18 October 2018

Meet the 2018 Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – Jessie Berry-Porter

In the lead up to announcing The 2018 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every name and face on the shortlist. These are some of the brightest nonfiction minds in the country and they’re all aged 30 and under. Read their profiles on the Express Media blog to learn more about their writing journeys, love of nonfiction and their tips and tricks to writing the best real-life stories.


Jessie Berry-Porter, 27, VIC
If I Were To Draw A Line Between Bodies It Would Look Like This

How did you begin writing?

As a child my emotions felt too big for my body. I’d often oscillate between extreme emotional states without warning (the faint dripping of an unknown tap at night was enough to induce fear and despondency, though as a five-year-old I lacked the language to explain these feelings to myself, thus lacking the ability to remedy them). At some point (after some intense episode early on) I recall realising that if I possessed the right words to give form to x or y, if I could make my emotions tangible, life might feel easier. So, I became obsessed with locating the right words to string together the right sentences to reflect my feelings (which always felt far removed from ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’). It became a form of exorcism i.e. if I possess the ability to ‘think’ about a ‘feeling’ with clarity, the feeling will loosen its grip. I suppose, in this way, I was trying to find a way to rely on myself.  

Why do you write nonfiction?

First: to understand. Second: people should know how other people are feeling. Third: I am interested in unpacking the idea of the body as something created and understood through language, and non-fiction grants me the necessary space to explore this.

I have spent most of my life unwell. I experienced childhood-onset OCD; was diagnosed with major depression and body dysmorphia at age fifteen; anorexia at sixteen. Like many people, my life’s through-line is one of sickness (memories are organised in relation to prior and on-their-way relapses). All three of my attempts at tertiary study have resulted in emotional and physical collapse within weeks. In 2017 I managed to complete a Bachelor of Creative Writing at RMIT. One month into Honours, for the first time in years, my health declined in a serious way. Now: it feels like a wake up call, but it will only feel this way until the next wake up call. Regardless, I promised myself I’d direct a little bit of energy each day working towards what I wanted to achieve during Honours. That is, finishing a manuscript of essays centred on the ‘writing down of the sick body’ (in very broad terms). It was a trick: a way to convince my body and brain into seeing past ‘right now’, which was/is essential.

Tell us a bit about your submission to the Scribe Prize:

If I Were To Draw A Line Between Bodies It Would Look Like This was this year’s journal before it became a lyric essay. For a long while, I thought it too intimate too revealing too vulgar to be shared. This essay focuses on family trauma, and was written as a means to unpack the aetiology of illness, but only for myself. I didn’t realise it was the crux of my manuscript until I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder a few months ago and told by my therapist that my ongoing difficulty with emotional regulation is a learnt behavioural response that I developed in childhood as a result of unaddressed trauma.

This piece focuses on the estranged relationship I have with my father, and is something I’ve avoided writing about since realising I needed to write about it (since I started writing). I’m unsure if it’s finished. It begins and ends in the way it does because that’s what’s been written (most of what needs to be said remains outside of the text). It’s lyrical in form because my relationship with my father (like all traumatic relationships) is not circular: nothing is neat, there is no tidy way to document events, document feelings. Writing it down felt like writing out a spiral… a spinning web of ideas and memories, forever collapsing and imploding before starting all over again, moving no closer to a centre that will hold yet always moving.

Why did you choose to write on this subject?

Considering that this piece started out as a journal, I wrote it out of necessity. I chose to turn it into an essay because I was afraid to turn it into an essay. I was afraid because I was ashamed, and because I felt guilty. It’s very difficult to write about emotional abuse without sounding like a victim, but I don’t think this means you shouldn’t do it.

My reason for wanting to write a book of essays on the unwell body (specifically in relation to body image disorders with emphasis on: the relationship between diagnosis and identity; desire and lack; the construction of the social body; the construction of the sick body; aetiology of illness; and the ways in which the body is understood and created through language) is because mental illness continues to be understood ‘generally’. Diagnosis is general. We comprehend pathology through facts, stats, questionaries, and then label accordingly. If you measure a body against DSM criteria and the body checks a specific checklist they cease to be who they are (an individual with individual experiences) and become the diagnosis, through which all future action is filtered. I’m not anti-diagnosis, but because mental illness is defined by it, people afflicted are often defined by it too. I do feel that this is dehumanising, and that a greater understanding of mental illness can be achieved once the voice is returned to the patient. Meaning: to write about it after experiencing it is perhaps essential for the writing body, but also for those reading.

[In saying this, I am aware of my privilege. I can have a breakdown and see a therapist. And: I can check myself into a clinic and stay for an extended period of time because I have private hospital cover. ‘Good enough’ mental health treatment is nearly impossible to attain without a certain amount of money. As a teenager I received years of inpatient and outpatient care because my family could afford it. I am in the minority, and without it I would have died.]

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write what you fear. I don’t remember who told me this, but it’s written above my desk and has been there for years. It directs my focus towards what is essential rather than what is easy. I think, however, considering this year’s fall into too-familiar ills, I shall now add: but keep safe.

Write what you fear, but keep safe.