MFA Candidate Gabrielle Pullen: Writing To Put Fiction In Its Place
Catalyzing life experiences to inform powerful prose under the tutelage of seasoned writers across continents, in defiance of borders, allowing creativity to emerge.
WRITING is a process fraught with choices. So much so that the way forward can prove elusive and overwhelming, precisely because there is so much unstructured freedom. The horizon seems so vast. Yet, a compulsion can also be an organizing force: an idea, a hope, a dream. For some, the catalyst is when life makes them angry. It brings the grey lines fanning out into the distance on the horizon together to coalesce into a single, immediate focal point right here and now, in this very moment.
Once you allow that intensity to mobilize you to write, it’s much easier to keep it going, to simply pour your heart out until the patterns that provoke you become visible, unveiled, for all to see. When life becomes that tangible on the page, no matter what genre you write in, that’s when you know you haven’t lost your mind. When others nod in recognition, it’s validating, but that’s just a fringe benefit. It’s the process that’s juicy. Whatever experience it is that plagues you with incessant repetition may well feel obsessive, but as a writer, that’s a good thing. Channel it. Take what drains you and wring it dry onto the empty page where no one will judge you, humiliate you, or take you to task.
In my case, the provocation was the pattern of subservience I saw in myself and in women across multiple cultures. To be a woman is to be socialized to support, to stand in the shadow of others, others who are held as more important by nothing more substantial than implication. That’s a hard thing to prove. And, yes, women in other countries have it worse, but it always begins with nuance. That’s the nature of subjugation and its minions: silence, acquiescence, and resignation.
Noticing that was not enough to mobilize me. That’s simply the status quo. What did tip me over the edge of personal reality into fiction required a little more than that. It was the experience of being dealt a hand containing the Queen of Spades: a mother whose natural humor and grace turned into a hatred of the impotence of her own sex. Under the almost constant influence of Johnny Walker Red Label, she became vindictive and cruel. These are the characters of my childhood I happily escape in writing and the reading of fiction.
Channeling experience into fiction allows me to avoid belaboring things I’d rather forget. Why not write about personal experience in the format of memoir, essay, or that enticing new genre, creative nonfiction, which artfully retells a tale garnished with elements of fiction to soften its harsh edges? Brutality deadens. It makes a person freeze like ice, cold, numb, unable to breathe, let alone move. Transmuting the resentments, hurts, diverted desires, and joyous moments of release into fiction does not require gazing at the searing pain of the past searching for answers. It allows the subconscious to carry out a subtler process, delving in now and then, in the service of informing fiction with characters whose rage is real, whose motives are righteous, and whose solutions impart the power of naming and learning to both reader and writer. Writing about experience, whether as fact or fiction, is a way of sorting truth from lies, finding solid footing on the firm ground of personal truth in the midst of a world shrouded in story: half-truths, fabrications, and twisted perceptions.
Half-truths such as the notion that when a story is told through a man’s eyes, it is representative of all human experience, for example. Sometimes, there’s overlap, but often women have their own experience of reality that is different than and not represented by the male perspective. To live in a society that pretends that perspective is more relevant to women than their own, is incorrect at best and disparaging at worst. For those women who have moved on after abuse, a woman’s life, seen through her own eyes, becomes a vastly different thing, because abuse distorts reality to falsify its motives. A woman’s life, seen through her own eyes, rather than through the eyes of a male narrator, which has predominated in all the arts throughout written history, lends women writers a sense of agency otherwise inaccessible.
Finding her voice, she can finally pull herself up out of the flood tide onto a life-raft of new, more accurate perceptions– identity reformed from the inside out. The horizon becomes visible as a vista where other possibilities beckon. Eventually, if she keeps writing, the life-raft becomes a boat, a sea-worthy vessel for navigating the vastness without succumbing to the seductive drama of the past.
Writing can form the basis of a new voice, a new self, a new reality, even if the writing is composed of fiction. In essence, this puts fiction where it should be, in the construction of story, rather than in the construction of a life. In fact, it’s easier if it’s fiction; the process becomes no longer some kind of painful confession, rather, it morphs into a sense of freedom from other people’s expectations. In retrospect, common sense recognizes the value of creativity in working through life experience when looking at the achievement of any large body of work, be it that of Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, or JK Rowling. Why not recognize writing as a practical, functional means to that end and self-prescribe it? This is the beginning of agency, the kind of agency that is based on the innate freedom to find a life that’s good, regardless of what others might think or say.
Gabrielle Pullen, is an MFA Candidate due to graduate in 2015. She is working on an historical novel of three women, living amidst the subversive clash between theology and science, distorted by political self-interest. In Scotland during the Protestant Reformation in 1590, women were burned as witches for holding beliefs which contradicted the legally sanctioned religion of the day. She is also designing the curriculum for a new course called Resilience Through Literacy: A Writing Intensive, which defines literacy, not just as the ability to read and write, but in the words of Paulo Friere, as “…an individual’s capacity to put those skills to work in shaping the course of his or her own life.” She is Editor of the biennial Write to Heal Abuse Anthology, which provides a new literary journal where women can publish the pieces that are the result of finding their voices on paper and transmuting the emotional charge of past pain into art via the written word.