Unafraid of the Dark

Writing about traumatic events without traumatizing your readers: a profile of Heather Sellers

Some years ago, in a workshop, I wrote about my sister’s self-destructive adolescence. I recounted her recklessness with boys and alcohol, the anger that erupted like a geyser inside her, and her hell-bent desire to run away—which she did by joining a traveling carnival when she was 16. The scenes brimmed with my own shock and confusion, and, as difficult as the subject matter was, I was sure it was the best thing I’d written. But in class, a writer I deeply respected made some general comments, then leaned back in her chair. She nudged the manuscript on the table away, as if proximity itself was a problem.

“It’s too much,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

Instead of feeling drawn into the narrative, she was repelled by it. The worst part was that I had no idea how to fix the problem: the story was the story, wasn’t it?

So when I had a chance to take a class from Heather Sellers and interview her about her work, I was eager to learn. Sellers is no stranger to writing about difficult family relationships. Her memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know recalls a childhood that bounced between her mother’s home, where open windows, phone calls, visitors, even pictures on the wall were objects of her mother’s deep paranoia, and her father’s house, where he drank gin for breakfast, wore women’s underwear beneath his clothing, and disappeared each night, leaving his daughter to fend for herself.

In the afterword to her book, Sellers reveals that finding a way to write about this material didn’t come easy. She describes some of the reactions she received from her writing group to early versions of her manuscript: “How could you live this way? . . . It’s too raw. You don’t speak to these people, do you?” One editor told her no one would believe her childhood was survivable.

The responses hurt and baffled Sellers. “This was my mother. I loved her,” she writes in the afterword. “This was my family. . . . How could it be too raw?” I asked her how she moved past this initial discouragement.

“I had to spend some years writing it all out, spilling over, showing people, learning it was too soon to show, still being processed and observed by self, and then some more years thinking, reflecting, going over the many pages, and trying to come to terms with three key generative questions: What’s the point of sharing this? What’s the purpose of reading it? What was it I really wanted to give over to my reader?

“I very much sought to tell a story about something other than surviving a childhood; I’m not even sure what that means, ‘to survive a childhood.’ I knew the scenes I was writing were honest, pointed, relevant, and clear. I struggled with [the editor’s] words. What did she really mean? Proving I’d ‘survived’ wasn’t the point. She was saying this: you need to be a lot more aware of the impact of your words on your reader.”

Sellers used that feedback to help her work through the manuscript with a new lens.

“My editors were doing me huge kindnesses,” she said. “If I’m going to ask people to read that material, I’d better be able to make it worthwhile. Could I deliver insights gleaned from my experience that shed light on broader human experience? If I was going to ask my reader to walk through dark places with me, what would be rewarding for her in that difficult journey?”

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was published in 2010 to wide acclaim, and Sellers has continued to write about topics that are challenging, even scary, to readers—topics like pornography, divorce, neglect, and isolation. The insights she’s gained are surprising, even paradoxical. She hopes sharing them will inspire other writers to return fearlessly to their own dark narratives.

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Go Cold

There is a scene in Sellers’s memoir where she visits a neurologist about a rare condition she believes she has. She tells him she can’t remember faces.

“Head trauma?” he said. “Daddy knock you around a little bit?”

“What?” I said. He was coming at my head with his hands and flashlight. I put up my palms. I said loud and clear: “In the grocery store, I have gone up to the wrong man, thinking it was my husband.” I paused. Yntema looked at his pen, his flashlight. I leaned back. He closed the gap between us.

“It’s not like you went up to a fat black man thinking that was your husband.”

I wanted to call for help. I wanted to get out of that room.

He said, “There’s sexual abuse. Right? Am I right? I’m right. Daddy getting a little drunk? Can’t keep his hands to himself?” He was hard as a wire.

Sellers ends the scene without giving voice to her emotions. Instead, she lets readers fill the space with our horror and disbelief. It’s a great moment of “going cold,” a concept Sellers attributes to author Tony Earley. Earley, she explains, uses a visual scale to measure emotion in a piece. The scale is two vertical lines numbered from one to ten: one of the lines represents the writer’s or character’s expression of emotion as revealed in the prose, and the other represents the reader’s emotion. Here’s the catch: the sum of the two lines can only equal ten. There’s an inverse relationship between how much emotion the writer offers up and how much the reader experiences. Making the prose cold, Sellers says, provides room for a reader to bring her own emotions to the piece—generally a much more powerful experience than hearing the writer explain emotions she felt in the past.

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know moves back and forth between Sellers’s adult life and her childhood. In a scene the night before her father is supposed to drive her to college to begin her freshman year, he swings a heavy frying pan at her head in a drunken rage. She narrowly evades the blow.

I slipped out the front door, past my stuff. Half walking, half running, I went down to the little bridge that spanned the channel between Conway Chain of Lakes. People honked as they went by. I waved. I waved to everyone, all the time. They were all probably crazy Belle Isle guys with a buzz going who didn’t know me, but I didn’t think it hurt anything to wave back, just in case it was someone I might have known, if I was a different girl.

Despite the absence of feelings on the page, the reader is awash in shock and grief.

“Many beginning writers focus on emotion and feeling states,” Sellers said. “Their impulse to write comes from a feeling, often, and so it makes sense. Without thinking much about it they say to themselves: I’ll start with explaining the feelings. . . . But usually that doesn’t create art, something moving for someone else.

“It can take a long time to learn how to trust the eye, and action. In three words, the whole teaching is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Right? Tony Earley has come up with a brilliant, simple way for students to understand that adage, which sounds really great, but how? What do you do? He gives us a tool for understanding what it is to show and how to show: leave out the emotions; trust that they will come along for the ride. Leave out the explanation; trust your reader.”

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Formal Control

Sellers’s essay “My Pornography,” published in 2009, is composed of eleven numbered, short parts. Together they tell a story about a teenage girl growing up in a house where pornography was everywhere—strewn across the kitchen counter, pulsing on TV, mixed in with the weekly news magazines. The numbered structure and short form exert a kind of formal control over material that might otherwise be difficult for a writer—or a reader—to approach.

“I think ‘formal control’ means making choices about structure, but it also has to do with the way you tell the story,” Sellers said.

“I think what happens, often, when we are telling the stories from our lives, is a tendency to sprawl. Sometimes emotion drives the car. Thinking in terms of container—form—not to constrain but to hold—can be really helpful. I encourage my students to consider what they want to include in the “container” of their piece—so much doesn’t need to be in there. What can you put in the container that will surprise, entice, delight, intrigue, rivet, and move your reader? Probably not what’s expected, at all.”

To help students think about what doesn’t belong in the container, Sellers teaches a micro memoir/flash fiction course where they work in a single-page format—three hundred words max.

“With a tight frame like that, there’s a lot of room to experiment with various kinds of form and find great freedom in a contained space. When you can see the entire story on the page, like a painting—it’s all right there in front of you—you are immediately more aware of the physical aspects of form, of course, the visual nature of a story. But you can also push against form, in such a tight container, in a very gymnastic way. No page to turn, taking away some of the continuity and linearity of story cuts against that kind of blabbing on in search of a story armature. Interestingly, the students’ stories get shorter and shorter and more spare and more complex as the semester goes along . . . three hundred words begins to seem like an acre by Thanksgiving.”

Sellers published three volumes of poetry before she began publishing creative nonfiction. She acknowledges her background as a poet may explain why she gravitates toward formal control.

“I noticed at some point that in teaching poetry, where I present a sequence of formal assignments, the tighter the constraints (sonnet, for example) the better the work.  Students, when queried, often say this increase in quality of technique is because the form forced them to spend more time on the piece than they normally would.  But I think there’s more to it . . . the form forces you to leave out huge swaths of material (perhaps only interesting to you, the writer!). I adjusted my nonfiction course design so that it lines up more with how I teach poetry and began using forms in my nonfiction courses. Now, I’m interested in those forms that do both poetic things and memoir things—one-page stories. Tight little paragraphs that stand on their own.” 

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Beauty Container

In 2016, Sellers published “Unlocked,” a personal essay with a scene describing a walk she and her mother sometimes took outside their home.

We would step outside, and she would lock the door, twisting the knob to make sure it was secure. Then she’d check it again. She kept checking.

Mom, it’s completely locked. Come on.

We would walk down our driveway in the silky dusk of a Florida evening. Before we reached the mailbox on its silver pole, she would stop and turn to me: I’ll be right back!

Mom!

She’d run back to check the door again.

At the age of twelve I was aware that I’d once loved my mother without question, and that now I did not love her that way anymore.

“Unlocked” is a coming-of-age story in which a young girl begins to recognize her parents’ dysfunctional behaviors but has no way to understand them. Yet even as Sellers shows the tension and rising conflict, there are moments of beauty.

Walks with my mother were the one time we brushed up against the outside world together, normal life so close I could actually smell it. . . .

If the moon was up, I would watch my mother’s shadow: the pointed kerchief on her head, her slender shoulders, her long arms. She was my creature. I wanted to be the one to tame her. I would never give up.

Beauty is one of the things Sellers tells writers to put in their “container.” When writing about painful or difficult subjects—grief, illness, violence—writers tend to put in only what’s expected: the doctor giving a terminal diagnosis; the sterile, impersonal hospital; a husband clobbering his wife. Sellers calls this “The Bus of Expected Things.” To write about dark subjects, she advises, writers should remember what’s beautiful the entire time. Not literal beauty—although that can be part of it—but rather, the layering of artistic techniques and the alchemy of fusing many different elements to create art.

“I think we’re drawn to beauty, all of us,” Sellers said, “and beauty is a kind of container for complexity, yes? A lot of my work in the classroom is supporting students in a practice of getting comfortable with juxtapositions—a great thing and a terrible thing, set alongside each other. And achieving some kind of basic fluency with not knowing, and questions, and the ability to tolerate uncertainty. The art that moves me most deeply is art that allows for something along the lines of these complexities.”

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Yearning for Good

Yearning is a constant undertow in Sellers’s writing: yearning for affirmation from parents; yearning for a sense of normalcy; yearning, especially, to belong.

In an essay entitled “Becoming a Mouth,” she writes in third person about watching other kids play at recess.

She can’t move from the fence. She is part of the fence. She’s mute. She’s furious at the others’ joy, carelessness, abandon, and hope. She hates the kids. She longs for the adults to see what is really going on. Things aren’t fair out there. It’s hard for her to read a complete book; fractions are impossible; she hasn’t spoken a sentence in days and days; and she is so divided, so ugly, so unnoticed, and such a spectacle, all at once. Everything she is cancels itself out. Her clothes—a thick plaid long-sleeve shirt, a polyester skirt in a strange shade of stale peach—are from 20 years ago, purchased from the Cancer Society Thrift Store. Recess is almost over, and it’s getting worse. . . . The girl on the edge alone has one idea she knows is good. She’s going to be funny.

One day, she’s going to be a comedian.

It’s the most unlikely thing. No one could imagine it. She is the most disturbed serious (as opposed to book serious) person in the school. She’s a wreck. She can’t even speak.

Already, it’s funny.

Sellers makes us feel the yearning to change her circumstances. We get past the discomfort of her extreme otherness with her longing to overcome it herself.

Sellers credits author Robert Olen Butler for teaching her about yearning which has to do with what the character is aiming for, the positive elements in the character’s hope. “Not positive as in moral goodness,” she said, “but charge—what’s the pulse they’re moving towards or by?

“If the creative nonfiction piece . . . has its focus on a person, or people, storytelling skill demands attention to yearning,” she said. “In order to get the reader to hook into the characters or narrator, she has to feel some kind of a strong pull forward, towards something, or the story flatlines, tension drops, game over. That pull-through has to make sense and also be compelling. There has to be some jeopardy, some mystery, actions counterpointed with questions.”

The current of yearning builds and builds in You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know. Sellers longs for reconciliation with her parents, even as she begins to understand the reasons for their disturbing behavior. She struggles to know what to do about her marriage to a man she cares deeply for but can’t seem to live with. She is desperate to know who she is because her neurological condition has caused her to distrust every perception she’s ever had about the world. We are pulled inexorably forward. Her yearning becomes ours.

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Everything at Once

While elaborating on these ideas, Sellers resisted my questions to point to examples of her writing as representative of these techniques. She said she could not talk about a passage from a single vantage point that way.

“I hope I don’t sound pretentious or school-ish when I say this: when I sit down to write, I’m conscious of trying harder to tell the truth. Trying harder to be more accurate than the last time I sat with this page. I go over each page, each sentence, many many many many times. To try to get it exactly right, exactly as it was, to see more and more into the actions and motivations and psychologies and pin down something that is elusive, seems ineffable, but isn’t, and then once you name it—name it right—there it is, brought over from not-knowing, and we have it, and thus the vocabulary is expanded . . . but this never feels like something I actually do; it comes over with a certain kind of concentration.

“The decisions we’re making, as we write, are mostly unconscious, right? Each passage is layers and layers of conscious work and unconscious work revised many times . . . all manner of artistic technique layered into the work. I don’t think you could write by just focusing on a single technique. My teacher Jerry Stern put it this way: writing is like skiing. You have to do everything at once. I’m really not actually sure the guy ever skied. But I have. And it’s true. You have to do everything at once while moving forward.”

About the Author

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Susan Bruns Rowe

Susan Bruns Rowe writes and teaches in Boise, Idaho. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, the Brevity blog, Penny, and the American Oxonian. She recently finished a manuscript of short stories based on the lives of her immigrant grandparents.

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