me and the audience or reader. In an interview, if someone asks me a question that I feel is inappropriate, I'll just say, ‘That's unwarranted’ … because over-sharing is dangerous. And then you become vulnerable.
NM: As I reflect back on my book now, I still believe in what I said but it's interesting how you evolve, based on what you've read or experienced.
For me, the hardest part is that strangers are making assumptions about me based on what they've read in my book. Sometimes, they construe the book in a way that’s completely different from how I see myself.
TG: Yes, I still get long, meaningful hugs from strangers in the supermarket, who want to know if I'm alright. But I reassure them that it was a long time ago.
NM: The base response is that most people think it's very brave, very honest.
TG: What has taken me by surprise is the response from men all over South Africa, both victims and perpetrators of violence.
We tend to think that domestic violence is a women's issue, but there are little boys who grow up watching their mothers being beaten. I see this topic as being more of a cause actually. I believe fervently that I was given the story to tell it.
That's why, when I wrote the book, I didn't want to alienate anyone, or aim it only at women. We're all in this together.
TG: I knew I was prepared to be available for any and all marketing, but I didn't anticipate it was going to be as busy as it has been.
And I've been very grateful for the responses from readers, the letters they've sent, etc. I'm also very grateful for my story, that I've been able to tell it.
DM: I also feel gratitude for having lived my story, for being able to share it, for getting it published. I feel immensely grateful that it was published and that my truth has in some way impacted other people. I feel increasingly triumphant, that I can continue telling my truth. And it's gotten easier as time has gone by, to speak my truth openly in public.
NM: Now that I'm working on my next book, I can put in my previous book as a reference. (Laughs) And even though I'm over my book in a way, it's as though it's prepared me for writing the next one.
TG: Even though my story is an old one, I was left feeling very vulnerable. And do still… as strong and tough as I am.
But these three courageous authors prove that toughness and vulnerability are not polar opposites. This is the beauty of strong stories and the bravery of the tellers of these stories. Because it is when the shield splits apart, or a chink appears in the armour, that we feel the heart of the warrior woman.
And that's what gives us strength to put the book down, haul ourselves off the couch and walk back into our own lives, heartened and just that little bit bolder.
You can find all three books on Amazon:
‘Brutal Legacy’ by Tracy Going
‘We Don't Talk About It. Ever’ by Désirée-Anne Martin
‘Somewhere In Between’ by Niki Malherbe