Healing through writing – Corinne Sullivan

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By Corinne Sullivan

 I was stuck, and so I decided to write myself free.♥

I was twenty-two and in the first year of my MFA program and slowly descending into a depressive sinkhole when I started my novel. Three months before, I’d experienced my first heartbreak. The dirty white walls in my Yonkers apartment bedroom held college posters, college pictures, a plastic display case with my college dance team uniform — painful reminders of a time in my life that I still couldn’t decide was formative or detrimental. The person I’d lost through years of drinking too heavily and sharing my heart too generously haunted me. To quell the regret that threatened to upend me, I started to put my experiences into words — not autobiographically, that was too intimate, too personal, but rather through a character, someone who both was and wasn’t me. Maybe then, I thought, I’ll be able to figure out where I went wrong. So Imogene Abney was born.

A professor of mine from college tried to dissuade me from applying for MFA programs my senior year. “You should spend a few years doing something else, going somewhere else,” she told me. “You need more life experience. You need material.” But the idea of not having a plan, or rather, of putting the plan I had on hold, felt heedless. Though I wouldn’t admit it, I also feared that without the structure of assignments and due dates, I would cease to write at all.

What was the point, if there was no one to evaluate it, to grade it, maybe not even to read it? I didn’t want experience; I wanted structure. My undergrad thesis had been a series of linked short stories, six young women attending a university that closely resembled my own, having experiences more autobiographical than not. All I wanted was to write about women — young women — and their relationships with alcohol, mental illness, bodies, men, each other. What I had gained in my twenty-two years of life felt like enough. My stories felt like enough.

Writing my first novel and creating Imogene allowed me to make sense of myself in ways that I’d never been able to articulate out loud in years of therapy. I explored my female characters though all lenses — empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek — but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel true. I attempt to make every exchange and every though feel as intimately, cringingly honest as possible, and in doing so, I learned to become honest with myself. “Corimogene,” my fiancé nicknamed my protagonist. Me but not quite.

Is it possible to write outside the influence of personal experience? Every writer must draw from that influence somehow, even if it’s only something small — a character who dresses like a certain aunt, a house with the attic storage room remembered from childhood, a town that feels like home. It may be that I am still young, but it seems impossible for me to escape my own story. That’s probably the reason why most of my characters resemble myself — because my experience is the only one I know. A collage of all of the women I’ve ever written into existence would create a fractured portrait of myself so far. I imagine they will continue to age with me, and we will continue to experience new things together: marriage, motherhood, middle age. It’s comforting, knowing I won’t be alone.

Corinne Sullivan studied English with a Creative Writing Concentration at Boston College, where she graduated in 2014. She then received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2016. Her stories have appeared in Night Train, Knee-Jerk, and Pithead Chapel, among other publications. Her first novel, Indecent, will be published by Wednesday Books in March 2018.


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