The Great Below

living the feeling life

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Women and wounds

Bronze age petroglyph in Tanum, Sweden, showing woman weeping.

Bronze age petroglyph of weeping woman – Tanum, Sweden.

A friend who had a mastectomy a few years ago due to breast cancer told me a story: she had visited another friend’s mother, who’d had the same operation and then reconstructive surgery. They sat together on the bed and talked about it , and then, my friend said, “We took off our bras and showed each other our scars.” I thought at the time, how good women are at this – showing each other our wounds, sharing our pain openly with one another.

This is not a small thing in a society like ours that values the outward gloss of perfection, and consequently  brands illness, sadness or loss as somehow shameful. Maybe it’s because women are more intimately concerned with the body throughout our lives – with our hormonal cycles, pregnancy and childbirth etc – that we find it easier to connect with the things that go wrong, both physically and psychically. Or maybe we don’t feel we have so much to protect, which makes exposing our weaknesses easier .

My husband Michael once overheard me talking on the phone to someone I didn’t know, and telling her about a miscarriage I had had the year before. He commented that I must have been talking to a woman, as men simply didn’t share that kind of personal story, often even with friends, let alone with a total stranger. I’m not a man, so I don’t know the truth of this, but it does seem that men  – certainly of my generation – more often relate to each other through competitive humour or fact-sharing, rather than personal revelation.

When I’ve published articles about feelings in the newspaper, I get a range of responses in the comments section: the majority saying that they are grateful that I brought up the subject and was able to speak so honestly about it, or that I have resonated with something they also feel or have experienced. But there’s also a proportion of comments (from both men and women) along the lines of “Stop moaning and get a life.” or even reacting with real anger that I have taken up space in ‘their’ newspaper with my personal expression.

In writing these articles, and my book, I have showed my wounds publicly, and for some people this is clearly both threatening and shameful. (Of course, they’re not obliged to read what I write, nor to do anything about it!) But I actually think being able to display vulnerability is a strength and I wish we felt freer to do it more, both men and women. Perhaps then we’d realise that to suffer is human, and feel able to show more compassion in our lives.


My first book tour

Last weekend I was invited to Birmingham and Ilkley Literature Festivals.  In Birmingham, I was on a panel with three novelists, and we were asked to reflect on how our reading and writing lives were linked. I was struck by how diligently these other authors work at their fiction, making reading-lists and doing extensive background research to get the setting of their books authentic. As my book was about me, in my own life, I had none of these issues; I didn’t even read other memoirs while I was writing it, to avoid getting confused about style and structure.

Which is not to say that my reading hasn’t had a big influence on my writing. I read a large amount of fiction, as well as the occasional memoir or biography, and mostly I am looking for an emotional connection to the characters and an absorbing, well-told story. A reflection of life, through the eyes of another, which somehow teaches me more about myself. In writing my book, I hoped that by speaking very clearly and honestly in my own voice, I would both draw readers into my story and be able to support them in theirs.

In Ilkley, I was reading with Don Paterson, who has just published a book about Michael’s poems, called Smith, in which he gives a close reading of fifty poems and tries to unpack the layers of meaning, allusion, worlds-within-worlds, that make these poems so incredible, and yet often still so accessible on a simple reading. Like a beautiful tune with a complex harmonic structure and many hidden counter-melodies.

The audience was an interesting mix of poetry fans and people who were there because they were interested in my subject, grief. A woman who had recently lost a partner said during the question time that she thought my book ought to be ‘required reading.’  Later I chatted with her and others about how important it is for the emotional truths of our lives to be spoken  about openly, alongside their fictional expression. I think this is more and more understood – there have been five memoirs of widowhood published this year that I know about – although it still hasn’t really translated into being comfortable with each others’ emotional expression face to face.

But the reactions to my book give me the feeling that I have managed to do what I wanted – reached out and touched people in their hearts, from my heart. It’s one of the things I am most proud of in my whole life.