On Memoir and Making Sense of My Eating Disorder: Q&A with Shani Raviv
“I wrote this book because I have experienced personally what an emotionally, physically and psychologically debilitating disorder anorexia is. Anorexics all too often suffer absolute denial in silence, their bodies and minds screaming in pain. This is my attempt to break that silence, to reach out and let people know that there is a way out of the suffering called anorexia. Whoever you are, whatever you have been through or are going through, I want you to know that you are never, ever alone. I believe that only by reaching out do we know that others are there. Only by surrendering do we find strength. Only by being vulnerable do we feel human. Only by looking into someone else’s eyes do we open our hearts. And, sometimes, only by listening to someone else’s pain do we find compassion for ourselves…”
These are the powerful words of Shani Raviv in her important book Being Ana: A Memoir of Anorexia Nervosa. Today, I’m sharing more powerful words from Shani—from our interview. In it, she reveals why she decided to write a memoir (as opposed to other styles of writing); what it’s like to delve into devastating memories; what questions underlie her work; how you can start writing your own memoir; and much, much more.
Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir—versus writing a personal essay or channeling your experiences into fiction? Also, why did you decide to write a second edition?
A: Fifteen years ago, I woke up one night from a dream that was the seed for a book, this book. Around that time, two years into my recovery, someone asked me to share my healing journey. I said that there was so much to say that I’d have to write a book. What followed was a decade of remembering, reconstructing and composing over 80,000 words into a 300-page memoir, the labor of which mirrors the decade of my eating disorder and pays homage to my anorexic life. A personal essay would have felt like a copout; like just scraping the surface. Also, all those years of processing and analyzing my experiences and emotions, through the writing of a memoir, helped me understand my disorder, myself, my motivations and find meaning in it.
As for fiction, I’ve never written any fiction and that too would have felt like a copout. This is my story not someone else’s and to write it as fiction would have felt inauthentic. Also, there is enormous freedom in publishing it under my name with all my shame and pain named in black ink. I feel liberated that it’s out of me and neatly crafted on the page. It means I don’t have to sit with it anymore. It’s taken on another form. My story is now beyond me—it’s literature. It can now be of service to help others on their journeys.
This version is not exactly a second edition, it’s the same book with additional edits plus an epilogue written with an extra seven years of insight into recovery. I had originally self-published but when I found She Writes Press—my new publisher—I knew that I wanted to give it a second, more reputable, life with a legit press, professionally designed and distributed the traditional route. I also wanted to see if it could have a wider outreach this way. I felt that republishing my book would honor my story and the years of time, energy, creativity and money that went into bringing this project to life.
Q: You write about so many painful, difficult moments. What was it like to delve into these memories? After all, to write memoir, you essentially have to get inside these moments, which can be really hard.
A: It was hard. That’s partly why it took years and saw me through multiple depressive episodes. It was mentally and emotionally taxing but also healing. The first three chapters of my childhood that are filled with shame and inadequacy were so hard to confront that I wrote them after the rest of the book was written.
But my urge to make sense of my eating disorder was my driving force. It was something I knew my soul had to do to get to the other side. There were hundreds of dark days of purging these memories but as I started to craft it and transform these memories into a story, they took on another life, lost their grip on me and now no longer even feel like my story anymore.
It’s like I pulled them out of me, one by one, repurposed them and they don’t daunt me. They’re now just words on a page telling someone else’s story. And honestly, the process of writing a book was as much of a challenge on a mental and practical level as reworking those memories was on an emotional level so that struck a good balance.
Q: What does your creative process look like? In other words, do you have any specific writing rituals or routines?
A: When I started writing, I set myself the epic task of transcribing all of my journals. That was the beginning. At the same time I had discovered stream of consciousness writing, which I did every morning, for years, as soon as I woke up. I had periods of strong productivity where I wrote a lot and periods that I wrote nothing.
The hardest part with writing is the first sentence of any new scene or idea. It gets much easier once I’ve started because the motivation to create a finished piece is what carries me forward, and I often won’t stop until it’s done. It’s so satisfying to go from idea to polished piece even if it’s only one paragraph that it’s a kind of OCD ritual in and of itself.
Q: Self-awareness is essential when you’re writing memoir. What helped you sharpen your introspective skills?
A: I think my introspective skills helped me sharpen my memoir and vice versa. I’ve always been introspective. It’s probably what propelled my eating disorder and also what saved me from my eating disorder. Socrates’ quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living” is a philosophy that guided my writing. I felt strongly that if I didn’t examine my eating disorder and didn’t come to understand it, then it was not worth the decade of suffering.
I also don’t believe you can fully recover from anorexia without developing self-awareness—the opposite of an eating disorder, which is self-negation or self-oblivion. What also helped me hone my self-awareness was developing a spiritual life, which started with an out-of-body acid trip, reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and my yoga practice, which I began at the peak of my eating disorder. All of this woke up my conscious self, which helped me write my memoir.
Q: I think that for most of us there is a question, a kind of theme, that underlies our writing or a thread that runs through our work. It might be answering or playing with the question How do we connect to ourselves? or What does it mean to be a parent? Ultimately, what question does your writing attempt to answer, or what questions are you playing with?
A: My writing at first attempted to answer one question only: Why anorexia? Later as I started to find answers to that question, my homeopath at the time, when I was three years into recovery, asked me a powerful question I had never asked myself: What did anorexia give you? Searching for those answers allowed me to start finding forgiveness for myself once I realized that I had never meant to harm myself and that my anorexia had backfired on me.
Years later the question became: How can I fatten my sense of self? Or how can I improve my self-worth? That question ran through the last part of my book about recovery. I also attempted along the way to answer: Why me? What did I learn from this? Who am I without anorexia? What gifts did this offer me? Who has it allowed me to become? And how can I see it as a valuable journey?
Q: If someone is considering writing memoir, where do you suggest they start?
A: Start with your most visceral memories and write whatever is most alive for you or irks you or inspires you and later you can dig for the details. At first you’re just collecting and gathering memories. If you’re writing memoir, you have your entire life history to source for images, conversations, feelings, memories, dreams.
My book started with a dream I had one night that woke me up at 3 a.m. That was the seed. One seed is all it takes to begin. Start painting the pictures by writing whatever you can remember. If you have journals, transcribe them. If you have photo albums, look through them and write what you see. If you have family or friends from that time, ask them questions. Ask for dreams. Ask for symbols.
But mostly, just write what comes. In no particular order. Just get it all out. Then you have a ton of material to work with. Then you can become the seamstress sewing it all together while discarding the unnecessary fabric of your story.
Q: What are your favorite resources on writing memoir or writing in general?
A: I read a lot of memoirs while writing mine but none stand out as seminal to my own memoir. Once I got a sense of each memoir’s narrative structure and how the author compiled it, I actually stopped reading memoirs because I got too influenced by their style of writing and their voice, which made it harder to write in my own voice.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from your compelling book?
A: I hope that my book touches readers’ hearts and helps them to understand the complexity of anorexia. I hope too that readers feel compassion not only for those that suffer through it and alongside it but for their own journeys of struggle to find self-love and love the self that they find because that’s what this story is ultimately about.
Shani Raviv is a published writer, writing coach, copywriter/content producer, and speaker who was born and raised in South Africa. She disputes the belief that an anorexic mindset is a life sentence and considers herself fully recovered. She lives in the Bay Area of California with her son. Learn more at www.shaniraviv.com.
Tartakovsky, M. (2017). On Memoir and Making Sense of My Eating Disorder: Q&A with Shani Raviv. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/everyday-creativity/2017/07/on-memoir-and-making-sense-of-my-eating-disorder-qa-with-shani-raviv/