New Beginnings: Creative Women and the Curse of Silence

This post appeared originally on the Writers’ HQ blog

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Recently, I’ve been waking up with this feeling in my gut. “I’m done,” I say to myself. “I’m done. I’m finished. I’m over it.”

I get up and write because it’s my job and I have to but it’s dry. It’s bloodless. It hurts, and it never quite says the things I mean.

I haven’t been able to articulate quite what the feeling is, but I’ve been seeing it everywhere. My friends message me and say ‘I’m exhausted. I’m done. Let’s go.”

We joke about living on a women-only commune in houses just far enough apart that we don’t actually have to see each other very often. The kids can do a whole Lord of the Flies thing in our lush green acres while we lounge around reading books and creating art and, you know, tidying up after ourselves and being considerate and stuff.

I see it in the news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has had enough of your bullshit. Rose McGowan has had enough of your bullshit. Ursula Le Guin and Carrie Fisher hang over us, their ferocity burning through the tissue-thin membrane between life and death, and they too have had enough of your bullshit.

This year I turn 40. An obligation I find myself unable to cancel with a hastily written text. “Rly sorry but just too tired. Next wk?” It comes with equal parts trepidation and excitement. 50% of the way through life, but almost 100% of the way to not giving a single shit about what you think any more.

Predictably, and with regretful cliché, this grand old ageing has brought with it some intense introspection of the navel kind, and a little bit of therapy. “What am I even doing with my life, you know? I’m just not in the place I thought I’d be. And my writing is never quite good enough. I keep getting to the penultimate rung of the ladder and then falling flat on my face. But it’s not so much falling. It’s more like I fling myself off it. I just don’t get why. I know I’m like super privileged with my house and my whiteness and my tiny liberal bubble but somehow it’s just not enough.”

But also something else. Something I’d almost forgotten, just not forgotten enough. Hashtag me too. Brace for impact.

When I was sixteen, I found myself in a relationship with a Bad Man. He was older than me, and not very bright. He wasn’t so much intentionally malicious as he was a victim of his own circumstance. But still. We know how this story goes.

This was all the way back in the mid-nineties. Back then, there wasn’t the language we have now around coercive control and emotional abuse. Already an angry, confused, largely friendless and quite weird teenager, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the community to explain to anyone what was going on. And obviously you can’t tell your parents. Can you imagine their horror? So, it went on. And then, finally, it stopped.

I continued being an angry, confused and quite weird teenager and then morphed into the same but aged 20-and-a-bit. For a few years, I made increasingly erratic and unhealthy choices – some the standard fare of growing up, others the act of a person in desperate need of something. Until one day I woke up and realised if something didn’t change I would die. Literal, physical, actual real-life death. Or worse: a spiritual death. “I don’t have time to die right now,” I thought to myself. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs doing first.”

So I gathered up the scattered remains of myself and tucked them away in a little box, like a bunch of ugly jewellery and that no one wants to admit owning, and told it to sit still and don’t you dare move and just fucking well stay there for God’s sake stop messing everything up. I went and made a life for myself. A really great life, with wonderful friends and a great job and house (with a mortgage! No one can get a mortgage anymore! Look how well we’re doing!), a husband whose dysfunctions tessellate pretty well with my dysfunctions, a couple of bonkers kids hellbent on destroying us, and a whole bunch of laughter. But still. That box of ugly jewellery sits there.

Then all of a sudden, as if from nowhere, there’s nearly-40 and my navel and waking up thinking “I’m done. But what?”

I kept reading the #metoo stories and found I was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The stories were starting to hurt. Because I’m not a victim. I’m not scared. I have agency. I made conscious choices. And, also by the way, look at all this cool stuff I’ve done! I’m badass. You can’t touch me. Them too. Not me too.

By this point I had stopped writing entirely. I can handle rejections. That’s just part of what I signed up for. I can’t handle the realisation that suddenly there’s a huge space inside me that I can’t access. It’s shaped like a jewellery box full of awful tat and it’s impenetrable and it’s stopping me in my tracks and telling me: not you. Keep your head down.

Every day I teach my students that the most important thing is to be brave. To be vulnerable and find strength through resilience. To find their fundamental human truth, even if it hurts, even if it burns, and write about that. I tell them to do as I say, not as I do. I don’t tell them that I am a dreadful hypocrite.

My therapist is nearly 50. She’s been married three times. She’s insightful and uncompromising and she has had enough of your bullshit. She tells me my husband can do the fucking dishes or pack his bag and leave because who wants to be married to a twelve-year-old? I quietly love her, and I snigger into my tear-soaked tissue.

I don’t get it, I tell her. I can never quite get where I’m going. It’s like my sat nav doubles back five miles before the end. I tell her I’m only here to talk about right now and ugh she wouldn’t even want to hear the bad things I’ve done in the past. That’s why I can never be a politician, ha ha. Skeletons in the closet. Black jewellery boxes full of ugly paste.

Go on then, she challenges. How bad? Did you murder someone? “I had this relationship,” I say. “I stayed. I mean why did I do that? What an idiot. And afterwards, well, you know, I drank a lot. I did some really sketchy things with some pretty awful people.”

She looks at me in silence, her face full of confusion. “You do know you didn’t do anything bad, don’t you?”, she says. “But what if people found out?” I say. “What on Earth would they think?”

She raises her eyebrow and I realise: this is how the power structures assert themselves. This is how they persist. The true power of abuse lies not in the physical act itself – bruises fade, cuts mend – but in the silence we must endure in order to protect those wounds which don’t heal so easily.

Later I message a friend. “I’m trying to write a thing that I don’t quite have the words for yet.”

“Oh yes?” she replies.

“Yeah. Something about how the real consequence of patriarchy isn’t the physical submission of women but our silence. How we question our ability and our right to participate in society or to create art. How we sit down quietly because we don’t want to be the bad girl, we don’t want to upset anyone – imagine how horrified our parents would be if they knew? How disappointed in us. I couldn’t put them through that. How we don’t want a particular man or men to see us in public because if they did they might point their fingers and tell their friends what they did to us and, of course, it’s our fault. We’re the bad ones. We’re the dirty ones. We don’t want to have to explain why we didn’t speak up, why we didn’t leave. Why we weren’t better or stronger. Why we didn’t hold out our hand, a pulse of electricity firing from our palms, and cry STOP. And so we just sit back and say ‘one day, one day’. And it turns out I’ve spent twenty-five bastarding years of my life being scared of standing up in case someone did that to me and I. Am. Done.”

“This fills my heart with fire,” she says. “The world isn’t ready for the real feminine. We’ve forgotten the goddess of fire and rage and chaos.”

“Cool,” I say.

“Cool,” she says.

On Twitter the other day, I told a man I wasn’t all that interested in his opinion about the lived experiences of women. He accused me of attempting social domination through exclusion. I laughed. Men (not all) have this sussed. One act of physical aggression, one tiny sliver of one day, can silence a woman for life. And once you hide one thing so momentous, you might as well hide all the other, smaller things, because probably that’s for the best. You know how it is. If we don’t listen to the big things, why listen to the small? And if everything is hidden, well then, what’s the point of you again?

Once you remove a person’s story from society, you remove them from history. You remove them from ever existing at all. This is the real goal; the prize we are desperately fighting for. Not just the freedom from physical and emotional assault but the freedom to participate in the world without fear, the freedom to have a voice, to create art, to be heard. To be seen. To be valued. To exist.

And it’s not just that silence is compliance, as the old slogan tells us. It’s that it allows the contents of that ugly box to fester. With each passing year quietly eating into its host, telling her that she better not tell, she better keep it quiet, she better not put herself anywhere that she might be seen, just in case it is her fault after all, just in case those fingers point at her – bad girl, look what she did. Then, after a while, a few years maybe, what’s the point of speaking up at all? Why didn’t you say something at the time? Why didn’t you kick him in the bollocks? Stupid bitch. Better keep a lid on it. Just in case.

“Did you see the news story about the President’s Club?” the therapist says. “I was crying! Every man left early and saw nothing. The Bank of England all but denied Mark Carney exists.” We laugh. “I’ve loved every bloody minute of it,” I say, and all of a sudden it’s not so bad with the lid off, the box open. It’s not so scary. It’s just me. It’s still me, and I’m not that bad after all. The terrible jewellery scatters everywhere and then, like magic, it dissolves in the sunlight. A toothless vampire made terrifying by shadows, weakened into nothing by the dawn.

She looks at me gently and says, “They don’t get to point the fingers anymore. You’re free to rise to whatever rung you want.”

In hiding, we become our own jailers. We remain powerless by our own making and in doing so convince ourselves that our value must be so little that there’s no point telling our stories anyway, that we had better stop ourselves before we reach that final rung, and if we even get too close – well look what happened to Icarus, that little slut. He should have covered his feathers. He shouldn’t have flown home alone.

Out in the open, in the bright light and the noise, alongside each other, those shameful ugly boxes transform into something else: they become our power, our connection, our truth, and we can finally step into ourselves and everything that truly entails.

“It’s no surprise you’ve never really chased this career is it?” the therapist says. “I work my sodding arse off,” I say. ‘But not really,” she says. The eyebrow again.

I leave her place for the final time and check my phone for messages, check the latest news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has passed down her sentence and says to the victims: “Leave your pain here. Go out and do your magnificent things.”

The next morning I wake up and the feeling in my gut has changed. Chaos is brewing. “I’m done,” I think. “I’m done saying ‘one day, one day’.”

I write some stuff. It’s okay. It’s not magnificent. It’s not magnificent yet, and there are only a few more rungs of the ladder to go. This time I’m holding on tight.

Sarah Lewis is one half of Writing Supergroup Writers’ HQ and founder of the original Brighton Writers Retreat. Constantly trying to escape her family to write while simultaneously reaching new heights of procrastination. Sarah writes endlessly and is never satisfied. She graduated in the top 20% of her MA creative writing class at UEA, won the David Higham Award, won an Arts Council grant to complete her first novel under the mentorship of critically acclaimed author Peter Hobbs, was one of the NWS10 talented early career writers, and gained a rarely given special mention in the BBC Short Story Award.

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