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Author Jane Binns Talks Breaking Through Writer's Doubt
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

This is a guest post from Jane Binns, author of Broken Whole. Jane Binns grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She holds a BS from Eastern Michigan University, an MS in education from Syracuse University, and an MFA in prose from Naropa University. In 1998, she was awarded the Jack Kerouac Award for Prose. She was the managing editor of Bombay Gin with Lisa Birman from 1998 to 1999. She is an English composition instructor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, CO, and has worked in online learning assisting faculty, students, and staff with the online platform since 2006. Her memoir, Broken Whole, debuts on November 13, 2018.

Over a Decade in the Making 

Broken Whole was written over a 12-14-year period with significant gaps in between by and large due to internal struggles over what I was doing, what others would think, and not having an ending I believed in.

I began writing the collection of essays in approximately 2003, a couple of years after I had left my marriage. The writing at that point was a compass and a friend. I was hoping that by relaying what was going on that I would gain clarity. I was in my mid-thirties and a young mother to my son who was two at the time of the separation. I had finished my second Master’s degree in 1999 and the friends I had had from that time period were getting on with their lives, moving back to their home states. I kept in touch through phone calls and email, but very few were close at hand. I was also the only one who had a child. Writing felt reassuring.

In the beginning, I didn’t envision a whole manuscript with a beginning, middle, and end. It wasn’t until I began sharing the stories that friends encouraged me to “write a book!” If only it felt that simple. The writing kept coming and I trusted it more than I did my decision-making at the time. I saw many of the stories as amusing and relatable, but there was an underlying pull to get at the heart of what was motivating me to continue.

Finding Your Subject

This came together when Steve, the main focus of my attention in Broken Whole, visited me at my apartment and he asked what I was writing about. At that point, he was not in any of the essays. After I chuckled and described a little bit of one of the stories, he mused out loud, “I wonder what you’re writing about me.” I didn’t say anything, but it dawned on me that I should be writing about him. Why did I care for him? Why did I keep returning to him? He didn’t he treat me well consistently. This writing, these pieces, needed a center, and he was it. But the thought of writing about him and our back and forth, in and out, felt embarrassing, shameful, not to mention who was I to betray this man who had unlocked my voice, my story? I judged myself for having been drawn to him because he was incapable of maintaining any stability for himself. Volatility and retreats, outcomes from his PTSD as a Vietnam vet and career as a fireman and EMT, were frequent features of our on-again off-again relationship. In addition, I still trudged around with a heavy cloak of guilt for having left a decent man, my husband, destabilizing my son’s life in the process. On the surface of things, I had a lot going for me: two Master’s degrees, a budding career – why did I feel so insecure?

I pretended I didn’t need an answer to this and decided that I could keep making choices by dating whomever seemed best at the time. I kept choosing poorly for myself, although my friends and family were appreciating the comedic entertainment of it all. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t choosing men who were violent or too crazy. Mostly, my flavor of choice was a combination of needy and angry, which gave me something to do: a project. I could show I was capable of loving by attending to him with genuine affection, and banter with him when he felt like spewing. I talked myself into believing this was enough, and in some ways it did not feel like a concession or insult. I felt needed and busy. The pursuit of a relationship was evidence I was not a failure as a human. Still, there was no satisfying sum about this. It wasn’t enough and I would circle the drain with questioning anyone’s relationships with their partners and what they were giving up and giving into to get along. This glance externally at others in the end didn’t satisfy or justify anything either. It distracted me from the continued irritation churning underneath.

Writing as a Form of Exploration and Freedom

Writing about it irrevocably put pressure on opening me up to look at what was lacking. It soothed and emboldened me to believe in my story, to understand how the missing pieces could come together, and to believe in creating a life I wanted.

I don’t know if I can reconstruct what it was like to write this book. The gift of reflection deceives one into believing there was intention all along. I wrote because that is what I learned to do reflexively when I felt lost and things didn’t make sense in my daily life. I grew up with a stoic father and a mother constantly needing and seeking his attention. I was the third of four children. My parents fought loudly, regularly, though not violently, and any genuine emotional nurturance my siblings and I received was incidental, fragmented. It never felt safe to speak about feeling alienated. Any intimation of this was met with reprisal. So, from the time I had learned how to write, I did. It was mine, and no one could argue with me there.

Writing put everything on pause and slowed things down. Many times after doing so, I felt as though a tiny filament of understanding had fallen into place. I could inhale and exhale all the way again until the next time I felt wobbly. Little by little I was stitching together the courage to keep looking, keep unraveling, keep questioning. The writing made me brave enough to speak words to others about what was going on, and then another shift happened. My story was no longer just mine. I had given it to someone else and its dimensions changed because I felt less alone with it, and this led to feeling more flirtatious and ebullient with the story, language and shaping. It was something I could mold outside of myself. As I did so, I was beginning to see how it resonated with others’ stories, what we had in common.

Accountability and Stepping Back

It was the shared narrative that carried me through the months of doubt and fear that by writing my story I was betraying my family, Steve and my ex-husband. Many times I believed I would never finish. Friends held me accountable. They remembered and simply by asking about the book, I knew I needed to go back, to keep writing.

I stopped writing the collection of essays in 2009 and had decided I would be okay with not finishing it. Things with Steve had reached a plateau which I could live with, and since he had become a main feature of the book by then, as his devoted partner, I couldn’t see my way clear to complete it without ruining what we had. Leaving him for the sake of the book felt wrong. I knew I was sacrificing something I cherished, but I had not yet imagined how to live without him. Life has a way of making decisions for you, however. In 2014, the decks got cleared with my father’s long-awaited passing, the reappearance of my ex-husband’s cancer in a much more aggressive form, and Steve’s all too predictable failure to show up and be there on my behalf when I needed him most. My hand had been forced and I was too angry at Steve to forgive him this time. I had lost everything that had ever made my life feel stable, and for good or ill, it was time to do something different. I also had an ending to the book that felt natural and authentic.

Overcoming the Worry

I worry less about what anyone thinks or says about the book. I feel a little anxious about how my son will fare with attention on it. He hasn’t read it and isn’t interested, yet. Still, I feel protective of him and have spoken to him about its content so he’s not surprised. It is my story and he knows that. He is a capable and gifted writer. One day, he may write his own story. I don’t know that anyone can judge me any more harshly than I judged myself. I had to write these stories to separate myself from repeating the past. It was cathartic, a deliverance. I’m grateful I wrote when things were happening. There would be no way I could go back and revisit those events again with immediacy like they appear in the book. Emotion dissipates and along with it genuine expression. I am grateful for having written Broken Whole because of the transformative story it tells, and for friends who kept asking how it was going.

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