Writers on Writing #16: Linda Sirois
My student has tiptoed and tap-danced around childhood trauma since the first draft of the first paper of the semester. A look, peeks, comments of self-disclosure. I’ve been a receptive listener, encouraging only what she seems to be seeking permission to write about—a most delicate dance:
May I? Shall I…? she asks. You may if you like; you should if you want, if it feels right. I answer. She discloses. I respond. She advances, I support. I’m thinking about…she says. Do it, go ahead, I can help you if you decide to…I answer. We discuss pacing, tone, technique, energy.
I give her all the safety nets I can think of: remember that your classmates will need to see your work; be sure to only go as far as you feel comfortable; take very good care of yourself as you write this—it may bring up a lot of feelings. Feel free to change your mind any time you want, feel free to change your topic if you’re not ready for this, e-mail me if you need any help. . .
She misses class the day the drafts are due, but e-mails her rough draft. This is why, she says in her e-mail, this is why I couldn’t come to class. I’ve been working on this all weekend and I just have to get it out today, I can’t stop. I repeated that she should take extra care of herself while doing this hard work.
I worried that she might be premature in her examination of this bundle of pain. I worried whether I had encouraged her to bring into the light things that she’d kept close for most of her life. Reliving our conversations, I felt reassured that it was she who led, she who sought, she asked and I offered assistance not with the pain itself but with the birthing process and the shaping of the story she was determined to tell. My part in this is confined to assisting her in shaping traumatic experience into craft; to advise her on the mechanics and artistry of conversion—raw pain into meaningful narrative.
She reaches out—I stand ready, a little worried, hoping I can be helpful enough.
The first rough draft comes to me and I wonder if she can pull it off—that knife edge of a glimpse of personal experience, then researched information. Another glimpse, then more solid information. I am comforted by the hope, the belief, that even if the paper lacks grace the writing of it will have helped her immeasurably in bearing events she can’t erase. But she has this unleashed quality to her writing; rawness and fearlessness that grabs attention and I am eager to see what she has done with this terrible pain that she is tired of carrying and concealing. Her first drafts of her first paper for me were streaming, undisciplined blurts peppered with moments of beautiful phrasing. What will she do with this latest paper? Can she control it, tame it, or will it run wildly away from her on the page?
I open her paper and begin to read and feel the familiar visceral pressure building as I read it, the goosebumps and the excitement of racing through the paper hoping she can do it—this is good so far—hoping she can sustain it, to nail it—it’s artful, it works—not to drop the flow and the energy the goddamn energy the power of the piece. I’m blown away; she’s done it. The writing lives—organic and breathing and pulsating with passionate energy. And frail in the first draft but with momentum, possibility.
She has it. The intuition, a measure of control in writing. Poised en pointe, this balancing act of disclosing, informing, not too much, not too little. Somehow she knew when to push hard, when to go with the flow, when to work it and when to let it take the lead. I feel privileged; my hands and my mind tremble as I contemplate the awesome responsibility of responding to this fledgling powerhouse of a paper. The interweaving of the glimpses of her chilling experience with the dispassionate voice of an academic: it’s baby-masterful and thrilling to see. How can I help her? I fear the heavy hand that might shut her down with all this self-trying; she’s battling so hard to free herself and fly, both on the page and off. These birth pangs of this crudely crafted paper that sings with promise—I feel the pride and the humility and the responsibility and the absolute disconnection of the birthing coach, the midwife.
This occurs to me: am I writing about her. . .or myself? About empowering and affirming the student as writer or the teacher as writer? Am I teaching writing or living and to whom? It’s all entangled together in a gorgeous, thrilling mess.