With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Westerly Magazine is proud to publish writing from its inaugural Mid-Career Fellowship program. Here, we present the reflection from the second of our 2021 Fellows: Annabel Smith. Poetry from our first Fellow, Maddie Godfrey, is featured in Westerly 66.1.
You can read Annabel’s Creative Non-Fiction piece ‘Defective’ in Westerly 66.2.
Shame you can touch: writing the self
When invited to write a reflection about ‘Defective’, the essay I wrote as part of my Westerly Mid-Career Fellowship, I was uncertain. The essay itself is already a reflection: on motherhood, post-natal depression, disordered eating, the end of my thirteen-year marriage, and how, when viewed through the lens of the psychological label ‘defectiveness’, these things may be connected.
It seemed self-indulgent to write a reflection on my reflection. It brought to mind a funfair’s hall of mirrors, distorted images of myself bouncing back from every surface. And yet, is there any view of the self—or others—that is not a distortion? Is there any sense of any individual—including the ‘self’—that is not a composite of many versions?
In the case of my essay, the enquiry into the ‘defective’ version of my self was prompted by a connection I made last year between two seemingly unrelated pieces of memorabilia, encountered suddenly and unexpectedly. The first was a school photograph of my grandmother aged five or six, which, as an older child, she had defaced with the words, she is daft. The second was a scribbled note I discovered on my son’s desk when he was perhaps seven or eight which read, I hate myself—I never get surprise playdates—I’m always ashamed—that’s all. I was struck by how these two notes—one written by a little boy in the early twenty-first century, one written by a little girl in the early twentieth century—used different language but expressed, essentially, the same thing: self-loathing.
I am no stranger to self-loathing. One of the hallmarks of disordered eating is body dysmorphia, a term which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘misshapenness, ugliness’. When I look in the mirror, sometimes the ‘reflection’ of myself fills me with self-loathing. I have to remind myself that the picture I am ‘seeing’ is created as much by my mind as my eyes, and that my mind may have distorted the image, like an unflattering Instagram filter.
In Beauty, Bri Lee articulates brilliantly how being in a body which is larger than that deemed acceptable by society is perceived as a sign of weakness of character; that rather than being seen as the vehicle in which we move through life, the body is frequently viewed as ‘a personality trait, a symbol of goodness and values’ (4). She quotes Will Storr, from his book Selfie: how we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, who describes his belly as ‘not so much a body part as it is a psychological flaw that’s become material—shame I can touch’ (cited in Lee 58).
In her essay ‘Afraid of the Dark: anger as creative fuel’, Charlotte Wood writes, ‘for many artists, this buried sense of difficulty, the presence of something unspeakable, or contradictory, or somehow “bad” inside themselves is the pilot light for their best work’ (168).
My postnatal depression no longer feels unspeakable. After fourteen years and countless hours of therapy, I have mostly made peace with what, for a long time, felt like a personal shortcoming. My relationship with food and my body is quite different. Though I have always been very open about my depression, my struggle with disordered eating is something I have hesitated to share with others, even those close to me. I still, often, view my inability to ‘control’ my eating, and therefore my body, as a failing.
Writing is always an act of self-exposure. But to write about yourself—especially aspects of yourself that you are not at peace with, ‘shame you can touch’—feels particularly daunting. The ways in which I relate to food and my own body are complex and confused. And yet the process of exploring this relationship, and its connections to other parts of my life, was surprisingly calming, perhaps even, though I hesitate to say it, healing. To disentangle some of the threads from the dense clump of memories, habits, relationships, societal messages, to work my way along those threads and see where they led, was a means of finding—or creating—some order amidst the disorder.
They should have behaved better: writing others
Many of the writing workshops I run are attended by aspiring memoirists, who frequently express hesitation about writing about those close to them. In response, I have often shared these words by Anne Lamott, quoted all over the internet as being from Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life: ‘You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better’ (np). I hoped this quote would empower them, liberate them. But when it came to applying this advice to my own writing, I began to question it.
Is it too simplistic to say that we own everything that happens to us? So often what happens to us also happens to the people around us. My post-natal depression impacted on my husband perhaps almost as much as it impacted on me. In this sense we were co-owners of what happened. Is it right for me to tell the story, or even parts of the story, as if my version is the only one?
‘Defective’ offers up only moments of my marriage and my childhood—moments that reflect an idea of my self as flawed, or broken. In fiction, characterisation is often built on synecdoche, and one or two moments can be taken to represent the whole of a person. The moments I chose to write about in my essay are not ‘reflective’ of my marriage or my childhood as a whole; they are reflective only of the issues I wanted to explore. But my readers don’t know that. Of my father and my ex-husband, they have only what I have given them.
The only reference to my father is an anecdote in which he jokes about how ugly I was as a child. Is this single anecdote a ‘reflection’ of my father or my relationship with him? Yes and no. He jokes about everything and sometimes goes too far. He can be insensitive and inappropriate. But he is also warm, loving and sentimental. He would never intentionally be cruel.
Could he have ‘behaved better’? To my mind, ’behaving better’ relies on two elements: firstly, an awareness that the way you are behaving is less than ideal; that there are other, more commendable options available; and secondly, an ability, in the moment, to engage with those other options.
Was my father aware that joking about me being ugly would hurt me, that years later I would still be ‘reflecting’ on it; that it would influence the way I saw myself, when I looked in a mirror at my own ‘reflection’? I don’t believe so. Instead, I believe my Dad’s joke to be, in itself, a ‘reflection’ of his own upbringing, in which love for, and pride in, your children was rarely, if ever, expressed.
And what of my husband? When he told me I was ‘unattractive’, was he aware that it would hurt me; that years later I would still be ‘reflecting’ on it; that it would influence the way I saw myself when I looked in a mirror at my own ‘reflection’? Perhaps to some extent. But was he able, in that moment, to engage with a wiser, kinder way of expressing what he wanted to say? Apparently not. Does that mean he is not entitled to being written about ‘warmly’? Could he take a moment from our marriage and use it to make me look like a person who doesn’t deserve to be written warmly about? Undoubtedly.
We are human, we are fallible. We have bad days, bad weeks, bad years even. Our behaviours are affected by many factors beyond our control: grief, loss, illness and trauma, family patterns we can’t outrun.
Should I have provided some context about my mostly happy childhood or my mostly happy marriage; some anecdotes to balance or round out the picture of my father, or my ex-husband? French novelist Henry de Montherlant coined the term ‘Happiness writes white’, suggesting that when we try to write about happiness, it somehow can’t be seen on the page (Hirsch). In any case, the happy parts were not relevant to what I wanted to explore.
In an interview for The Paris Review in 2010, Jonathon Franzen said, ‘the literature I’m interested in and want to produce is about taking the cover off our superficial lives and delving into the hot stuff underneath’ (42).
To ‘own’ something does not mean only that it belongs to you; it can also mean to take responsibility for something. This ‘hot stuff’ requires careful handling. In writing ‘Defective’ I have done my best to take responsibility for the parts that are wholly mine, the ways in which I could have ‘behaved better’. What is more challenging is to take responsibility for the ways in which writing about the self often necessitates writing about others, sometimes in ways that might cause them pain; to balance our responsibility to our writing and our creative lives with our responsibility to those we love or have loved.
In grappling with these ethical questions, I returned to Bird by Bird, in search of the broader context for Lamott’s advice, and perhaps some fine print on applying it. I read Bird by Bird from cover to cover and could not find the quote I have shared with so many students. Though Lamott says, ‘Remember that you own what happened to you’ (6), there is no mention of ‘writing warmly’ or ‘behaving better’. What she does say though, is that ‘Good writing is about telling the truth’ (3). And this resonates with me more deeply than her other oft-(mis)quoted advice.
‘We write to expose the unexposed’, she says. ‘If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must’ (198).
And so, through I go.
Franzen, Jonathan. ‘The Art of Fiction No.207’. The Paris Review 195 (Winter 2010): 38–79.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor, 1994.
Lee, Bri. Beauty. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019.
Storr, Will. Selfie. Sydney: Picador, 2017.
Hirsch, Edward. ‘Happiness Writes White’. Tumblr. Sourced at: https://poem-today.tumblr.com/post/186236219655/a-poem-by-edward-hirsch.
Wood, Charlotte. The Luminous Solution. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2021.
Annabel Smith is the author of interactive digital novel/app The Ark, US bestseller Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and essays have been published in Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and the Review of Australian Fiction. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Edith Cowan University.