A few minutes after signing the publishing contract for my memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, once the euphoria subsided, the reality of what I had done descended. The manuscript I had written at my kitchen counter and on my couch, in the privacy of my home and mind, would be in circulation. There was no turning back. My innermost fears and failings would soon be available for consumption. What had I done? Was I completely mad?
When I set out to write the memoir, I did not expect it to be published. The manuscript I worked on for four years represented heart work; writing I was compelled to complete. It began with my need to understand how I had lost my family – my father and two siblings to early deaths, and my mother to estrangement. Why and how had this family that outwardly appeared to have everything going for it – health, wealth and opportunity –how had we come so spectacularly undone?
When I began writing, I was also in recovery from the turmoil of the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, and I found myself surrounded by emotional and psychological debris. I had been a journalist when I was younger, so I knew how to string a few words together, but this type of writing – from my life – was a new way for me to process what had occurred. I was good at doing what I had been taught as a child, at keeping family stories ’in these four walls’. The lesson had been formative. Silence was my friend. Speaking out was not.
Many of my stories revolved around my parents’ often turbulent relationship. They preferred to classify their fiery clashes as ’passionate’, but I wanted to explore my belief that a family secret lay at the heart of this dynamic, one I believe produced aftershocks that followed me and my two siblings into adulthood.
So how did I eventually grant myself permission to write, and publish? When I cast my mind back, I think my age had a lot to do with it. The book was published when I was 54, and like many women at my stage of life, I felt emboldened. I put this down to my emergence from the childbearing years, and a conscious realisation that I was no longer that young girl who was afraid to speak out. After years of struggle, I was ready to claim my story and the right to tell it. I was also keenly aware that I had outlived both my father, who died aged 44, and my brother and sister, who died aged 28 and 43 respectively. It’s true that there were fewer people left to worry about hurting in telling the story, but in some ways this increased the pressure. My lost relatives couldn’t speak for themselves, so there was an enormous responsibility to represent them as accurately as I was able. I also knew that if I died before I finished writing, there would be no one left to tell this story, and this galvanised me.
My memoir became an opportunity to comment on the human condition. I saw this as a story of consequences unforeseen, a sobering tale about how we can be guilty of blundering through life without any thought for the events we have unwittingly set in motion. It was an idea I wanted to explore more deeply, and when I applied for and was accepted for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY programme, publication began to look like more of a possibility. I became driven to pursue that outcome, not realising much courage the task would take.
In one scene in Ten Thousand Aftershocks, I recount going to therapy for the first time in my twenties, and worrying, neurotically, that my mother waited outside to punish me for speaking about her to a psychologist. When the memoir came out I still worried but not with the same intensity, because I was already estranged from my mother. I had done the hard work of untangling myself from her both emotionally and geographically, so the emotional stakes were much lower. I was, however, concerned about how what I wrote about my late grandfather being to blame for my father’s violence might be received by various cousins. In both cases I weighed my need to tell the story against the possible loss of contact with relatives who, if I’m honest, are not a significant part of my daily life. What, I asked, could I lose, and what was I willing to lose? In the end the story won.
It was American author Natalie Goldberg who said, ‘If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you’. I understood that to write as honestly as I could, I would need to attempt to be as hard on myself as I was on others. There was a strange freedom in owning my failings, in admitting that I don’t think I’m the best mother in the world, that I had in the past hardened my heart to protect myself, and that this may have made me appear cold and unfeeling; that I am awful at apologising and have a terrible habit of abandoning people. I tried not to shrink from any of it. I hope that honesty improved the work, and my feeling is that it made it wider, somehow.
I was always aware of my silent contract with the readers, that they probably possess a bullshit radar, and that I was not much of a bullshitter. It would be dishonest to say here that I didn’t fear judgement for revealing my less than likeable side, but I was surprised to discover I had an appetite for this kind of openness. A therapist would likely have a field day with the reasons for this, but perhaps it is simply that to speak my own truth, in all its untidiness and discomfort, was a rare form of freedom after years of feeling stifled and silenced.
My honesty was, necessarily, tempered by compassion, I believe. Time and distance had by then granted me perspective, mainly of how my family members were moulded by previous generations of trauma and other events over which they had no control. I tried to understand rather than blame, and always only write through the lens of my own experience, because my story was the only story I could tell. And if after all that I was still to face criticism, my days as a reporter had taught me something about how to cope.
Once, when I was about 18, a grumpy sub-editor on a daily newspaper took a draft of a story I had written, tore it into tiny pieces and dropped it into his bin like confetti. It may not surprise you to learn that ever since, I have attempted to see the work as separate from me. In this way it becomes its own entity. Criticism of it is nothing to do with me as a person – the critique is (or should be) of the words, structure, idea, or some other literary device. I am no less worthy as a human being, even when my writing is seen as something less than stellar. l reminded myself of that many times during the writing of my memoir – that unless they are my editor or publisher, what other people think about me or my story is none of my business.
Michelle Tom was raised in Aotearoa New Zealand and now lives in Naarm Melbourne with her husband and the two youngest of her four children. Her literary memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, about surviving the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11 and her chaotic family of origin was published by HarperCollins in September 2021. A chapter from the memoir manuscript was placed second in the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition, non-fiction section, in 2019. She is a former print journalist.