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Hide & Seek by Ethel Rohan

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Article by Ethel Rohan ©.
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We reveal ourselves in our stories. I resisted this idea for a long time—believed my writing exposed my characters and not me. I eventually braved the truth, though, and saw the mirrors in my work, recognized my repeated fears and obsessions. My stories, however unintentionally, are filled with themes and motifs of loss. Losses both visible, like limbs, and invisible, like love, and the stranger the absences the better.

A few years back, following a reading of my first story collection, Cut Through the Bone, a fiftyish man in the audience in a white shirt with a frayed grandfather collar said he’d read my book and expected me to have parts missing. His green eyes roved my intact body with disappointment bordering on anger. I assured him, my heart running like a motor, that I did have parts missing. Intangible parts. He looked at me for a stretch and, his burning expression at last cooled, delivered a firm nod before settling back into his chair.

My latest book, a second story collection titled Goodnight Nobody, also reveals my fixation with empty spaces. What’s perhaps unique to this new collection, though, is how the losses these characters most wanted to hide from me—and from themselves and the other characters—are what most compelled me to slice and probe. To borrow from Milan Kundera’s masterful novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, writers suffer the surgeon’s desire to uncover that which would remain secret:

“God did not take surgery into account. He never suspected that someone would dare to stick his hand into the mechanism He had invented, wrapped carefully in skin, and sealed away from human eyes.”

We stick our literary hands into the mechanisms we invent to better know our subjects, and ultimately to better know ourselves.

For too long, the idea that my stories exposed me, put my fascinations and fears on public view, crippled my writing. Every character’s thought, action, and fear, every plot turn, I agonized over what these various craft elements told the reader about me. To continue as a storyteller, for such is my lot, I eventually had to banish these paralyzing anxieties and force myself to follow my gaze wherever it led in my stories. I realized that whatever I uncover about my characters, and whatever I uncover about myself by default, the worst that readers will ever know about us is how very human we are.

(c) Ethel Rohan

Award-winning author Ethel Rohan will teach a three-day writing workshop on “The Brilliance of Brevity” at the Abroad Writers Conference in Lismore Castle, December 11-13, 2013. Full details and registration information here.