Stacey May Fowles on Sexual Violence

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Stacey May Fowles has a great essay up at the National Post about writing and publishing — or rather, writing and not-publishing — accounts of sexual violence. It might not be possible for an American to know the shadow the serial killer Paul Bernardo cast on women of a certain generation in Ontario. I belong roughly to the same one as Fowles, though I was a little further away from Bernardo ground zero, and yet it comes up all the time in my life, thinking about it. Even now I thought, “better find a link about Bernardo” for Americans, but I don’t want to look at it, not right now, anyway.

Her proposed essay about Bernardo took a turn for another subject, and she found the editing process fraught, because even the smallest questions from editors brought up memories:

My father often says to me that I leave too much of myself on the page. He worries that the disclosure inherent to the personal essay will leave me vulnerable, will allow people access to me in a way I don’t intend. He is right, of course — writing honestly, authentically and well is a courageous act that involves the most invasive kind of exposure. If executed properly, not only are you forced to face the reality of your own horrific experience, you also present it, raw and unfettered, to strangers who can do with it, and say about it, what they please.

How did you end up in that situation? What were you wearing? Why didn’t you report it?

Writing is risk, yet for me, personal protection is always superseded by the purpose of the craft; it is an act of figuring out a feeling, a way of lending structure to an experience that feels impossibly fraught, a process of giving value to suffering. It is a lone strategy for untangling the webs of chaos, of making pain purposeful, of moving people to comfort and driving them to change.

This calculation will be familiar to a lot of people here. It perfectly articulates why I don’t publish a lot about personal pain and trauma. I do write about it, but it remains, generally, on my hard drive. I used to air such things in a pseudonymous personal blog, but every time someone objected to the way I worded them, or to what I thought I’d learned from my life, I got so hostile and defensive it’d take days to step away from the keyboard. So I stopped publishing it.

In a way this is all a question of process. In the kind of publishing climate we exist in now, often enough editing is light, or literally non-existant. You know what I mean: that well-regarded outlet where the editor said, “Hey, brilliant!” and just threw it up there. I’ve learned to distrust that kind of “process.” I need an editor willing to play the person-on-the-street to test what I’m doing. I need someone who is willing to make me consider the perils of self-disclosure, not to mention those of its cousin, overblown-egotism.

A lot of the writing out there suffers now for the lack of this, and even if my ideal editor-writer relationship is an anachronism, the decision to publish ought to be a difficult one. I feel like I say this every week, but it’s why I love Sari Botton’s interviews: I love their fundamental acknowledgment that the decision to put yourself — let alone the people you know — out there ought to be a thing considered. It’s just a thing that’s harder to do in an age where preparing a piece of writing and publishing it can take just a few hours.

Says the complete hypocrite as she pushes “Publish” on this here little post.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →