Jennifer Gilmore on Truth and Shame in Fiction

Jennifer Gilmore on Truth and Shame in Fiction

We Were Never Here is deeply personal. No, it’s not a memoir, but it does tell the story of a young girl named Lizzie and a diagnosis that changes her life: ulcerative colitis. Author Jennifer Gilmore is perfectly positioned to tell this story because she has lived it. Here, Gilmore opens up to Bookish about why she shaped the material into a novel rather than a memoir, and the catharsis of writing about shame.

I often get asked why I choose to write novels that loosely mirror my experiences instead of memoirs. I have two answers, always, and I think both are equally truthful.

The first answer is because I’m a fiction writer and fiction is the filter through which I see the world. I mean this genuinely. If I want to learn about the Civil War, I’m going to read a novel about it. While I won’t necessarily get the straight facts from that novel, I’ll get a felt history. That’s what I’m interested in as a reader. What did it feel like to live through that time? To experience death? To find love? For me, fiction writers will always tell me more. And novels, I think, are like valentines. They live forever. And so as a novelist, it’s the first place I turn to tell a story.

As a writer, I think you tell the truth more in fiction. At least I do, and so that’s the second reason for writing my own experiences into fiction: I think I can be more truthful. We Were Never Here is an unsparing look at a 16-year-old young woman’s bout with a life-changing illness. That’s how it starts anyway. There’s humor and romance, too, but I haven’t read a lot of novels that reminded me of my own experience—novels that show how illness can both strip you of all your power and then give all your power and more back to you. Or how your old, healthy life stops making sense, and that disconnecting from it can be a good thing. What if, after you’ve been sick and damaged and broken, you come out even better, even stronger?

I wrote the novel I would have wanted to read about that. And to do that, I had to face the truth.

I often tell my students that the sweet spot for great writing is where you are most uncomfortable. If you don’t want to write about it, you probably should. That’s your subject. That’s where things start to get good on the page. And yet as I write this now, I’m hesitant to name the disease I had and the disease my protagonist has: ulcerative colitis, which is an autoimmune illness that affects the colon. It’s not a sexy disease. There is absolutely no glamour in it. I feared writing about it because I feared alienating readers who knew nothing about it and had no interest in it. And I feared my own shame. I forgot that no matter what you write, if you do it well, the readers will come with you. But the shame in that particular disease and that moment in my life is what has been so hard to look at. It is also, in the end, what is so interesting. Shame is a powerful thing. I really wanted to unlock that—for myself and for others. And in this way writing this book taught me about how much we all store that away.

Writers get asked a lot if writing about a traumatic experience is therapeutic. If that were the case, I often refute, there would be a lot more happy writers around. I don’t think writing is therapeutic for me, but I do think writing is about control and sometimes control feels great. Writing gives us the ability to organize our experiences. Life is chaotic. Being sick is terrifying and awful and it makes you feel small and anonymous. Writing about it now, about something that affected me many years ago, has allowed me to use the tools of fiction to share that experience frankly with others in the best way I know how. It’s not the first time that the world has stripped me of power; I doubt it will be the last. But writing is how I get power back. Telling a story, writing it, that is a very powerful thing.

Jennifer Gilmore is the author of three acclaimed novels for adults. Her first novel for teens is We Were Never Here. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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