Emily Morris: How to Write Away Shame
21st Jul 2017
Emily Morris, author of My Shitty Twenties: A Memoir, shares her thoughts and advice around writing away shame.
Of all the negative emotions we experience as human beings, shame is one of the worst. Shame is vile. Shame is cruel. It makes you feel hot and hollow. Shame makes you furious that it’s the 21st century and no one has invented time travel yet, or that thing from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that can make you totally forget a person or a thing or a night.
The greatest shame I ever felt was when I was young, single and pregnant. It was not Victorian times, or even the 1950s. It was 2005.
My shame was less about being judged for being a single mum (although I did get that) and more about the fact I had let the pregnancy happen in the first place (he swore he was infertile. I know).
I wanted to shrink until I wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Instead, I was growing, getting rapidly huge, the fact of my own stupidity there for all to see.
When you’re pregnant, everyone makes the natural assumption that there’s a man in your life and everyone, from hairdressers to taxi drivers, wants to know if he is excited.
As soon as my son was born, I was introduced to shame’s close relative: guilt. It wasn’t as though I had never been acquainted with guilt before: when I was eight, I managed to accidentally kill Jeremy Fisher, the only surviving frog from the litter of hundreds of tadpoles I’d been lovingly raising in a washing up bowl.
I’d put Jeremy in a cardboard box to take him inside to show my mum. Somehow, I trapped him between two overlapping flaps at the bottom of the box; the image of squashed Jeremy will stay with me forever. I took to bed and wailed myself to sleep.
Parental guilt about humans is worse than that about frogs, I discovered. I did not kill my baby, but I did fail at breastfeeding him, which some people would have you believe is just as bad.
As the years passed by, the guilty experiences stacked up: making my son chuckle so hard that he twatted his cherubic face on a playground roundabout, being completely unable to assemble his birthday bike the night before the big day and absence at almost every school play because of work.
Sartre said that shame happens when we become aware of “the look of the Other” and get concerned with what they might think of us. As well as shame and guilt, though, we have many other emotions, and one of those is empathy.
When my son was two, I began to write a blog. I purged my guilt and shame all over the internet. I wrote about what an idiot I had been to get pregnant when I had always been so careful in that department, I wrote about my son asking after his invisible dad, I wrote about the guilt you get when you’re a parent and you forget your kid was supposed to go to nursery that day dressed as a pirate. People responded. They commented, they retweeted, they emailed. They understood.
Recount how it felt, in all its mortifying glory. Don't stop. Turns out that in the vast majority of cases, the ‘look of the Other’ is one of kindness and fellowship. We all do shit stuff. We all think we’re not good enough.
Think about the last time you felt shame. The panic of it all, the desperation, the desire to magically vanish. What happened? Who was ‘the Other’ you were worried about? Write this down.
Recount how it felt, in all its mortifying glory. Don’t stop. Just start typing or scribbling away and see what you come up with. The best writing comes from the gut, from where you feel your absolute best or worst. Definitely don’t cross things out or correct yourself; that’s the opposite of what this is about.
When you’re done, read it back to yourself. If you’re feeling brave, read it to a friend. Maybe you’ll want to throw it into the sea, or feed it to gerbils, and never think about it again.
Maybe the process of pouring it on to paper was enough to make you feel better. Perhaps it will be useful though, precious, even. Stick it in your diary, use it as the basis of a short story or a poem, publish it on the internet. Give it to others.
Think about how much better you would have felt when that shameful thing happened if you had already read about someone else who had been through the same.
I used to hover over the keyboard before writing something that felt uncomfortable, but every time someone gets in touch to tell me my words have helped them, I know I did the right thing.
My first book came out earlier this month. It’s a memoir about having my son when I was a skint, single student. Seeing the blue line on the pregnancy test was one of the most horrifying moments of my life, but if, at the time, I’d been able to comfort myself with the knowledge that a) unexpected parenthood would be surprisingly fun and b) I would one day write a book about it all, I might have felt better. If my book helps just one woman in a similar situation, my work will be done.
As writers, we’re often advised to always carry a notebook and a pen around with us, and we should, but there’s something else we should carry at all times: the knowledge that all our experiences, however excruciating, can be material.
Next time something crap happens, don’t panic: tell yourself that one day, it will spill out on to the paper, perhaps comforting and inspiring others. One day, you will write away the shame.