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Ethel Rohan: On Fear, Memoir, and Reclaiming the ‘I’

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Ethel Rohan

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It still doesn’t feel quite real that I’ve written and published a memoir. A part of me expects to wake up after a strange dream, lock-jawed, dry-throated, and wooly-mouthed, my pajamas damp and salty from night sweats. To be specific, I’ve written and published an e-book of just 10,000 words titled Out of Dublin, a short burst. For me, a short, brutal burst, especially because I’ve felt such fear around exposing myself and others in my work—writing I’m no longer veiling with fiction.

I’m a fiction writer. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write stories about made-up people and places and situations, but never about me, never about people I knew, and most certainly never about my family. I was raised in North Dublin—by a Wicklow father and a Westmeath mother—to believe the privacy of the home and the person are sacred. Thus my parents would balk at these confessional tendencies I’ve developed in my writing in recent years, tendencies I’ve tried to turn off, but can’t. It’s like telling a Basset Hound not to howl.

ethel_rohan_2013 crop I’ve agonized over publishing Out of Dublin, feeling chased these past several months by the fifth commandment, Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother. My parents would hate that I’ve offered up these stories from my life in Out of Dublin for public consumption, stories that often put them center-stage. Worse, I’ve discarded all previous pretense at fiction and delivered the work to the world as true.

Out of Dublin is only my version of the truth, of course. I have five siblings and their version of the same events, experiences, and relationships no doubt vary from mine. None of them, though, suffer from my compulsion to be confessional. To date, I alone in my family have these dubious urges, urges that won’t be contained. This presses on my chest, makes me panic. I’m mindful of my every nerve and wish I could feel more numb and less afraid, as nerveless as a papier-mâché doll. Papier-mâché, though, is empty inside. What calms me somewhat, but not nearly enough, is the belief that my experiences are my stories, and my truth, to tell.

Out of Dublin is bursting with things I had to tell. I have no other defense other than I had to. Nuala O’Faolain—a fellow Dubliner, and a gifted and underrated journalist, novelist, and memoirist now sadly deceased—wrote about how her childhood stole her sense of self. My childhood also stole the ‘I’ out of me. Like Nuala O’Faolain, brilliant, brave, Nuala, I found writing to be one of the best ways to put the ‘I’ back into me.

I write. That is what I do. I write about what matters most to me, about what I’ve tried to render faithfully, about what I want others to look at closely. I’ve written about my experiences in the hopes they might have some meaning and value for others. That’s what memoir does. Memoir risks intimacy and lays the writer bare, allowing us see our sameness and giving us permission to also show our true selves. Memoir allows us to raise our voices and get heard, to be ourselves and get accepted. The sense of having no voice, of not getting heard, of having to hide, of being unaccepted and unacceptable, of not mattering, is killing.

For me, to publish or not to publish Out of Dublin came down to intention. My intention in publishing Out of Dublin is not to dishonor my parents or distress my family or anyone else. My intention is to make the truth into writing that’s artful and valuable, because the truth alone hurts too much and does no good. Recently, when I felt most afraid and confused about publishing Out of Dublin, I made myself sit in my garden, close my eyes, listen to the birds, and feel the gold of the sun on my face. Even though I got calm and still and focused, I didn’t feel or hear or see anything that seemed like a sign. I had to make up my own mind. It’s easier to look away from the hard things, to stay silent. Easier isn’t enough for me. I decided to keep scaring myself.

Out of Dublin begins:

Two-hundred-and-six bones hold the typical adult together. When we first arrive, our skeleton contains three hundred hard, slick parts the color of teeth, and then life takes out some bones. I sometimes feel I have too many bones missing, there not enough skeleton to keep me together.

A newborn, I came home to Munster Street, Dublin, Ireland—the street name too much like monster. It being a day in July, I picture tar bubbling on the road, smell tainted traces of the nearby Royal Canal, and see bare-chested boys chase each other while girls skip rope, their ponytails slapping.

My two brothers, aged six and three, wanted to send me back to the hospital. Maybe I felt the same way about the twin sisters and third brother who followed me into life over the next five years, making us a family of eight—a number too much like ate.

As a girl I often danced alone, usually to the music in my mind, my moves stolen from TV and ballerinas inside music boxes. I was helium. Stardust.

(c) Ethel Rohan

Out of Dublin (shebooks.net)  and can be downloaded for $2.99 and read on Kindle, Nook, Tablet, and any smartphone or computer.

About the author

Ethel Rohan is the author of the story collections Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, her work has or will appear in The New York TimesPEN AmericaWorld Literature TodayTin House Online, The Irish Times, and The Stinging Fly, among many others. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan lives in San Francisco. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.

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