One Writer’s Beginnings: The Bitter Gift of Trauma

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s. My father was an extremely sensitive, artistic, and intelligent man who, from, the get-go in his marriage with my mother, became an abuser. His violence was mostly directed at my mother, occasionally at my brother. All of us were terrorized by my father’s displays of frustration and rage, which involved a crescendo of yelling and crashing about that led to a violent act, followed by our withdrawal to safety and, eventually, his remorse.

My father always seemed to love and admire me as much as he attacked and belittled my mother. It made for a really toxic triangulation situation between my mother, my father, and me: the more he showed me behavior she saw as belonging, by rights, to her, the less she could co-opt and feel good about the milestones of my childhood.

Summer theater, and theater arts classes throughout high school, provided an escape from the sturm und drang of my family life—and gave me, every season, a new pretend-family with whom I could interact and work at being loved.

It was only after the publication of my second novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins—the story of a girl growing up in a foundling home in 18th century Venice—that I came to recognize my own orphan scenario: the well-spring of mother-love that was taken away from me; the resulting self-doubt and psychic pain. Once I’d done the bulk of my research for the novel and began writing, it felt as if the inner world of my orphan protagonist, Anna Maria dal Violin, was fully accessible to me—because I could remember precisely what it feels like to be without the protection of a mother or father, afraid, uncertain and abandoned; dependent on one’s own determination, ambition, and grit.

Writing literary fiction requires a highly tuned degree of empathy of the sort that’s typical of the best therapists, an ability and willingness to look inside people’s words and behavior, and explore the buried trash and treasures of their past: all that makes them who they are; all that makes them conceal who they are, from themselves and others; shining a light to try to find all the gleaming little keys that might fit the locks of their most hidden places.

For any novel—or any poem, for that matter—to really speak to readers, there has to be emotional juice there for the writer.

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

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