Approximately two years ago, on a rather cold and blowy February morning, I was talking with Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic. She mentioned that she loved my way with words (always a fine inducement for a writer), that she was struck by my ability to wrap words around images and feelings, and would I like to do some poetry for her?
I fidgeted, made agreeable sounds, and waited to hear her bid. "How about a book of poetry about death?" she asked cheerfully.
I paused, then countered and upped the ante. "How about a book of poetry about sexual abuse?"
She didn't miss a beat. "Well, sure," she answered, or something to that effect, encouraging me to do it.
A day later I sat down and proceeded to write what would be the core collection for Learning to Swim in about two-and-one-half hours.
"Ann!" my agent, Marilyn Marlow, reprimands me. "Never, ever tell people you wrote that in 2 and 1/2 hours!"
I try to restrain myself, and be politic, but it doesn't work. It never does. For this was a writing experience like no other. I have nothing to compare it to. It almost wasn't like writing. It was possession. I was utterly taken over by the experience of being sexually abused, reliving what it was like to be six years-old, a small, skinny child with wildly curly hair, large brown eyes, and scarred knees.
I would write a poem, sob, blow my nose, write another, sob, blow my nose, and so on. You get the picture. Of course, those twenty-two poems were not the whole collection, and I spent well over another year revising and expanding the book. But it was the beginning. And I knew it came from a source different from my other writings and would be different from anything I had ever done before.
We can call it, "WRITING FROM THE BROKEN PLACES," a poetic title for an experience so painful that I told Tracy it was like eating ground glass.
But sometimes, to get to the other side of an experience, you have to eat ground glass, you have to go down into the darkness. The only way up to the light is through the darkness, I am convinced.
It is not hard to understand how I came to be sexually abused. My dad was away all day at work, drinking at night, while my mother juggled three young children (one at the dangerous age of three) and attended to her own parents in our wonderful vacation house.
The collection begins with the summer Annie looked forward to, where she would learn to swim without her ring, because now she was big enough to do it on her own.
Then comes the cloud on the horizon, the smell of danger wafting towards meand you, the reader. Up the road lived a shabby, angry family with parents who shouted and three large children with the cruel eyes and fingers of predators.
It was my editor's idea that I divide the collection into three sections. The first, "Sailing" would reflect the hopes and joys at the beginning of that summer. The middle period would be "Sinking," which covers the time from the start of the abuse to its end, when I told my mother. The final section, "Swimming," talks about the end of the abuse, the beginning of Annie's healing, and the wonder of her learning to swim.
Kenny, the real name of the "perp," must have been clever. He figured out that if he offered to read to me-in our hose where everyone worshipped books-he could safely be alone with me.
In writing these poems, I went back into the landscape of abuse and fear. I was so small I could barely reach the top of the table. My legs were so skinny my shorts flapped around them. Normal life was bedtime and stories, teddy bears, ice cream from the store, good night kisses, and watching thrilling thunderstorms from our porch.
But I had slipped out of everyday life; I was lost, in a new and horrible territory, the country of fear. Fear was the bed I slept in. Fear was my blanket, brought up over my mouth to protect me, but ending up suffocating me. And the language of the collection is that of a frightened six year-old, confiding in her dolls, whispering to her baby brother what has happened.
But-and this is an astonishing BUT-the wondrous gift of this collection was the healing it offered me. By allowing myself to go down into the darkness, to relive all over again the terror of that summer, the journey became a balm of sorts. As I wrote, my heart and soul sent up the images I needed, tossed up the metaphors that would allow the grown up six year-old to speak about the unspeakable. The whole metaphor of swimming-Annie's confident start, the help she received form her beloved Daddy-took me through the book. After the abuse starts, her swimming falters; she sits on the sand, won't go in without her ring, and clutches at a bewildered Daddy.
I believe that writing from the broken places takes a special kind of courage. First you must go back and experience that brokenness; then you must write from that place with a fierce and honest language. There cannot be one false word. There cannot be a shred of false emotion or you are lost.
But we cannot leave ourselves and our readers in that darkness-we must bring them up into the light with us. In "Swimming," the third section, Annie begins to feel her anger, to sail out on it. She finally tells her mother, and I can remember the rigidity of my mother's body as she leaned against the kitchen counter when I told her what had happened.
This child is not alone, and the teenagers we write for, I hope, are not completely alone. I was surrounded by the love of my grandparents. My mother stayed close by me for the rest of that summer, watching and caring for me. I re-entered normal life again, became a child again- although unalterably changed-and I learned to swim.
The power of words to heal. The power of language to make a road someone can walk on. If we-as writers-lay down words as honestly as we can, without thought for what they will bring us, we can make a path for others who have suffered as we have.
The poet and undertaker, Thomas Lynch, author of the recent book Bodies In Motion and At Rest , talks about the power of poetry.
He says that poets and undertakers both bear witness to life, to all the parts of a person's life.
He says that poetry speaks of the unspeakable. I would add-through images and metaphors, we make painful things visible and bearable. By naming them, they are made bearable.
He writes. . . . "seeing is believing; knowing is better than not knowing; to name the hurt returns a kind of comfort; the grief ignored will never go away."
I hope I have done that in Learning to Swim . I hope that even in the midst of its brokenness, it offers healing to its readers and the knowledge that we can survive. Not broken but whole.
Entering that dark territory has changed me and the way I write. I don't know if I can ever go back to writing the kinds of books I used to. Suddenly, last November, this BOOK came pushing out, rushing out, sending my fingers flying over the keyboard. And dammed if it isn't about another broken place! I thought I was done with that, but apparently I'm not. This novel, called Catch Me If I Fall , is about a troubled family- a girl who is falling apart, is being broken along with her family, by a family secret that has been kept under wraps for seven years. The family secret-which is autobiographical- is that the girl was shot in a gun accident by her sister years back, but it was never spoken of and the girl has repressed the memory. But going fishing in the darkness one day, I brought up dripping and shining this new revelation-it is the Dad's alcoholism which allows the accident to happen. Then, of course, I had to confront my own father's drinking and its impact on the family. I did not want to go there, but I could not write the book without walking there.
In a dinner scene, the fourteen year-old girl, Kate, who drinks just a tad too much, is about to tell of an event at school, but here sister, Sophie, tells it first:
"You! Why didn't you let me tell it first?" I aim a kick at her under the table, but I don't really mean it, and it isn't very hard or anything, only I kick Dad accidentally and he looks up at me with drowned eyes.
I stop talking. I couldn't push a word out of my mouth if my life depended on it. His eyes are like black pools, sliding out, slopping over the eye sockets. His mouth has slipped sideways. His cheeks sag, just like a Picasso painting. At first I think I'm going crazy, and I cough, hugging my arms around my chest. It feels thin and sharp as a polished knife.
"Wha's that?" Dad asks.
Never before, never at dinner has he been smashed, but he is now and everyone is pretending it's not happening. Mom eats tiny bits of her chicken and talks rapidly.
". . .such a funny story about the Boy Scouts. Mr. Antill told me they were up on stage, some of the kids hiding in a cardboard tree, and they started fighting and the entire tree crashed onto the stage!" She whaps her hand on the table, and Dad jumps, looking up foggily. I can see him smushing his lips around the words, trying to make them come out right. I know the feeling.
The words have started out small, then they got fat and slippery, like someone blew them up and rolled them in grease, and they are rolling around the inside of his mouth and his tongue can't push them out. He tires. His moth bunches out, his face glistens, and he says,
" '. . .shold car doday, Carol, shank God.' He takes a deep swig of his water and clatters it onto the table. The water slops over the edge and widens in a pool. I am drowning in it."
A colleague of mine recently said she didn't find the writing in YA novels to be particularly beautiful. Deeply annoyed, I answered, "Maybe it isn't always as lyrical as some adult novels, but this is what happens; when you write from that deep place, without pretence or artifice, the language takes on its own beauty and rhythm because it is so honest."
Again, I expect to receive healing on this journey, on this path, moving from the darkness into the light. And I hope to hold out a promise of hope and healing to my readers.
I am lucky, indeed, to be writing for the world's most honest people-teenagers. I will continue to offer my best to them, who deserve nothing less; to give words to the unspeakable, and to make a road for the unbearable, so that the teenagers we respect and honor will have a tongue to speak about their broken places, and a path forward for their feet.
Reference Citation: Turner, Ann. (2001) "Writing from the Broken Places." The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 2, p. 17.