Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

October 6, 2020 § 23 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.

There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.

To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.

I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.

At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.

As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”

Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”

Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.

I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.

My muses agreed.

Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.

Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.

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§ 23 Responses to Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

  • henhouselady says:

    I’m glad you found your tribe.

  • I feel this so much, Eileen. It IS a sacred act to trust another person with your most honest writing. It takes courage. I’m glad you scrolled through Twitter and found me. (Or did I find you? lol!)

  • “When writers have muses they are great writers
    or the muses think so.” _-Van Prince

  • debrakva says:

    Oh, my. This piece speaks volumes to me. I am searching for a writing tribe like the one you found. The trust, the ability to comment with gentle honesty, the push to go deeper. You are right so right about the journey to be vulnerable in sharing our work and the need for connection. Thank you

  • Stacy E. Holden says:

    I love this piece. It makes me long for a writing group. Congratulations on digging deep. And thank you for sharing this essay with us.

  • I found this so inspiring…..pushing myself to go past the edge that my inner critic feels is too far, trying to differentiate what is coming ‘from me’ that has an agenda and what is coming ‘through me ‘….. would be so wonderful to have a writing tribe that could mirror that back. I will open myself to this possibility. Thank you

  • Carolyn says:

    Think you will have lots of time for writing. Don’t think we will gain our freedom anytime soon.

  • Shonda T. says:

    I’m glad I found this and will be even more glad when I find my tribe. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Casey Mulligan Walsh says:

    So lovely and true, Eileen. I find myself in three (three!) writing groups at the moment (including four women I’ve never met in person). Each of these groups gives me something different and has taught me so much about these important skills: writing, critiquing, and knowing what to listen to and what to ignore. I consider you part of my own writing community, though we haven’t exchanged work. Your enthusiastic support has become something I look forward to whenever I post, and I wouldn’t miss reading anything you write. It’s a beautiful thing.

  • Sandy Kline says:

    What a lovely piece; having the support of other writers makes such a difference. I also read your winning essay, “Love in the Archives” (SP! LT!) and I CANNOT WAIT to read your finished memoir.

  • So happy for you, Eileen. I am so looking forward to reading more of your work out of this amazing workshop.

    • flamingo1007 says:

      Ching Ching, Thank YOU. You are another of my tribe and I’m so glad for that. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Kari Burgess says:

    It is so funny to find this particular piece today, because your ears should be burning. We missed you at Poetry Pod today, and I remembered when you first came to Poetry Pod, you commented that you were not a poet and then proceeded to blow us away with your poem. Then I commented to the group this am, that “back when we could meet together” how you would come flying in, usually a little late, and with a piece you had dashed off with your coffee that morning, maybe a little jelly on the side of the paper, or something you had scribbled, your words not mine, at the stop lights on the way to the meeting. Whenever you wrote your pieces, they were powerful, often humorous and always, always show stoppers. You have been a powerful and important member of our group. You have invited us into your home, taken places of leadership, and you are greatly missed. Of course we miss most all of our group until just recently. While I was languishing in my recliner with so many medical issues I can’t remember, literally, you have been working, and polishing your craft. This piece is exquisite, and I cannot wait to read your more of what you have written. So glad you have found writing partners,to encourage you. AND just WOW on the picture girl!!!!! Why have i chosen to write such a long piece here, because I want others to know you are my friend. I am so proud of you and your writing. I thought you were one of the professionals when I saw all the published literary pieces
    Keep up the good work, and add a poem or two. Love ya girl Kari B

  • Sharon Snyder says:

    Lovely reminder for me of what I am missing. In a writers’ group at one of the local community colleges in Baltimore for almost three years that disbanded. Would love to find a new group. Your words are so honest and powerful, Eileen. I remember Lydia, And we have certain,y walked some of the same paths.( Susan’s sister.) Keep writing.🌹

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