A question I get a lot is “Why do you write what you write?”—particularly in relation to my fiction. To answer that question, let me tell you a story.
When I was in fifth grade, I was writing away with every spare moment I had that wasn’t spent reading. I remember with that vivid clarity reserved only for pivotal moments in our lives spending the entirety of winter vacation that year in Florida at my foster grandparents’ house. Aside from the plane ride there from our home in Virginia where I had my nose glued to the window, simply enthralled by the novelty of riding in a plane for the first time, I was clutching a pen and a notebook.
The notebook itself was small and nondescript, maybe six inches tall, spiral bound at the top, and already missing several pages; it was one of a collection of partially used notebooks my foster mom kept in a closet rather than wasting the paper by tossing them once their original purpose had been fulfilled. The cover was hunter green, the pages a lighter shade of the same color with a faint line drawn down the center; I’m pretty sure it was manufactured before 1970.
I wrote feverishly during our trip, spending hours at a time prone on my stomach in that Florida living room, snubbing the sunshine outside the sliding glass doors in order to write a story that refused to be ignored. I filled every page, and then I used the three-hole-punch loose-leaf ruled paper, yellowed with age, that my foster grandmother found in a desk drawer that likely hadn’t been opened in decades. But I didn’t care—new paper or old paper made no difference to me—it was all capable of holding the words I needed to write.
And write I did; by the time we returned to Virginia, I had a novella.
A short novel—I couldn’t believe it! I spent the next weeks reading through, using my pen to scratch things out and rewrite them, to add in new content in the margins, editing furiously until I reached the end. Then, I read through again, and decided that for the time being, I was satisfied. And I was enormously proud of myself for having written something of such proportions. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever felt that kind of pride.
My heart pounding, I carried the notebook and loose papers that were now stapled together into my classroom and asked my favorite teacher, Mrs. Jackson, if she would read my story. To my delight and relief, she not only said yes, but was genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunity.
Instead of abating, my excitement only grew with each passing day that I waited for Mrs. Jackson to tell me she’d finished reading my story. For her to return it to me along with verbal confirmation of what I was already certain in my gut: I’d written something worth reading. Finally, the day arrived. At the end of the day, after the other kids had left, Mrs. Jackson handed my writing back to me, but instead of seeing my excitement reflected in her eyes, I was faced with an averted gaze. I asked her, crestfallen already, if my story was awful. She assured me it wasn’t. And she thanked me for sharing it with her. But something about it had bothered her—I could see it in her eyes as they filled with tears when she finally made brief eye contact with me. I could hear it in the silence that followed her opening her mouth several times only to close it again when she couldn’t find any words to say to me. I could feel it in the way her interactions with me changed as she began treating me with a cautiousness she’d never had before.
One day not long after Mrs. J. returned my story, she had a conversation with my foster mom about what I had written. I don’t recall the bulk of the conversation as most of it simply passed in through one ear and out through the other. What I do remember are the same words that caught my attention that day: not normal.
I was suddenly drowning in shame and embarrassment; I’d been wrong about writing something worth reading. Not only that, but I’d just gotten a reminder of something I’d come close to forgetting—I wasn’t normal.
I went home and threw out my story, convinced after that experience that I just wasn’t good enough to write a novel. And, from that day forward, I was much more guarded about what writing I shared with other people, apprehensive about how they might react.
Many years have passed since that day and I now understand what I didn’t have the capacity to understand then. Mrs. Jackson had used the words “not normal” to describe what I had shared with her, and she was right—my story wasn’t normal, especially for a child. But I had grossly misunderstood her reaction. It wasn’t rejection or disgust or a pronouncement on my worth or writing ability.
She was upset; her heart hurt for what must have occurred to inspire what I’d written and she simply had no idea how to communicate that to a ten-year-old.
You see, I had written about consent. The story of a girl who found and then used her voice to set boundaries about her body. The story of a girl who found a boy who respected her and taught her to respect herself in the wake of being touched against her will.
I had written the story that I, with my own history of sexual abuse even at that age, was desperate to read.
Now, decades later, I’ve picked up my pen again, and what I’m doing is really no different from what I did then. I’m writing the stories that I want to read, that I know others like me want to read, because we want to see ourselves in the books we pick up. I’m writing stories about people who struggle with the life-long impacts of physical and emotional abuse and sexual assault. People who battle anxiety disorders and PTSD from childhood trauma.
People like me.
Instead of hiding them as if they don’t exist, I’m exposing those raw and gritty and sometimes infuriating imperfections that are simultaneously what make us strong and beautiful through both my fiction and my nonfiction.
Why do I write what I write? I do it so others can find themselves and realize they aren’t “not normal” or deserving of shame and embarrassment. And I do it so they know, irrefutably, that they aren’t alone.
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By Katherine Turner