The Painful Narrative that No Longer Serves Me

August 19, 2019 § 19 Comments

rae author photoBy Rae Pagliarulo

A little while ago, in a fit of whimsy, I sold an article about my two biggest obsessions―Gilmore Girls and tarot cards―to a major website known for lifestyle and pop culture content. It felt great―I got to share this nerdy piece that brought me pure happiness, and I did it on a new platform that was previously outside my comfort zone.

One of my most trustworthy writing partners, a woman who consistently gives me the most thoughtful and truthful feedback a writer could ask for, gushed praise in an email to me.

“I loved it because it felt like a whole different you,” she said, “like the person who wrote it is lighter and happier than the person who wrote everything else.” Then, “I feel like the writer Rae I know has always been buried beneath layers and layers of pain and bad experiences, but the person who wrote this has finally climbed her way up to the surface and just stuck her face in the sun for the first time.”

Because I am an overflowing bag of all the feelings, I had sixteen different emotions about her reaction. But the strongest emotion was a hybrid of shame, tinged with pride. Shall we call that shmide? Prame? (Can you feel both at the same time? Trust me. You can.)

I felt shame because she was right―since I started writing “seriously,” I’ve clung to a few major narratives, most of which revolve around codependency, depression, and addiction. Sometimes, if I’m feeling experimental, I’ll throw in heartbreak and self-hate, too. These stories – the ones that have centered around my most painful lessons – felt like the most valuable thing I could put forward. Why else would I have gone through these experiences, I thought, if not to share what I learned with others? I’ve spent years applying my love of language to pain and trauma, a careful alchemy that felt like a calling. Sure, a calling that has given me endless stress, worry, and frustration, but a calling nonetheless. Of course it would be difficult to tell the most charged and challenging stories of my life. Of course it would be a struggle I could not unburden myself from.

At the same time, her comment made me feel immense pride. Anyone who knows me in the real world, far away from the glowing screens of my published essays, knows I am an optimistic, cheerful, sometimes maddeningly bubbly person who tries to find joy anywhere she can. The new piece I published wasn’t painful to write―it was a perfect reflection of my real-life voice, my interests, and my outlook. Yes, on top of my dark, twisty interior, knotted tight with anguish and self-reflection, beats the heart of a truly annoying Gilmore Girls fan who pulls tarot cards when she isn’t sure what to have for dinner. Beyond being a woman with a past full of difficult relationships and years of cutting myself down until I was barely recognizable, I am also a woman who can rattle off funny stories about disastrous first dates, musings about female friendships, and thoughtful missives about the genuine benefits of watching Hallmark made-for-TV movies.

I realized, after reading my friend’s supportive and celebratory email, that I had been called out in the best way possible. I have been struggling to effectively tell “my story” for a few years now. Each time I think I’ve made progress, something busts up the foundation I’ve laid and puts me back to square one. My Google Drive is overflowing with unfinished drafts, half-revised, clunky essays, and blathering notes to myself about what a ridiculous failure I am.

What if all this teeth-gnashing is happening because I’m holding on too tight to a narrative that no longer defines me?

What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?

To be sure, I’m not going to stop writing about my past as a way to understand it and create connections with people who have experienced similar things. However, I think this exploration of lighter topics could be just the break I was looking for. A way to share my voice without having to dig it up from the deepest depths. A way to remember that I am made of so many different things, and even if they aren’t deep or meaningful or heartbreaking, they can still be what connects people to my work, and to me. I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer. If I can accept all the disparate parts of me as a functional whole, then I can trust the people who read my work to do the same.

I have long lurked in the Binders Facebook groups, reading with wonder as talented writers turned around thoughtful reaction pieces and hilarious listicles one day, and poignant braided essays about family trauma the next. Everything I was working on felt so heavy, so burdensome, so impossible to finish. I envied those writers, believing that kind of lightness couldn’t come out of me, believing that I couldn’t look away from what hurt long enough to talk about the small delights of my life. Believing, maybe, that my value as a writer hinged on those painful narratives.But it feels like change is now inevitable. An essential adjustment, not just to the kind of pieces I write, but to the trauma-identified writer mentality that I have maintained for so long. I’ve still got years of heartbreak and pain to talk about, and if I live a full life, I will have many more years in front of me. But I also want to talk about moisturizing sheet masks and psychic mediums and online dating and that new show on Freeform. And there’s value in all of it.
___
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

Beyond Just Reporting: The Creative in Creative Nonfiction

August 9, 2019 § 10 Comments

priddyby Jan Priddy

Students ask: What is creative nonfiction? Is it made up? Who got the idea first?

Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, is on the record that he did not coin the term, that the concept predates him, whatever it’s called. The genre of creative nonfiction covers a lot of ground. It is a true story, well told, not invention but truthful art in expression, exquisite perspective without deviating from fact. The creativity is in the telling, not the story. Nonfiction.

Maybe it’s whimsical or informal in tone and uses first person in greater or lesser capacity—it steps beyond objective journalism while never avoiding truth. Memoir is only one form. Robert Louis Stevenson’s first travel book in English, An Inland Voyage (1878), about boating on rivers and canals, < travel books by Ibn Battuta and Basho, Thoreau’s nature writing, Woolf’s meditations on women who write. People have been writing stories incorporating personal experiences and exploring how these experiences lead to broader insight . . . forever.

Naomi Shihab Nye, in conversation with Bill Moyers in 1995, cautions that “students, the high school students, frequently want to talk about emotion as the key to life. … I think … it’s more energy and energy comes from many kinds, it comes from juxtaposition and things coming together. … And I think that our brains are desperate for that kind of energy.”

An essay I assign suggests a more concrete approach to writing creative nonfiction: You might begin with an experience that had an impact upon you personally. Clarify the moment, what happened, ponder how it moved you, then turn around and look at the world from that vantage point. Find what matters. I warn them against writing about romantic love. They are often wrong in thinking they know what matters when they start. I force them to alter structure, reconsider verb tense and point of view. I provide models.

Diane Ackerman’s essay “Mute Dancers: How to Watch a Hummingbird” leaves personal experience behind without completely abandoning it. “A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep”—who can resist an opening like that? The author does not know this from personal experience; it is clear she has done her research. Her presence barely registers, and most students struggle to pinpoint the instant the author says “I.” Her collection The Moon by Whale Light follows her slog through Florida’s swamps, the stink of bat guano, yet even in describing the cacophony of hearing her assigned penguin chick in a roomful of babies screaming to be fed, her epiphany concerns penguins, not herself.

That’s one way: The author is fully present but not the point.

By contrast, Zora Neale Huston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” speaks back to a particular claim of racial damage. She describes her personal pride having been raised in an all-Black township and how her individuality overcomes racial identity. “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”

Her life experience is front and center: “I am not tragically colored,” she insists. “I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

My assignment suggests personal experience as the centering tension or image, the easy part. Description is hard enough, but my students struggle to “turn around and look at the world.” How does their life experience or a moment’s perspective illuminate the world at large or even their place in it? How to find that grander view?

Students fear I am asking for wisdom, but really I want patience. What might they come to understand through sustained focus, deep thought, and messing about with words? Where does their experience lead them? If they stick with it, they hardly notice as step by step they grow more powerful on the page.

Creative nonfiction may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond. In every case the connection to poetry is significant. Experience as metaphor. Precise observation develops principle and connection, even what we like to call meaning.

Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.

It is the shock as we walk barefoot through our own house, squish on something, and realize what it is.
__

Jan Priddy taught art, high school English, and college writing for over forty years. Her work earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com

Everything Grows More Slowly in Flagstaff

August 7, 2019 § 3 Comments

Alice Lowe 2By Alice Lowe

My writing buddy, Jim, is the only person to whom I confess my current impasse. To others I’m taking stock, generating ideas, planning. Whatever I can say in lieu of dried up, empty-headed, in a funk. In lieu of the inadmissible: w______ b____. I shrink from the admission and what it might say about me—that I’m a quitter, lazy, bereft of creativity—just as I would be loath to reveal a sexually-transmitted disease. The most I’m prepared to say is that “I’m struggling a bit.”

Jim and I met in a memoir class eight years ago, both of us recently retired from business careers. We still meet every two weeks and are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He flags my ample alliterations and excessive em-dashes. I circle his run-on sentences. We celebrated each other’s first published essay and every subsequent success. We’ve withstood times of plenitude and drought.

*

Me: I’m struggling a bit.

Jim: I’d suggest writing from prompts, but I know you hate it.

Me: I don’t hate it, just have difficulty getting started. I can’t generate anything on cue.

Jim: Try again—what can you lose?

Me: Mmm, maybe so.  

*

Prompts are everywhere, I add, stirred by his challenge. I pick up a book from the end table. Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker. I flip to a random page and read: “Everything grows more slowly in Flagstaff.”

We look at each other wide-eyed.

Jim: “Wow. That’s a good one.”

I agree, but it doesn’t help.

*

Me: I’m still struggling. Actually, I’m stuck.

Jim: Why don’t you write about it?

Me: Everyone writes about … writer’s block. There, I’ve said it.

Jim: And we always read them!

Me: What would I say?

Jim: How about “Everyone writes about writer’s block.”

*

Everyone writes about writer’s block. Every writer knows it firsthand, whatever they call it, whatever their experience. Carson McCullers was paralyzed by it. Samuel Coleridge resorted to opium. Toni Morrison rejects the term but knows the feeling. Hilary Mantel suggests getting away from your desk. John McPhee says to write your way out of it. Mind over matter. Write. Or take a break. Either way, it’s a phase. It will pass.

I wrote a craft piece several years ago, “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” I advise: “Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it writer’s block—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers.” But that was when I was flooded with ideas, when life stories queued up in my brain.

But surely I haven’t exhausted the experiences of a long and rich life, esoteric themes ripe for development. I’ve researched and written about baseball and Arctic exploration, maps, noodles, cookbooks, and obscure novelists. What else might I unearth?

I’m invigorated by beginnings, real or arbitrary—the start of the year, spring equinox, as soon as this (fill-in-the-blank) commitment is over—times of transition, of renewal, of fresh beginnings. This January began to work its magic as I made lists—to do, to read, to write. I looked at notes I’d jotted down but hadn’t followed up. Sentences, paragraphs and pages abandoned to slush files. I started with a few carry-overs; ideas began to bubble to the surface.

My creativity awakened, like a congealed sauce that needs to be stirred and heated to revive its essence.

Or like Flagstaff, where everything grows more slowly, and which, a tantalizing topic, I put at the top of the list.
___

Alice Lowe writes about life, literature, food and family in San Diego. Recent essays appear in Ascent, Bloom, Hobart, Stonecoast Review, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. She has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

Should You Go into Debt for an MFA?

August 5, 2019 § 7 Comments

victoria bBy Victoria Buitron

Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been embroiled in yet another “Is an MFA really worth it?” discussion. I’ve read Tweets about how real authors would never get an MFA, posts from graduates upset that they didn’t get the teaching position they wholeheartedly expected, a few lukewarm “NO regrets!” posts, and Kelly Link’s thread detailing the staggering amount of debt people have acquired for an MFA. The figures are shocking and disheartening. But I am one of those individuals who is going into debt for an MFA program with my eyes wide open, and I’d like to share my debt story.

Think of it as a Money Diaries post except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.

I would have begun an MFA program as soon as I graduated with a BA in 2015, but I didn’t have any savings or the work experience I wanted. That year I landed a position I love as a translator and editor and began saving for grad school. Thanks to social media interest trackers, the Fairfield University MFA website would regularly appear on my browser over the following three years. I googled all the teachers and fell in love with their work. It’s a low-residency program, based in my state, and there was a list of a few graduate assistant positions. Although the opportunity didn’t mean I would get an assistantship, I wanted the option to be available.

It was important for me to know I would have a shot at additional funds. I’m an immigrant who has lived between two countries, the United States and Ecuador, for most of my life and I’ve only put down official roots in the U.S. since 2012. The only way I can save money is by doing gigs on the side: house-sitting, dog-sitting, babysitting, editing, translating, and tutoring in English and Spanish. There have been times I’ve put kids to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and then written until the parents arrived at 1 a.m. I put all those savings away for MFA application day.

I had $3,000 in student loans when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (shout out to Hunter College–CUNY) and I felt I could afford a maximum of $15,000 in student loan debt with accruing interest for an MFA program. Nonetheless, I wanted to do anything legally possible not to take out that amount.

In early 2018, once I chose three low-residency MFA grad programs, with Fairfield University as my #1 choice, before sending out my applications I requested a meeting with my boss. There was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated tuition reimbursement existed, but I had to ask. I’m a confident woman, I know what I’m worth, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.

My employer informed me they would pay up to 50% of my tuition, with stipulations regarding my grades, the type of degree I would get, and the amount of years I’d work for the company. I accepted. Afterwards, I applied to Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing and was accepted.

In the first year, my employer paid half of my tuition, leaving me with around $10,000 to pay off. I had $5,000 in savings ready to use, leaving the need for $5,000 in student loans. Towards the end of my second semester, I was informed that a new graduate student position became available to serve on the staff of Brevity. I had read the magazine religiously even before I entered my program, was a submissions reader for the magazine during my first two MFA semesters, and had been in a workshop with the founding editor. I applied and got the position, which comes with a 50% stipend for tuition.

For my last year of grad school, I won’t have to pay tuition at all. I will be working my ass off, but I thoroughly enjoy working for Brevity, and I won’t need any additional loans. I haven’t graduated yet, but my writing has already improved, I love my MFA community, and many doors have opened up for me. It’s all been worth it.

I have had many privileges that led me to low student debt. I am an able-bodied Latina who has a secure job, lives in a two-income home, no children, and I have time on my side to save money. It’s important to acknowledge there are structural economic factors that prevent many people from saving through side gigs like I do. People can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford boots. In certain cases, saving money is just not feasible and loans are the only option.

Are you considering an MFA but worry about the debt? Here are my tips for tentative grad students:

  • Look up grad schools with fully-funded programs, partially-funded programs, and graduate student positions. Unless you can pay for grad school out of pocket, there should be no reason why you’re attending a school that doesn’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their students.
  • Plan ahead. Years ahead.
  • Figure in the loan principal and interest whether or not you will get that teaching and/or tenure track job.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. The worst people can say is no. But always, always ask.
  • Apply for grants and scholarships. You’ll have a better shot at local ones than national ones.
  • Google the teachers and the directors of the grad programs you’re interested in. They will be your community, and you have to determine whether you’re ready to pay to be in that community. Once you are seriously considering a program, e-mail the director or administrator and ask if you can be in touch with some current students.
  • Low-residency or full-residency. Determine the pros and cons and what would be best for you.
  • Go to a local library writing workshop or join a writers’ group before shelling out thousands of dollars for an MFA. Maybe you’ll realize that’s all you needed.
  • Don’t compare your financial situation with the person next to you in workshop. No one else but you knows what you can afford, save and pay back in loans.
  • Please don’t get into $100,000 debt for an MFA. No matter what the name of the school is.
    ___

Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.

 

Not Just “Shelling Peas and Pain”: Standing Up for Women’s Writing

July 30, 2019 § 6 Comments

HanscombeBy Elisabeth Hanscombe

People in relationships can at times feel stifled and the burden of responsibility they have towards their partner can feel onerous. From time to time they might wish they were free again and single like their friends who live alone, or at least outside the bonds of relationship. They imagine the single people are having a much better time.

Single people, on the other hand, can at times long for the marriages and committed partnerships they see around them, envy the state of always having companionship on tap, knowing there’s someone whose voice will lighten when you call and they first hear your voice.

It seems that the single among us long for the constraints of relationship and the ones in relationships long to be free.

So, it is for fiction writers whose imaginations imply a freedom that non-fiction writers are never fully allowed, as we must stay close to the facts, at least to the essence of those so-called facts. We cannot stray too far into the imaginary.

For years I’ve attended fiction workshops with prompts and exercises along the lines of ‘Imagine your character to be doing such and such’.  My imaginary character invariably turns out to be me, or to be someone of my close acquaintance, and I must wriggle my mind into position as if I’m writing about some imaginary creature, my ‘I’ character as a fiction, even though I know I am not fictional.

Whenever I write, even as I seek to be as authentic and honest about my experience as possible, I find myself taking a line in my writing that is open to interpretation. When I read back over this image of me, this latest self-portrait as it were, I can see a stranger, a person I don’t fully recognise as me. Bits of me, but not all of me.

I see myself as so many disparate bits. So many different characters trot through my head depending on the time of day, depending on whatever preoccupation assails me at any given moment. When I try to write from that perspective, I find it shifts my perspective on myself.

A woman much older than me when I was still young enough to think of myself as young, still of childbearing age, during our journal writing class, talked of women’s writing of the nonfiction variety as “shelling peas and pain.”

Why do we women debase our best writing efforts, as if our words are not worth reading?

From now on, I reckon, it’s time to stand up for those words and shout them into the Cosmos.

Let’s be heard.
__

Elisabeth Hanscombe is a psychologist and writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia and has published widely in magazines such as Meanjin, Griffith Review, Island and Bluestem, among others. Her memoir, The Art of Disappearing, came out in 2017. When she’s not working therapeutically, Elisabeth strives to balance the competing demands of family and work with a desire to ‘circle her wounds’ on the page. She blogs at http://www.sixthinline.com.

 

Writing as the Cat Purrs: Ten Tips

July 24, 2019 § 13 Comments

z Arie and MeBy R.L. Maizes

I’ve learned a lot from my cat, Arie. No, I don’t spray the furniture, chew electrical cords, or howl at the neighborhood Tom (well, not unless I’m feeling especially lonely). What I’ve picked up are these ten tips to improve your writing life.

  1. Be indifferent. You don’t need your story to appear in Most Prestigious Journal to be successful as a writer. You don’t need Famous Writer to follow you back on Twitter. You don’t need to win prizes or even to be nominated for them. When you get a rejection, yawn, then lick your butt. You’ll get the point, even if whoever is rejecting you won’t.
  2. Scratch an itch. Write about what nags at you, whether it’s your difficult childhood, the miserable state of our state, or the elegance of ballet. There’s no subject too small for writing. In her lovely memoir, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes about the snail that lived on her nightstand while she was bedridden. The success of epic novels such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which follows four generations of Koreans, proves there’s no subject too large.
  3. Throw up. Working on my novel-in-progress, I had the brilliant idea to give the main character a blind cat. (I know, cats.) I was so excited, I immediately began researching how a vet would diagnose blindness in a cat, what treatments were available, and how a person would raise and care for such a cat. I crafted scenes around the animal. Time passed and the concept began to seem less, well, brilliant. My gut told me the blind cat was a distraction and didn’t serve the story. But what about all the research? The carefully written scenes? And how much readers would learn about blind cats? I made a hacking noise over the manuscript, drooled some yellow spit, and got rid of it all.
  4. Knock things over. Break at least one rule. Your main character shouldn’t be a writer, I’d heard from so many publishing sources, and then Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for Less, a novel about a writer, and Sigrid Nunez won the National Book award for The Friend, about a writer mourning the death of her author friend. Cause disruption. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shook up the meat-packing industry. Books like Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett changed how I and other readers view mental illness. Make people uncomfortable. If they question why they brought you home—you aloof, couch-shredding creature—you just might be doing your job.
  5. Clean yourself. Constantly. Check your spelling and punctuation, your grammar and usage. Readers will notice the difference between affect and effect, if a subject agrees with a verb, if you misspelled potato. A spellchecker can do only so much for you. Print out a draft. Read the work aloud. (Not “allowed,” as I first wrote.) On shorter pieces like this one, read your work from last paragraph to first to see it fresh.
  6. Leap. If you can elevate your subject matter, illuminating a part of history or a social issue, so much the better. I’m glad we have books like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to describe the plight of refugees. But don’t forget to also…
  7. Play. Entertain yourself and your reader. If you find yourself laughing while you’re writing, chances are some readers will laugh, too. Experiment with different elements of your story, varying point of view and tense, inserting flashbacks and flash forwards. Try epistolary devices, such as the diary in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, the PowerPoint slides in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the videos in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ story “Whisper to a Scream,” or something no one has tried before. Write in collective first person like Rajesh Parameswaran does in “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan.” (“None of us were surprised…” the story begins.) Try something new even—or especially—if it makes you uncomfortable. You might end up with a failed experiment or you might discover just what your work needs. You might even catch the feather at the end of the stick. But I doubt that. I really doubt that. You keep trying, Kitty.
  8. Be mysterious. Surprises are one of the joys of reading. Rebecca Makkai’s Pulitzer- finalist novel, The Great Believers, contains a bombshell. There’s an excellent twist in Pachinko, one Lee perfectly prepares the reader for, but you won’t claw it out of me. Read the damn book!
  9. Purr. As important as tension is to a story, readers periodically need a break from it, a time when things are going well for the characters. Have a character achieve a goal and enjoy her success or have her remember a past or imagine a future that is problem free. In one of the stories in my collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, the protagonist, who is Jewish, fights with his Protestant girlfriend about whether they should celebrate Christmas. Tension rises when the woman brings a spruce tree into their apartment and bakes Christmas cookies. It eases as the main character remembers the couple’s romantic first date. On Christmas Eve, it escalates again.
  10. Nap. Take breaks from your work-in-progress. You’ll come back to it refreshed, full of new ideas, and seeing the writing more clearly, what’s succeeding and what isn’t. You’ll be less attached to the words on the page and more willing to revise them. I wrote this essay while taking a break from working on my novel. Actual naps are good, too. Throw your paw over your eyes, whistle softly through your nose, and let the world disappear. Most of us are sleep deprived, which makes us less able to handle the stresses of life, including those of being a writer.
    ___

R.L. Maizes is the author of We Love Anderson Cooper, a short story collection about outsiders that naturally also includes cats. Her novel, Other People’s Pets, is forthcoming from Celadon Books July 2020. Find her on Twitter: @RL_Maizes.

When You Write What Scares You—And Then See It in Print 

July 23, 2019 § 25 Comments

Diane GottliebBy Diane Gottlieb

An essay I wrote was just published last week. It was my third publication, the first that will appear both online and in print. You’d think I’d be thrilled.

Part of me was. I had worked this shorty (432 words) for about two years, off and on. I’m proud of it. It’s tight. Honest. And it’s … personal. Very, very personal.

That’s the part that’s got me.

I’m fifty-eight years old, and while I’ve come to writing late, I’ve brought with me many rich stories. I’ve led a full life, with lots of joy and a fair amount of pain, neither of which I’ve ever been shy about sharing. Yet, seeing this particular piece, all 432 words of it, triggered me in a way I hadn’t expected. I felt naked. Exposed. I felt shame.

Why is it so hard to tell our stories? I take that back. Why is it so hard to have our stories heard?

The piece is about a time after surgery, when I spent two days in a morphine-induced haze. I had just had a hysterectomy, that I needed because I had cervical cancer, that developed because of a run-away STD, that my first husband so generously gifted me—the same STD that the woman with whom he was having an affair had shared with him. Yes. Ouch.

I’m not the first woman to have been betrayed by a husband; not the first to have had an STD, a hysterectomy, or cancer, for that matter. Not even close.

And if there’s any shame to carry in this story, it’s certainly not mine. Yet, carry it I do. I carry it like something precious, or like so many heavy stones.

Putting this story out into the world will not hurt anyone. My husband died almost fifteen years ago, and the woman he was sleeping with left both our lives a long time before that. Hurting others is not the concern. It’s the secret. Giving voice to the secret is what’s giving me pause.

There’s yet another voice from someone long gone, a haunting, steady voice that I hear. It’s my mother, herself no stranger to affairs. “Don’t air your dirty laundry,” she whispers in my ear. “Don’t air your dirty laundry for all the neighbors to see.”

Secrets. Dirty laundry. The very stuff that desperately chokes for air.

Giving voice to those secrets takes away their power. Am I afraid to stand in that light, to take on that power and claim it as my own?

Maybe.

Telling stories and having them heard can indeed be terrifying. And yet, it is the scariest stories that most need to be told. The more of those stories heard around the world, the less others will feel alone. I get that … And still.

We’ve all been told to write what scares us. But long held secrets, or whatever it is that scares you most, can do damage, when exposed. Those secrets are frightened animals with sharp claws and sharper teeth.  Tread carefully—and be gentle—with yourself. Write slowly. Walk. Breathe. And put down the pen before your mind or your body go into overwhelm.

The story that was published last week is an old story. I’ve had plenty of time and distance from the events, yet seeing them all in print still packed a mighty punch. It took me two years to write 432 words. We must remember that writing is not a race.

Continue to write those secrets. Write what you fear. I certainly will. But write consciously and with care. And when you’re ready, only when you’re ready, submit.
__

Diane Gottlieb received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction and as a member of the interview and blog teams for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Burningword Literary JournalPanoply, and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com. @DianeGotAuthor

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Teaching Resources category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: