My mother had a wise old saying… “Keep your own counsel.” Some decades ago, personal information was kept private. We didn’t discuss politics, religion or how much money we made. That was distasteful. Today, encouraged by social media, we are more open and willing to share. For women who suffer from abuse, this can be a good thing as perpetrators rely on shame and silence. As a survivor of emotional and psychological abuse in the eighties and beyond I kept the pain to myself. After all who wants to be party to suffering when they have their own fabulous life to live? It’s boring and embarrassing.
As the lines between private and public information become fuzzy, I wonder how far we should go as women writers to expose our background and experiences to provide a context for our work. Is it because we lack confidence in our work?
My first novel, The Cruelty of Lambs, is a domestic noir based on my own story, published in 2016 by Urbane Publications, twenty years after my recovery. The time lag gave me the objectivity needed, enforced by switching the story line to female to male abuse which although a less acknowledged problem, is on the increase.
Come interview and blogging time post publication time, I found myself sharing my own experiences in an attempt to develop authenticity and trust. As old wounds split open, I quickly discovered the downside of this approach; online abuse from men and women, a fresh wave of PTSD symptoms and a late recognition that you don’t have to make yourself vulnerable to be authentic or to sell books.
Owning your narrative doesn’t mean laying it all out on the table to be picked over like discarded items in a car boot sale. A few persistent trolls stalked me on Twitter for a while until my publisher called out their game. It’s not scaremongering to say that women writers could find themselves in physical danger if professional boundaries are lacking.
Oversharing dark and dangerous parts of my life made some people feel uncomfortable as they didn’t know how to respond. I found friends sidestep conversations with me if I happened to mention the book. It was as if nasty things only happen to nasty people and somehow I’d become contagious.
Some suggested I move on and write something cheerful in the genre of a summer romance or the cosy Christmas books that are gracing the shelves this year.
The Cruelty of Lambs was described by one reviewer as one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. My aim was to bring readers out of their safety zone and to get inside the head of someone whose personality is slowly erased through gas- lighting, projection and other sinister psychological weaponry. If that meant speaking out about my own experience, I was ready for that. I believed I was being my authentic self; honest, standing up for my values and sending out a message of courage and support to anyone suffering in silence.
Writing is a catharsis for some people who seek to soften the rawness of their wounds and to relieve anxiety by sharing it with others when in fact the skill of a therapist would be more relevant.
The main question we need to ask ourselves as women writers is what we hope to gain by sharing personal information. I would hope it’s firstly to demonstrate that we can relate to our characters from the inside and present them as rounded human beings and secondly to encourage the reader to understand that we are not goddesses sitting on gold cushions with our laptops. We too are flawed.
In my new novel, The Future Can’t Wait, we witness the breakdown of Kendra Blackmore when her adult daughter chooses to cut off all contact with her. Set against the background of radicalisation in Birmingham, she fears for the safety of her dual heritage daughter. My own daughters are Anglo Iranians so I could write the character of Rani (daughter) and her mother from personal knowledge. Reviewers are already commenting on how they feel they morph into Kendra as the book progresses. To me, that’s success. It’s what I aimed to achieve.
Writing the supporting blogs for the tour starting on November 2nd, I was more selective about what I have shared as I have two daughters to protect. I’ve learned that you can be authentic without losing your privacy. It’s all about balance. Now that readers can connect directly with the author and a hopefully build in a long term relationship, any attempt to exaggerate personal misery or experiences will soon destroy that all important trust.
It’s in the True Life Stories genre, where writers take the greatest risk. I’m thinking in particular of Miriam Ali’s best- selling book “Sold” and of course Betty Mahmoody’s “Not Without My Daughter”. As the ex-wife of an Iranian, I could have written a similar book to Betty as we were in Iran at the same time and had similar experiences but I feared the backlash especially from his family.
Beta readers and friends are invaluable when it comes to checking for oversharing. Drafts of my books and articles/long blogs are read several times by women who know and understand me. Not only for typo howlers or editorial screamers but for someone to say ‘Too much information!’
Angelena Boden (M.Soc.Sc PGDE) has spent thirty five years as an international training consultant, specialising in interpersonal skills and conflict resolution. She trained in Transactional Analysis, the psychology of communication and behaviour, her preferred tool for counselling and coaching.
Since retiring from training, she runs a coaching practice in Malvern for people who are going through transition periods in their life; divorce, empty nesting, redundancy or coping with difficult situations at work, home and within the wider family.
Follow her on Twitter @AngelenaBoden
The Future Can’t Wait is published on November 2nd 2017 by Urbane publications.
The Cruelty of Lambs ( Urbane)