Monday, March 28, 2011

Writing Rape: My Weekend at the Testimonial Writing Workshop

I went to this Testimonial Writing Workshop this weekend.  It was sponsored by this incredible organization I am involved with called the Voices and Faces Project. The advanced reading packet included works by Primo Levi, Adrienne Rich, Martin Luther King, Sandra Cisneros.  You know, light stuff.

I went with the agenda of learning to write responsibly to a young adult audience about sexual violence.  After reading Kody Keplinger's blog about victim blaming, I realized how much work still needs to be done in the area of writing rape for YAs.

I was the only YA writer in the room.  In truth, this actually lightened what could have potentially been a way too intense weekend.  For example, in talking about endings and beginnings, we read the beginning of a Langston Hughes story and the workshop teacher asked us what possible things could happen next.

Me:  He could turn into a half-demon and tear down the entire church, effectively squashing all his oppressors in one half-demon fit of rage.

In case I haven't said it enough, I love the genre I write in:)

I wouldn't say I came out of the workshop ready to tackle the issue of rape in my next book.  But I did come out with an understanding of the power that writers have in testifying on the behalf of others.  By tackling the issue of sexual violence in YA writing, whether we intend to or not, we are speaking for teens who have experienced it (and perhaps haven't been able to tell their stories).  This is a large responsibility and we should treat it as such.  Writers need to understand that when we are telling a story of rape (even if it is a fiction story), we are speaking to people this may have happened to and what we write will have an impact on them.   I sat in a room full of women this weekend and realized that fictionalizing rape did not make the story any less important to them.  For many of them, it still somehow felt like their story too.  The collective memory of sexual violence is strong indeed.

Below is something I wrote for one of our workshop exercises.  It is rough because we only had 20 minutes to write but it gives a fairly good example of some of the things we were working on this weekend.

The exercise was to write a narrative from the POV of the opposite gender where the main character doesn't know/understand something but we, the reader do.  So here goes:

“Where’ve you been?” I asked, pulling her into my kitchen.

“I don’t know. Figuring stuff out, I guess.” She dropped onto a stool next to the large island.  She barely looked at me.  Her fingers squeezed the fake grapes in the ceramic bowl my mom had made. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  I didn’t want to be angry but she’d disappeared for 3 days, completely MIA.  She hadn’t returned my calls, texts, or emails. 

“Things have been pretty stressful lately and I needed to unplug.”  She let out a deep breath and my heart squeezed.  Had I been putting too much pressure on her?

“Well, did it work?  Did you figure out what you needed to?”

The grapes rolled through her fingers.  She didn’t look up.

“Sort of.” 

The conversation was going nowhere.  Ambivalence wasn’t Mia’s strong suit.  She was a straight shooting no bullshit kind of girl.  When I first met her, she told me my haircut made me look like an asshole.  I sort of loved her then. 

“What the hell, Mia?  Are you pissed at me or something?” 

Her hands dropped to her lap.  She stared at me.  She’d been crying.  I’d missed it when she walked it.  I walked over and sat next to her, taking her hands into mine. 

She shook her head sadly.  “No.  Just figuring stuff out.”

I searched her face.  I shouldn’t have asked her to have sex with me.  It was too soon.  She hadn’t worked through everything that happened two months ago.  I bit back the familiar anger and squeezed my eyes shut. 

“I shouldn’t have asked you.”  I rubbed my thumb along her wrist.  “It’s too soon.”

“No.  Well, maybe.  I don’t mind that you asked.  You’re a guy.  We’ve had sex before.  I get why you want to again.”  I felt like I had been slapped.  Was that how she saw me?  As just a guy interested in having sex with her?  Her words cut through me.  I wanted to understand, but I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t the guy who raped her.  I was the guy who loved her.  I swallowed back my retort and laced my fingers through hers.

“You know that’s not why I want to.”  She nodded her head but I could tell she didn’t get me, didn’t get how having sex with me, being safe with me could make things better for her. “It’s okay.  I can wait.”

She smoothed out my eyebrow, I had one hair that always liked to stick out in the opposite direction.

“It’s more complicated than that.”

I waited, the space between us growing.  I wanted to reach out and pull her towards me but she had this distance around her, one I hadn’t been able to get past since the rape no matter how close I stood to her. 

“I’m pregnant, Trevor.”

The world around me stilled, like all the molecules in the air had frozen.  Pregnant.  I couldn’t believe it.  Pregnant happened in movies, in crappy teen Lifetime specials, in books only girls read.  Pregnant didn’t happen in my world.  I opened and closed my mouth, looking for my voice, trying to find the right thing to say but I was paralyzed and the only thing that came out was “Mine or his?”


Unknown said...

Hey there!
Interesting post!! And let me say I'm jealous that you went to a conference like that! LOL!
I enjoyed reading the exercise ;) Thx for sharing!

Unknown said...

Oops, I meant workshop! LOL :P