The hidden secrets of writing with Joanne Hichens

 In All About Writing, Books, Creative Writing Courses, How to write a book, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers, writers

‘Sometimes, in writing memoir, we are faced with extreme pain, says writer Joanne Hichens. ‘It’s important to recognise that these “scenes” might be included in the story.’

Joanne is an All About Writing associate and I’ve chosen to highlight her memoir, Death and the Afterparties (Karavan Press) in our blog series showcasing the books of our community, because she and I will soon be running our now annual Memoir Workshop in Barrydale.

‘When we experience trauma,’ she says, ‘the immediate shock sometimes results in an out of body experience.’ That’s what this extract from her book deals with:

The matrix shifts.

A nursing sister enters through swing doors, walking towards me. ‘Please come with me.’

Beyond reception, in a passageway, dim and quiet, with plastic chairs to one side, a second nurse says, ‘Please, we need you to sit down.’

I think I know, in that moment.

Staggering, punch-drunk, the adrenalin coursing, rushing at my fingers, at the shock of what cannot be true, ridiculously, almost petulantly, I brush off the nurse’s hand. ‘I won’t sit down,’ I blurt out. ‘I’ve watched enough medical dramas to know exactly what it means when you people ask a relative to sit down. It’s bad news.’

I am caught by supporting arms, then held, and putting one robotic foot in front of the other, slowly, disoriented, I am escorted to the ward.

As a psychology student, I’d studied the phenomenon of the out-of-body experience, the sensation of yourself, your conscious­ness, floating in space, looking on, as a way to escape the pain of reality. As a counsellor, I’d worked with survivors whose only way of coping, during a traumatic ordeal, was to abandon their physicality, to split their psyche from their suffering body.

Now here I am, staring down into this contained space lit up by leds, at the gleaming linoleum floor, the tray of glinting surgical instruments on a triple-storey trolley, the green curtain gathered back, and I hear voices as if filtered through water, theirs, the others down there, and mine, and I see the actions of nurse-limbs in slow motion as if wading through water.

Trapped now, by the ceiling, in the corner of this ward, my instinct is to scratch my way out, but I can’t. I turn back to see this woman below, this woman a version of me, this woman in shock shrugging off the arms of comfort offered by the nurses. She pushes away the paper cup of water and the sedative, her voice rising, insisting the staff have got it wrong.

I see the woman move closer to the gurney, where the man lies, his torso covered by a sheet. Walking by remote control, this woman’s focus is on the man’s face, as if attempting to assimilate this bleak veracity, that this man flat on his back, his chin tilted upwards, his eyes closed as if in sleep – alive, walking, breathing only twenty minutes before – is/was her husband. As she pulls back the sheet from his chest, so plainly dressed in his grey t-shirt, she talks to him, absurdly begs him to talk back; she keens, this can’t be true; she shakes him, attempts to wake him from his stupor.

Mechanically, blindly, with fingers numb, she punches at a cellphone, confusing the numbers, getting them wrong. The woman asks the nurse to find the contact: the man’s older brother. The woman, holding the phone again, says, ‘Please, come now. Your brother is dead.’ She hears the brother gasp, the phone passes to his partner. The brother has collapsed. They are not at home. They are breakfasting at the local market in Sedgefield, a five-hour drive away.

The frantic, distraught, babbling woman phones her sister, her sister-in-law, her best friend. Come, please.

People, nurses, a doctor, walk in and out. Already the woman, the wife, notices the blood settling at the points where the man’s weight, his dead weight, indents the thin mattress. She keeps touching him, as if nudging and prodding will initiate the change she so desperately wants, needs. She palpates his bicep, kneads his flesh, strokes the tender skin on the underside of his forearm. The woman’s fingers circle his slim wrists, she opens one of his hands, presses his palm. Working down to his ankles, she strokes his calves, rubs the muscle, runs her hands again down his legs, brushes fingers over his hair, the texture of his skin, grips his feet, imprinting the feel of every part of him. The woman wants to stroke the man’s penis, as if this might get the blood flowing. All the time, the perverse truth rings in her head: this man, her hus­band, is corpse-like. Dead. His warmth receding, his face becoming mottled, the pallor a grey-pink.

In this extract, Joanne powerfully reconstructs, in a full scene, those first disbelieving moments of loss, before the news has made sense or sunk in. The temptation, for new writers of memoir, would be to ‘tell’ us this in a paragraph. For example: ‘I could not understand what they were saying. He could not be dead. It didn’t feel real to me. Disbelieving, I watched myself take in the news, shrugging off those who tried to comfort me.’

When we are ‘told’ something like this, readers take in the meaning superficially, but do not experience it along with the ‘character’ (who, in a memoir, is you).

Joanne has harnessed all the drama and emotion of the moment, by showing it to us, moment by agonising moment, in a full scene, replete with sensory detail and physiological feelings. This creates an immersive experience for the reader.

Writing tips:

  • Write in strong scenes, just as you would if you were writing fiction.
  • Pay attention to the sensory details, which allow us to visualise the situation for ourselves.
  • Don’t rush through it. Harnessing the drama often means slowing down, taking us through every moment.

If you would like to learn more about the skills of writing memoir that people would like to read, join the two Joannes: Jo-Anne Richards and Joanne Hichens, at the Karoo Art Hotel in Barrydale in April.

Tucked into the Tradouw Valley, at the foot of the Langeberg mountain range, the village offers dramatic landscapes in which to walk, write and dream. Join us for the weekend of 14 to 16 April for a workshop devoted to the art of memoir writing, followed by a week’s retreat during which you can write to your heart’s content, with one-on-one feedback each day.


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