Both my poetry collections – all three, if I include my pamphlet, The Long Woman – tell what I’m increasingly thinking of as my ‘understory’. There’s the public account we generally give of ourselves – the ‘how are you?’ ‘Coping, thanks’, ‘how’re the kids?’ version. The job. The family. The background. The how we look – ‘The smile I wore – my kind of clothes’ – as I put it in one poem in The Girl Who Cried. So, there’s this public face – our LinkedIn Profile. And then, well, for me certainly, there’s been a totally other story.
This is not to say the life people generally see is a lie: it’s not. Both are true. That’s the point. My family life, work life, social life – these are all crucial and crucially precious to me, and I’m honestly myself within them. BUT there is – and long has been – another true story. And this one isn’t so often told, and isn’t (probably, though what do I know?) nearly as visible.
It’s like my life has run along parallel lines. And I’m pretty sure this is more than the natural, and necessary, divide between outer and inner life. Noir, my first full collection, explores a time when that divide widened – when I was a teen and then a young and (yes, I now know) vulnerable woman. And The Girl Who Cried trawls right back to my very earliest difficulties, and then tracks their impact throughout my life. Both books attempt to surface and express the things I’ve found nearly impossible to say in other ways. Because I’ve felt I’m living this double life, of sorts, ever since I can remember.
I’m reminded of a strong image that emanates from childhood, when I suffered from double vision. One poem in Noir recalled the experience of repeated visits to Brighton Eye Hospital to attempt the seemingly impossible task of putting ‘the lion’ in one eye into ‘the cage’ in the other. I’d always wanted to write about this as it felt such an apt metaphor for my bigger difficulty: to bring my story and understory into the same frame, and hold them there, steady, together.
I, like millions, have watched and been moved by Brené Brown on her excellent evaluation of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. I’ve taken on board, and taken seriously, her definition of ‘whole-hearted’ people being those who accept and acknowledge their vulnerability, know it’s ‘necessary’, and what makes them ‘beautiful’. And her insight that what stops us from managing this is, universally, shame.
Well, we can experiment with suspending shame, for a time. I really appreciated this review of The Girl Who Cried – by Alex Josephy, on London Grip. She wrote: ‘Avoiding sentimentality and refusing shame, Charlotte Gann opens the box.’ And I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like to form writing groups – or be a companion, or critical friend – with others also curious about exploring their understories. Forge contexts where this stuff could be talked about – as naturally as what we’ve watched on Netflix recently, or what’s coming up in the garden. Where we write thoughtfully – with great care, and conversation – opening up (not blindly inhabiting) our understories.
You may read this and recoil, think I can’t imagine anything worse. I, however, think this is a group I would like to belong to. A group where we explore what normally stays hidden and invisible: unsaid. Where we say it. And see where that takes us – and our writing.