Let’s Take Care of Each Other’s Stories

Let’s Take Care of Each Other’s Stories

They tried to bury us.
They didn’t know we were seeds.
– Mexican proverb

On days when I didn’t have to deliver a lecture to first year law students back in the late 1990’s, I worked at People Opposing Women Abuse. It was a volunteer job two days a week. I shared an office with the social workers in an icy little house that got no morning or afternoon sun, in a suburb in Johannesburg easy enough to reach from the townships by public transport.

I took notes by hand on a pad of lined paper. It gave me something officious to do. It seemed respectful. I wrote everything down – never sifting the legally relevant from the irrelevant. I’d often reach the end of a session and have no legal remedy to offer if a woman didn’t want to lay a criminal charge, get an AVO or sue for damages. Instead I’d offer her a biscuit and a cup of tea. I’d often break professional protocol and hug her. I’d tell her I was sorry for what she’d been through. That she didn’t deserve what had happened to her and I’d try to usher her out so I could get to my next appointment. I’d often see her back in our waiting room in weeks or months down the line. I never got used to this cycle of useless to-ing and fro-ing.

I was an efficient note-taker by day. Sometimes a chauffeur when a woman needed a ride to court. A hand-holder when she needed moral support. In my loftier self-aggrandizing moments, I thought of myself as ‘an advocate in the fight against gender violence.’ After two years, I was in therapy, suffering from secondary traumatization, a fancy word for anxiety-by-association; a mental saturation from too many stories for which there are no happy endings.

But by then I knew too much. After all those years, I understood the law and its limitations. I got how the system worked. So I set up a legal advocacy to end violence against women. I sat on a commission to draft new domestic violence legislation. I worked on a 900 page manual for paralegals to share everything I knew. I did this during my pregnancy and the year after my daughter was born. When she was six weeks old, I travelled with her to Cape Town, to make a submission to Parliament on some law or another designed to ‘protect women from violence.’ My baby started to cry just before I was called to speak. A kind woman offered to take her outside. Distracted and distressed by my baby’s cries which I could hear through the closed doors, I felt my breast milk soaking through my bra making wet patches on my dress. I don’t imagine I did much for the struggle against gender violence that day in my leaking incoherence.

I fantasized that by the time my little girl was a teenager, violence against women, like concentration camps and gas chambers, would be a shameful nightmare of history, a phase we’d look back on with lofty ‘it’s-hard-to-believe’s’ and ‘how-did-society-allow-it-to-happen’s?

It is twenty-one years later. At times it feels like we are circling the same hopeless strategies, never making it through this particular circle of hell.

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About Joanne

Joanne Fedler is an internationally bestselling author of 10 books, writing mentor and publisher. In the past seven years, she’s facilitated 12 writing retreats all over the world, mentored hundreds of writers (both face to face and in her online writing courses), set up her own publishing company, Joanne Fedler Media, and published four debut authors (with many lined up to follow). She’s passionate about publishing midlife memoirs and knows how to help people succeed in reaching their goal to become a published author.

When I quit my work at the frontlines of ‘gender violence,’ I swore I would never go back there again. I was done. I moved countries. I reinvented myself. I became a writer (all that note-taking came in handy at last). I would lose myself in stories and I’d teach others to do the same. But the fantasy we have about free will is that there is such a thing. Who we become is a negotiation between choice and the plans life has for us, whether you call it karma, destiny or good old unfinished business.

See, writing brings its own demands: tell the truth. Break silence. Write what you know. Write from your pain. So I did. I wrote, among other books, Things Without a Name, the story of Faith, a counsellor at a women’s crisis centre, who has given up on finding love, and who has to learn to love the one person most worthy of that love – herself. It was my way of making sense of those bleak years and of honouring all the stories I had borne witness to.

As I began to teach writing, what I never counted on was that in a single room, online forum or Facebook group where women writers gather, everyone has her own #metoo story. I ran as far as I could from the icy confines of that counselling room the sun could never reach, only to find myself up to my collarbone in secrets, shames and shattered spirits sourced in male violence.

The difference between the law and storytelling is that the law designates you as either the victim or the perpetrator – you can only ever be one or the other. In law you have to prove your suffering, sometimes at the expense of your sanity. Stories on the other hand, ask us to find who we are through the tangle of experience (no matter how horrifying), and to make our own precious meaning from it all. We dare never cower. We grab our stories by the balls and we tell them who we are because of them. Not the other way around.

In writing, we shape what we have lived and seen. We return to cruelties with questions we can only form as adults who have passed through the narrow passage of suffering and grief and with enough of a footing to look back. What really happened here? How did it shape me? What do I believe and trust in the light of this? From this vantage point we honour the self who endured, the self who survived and who now stands on the other side of it all, able to look back. Whether we find answers is neither here nor there, and no memoir is improved by an author’s resolution of doubt and the closures she crafts. The fact that we are alive and breathing and have the authority to be the one asking questions is a privilege and a cause for celebration. It is the mark of a person remaking herself. It is birth all over again, this time by choice.

It is in these sacred conversations with writers that I have remade my heart.

Download Things Without a Name Free E-book

Today, 25th November, marks the beginning of 16 days of activism against gender violence worldwide. It lasts until 10th December, International Human Rights Day.

Every day over this period, the Joanne Fedler Media blog will feature the voice of a new writer in our community who has survived to rebuild herself. We would love you to share these stories on social media, with your girlfriends, mothers, daughters, friends and sisters.

I have also chosen today to relaunch the 10-year anniversary edition of Things Without A Name, first published in 2008, which I am giving away as a free e-book for the next 16 days. It has a new preface, in which I enumerate all the important changes I see in this last decade – the ones that inspire hope.

16 Days of Activism

Please feel generously enabled to download the ebook of Things Without a Name and gift it to anyone you think needs to be recognized for having survived her life, or just because she’d love a good read.

Things Without a Name is about the power of naming things and the way we are defined by the things we cannot name.

No matter our histories (and let’s face it, some of us have survived a shitstorm) we are free to rechristen our experiences; to declare motherhood a form of leadership, self-love, a weapon of disarmament and storytelling, a superpower.

As the wonderful Hannah Gadsby says in her show on Netflix, Nanette:

Stories hold our cure.…

She goes on to say:

I just needed my story felt, heard and understood… your story is my story and my story is your story…please help me take care of my story.

As soon as we name our experience, we offer our story into the care of others.

For these 16 days, let’s take care of each other’s stories.

TWAN - 10 yr Anniversary Edition cover

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“You should share all your work on social,” an editor told me firmly, some years ago. And from then on, I did. Every time one of my articles was published, I dutifully posted a link to Facebook. And each time I felt miserable, as I anxiously awaited the dopamine-inducing ping of a ‘like’ or ‘share’.

It wasn’t just that one editor’s comment. My writing mentor also insisted that my social media profile was essential to getting my work out into the world. I needed to build my Personal Brand, as if I was the next Dyson, or Ben & Jerry’s. But to me, constructing my own brand felt like corporate-speak for what was really Shameless Self-Promotion.

My writing mentor admonished me when I told her how conflicted I felt. When you share your writing, you give people the chance to be touched and feel something, she emailed. Sharing your work is a gift to others, not about ego or self-promotion.

But still, I struggled.

You see in real life, I’m an introvert. I’ve always preferred having a few close friends to being part of a large group. And I don’t like being the centre of attention. But posting links to my stories on Facebook and LinkedIn catapults me right into the limelight. This leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable, like I’ve turned up naked to a fancy dress party.

Despite my aversion to sharing my work on social, I couldn’t help myself. After posting a link to one of my articles, I’d compulsively check my Facebook page, as if a ‘like’ or ‘share’ made me happier, or a better person (it didn’t). But while I was thrilled by the positive feedback, I was deeply troubled by the ‘friends’ who stayed silent. Why hadn’t cousin Sophia ‘liked’ my article, especially when she’d ‘liked’ cousin Katie’s holiday snaps, posted just minutes earlier?

.

About Elana

 

Elana Benjamin is a writer, qualified lawyer and mother of two. Her work has been published in Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Life, Essential Kids, Debrief Daily (now Mamamia), SBS Life and the Jewish Book Council blog. She’s also the author of the memoir/history My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi (Hybrid Publishers, 2012).

My Facebook feed, I realised, was tapping into my deepest insecurities. My fears of failure. Of rejection. Of embarrassing myself. And, perhaps most importantly, my need to be liked. I tried repeating author Steven Pressfield’s mantra: “You are not the work.” Logically, I knew this was true.  But I had difficulty separating myself from my words.

My ambivalent feelings towards social media continued for years until a few months ago, when I decided to conduct a little experiment. I’d had an article published online but decided not to share it on social. My words were in the public domain, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t know.  This felt lonely, like spending a birthday without family or friends. And I realised that by trying to shield myself from vulnerability, I was missing out on one of the most joyous parts of writing: interacting with readers.

After that, I called a ceasefire in my battle with online platforms. I still find that sharing my writing on social media dissipates my energy, but I’ve learned to tolerate the discomfort.  When I post one of my published pieces to Facebook or LinkedIn, I accept that I’ll probably feel destabilised for a day or so, like I’m on a roller-coaster ride. I force myself away from my screen, and go for a walk or a swim. Or I bake scones to eat with my kids when they get home from school.  Anything to help me feel more grounded.

These days, I know that even if people read one of my articles, they’ll soon move on to the next story. And then it will just be me and my laptop again. So I try to enjoy the fleeting moments when I connect with readers, knowing that all I can control is what I write, not how other people react. I focus on the feedback that I do get, instead of zeroing in on those virtual bystanders who don’t respond to my posts. And over time, I’ve learned to disentangle my self-esteem from the success (or lack thereof) of my writing.

Yes, social media can feel like a very public popularity contest. But Facebook and other platforms are gold when it comes to spreading our stories. The trick, I’ve learned, is to use social media as a tool to serve our individual needs as writers. We must look confidently at our Facebook and LinkedIn feeds and be clear – just as my son told me defiantly when he was four – that “You are not the boss of me.” And know that regardless of what happens in cyberspace, our worth as humans in the real world remains intact.  

Come and Join the Midlife Memoir Breakthrough

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‘I’m terrible at spelling and my grammar is horrible,’ Xanti said to me. ‘I think I am even dyslexic. But I have a story I need to write, and I need your help.’

It has taken two and a half years of dedicated commitment, but finally, today, Joanne Fedler Media is proud to be publishing her book, But They Look So Happy, about Xanti’s experience of adopting two six-year-old boys from a Mexican orphanage. This book means so much to me because it’s the first book Joanne Fedler Media has nurtured from inception to publication. 

Xanti Bootcov - But They Look So HappyWhen they adopted their boys, Xanti and her husband knew their sons had suffered untold abuse and neglect, but they believed that love would heal all wounds. Life didn’t turn out that way. This is a heart-wrenching journey into one family’s experience of adoption as two adopted boys struggle to become part of a caring family and Xanti faces the fact that her love will forever be unrequited.

It is a heroic memoir, in which Xanti learns to value everything she gave even in the face of rejection, and will make you think about what it means to be a ‘mother’ in a completely new way.

 

PLEASE SUPPORT THIS WONDERFUL NEW AUTHOR
BY BUYING A COPY OF HER BOOK

Why She’s Fabulous

 

Xanti was born in the late ’60s and grew up in South Africa. As a little girl, she found out how powerful writing could be when her first-grade teacher asked the class to write an essay. She learned that it wasn’t a good idea to write about having a teacher who shouted all the time. It took her another forty-five years to show her writing to anyone.
 
Xanti - But They Look So Happy
She started travelling at the age of fourteen and has lived in seven countries. She learned something new from each, which has added to her eclectic lifestyle. She’s been through earthquakes, volcano eruptions and a couple of fires. But her life changed completely after she witnessed the realities of abandonment and abuse in a Mexican orphanage, and that’s when she adopted her two sons. Her experiences as an adoptive mother have shaped her view on parenting, childhood and everything else that matters.
 

Xanti is fascinated by the human psyche and longs to understand the reasons we do the things we do and it’s this perspective she applies to writing her memoir. Xanti is no ordinary person, no stereotypical ‘mother.’ She is a gypsy-hippie-lover-of-all-creatures and has a unique voice that permeates this wrenching, and honest account of her efforts to be a mother to her two boys. 

Here’s my People with Passion interview with Xanti:

If you want to learn more about Xanti, you can visit her website at www.xantibootcov.com or check out her Facebook page.

 

When Xanti and her husband adopted two six-year-old boys from a Mexican orphanage, they knew their sons had suffered untold abuse and neglect. But they couldn’t leave them where they were. Xanti believed love would heal all wounds. She was wrong. This is a heart-wrenching journey into one family’s experience of adoption as two adopted boys struggle to become part of a caring family and a mother faces the fact that her love will forever be unrequited. This is a heroic memoir by a debut author who learns to value everything she gave even in the face of rejection.

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Spelling Out My Story

Spelling Out My Story

“Bernard! If you don’t stop that, I’ll go get the sack.” That was all Marie said, and her son stopped, looked up in fear, and apologised. Marie relaxed back into her seat and explained, “He knows I’ll hang him in the sack from a tree for an hour. It’s funny, he is so scared of the sack. I can get him to do anything.”

My mother’s colleague had brought her family for a Sunday BBQ and she was happily sipping on her cocktail. I sat next to my mother and thought, “When I am grown up, I don’t want to be a mommy like her. I want to be a mommy like mine. One who sits at my dolly-tea-parties and pretends to drink imaginary tea and reads bed time stories.”

As a child I was not a good reader. I was not a good writer either. If my life depended on spelling, it would have had a very sad outcome. I would carefully write the words that I actually knew how to spell. And I used up a lot of energy finding ways to trick my teachers into believing that I had bad handwriting over bad spelling habits. That was until I was sixteen years old and an English teacher told me to stop focusing on spelling. Grammar, he said, was for cowards. “I want to know the story. If I can’t imagine it, then no good-spelling is going to get me there anyway.”

I took his words as gospel and I began to tell stories.

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About Xanti

Xanti was born in South Africa in the late ’60s. She enjoys travelling around the world, which is why she has lived in seven different countries. She believes in equality for all people. Xanti gave up on a single career path when it became necessary to choose between travel and career. After seeing the shadows and the light of abandonment and abuse, she adopted her two children. She has always been interested in understanding why people do what they do. This helped her when her experiences as an adoptive mother shaped her view on parenting.  She’s been through earthquakes, a volcano erupting and a couple of fires. Currently, Xanti lives in Mauritius but continues to travel the world whenever possible.

You can visit her website at www.xantibootcov.com
Or her Facebook page.

As a mother desperately trying to find the middle ground between the dreaded sack and the imaginary tea-parties, I turned to writing to get me out of some of my saddest moments. I was a mother who felt like I was failing every test, but I found acceptance and healing in the words I banged out on my keyboard. My spelling was bad. I couldn’t grasp the active voice and I wasn’t even sure if I could remember an adverb from a pronoun, but write I did. Tears dripped some days. Giggles filled the house on others.

I found meaning and understanding, and I found my place in my story. Don’t get me wrong, I still think spelling and grammar are important. There is a whole world of meaning between “a part” and “apart”. Don’t even get me started on the difference between “your” and you’re”, but here is the thing: Words are important. How could you explain that your heart is sore if you don’t know the word for heart? How would you say that you are in love if you didn’t have the language to express the emotion?

As for my parenting skills? Well, you’ll have to ask my children if I ever brought out the sack. I know I tried to give my children the best life I could offer. I know I had good days and I know I had bad ones. Days where I succeeded and days when I felt I was worse than the tree-sack-hanger. But through all of that, I repeated the same message that I was given all those decades ago. Let me hear your story. Tell me your story. Write your story.

Give it a try and maybe you will find yourself in between the lines. Or even more meaningful, perhaps someone else will find themselves between your paragraphs. What could be better than that?

Being able to spell onomatopoeia?

Come and Join the Midlife Memoir Breakthrough

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In this hands-on, intimate workshop (an eclectic mix of teaching, instruction, writing exercises, meditations, ritual, sharing and other joyful activities), I will teach you how to take the material of your life – the moments that counted, no matter how shattering or modest – and weave them into a memoir that makes sense of it all.

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