Been riffing on aspects of women’s anger recently. I was asked to contribute a personal essay to an anthology and duly pitched what I thought was a fairly straight forward story. It had all the juice – a turf war, a love affair, state politics, a dead girl. I don’t want to go into the story itself here as the collection is kinda embargoed pre-publication. What I can write about is the process.
The project Gracias 2.0 emerged out of my latest writing job, as I needed some light in the pretty interesting places I’ve been lately. Media attention focuses on angry women every now and then in history but it’s usually when they’ve mobbed the streets with
placards to demand rights that the other half of the population take for
granted. Anyway, I felt that this demonstrative anger is pretty well covered,
as is #MeToo. What I wanted to write about was a series of events that
culminated early last year and resulted in my feeling healed of a decades-old beef.
While collective women’s anger is a sight to behold, individual female anger is seen at best as unattractive, at worst hysterical. It’s seen as distinctly non-maternal (unless you are defending your child from bears) or unfeminine. We want to be liked after all.
I remember saying to a lover that I couldn’t verbally hold him to account for lacking the courage or inclination to tell the truth about me because “I want you to like me.” Instead I internalised my wrath in a perfectly presentable shit storm of self-harm. How ladylike, Sarah Toa. I’ve been turning away from rage lately. Anger, pointed in the right direction and for the right reasons, is a powerful change agent, but there is so much of it spraying around at the moment I feel it’s often unproductive and provokes pointless anxiety. I can feel it in my gut when I’m on Twitter.
In the midst of all this I am writing that piece on women’s rage. I wrote one version of the essay. Then I wrote another. I wrote a third but that one wasn’t very good because I’d been drinking gin. I went through myriad ethical decisions. What about her family? How can I build a story on her death and not have the story become the Dead Girl trope? How do I criticise those people and not let them off the hook? How not to include my family? It was excruciating.
I rang the editor, after she noted that my submission was five days late. “I’ve lost my nerve,” I told her. “I used to be so brave.” I explained my ethical dilemmas and she stepped through them like any disciplined philosopher. She then said something really surprising. Her and the other editor were discussing that very morning how difficult many writers in the collection were finding this topic. She had almost the same conversations as the one she was having with me.
How bloody interesting, I thought. Writing is a lonesome pursuit and a witchy one too. Sitting for hours with a brief to create trouble and toil can be a tough gig. To write a personal essay on anger is to do a Lazarus on old grievances: they arise out of the ground quite fresh. Then of course, they have to be dealt with. People don’t tend to feel rage towards a tree or a rock or a dog. It’s generally a hominid, so the ethics and libel horrors show up. And women’s rage isn’t pretty, as I said. Staying staunch and strong in a literary depiction of injustice requires refined rage. So those three things – reliving trauma, ethical choices and overcoming gendered expectations. In a room on your own. Writing is hard.
Anyway, just thought I’d pace that one out here. Thanks for walking with me.
Ps. The essay is in.