Julie Riddle is the author of the memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (April 2016). Her essay, “Shadow Animals,” received a Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize anthology and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. She is the craft-essay editor for Brevity and the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling, published out of Whitworth University, where she works as senior writer for marketing and development.
Less Me, More We: Transforming the Personal into the Collective
The first time I wrote about being sexually abused as a child, I was in my mid-thirties and had enrolled in an undergraduate creative-writing class. Until then I had written professionally—articles for newspapers, and press releases and feature stories for a communications office. But the only writing I had done about the abuse was fragmented and often anguished entries in a private journal I kept in my twenties, as I coped with the fallout from the childhood trauma.
By my mid-thirties I had emerged from that difficult stretch of years, and a budding desire to pursue creative writing spurred me to audit a class at a local university. I had not intended to write about the abuse, but one day the professor gave the class an assignment: write a three-paragraph fairy tale about a difficult personal experience. Then, the professor gave us another assignment: write a second fairy tale about this same experience, but change the outcome to what we wished had happened. A sort of fairy tale within a fairy tale.
The elements of a fairy tale—a distancing, third-person perspective; broad, glossy details; a superficial plot—allowed me to begin to translate my experience into story. The second version—what I wished had happened—helped absorb my first narrative’s emotional punch and provided a sense of control: I could enter into my story and direct the action rather than remain a helpless, powerless pawn. I could not have written either assignment if the professor hadn’t first said that she wouldn’t share them with the group.
Throughout that semester the professor gave us a variety of other assignments that stretched and challenged me. For the class’s culminating assignment I interviewed my parents and wrote about my family building by hand a log house in northwestern Montana, where we had moved when I was seven years old, two years after the abuse had occurred.
The year after the creative writing class ended I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program. I wanted to write creative nonfiction. I wanted to write about my parents chucking the stress of city life and moving with their children to the Montana wilderness in the 1970s. I wanted to write about building the log house, and about the challenges my family faced living in a tough place. I wanted to write about my stoic father, who was a hunter and a gunsmith, and a narcotics detective and SWAT team sniper for the sheriff’s office. I wanted to write about the land I loved, and about the stream that glinted past our house turning a sickly yellow after a silver mine was built and its tailings ponds began to leach.
As I wrote throughout graduate school and undertook critical readings of works by a variety of authors, including Scott Russell Sanders, a shift occurred. I found myself drawn to investigative journalist Amy Goodman’s charge to, “Go to where the silence is and say something.” My story, and the stories I had witnessed in my family and my hometown, were rife with silence. My writing departed from autobiographical recounting and the distant perspective of a fairy tale; I began delving into investigative exploration and uncomfortable questioning. I wanted to peel back the layers of silence and draw out what lay beneath. I wanted to discover connections, locate meaning, and better understand what had happened to me, my family, the community, and the environment there in the Montana woods.
In a 1999 interview of Sanders by Robert L. Root for The Fourth Genre, Sanders said:
“As a reader, I’m not interested in the events of other people’s lives, no matter how colorful or traumatic they may be, unless those events are illuminated in the telling by insight and beauty and meaning. Without that transforming vision, the events themselves are merely gossip…I don’t write in order to win sympathy or praise; I write to share understanding about the human struggle, and to share delight in the power of language.”
In graduate school, the first time I wrote about the abuse was in an essay titled “Shadow Animals.” I felt drawn to explore the prevailing hunting culture within my family and community and how it might have influenced my response to having been sexually abused. After earning my MFA degree I continued working on that essay, but I just couldn’t seem to locate and articulate the insight, beauty and meaning that Sanders referenced.
One afternoon I grabbed a notepad and pen and did some free-writing in which I sought to pinpoint the unasked questions I was trying to answer. Those questions turned out to be: “How do people who are damaged or different cope in a masculine, certain culture in which killing animals is commonplace and necessary? What choices must they make to survive, and what price do they pay?”
That exploratory writing led me to a transforming vision for this essay, and I broadened its scope to incorporate my passive, tender-hearted mother and a high-school classmate who had committed suicide. My role in the essay became that of a witness and my personal experience became a lens through which, as Sanders advocates, “the reader can see things that are far bigger and more significant than I am.”
“Shadow Animals” was published in the Fall 2013 issue of The Georgia Review and it is now a chapter in my memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness. What I learned while writing it helped guide my approach to writing the rest of the book, in which I explore, through personal experience, broader human experiences such as the challenges of living in a rural mountain community dependent on boom-and-bust mining and logging industries and the area’s W.R. Grace asbestos contamination crisis.
The fairy tale assignment back in that undergraduate creative-writing class broke the spell of secrecy the abuse held over me. As I continued to practice the craft of writing and to learn from wise writers such as Sanders, I came to embrace the value and the necessity of writing about the personal as a way to explore the mysteries, struggles and beauty of our collective experience. Telling these kinds of stories about our lives and about the landscapes we inhabit, as Sanders says, helps us “to see where we are, how others have lived here, how we ourselves should live.”
Madden, Patrick. “Interview with Scott Russell Sanders,” River Teeth, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Fall 2007). http://www.scottrussellsanders.com/about/riverteeth.htm.
Root, Robert L. “Interview of Scott Russell Sanders by Robert L. Root for The Fourth Genre,” Spring 1999. http://www.scottrussellsanders.com/about/fourthgenreint.html.
Sanders, Scott Russell. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Beacon Press, 1993.