I admit, I began my writing career by showing my scars. That’s all anyone would pay me for. As a disabled trauma survivor, there’s a temptation to build a career talking about my pain. There’s increasing awareness about the importance of giving a platform to minority voices and the experiences of people of colour, and those who are LGBTIAQ+, working class or disabled. But what we are asked to speak about is still an issue. The market has an insatiable appetite for our suffering.
In my early 20s, in every interview or article, I was asked to “tell my story” – and to emphasise the anguished parts. Recently, I was commissioned to write a piece for a new media outlet pitched as an alternative for tired tropes of pity pornography. I wrote about the fog we find ourselves in after trauma, how it can leave us on the margins of our own lives and how to find our way back to ourselves.
The editor pushed me to include graphic details.
“But you have to tell us what happened”, she insisted.
I didn’t want to give details – to sell my distress or traumatise readers – so I withdrew the article. Fortunately, I could still pay rent. But many marginalised people grab these conflicted opportunities because if the only market is for our hurt – well, we need to make a living.
I’m sickened by how that editor felt comfortable pushing me for details of my travails – though not wholly surprised: it’s the same pervasive entitlement which prompts strangers to grab my wheelchair in the street, asking if I’ll walk again. The ownership asserted over marginalised bodies is vast and damaging.
This appetite for grim details puzzles me. To understand how getting lost in difficulties feels, we need only to have grieved, struggled or loved someone who is hurting. Detailed descriptions of violence or our wounds are often gratuitous.
For marginalised writers, appetite for our anguish shapes us as artists and people. We are reduced to our suffering, spread across screens and sprawled over pages. Too often, we are told the publication is doing us a favour. We said we wanted to see our stories included, didn’t we? Isn’t this our story? Whole lives reduced to our darkest moments, moments which are then exaggerated in 36 point type headers. This distortion hides so much. Pain isn’t all of us. I have more life than my pain.
I have a desire to be witnessed; to be heard, after being silenced. But how surviving felt and how my story of it is edited and published—they’re not the same. There’s a complex relationship between the self that survived struggles and the self that grew from that place. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote “I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me, but I want to go from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain”. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into retelling my pain for pay but to write a full life. I hope to make a career of joy.
Grace Quantock is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.
A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.