"Writing this was a real sanity-saving exercise."
Andrea Ashworth is speaking about her book "Once in a House on Fire" which has been praised by reviewers such as Carol West of the NY Times, who called it a "mesmerizing and poetic memoir of violence, abuse, racism and poverty."
Dr. Ashworth, born in England in 1969, is one of the youngest research Fellows at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.
Her choice of nonfiction as her first work was a matter of wanting to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction. She is currently working on her first novel. "I wanted to get my memories out because I wanted to pin them down, so that all those ghosts wouldn't go streaking across the novels," she explains.
"The reason I called it a memoir, and shaped it that way, although it's in the form of a novel, and I tried to write it in a very entertaining way, was because I wanted to be fair to the reader. I think a writer has a contract with her readers, and I thought it would be misleading and perhaps coy to call it anything other than a true story," she says.
Ashworth notes she did not start writing this chronicle of her early life until after she had left England. "It gave me the luxury of time and distance to look back, and contemplate what had happened," she says. "I was hit by the incongruity, by the weirdness, of where I was coming from, compared to where I seem to be going."
She recalls as a girl writing "lots of poems and stories and so on, which was very much disproved of by my stepfather. He was always very threatened by literacy, and also by expressions of warm feeling. Most of what I wrote was dedicated to my mother."
She found journal writing as a child was a kind of emotional buffer against the abuse and difficult circumstances she experienced. "I wouldn't have known that's what it was then, but I know I found it a very sweet pleasure. And I found reading and writing a sanctuary."
Ashworth thinks the process of writing fiction, on the other hand, is "hugely different. It's a massive challenge, and a luxury, to be free to make it all up. The great thing is, I don't have to go back to all the dark and scary places that I had to troll through in 'Once in a House on Fire.'
"But of course, the hard thing is that in making it all up, I have to conjure its reality for myself, and seduce myself into the fiction. I sometimes find myself sort of resisting, saying, well, here is a character and she has ten fingers and ten toes, and now let's walk her across the room. So that's been interesting. I have a very funny relationship with this different kind of writing, because it doesn't cause me any pain.
"My apprenticeship in writing was a very painful one, so it seems strange, a little bit like walking on the moon: I'm not quite sure where all the gravity went to. It's disconcerting, having to make up a story, but it is mostly incredibly liberating and fun."
Various kinds of journal writing, including the memoir, have been suggested as a way to access creativity. Julia Cameron ("The Artist's Way") advises writing "three pages, longhand and stream-of consciousness, first thing in the morning" as a "form of meditation" and "spiritual windshield wipers."
Many writers and therapists commend journaling as an effective strategy for healing and personal growth.
This form of writing may also have additional benefits: recent studies by psychologists and immunologists have demonstrated that subjects who wrote "thoughtfully and emotionally about traumatic experiences" showed increased T-cell production; a drop in physician visits and generally improved physical health.
Ashworth found some writing of the book challenging in terms of just living her life as an adult, but confirms it has been a positive and creative act overall,
"I wrote this book partly because I had itchy fingers, and wanted to write other things, and didn't want them to be polluted by the past. But also because, quite simply, I thought I would go mad if I didn't. It's made a huge difference."
"I have to say that the catharsis of writing it was painful and messy," she continues. "And there were times during the writing of it when I'd be so immersed in the past: I'd have to call up friends and say, sorry, I can't come out tonight because I'm only nine years old. I couldn't go out and do the normal, sort of grown-up things, I felt so trapped.
"When I finished writing it, instead of feeling elated and liberated, in fact I felt very burdened by this thing in front of me. I had to confront the gap between this beautiful thing I wanted to write, and the thing I had written.
"It wasn't until the book was published and read, and people started responding to it and to me, that I began to appreciate the book's beauty, and began to feel more friendly toward it.
"That's been the catharsis, in fact, having the book read and shared with people who have, or have not, the same kinds of experiences. I get thousands of letters, and only about a quarter, if that, are from people who have suffered anything really comparable; other people find other things in there, and others identify with the happier and funnier aspects of it. It was hard, of course, but I tried to write the book with a lot of buoyancy and fizz and color."
Ashworth adds more about her drive to write: "When I was a teenager, and felt trapped and so on, there were no role models and nothing for me grab onto. So partly I wrote the book with that sort of invisible audience in mind. And the great thing is that in England the book is reaching lots and lots of children, and I've been doing a lot of things to stimulate the truth and creativity in children.
"I think that's incredibly important. And it's a really vital, and fun, cause. I do things like short story competitions, and guest editing magazines for children, and so on. All that is incredibly therapeutic for me. That's really where the recycling has happened, the feedback.
"In America I've done these sorts of things only in a very localized way, with a couple of libraries and so on. But I am getting feedback that some teachers are picking it up, and introducing it to students. In England, it's actually getting into the curriculum."
Writing her book, Ashworth affirms, "Exorcised the ghosts, but also exercised my creativity. Memoir is still a pretty fresh and new form in England. When I wrote it, there wasn't a tradition, it wasn't established, so it was very new. Though in America that's not the case.
"Although I'm now a novelist, I've discovered that in the past couple of years, talking about the book (and I've traveled all over the world, and people in strange countries respond to my work, which is very thrilling), everyone wants to know 'what happened next.'
"Including my mother, although she obviously knows - she wants to carry on reading. And partly because I now feel safe and confident and happy enough talking and thinking about my past, I would like to pick up from the moment when I arrive at Oxford.
"Again, it will be a true story, but in a kind of entertaining fictional mode. I want to pick up sort of how a person recreates herself. Because everbody does that when they leave home anyway. But how do you do that when you were nearly destroyed at home?
"I do want to go back to it, but I won't until I finish this novel, and I'm working on some more short stories, too. So I will do it at some point in the next couple of years. I'm actually looking forward to it."
Andrea Ashworth Once in a House on Fire
Sheila Bender Writing
Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the
Eldonna Bouton Loose
Ends, A Journaling Tool for Tying up the Incomplete Details of your
Life and Heart
Julia Cameron. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
Lucia Capacchione The
Creative Journal : The Art of Finding Yourself
Jan Forrest Coming
Home to Ourselves: Journaling Toward Wholeness
Barbara Ganim, Susan Fox Visual
Journaling : Going Deeper Than Words
Tristine Rainer Your
Life As Story : Discovering the 'New Autobiography' and Writing
Memoir As Literature
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interview by Douglas Eby - resumé
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