Remember when you were a kid and your elders said ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you’? Except, we all know it’s not really true. Words are powerful, and can be used in good and bad ways. At some point in our lives, we’ve all been the recipient of hurtful words, and very likely, the deliverer of them, too. This is not a rant post, nor a moralising one, but I have good reason to tell you how my creativity was almost crushed by cruel words. And how that creativity resurfaced, at a time when I needed it most. Mine wouldn’t be such an unusual story, were it to have happened in the 1950s, 1960s or even perhaps the 1970s. But we’re talking rural Norfolk in the early 1980s here. Girl ‘got herself pregnant’. Girl ‘had to get married’. In that neck of the woods, attitudes languished approximately ten years behind the rest of the UK. How ridiculous those loaded phrases sound now, even aside from the implicit demonisation of the unmarried mother. If you take the first phrase literally, it appears that back then, back there, I was doing cloning before even Dolly The Sheep came to be. And I was crap at science!
Let’s just say that the marriage I apparently ‘had to have’ was not a happy one. I won’t elaborate too much. Coercive Control wasn’t defined as such, back then, back there. It was called obedience. You know, you promised to love, honour and obey. I can’t recall my actual vows, but even if they didn’t include obedience, it was an expectation of union in my community. The men made the big decisions, the women were expected to abide by them. I’d made my metaphorical bed and must lay in it. Jump to four years later and here was a young woman who loved her two children to the moon and back, who was overjoyed with motherhood, but whose spirit had been gradually knocked down and replaced with lethargy and despondency. I had very little money, and not much control over how I spent what I did have. I could still write, though, because the outlay was minimal. All I needed was a pen and a notebook. I just needed to resurrect my creativity, albeit mostly in secret. In particular, my reading of – and writing – poetry, had never left me. Since I was five years old, I had been entertaining my school friends with funny rhymes about the teachers. Later, I would do the same at college, and at work. It gave me such pleasure to make others laugh, or reflect.
With my creative avenues limited by circumstance, I first wrote a few short stories and poems to entertain my children. I also continued writing my poetic social observations. Mainly to keep my brain functioning outside of the world of nappies and potty training, I suppose. (Something that all parents will identify with regardless of circumstance: that, much as you adore your children, you still need adult interaction.) No-one else read these poems initially, apart from the few times I got one of them published in a Woman’s magazine. I once accidentally expressed delight at this, but my then-husband rubbished the achievement. Poetry was for other people, not ‘folk like us’. Imagine if you’re told on a daily basis for nine years that writing your ‘silly little poems’ is a waste of time. But poets tend to be stubborn so-and-sos. You don’t just stop being a poet. Your brain can’t stop thinking like a poet. No matter how much someone tries to crush your creativity, it refuses to be broken completely, even if it’s driven underground. Instead of giving up, I tucked my precious note book containing my verse into a Mary Poppins-size handbag and took it everywhere I went. No one questioned my sizeable bag. Mothers needed to carry around a lot of baby and toddler paraphernalia. Having my poetry with me was a safeguard against it disappearing in ‘mysterious circumstances’.
Then came a point when I felt able to fight back even harder against my restricted life. Little things, nothing drastic at that point. But my fightback was propelled by a very good friend, and by verse. I gained some ‘freedom’ on Sunday nights, by visiting this friend, who lived in the same village. My visits to her were ‘sanctioned’ because even my ex-husband realised that most women went to visit their friends some evenings, and to deny me would be futile. Besides, my friend was someone that he considered a ‘good example’ for me; a few years my senior, and part of a loving, extended family.
I knew not to push too hard with my new-found autonomy, and there was an agreed time I had to be home by, just as one might dish out a curfew to a rebellious teenager. Whilst my friend didn’t know the full extent of my behind-closed-doors existence, she gleaned enough to recognise that I wasn’t happily married like her. Enough for her to feed me supper, because she guessed that I had only picked at my dinner, so emotionally strung-up was I. Enough for her to suggest that some Sundays, if her husband babysat their young son, we could pop out to the pub. The pub! I hadn’t been in a pub much since I’d got married. The only time I drank alcohol was when my father gave me a bottle of his sloe gin (I don’t even like gin much!) I didn’t always dare tell my ex-husband that my friend and I would be going to the pub. I would go to her house and change out of the frumpy knee-length dresses and regulation jeans that he considered acceptable, and into something altogether more daring. Often, an outfit, hidden away, and paid for in cash instalments, from my friend’s catalogue that she ran. My large handbag was not only a useful hiding place for the poetry, but for my mini-skirts, which otherwise could be accurately described as belts. This more daring, ‘different me’ didn’t sit well with some of the villagers, who were of the opinion that I was out of control and a bad mother and wife. They said a lot more besides, but I understood why they would. And remember, like my friend, they had no idea about the actual circumstances of my personal life. I wouldn’t be ready to admit that to myself, let alone anyone else, for a very long time.
With the encouragement of my friend, and a few other more ‘forward-thinking’ pub-goers, I read out a poem or two on these pub jaunts. These weren’t ‘open-mic’ nights. There was no such thing, back then, back there. Rather, it was just a case of a few regular drinkers gathering in one corner of the bar, and listening to me. Actually listening. And laughing! As I gained confidence, I started to write poems about the villagers themselves. Nothing nasty, just good-humoured, affectionate poems. Poems about amusing situations they might have got into, poems about an engagement, a wedding, a birthday.
Not everyone was enamoured by my rhyme any more than some were by my bolder apparel. I had to deal with derogatory comments, both to my face and behind my back, which, in true small-community tradition, always reached my ears. It hurt. It hurt like hell. I was getting enough hurtful words at home, so why on earth put myself through more? But the determined poet in me was gaining momentum. Anyone who made one derogatory remark too far worried that they might find themselves the subject of my next poem. And it might not be all nice! Words have power; did have power, even back then, back there. And because I was the writer, that power belonged to me. I was, if you like, a bit of a dangerous woman, the loose cannon of the village. You never knew what Little Ol’ Blondie (as I was called back then, back there) was going to come out with next. Gradually, despite the initial hostility and suspicion, most people worked out that it was probably better to have me inside the proverbial tent than out of it. I started to get invitations to write songs and poems for the village cricket and football clubs. I was invited to perform at the annual Christmas musical afternoon, run by several well-respected villagers. I’m no genie, but despite the attempts of my ex, once I’d escaped the bottle, I wasn’t going to be pushed back in.
It would be some time before I finally left the unhappy relationship, and several years after that until I was able to go into higher education. My poetic ramblings were always limited, back then, back there. I couldn’t be too edgy or ‘in your face’. I was invited to events like WIs, which were still pretty traditional, so talking about intimate body parts or sexual encounters weren’t going to be well-received. Nonetheless, I had a foothold. I had regained the power of words.
Words can still hurt me today. The advent of social media – a vital tool for contemporary creative writers – means that you will inevitably be the recipient of nasty comments from trolls and idiots from all walks of life. They’ve always existed, it’s just that on the internet, they are afforded more opportunity, and often, anonymity. And they’re as likely to be from Dakota or Darwin as from your local town.
Of course, I am a different me, now. I am someone who has gained a degree and a Master’s degree. I am someone who travels alone to football matches, an environment which is possibly one of the last bastions of sexism if you infiltrate it as a lone female. And now, I am even someone who has had poetry published. But occasionally, some remarks I read online transport me to back then, back there, when I was told that I was just a silly little housewife with stupid ambitions; that I was lucky anyone wanted me, that I was useless, even at being a silly little housewife.
I know that none of those things were ever true about me. But at the time, my self-esteem had been chipped away at, and when you hear that shit for nine years, you can start to believe it. So, I am telling my story, not to gain sympathy, not as a ‘poor little me’ tale. I tell it because for every me, there is someone else trapped in a ‘back then, back there’. Someone who is not yet empowered enough to change their situation. And I tell it because I need you to understand, if ever I misinterpret a badly-phrased remark on social media, if I raise my heckles and bite when I have no need to, it’s because you never truly forget your past, even if you’ve escaped its circumstances a long time ago.
© Carol Ann Wood
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