Life Writing: Empowerment for the Future
by Sharon Ferguson-Hood
Women who have been victims of violence, whether verbal, emotional, psychological, or physical, often have been deprived of some part of their education. Coping with violence at home, in society, or at school can make it impossible to find the energy and concentration required in the classroom. The underlying assumption in most educational settings, as in our larger society, is that violence does not exist (1). One technique that can open the learning process to women who have been alienated from educational institutions, or that can reverse the effects of violence, is life writing.
Life writing can be a painful experience. Memories return that have been suppressed for years. I find it a long process; while the first draft may come quite quickly, it can be some time before I can attempt to read it or rework it.
Life writing is the opportunity to write about our lives. In the beginning, we put aside worries about structure, grammar and punctuation. Kristjana Gunnars, who taught me creative writing at the University of Alberta, says that we must simply write and not worry about our work being formally correct. If we are allowed to write freely and let the story come from within, it will appear with more tension and emotion than if we worry about sentence structure and grammar.
In my first year of university as a mature student, I was given the opportunity, in a Sociology class, to write a paper that involved life experience. But that was the only opportunity I had in three years. I found writing for university professors a very difficult process. I was seldom allowed to use the word "I" in formal essays. Nor do most professors consider the problems a mature student might encounter with grammar, sentence structure or the rules of good writing. I was expected to acquire such knowledge on my own, and no exceptions were made for alternative learning styles.
In my final year, I entered a class called "Feminist Critical Theory and Literature by Women." We used a text called Women's Voices and from that text we studied such pieces as "The Poets in the Kitchen" by Paule Marshall and "Birthing" by Kate Simone. This was literature known as life writing. We were then given the opportunity to write our own stories and the assignment was to write about kitchens we had lived in. That was the first time I felt I was in control of my writing. I wrote about the violence that had taken place in my kitchen and I felt empowered by my writing. Later, I published the story.