Any writer can give you an angst-filled list of reasons why writing didn’t happen (again) today: there were the kids. Or a special meeting, or the first sunny day in months, or … Rarely do we mention, “Oh yes, and I was afraid.” But perhaps fear (with a capital “F”) lurks as a larger issue in not writing than we give it credit for.
Recently, I completed a memoir of my fifteen years as one of the first Canadian women in construction. From first draft to publication took me twenty-five years. Shortly after, I did a consultation with three writers working on first memoirs. One was so afraid, she was booby-trapping herself, making sure she had no time to write; another was deeply worried about what family would say; the third was troubled by the difference between her memories of a traumatic event and notes made in her journal at the time.
I recognized their struggles. I’d gone through decades of being paralyzed by these and other issues. I’d worried about what others might think, about making time to write, about how accurate my memories were (especially when not buttressed by journal notes). I’d also worried about being sued, about which tense to use, even about which genre. I’d worried. But I would never have said I was afraid. Of what?
In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser said that “fear … is an indication that we are cut off from our own reality.” I think it also applies to memoir, though I wouldn’t have understood that at the time; all I could think was maybe I just don’t want to be this exposed? Maybe I should write this as fiction?
After twenty-five years, dozens of drafts, and a major change of genre, when the book finally made it to the printer you’d think I could at last relax, no? No. That was almost the worst, that was when I felt something close to terror over how vulnerable I’d made myself. What if I’d poured myself onto the page just to be laughed at? What if my story wasn’t anyone else’s story?
Then came the launch. During the same time as I was struggling with this book, I’d launched nine others so I knew about pre-launch jitters, but the memoir was different. I wept for weeks, terrified. As a carpenter I’d hung off the edge of fourteen-storey concrete towers, no problem, but on the night of the launch of a mere book, my hand trembled so badly I could barely sign my name.
I couldn’t understand the terror. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my other books were poetry or biography. Biography is clearly about someone else, though the writer’s presence is implicit. As for poetry, everyone knows poets make things up. And though I’d certainly felt vulnerable in writing—and reading—my poems, I’d usually written from behind the persona of someone else: Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Glenn Gould.
So perhaps at least some of my terror now came from the fact that for the first time in twenty-five years of writing, I’d stepped out from behind all screens into the clear—emotionally naked, indeed.
In the end, two things were vital in helping me move through Fear to finish (and publish) the book. The first was that I figured out who I was really writing for. Of course, I’d always thought this book was about me, my experiences as a woman in trades.
I knew we were few in number. In 1977 my research had shown the number of women in trades in British Columbia as being two to three percent of the trades workforce—about the same as it was in the rest of Canada. In 2007 when I did that research again, the number of women was still two to three percent. During that time many of us had worked hard giving speeches, lobbying, making reports and sitting on panels. There’d been new human rights laws, mentorship programs, special introductory courses and support groups for women. And thirty years later, nothing had changed.
In his novel Roderick Hudson, one of Henry James’s characters says, “True happiness … consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”
When I realized the number of women in trades hadn’t changed in thirty years, I suddenly found my “absorbing errand”; this story wasn’t about me after all, wasn’t even for me. This story was for others: partly it was for the business owners and foremen and policy makers who wonder why there aren’t more women in their trades, but mostly it was for the women themselves—for the ones (women or men) who might be struggling to understand the unique culture of construction, or who might want to consider it as a career. To the best of my knowledge, no one had yet written a baseline portrait of this work. I wanted her or him to have a realistic sense of the ups and downs of the trade I loved.
If I had any doubts about this change of focus it was reinforced from a surprising source. When I confessed to my eighty-six-year-old mother that I was worried the book (still in progress) might offend our family, this tiny, fragile-looking woman pulled herself out of her armchair with remarkable alacrity, planted her two feet on the floor and announced in a stern voice, “You’re not writing this book for your family! You’re writing this book for the world!” Case closed.
I’d come to accept that the memoir wanted to be written—had to be written—for a larger audience, but still I was afraid or, as I would have said then, unsettled. Over the years of writing draft after draft, I’d tossed out the fiction version of the story and gone on to produce a long series of non-fiction versions: a cheery version, a preachy version, a scholarly one. But none held to my basic commitment to myself that this story must be not just true to the facts, but emotionally honest. If anyone had asked, I couldn’t have exactly explained what I meant by “emotionally honest,” but I was certain I’d know it in my writer’s gut —did know it for short passages—when I wrote it. But after twenty years of writing, none of my completed drafts were “it.” It felt like I had the brakes and the gas on at the same time. There was something else holding me back.
That “something else” came when I got mad. Actually, I got desperate. I’d been doing all the things I thought a writer should do. For going-on two years I’d shown up at what had become “my” seat in the Vancouver Public Library every weekday at 10 a.m., writing endless drafts until two or three or four every afternoon. And I’d written shit. Why couldn’t I write this damn book? Then some wiser part of me remembered a creative writing class at UBC where I’d had the problem of a fictional character “taking off” on me, and my personal terror at losing control of her. She was fictional, wasn’t she?
My teacher, Keith Maillard, had seemed remarkably calm.
“Just keep writing,” he’d said. “See where it goes. You don’t have to show it to anyone.” And in front of the whole class he had me do that old Gestalt therapy exercise of sitting your character in one chair, you in the other, and talking to each other. I only did it for a few minutes (though it felt like hours) then wept all the way home. It was a sure sign I was on to something. But what?
A few weeks later I’d gone to the movie Jumanji, about kids whose board game comes alive with life-threatening creatures. In the film, the children are told they must play the game through to the end and only when they do that will it all go away. It reminded me of Anne Cameron’s story, Dreamspeaker, with its similar theme—If you don’t face your fears they will terrify, even kill you, or kill some part of you.
So sitting in the Vancouver Public Library I used the Gestalt therapy trick and put my Block—whatever was stopping me from writing—into the chair opposite. Then, looking just like a serious writer, dutiful scribe, I wrote it all down.
I asked my Block, “Who or what are you?” After a few seconds it said, “My name is Fear.” I wrote it down. I’d already figured out that I was afraid of having to relive some of the darker moments I’d lived in construction, but somehow this Fear was not what I’d expected.
I said, “You’re big.”
And it replied, “So? You would be too, bloated as hell if you’d had to hold on to as much as I have, for as long. Why the bloody hell have you waited so long?”
I was amazed. Fear as a Persona was angry, though “angry” was an understatement. When I tried to tell it how hard it had been for me to write this book, Fear yelled at me in capital letters, and it spoke like a construction worker.
STOP BEING SO GODDAMNED TIMID! YOU THINK IT’S GOING TO KILL YOU TO REMEMBER SOMETHING? THEY’RE ONLY THOUGHTS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!
So we began to talk. The conversation went like this:
Fear: Sorry I yelled. But Christ! Okay. How are we going to do this so I can finally get on with other things? What the—sorry—what the heck do you need?
F: You’re bursting to tell. What’s holding you back? What are you afraid of?
K: I’m afraid I’ll explode with anger, dissolve in tears, find things to regret, wish I’d done things differently …
F: There must be a way.
(Long pause while we both quiet down.)
K: What if I had something, someone to protect me?
(Another long pause.)
(Very long pause.)
F: No one ever asked me to help them before.
Fear seemed suddenly calmer and less—well—less fearful. From that moment, though I didn’t realize it at the time, Fear became my companion rather than my foe and the book began to be written in earnest. Every time I felt stuck, every time I felt that familiar black plug of silence settling again in my throat, I called for Fear, sometimes out loud. Fear was bigger than any of them. Fear was my champion. And on I’d write, cowered behind its huge rough back.
Still, when the manuscript was finally submitted for publication two years later I was afraid, and on the night of the launch, purely terrified. I wanted this book to be honest, yes, but I didn’t want to be sued, or lose friends or—worse—family members. I’d heard the horror stories about memoir writers who thought they were protecting a precious someone in the text only to find, after publication, that that someone would never talk to them again.
A short time after the book was published, a friend told me a story she’d heard from one of the First Nations women she worked with, about Warrior Women. Warrior Women, she told me, are transparent. They don’t always make the right decisions, aren’t always sure of what they’re doing. They make mistakes. But because they question themselves and have faith in the work unfolding, through their confusion a door opens and the Warrior Woman walks through. A Warrior Woman, my friend explained, has no secrets.
My friend is not herself Indigenous and this is not how an Indigenous person might explain the story, but for me, it means a Warrior Woman has nothing to hide. Her vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength. And in that, I took—I take—great comfort.
Two weeks after Journeywoman was published, I received the first feedback from a reader, an email from a woman who had done trades and blue-collar work all her life. It was brief, a single line that read: “At last. Someone has told our story.”
A few weeks later, I got the feared email from my mother. I’d taken out of the story every family reference I could, anything that wasn’t vital, softened the many tales of my father’s alcoholism and in the end decided I would stand by this book even if it did come down to someone—even a family member—never talking to me again. After all, I reminded myself over and over, this book wasn’t for me. But I knew from the way my stomach lurched when I saw the subject line of my mum’s email—“Your book”—that I wasn’t as confident as I’d thought. I read, “I’ve just finished your book. It is a story of courage, fortitude and forgiveness.”
Tears rolled down my face but this time they were tears of relief. If it was okay with my mother, it was okay.
I could almost feel my friend, Fear, smiling.
Kate Braid has written five books of prize-winning poetry and five of creative non-fiction, most recently a memoir, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World (Caitlin Press, 2012). She lives in Vancouver with her partner. See katebraid.com.