Permission to tell my “I story”
“IIIIIIII…” the packed room of mostly women sang in unison, conducted by one of my favorite authors, Lidia Yuknavitch.
“I want you to be crazy brave…” she’d said in a session titled “Breaking the Body: Women Writers Reconfiguring Creative Nonfiction Forms” at the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis. If something had ever happened to our body that taught us something important about our life, we were to stand up and say “I” until she stopped us.
So I stood, in the pressed slacks and shirt that had felt stiffly out of place all day, tightly clutching my spiral notebook to my chest. “IIIIIIII…,” I softly ventured, my quiet alto drowning in a loud monotone chorus. Saying “I” to the stories that had me standing felt easier this way, chiming in with so many other women doing the same. From my vantage toward the back, every woman I could see was standing.
“That, my friends, was your ‘I song,’” Yuknavitch said, bringing her choir to a close. We’d said “I” for so long that I’d had to stop and take a breath a few times.
“What you just did? That’s what we’re encouraged to be quiet about.” She came to us as a recruiter, she said, amassing an army of women courageous enough to write different “I songs.”
Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, had touched me deeply. Breaking from traditional linear narrative, the book embraces hard truths through lyrical fragments, pattern, theme, and innovative language. She’d abandoned linear narrative, she now explained to the electrified audience at AWP, because it didn’t match her life, her body, or her story.
In an earlier session, “Bravery and Bearing Witness: The Power of Vulnerability in Nonfiction,” Sarah M. Wells had opened the panel citing the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability. I’d read Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, in which Brown writes, “Even to me the issue of ‘stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest’ sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and use our voices.”
What I was beginning to sense, throughout the conference, was permission. I had the right to tell my story, in my own way, and to believe it mattered.
Earlier in the “Breaking the Body” panel, the point had been made that mothers who write about motherhood are accused of navel-gazing. Is it coincidence that memoir so often draws women, and is so frequently demeaned? Here, wrapped up in literary criticism, is the message that our stories, and the ways we sometimes tell them, are unworthy—as though thoughtfulness and craft do not come deeply into play, as though our bodies have no place even on the page.
The encouragement I heard at AWP to speak our truths also came with thoughtful consideration to responsibility. In “‘Photographic’ Memory, Why all Memoirists Tell Imperfect Truths,” one author likened herself to a reporter, writing memoir from recent events and careful notes that lend themselves to verification. Another author in the same panel had me in tears telling the story of her daughter’s death—a traumatic time in which the sequence and minutia of events could not be verified, and had little bearing on the emotional truth. I’ve come to appreciate that within the parameters of creative nonfiction, opinions differ. In these differences, too, I find permission—to grasp the conventions, and find myself within them.
As the conference wore on I felt myself recording messages on a deeper level, and not always in my notebook. One author said she knows when she’s gone too far in her writing. She gets a funny feeling in her body. I know this feeling. Occasionally, when I reconstruct a scene from earlier in life, I feel my chest tighten or the urge to look over my shoulder. In these cases, I hit delete, knowing I’m not doing justice to something or someone in my story. The conference reminded me that this permission to thoughtfully navigate the rules comes, reassuringly, with my body as a gauge. Should I fail to embrace my right to tell my story, or push the boundaries of responsibility, I trust my body to tell me.
At the end of the “Breaking the Body” session, Yuknavitch asked the audience to stand and sing our “I song” again. This time, she instructed us to say “I” differently than we had the last time. Once more, the packed room filled with a powerful rallying cry, but this time I heard soprano breaking out of the alto, and even a reverberating “I” deep in the back. This time, I sang less self-consciously, feeling my chest soften with the permission to tell my story and trust my ability to navigate it responsibly.