The Practice of Creativity

Finding Your Writing Territory

Posted on: March 17, 2014

As a writer, you can never predict what will touch people. You can only do your best to tell your story with skill, precision and heart. My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (author of Accidental Birds in the Carolinas) encourages students to ‘find their territory’, to explore the kinds of unique themes and challenges that only they can write about.

The relationship with my mother is definitely my territory. In last December’s ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News, I wrote about a snippet of my mother’s life which involved a great act of courage that changed the course of our lives (‘My Mother’s Gift’). When I was eight, my mother left my abusive stepfather and started her life over. Due to her actions, some serendipity and innovative social service programming we (my mother, sister and I) came to live in a special program for battered women and their children at The President Hotel, in Manhattan.  The program was a partnership with the city of New York and the President Hotel.

I received the highest number of responses from this column, more than any other I have written. I also had lengthy conversations with friends who read the column. I’ve been reflecting on what people shared with me and the questions that linger.

I was touched by many comments from women who had mothers that stayed with abusive partners, who were unable or unwilling to leave. A representative remark was “I’ve always wished that my mother had the courage to do what yours did.” These daughters have spent a lifetime trying to understand and cope with the consequences of growing up in a violent household. Some later became active in women’s issues:  “I grew up in a battering household, found feminism in my 40s and served on several boards advocating and helping women.”

I also heard from several readers whose mothers did leave. One said, “My mother did the same for me and my brother. Hooray for women who break the cycle of violence and give their children hope.” Therapists and health providers wrote to say that they work with many abused women and it is still very challenging for many women to leave. They hoped some would see my story and make a change. Others also thought my story might help other women. A friend said on my Facebook page “Stories such as these need to be told so [that] others’ can ‘keep on keeping on,’ when they feel all hope is lost…”

Our individual stories are always connected specific and historical eras. Having conversations with peers reminded me that I am part of the first generation of women (and men) whose mothers could  make a choice to leave an abusive relationship and potentially find societal support (and possibly resources), instead of condemnation.  Second wave feminist activism of the early 1970s placed the issue of ‘battering’ front and center in the national spotlight. Advocates were able to recast battering from a private, personal problem to a public one that needed addressing.  Previously, women, as a social group, did not have the public support to leave abusive men. Many women like my mother were making history in small, individual ways and empowering their daughters to question the status quo.

And, finally there were practical things that people wanted to know, too. I talked about taking my cherished Bionic Woman doll with me when leaving my stepfather—some wanted to know if I still have the doll. I do! She sits in a special place in my home office.  She lost a foot at some point while I lived at the hotel.  She’s a survivor, just like my sister and I.

I received lots of questions about The President Hotel. How did I get along at the hotel? What were the other mothers and children like? These questions have stimulated more for me including:  How many private-public programs like the President Hotel existed in Manhattan and other cities? How did they get dreamed up and funded? What happened to the other mothers and children that I met? What did they make of their lives? Clearly, I’ve got lots more research to do!

Writing about my time at The President Hotel and what happened to my mother later is part of my territory.  My mother saved my and my sister’s physical and emotional lives by removing us from that home. Many many years later, I would save my mother’s life and give her a fresh beginning, but that is for another story.

(this piece is adapted from a February ‘My View’ column that was published in the Chapel Hill News)

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2 Responses to "Finding Your Writing Territory"

Wonderful piece! May it lend courage to those who are in similar situations, even today.

I agree that we never know what will touch people. I’ve shared a few small stories about my life on my blog and was blown away by the amazingly supportive and kind comments I received from readers. Many said they’d cried and that what I wrote really got them thinking about things they never thought before. That’s a true gift.

Thank you for sharing this, Michele! I grew up in a house with a different kind of domestic violence than you experienced, but it made a huge impact on me and I am writing a story based on that. I hope it’ll help others who have or are experiencing what I had to go through.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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