March 21, 2019 § 13 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
March 19, 2019 § 11 Comments
“I just wrote it down, sent it out, and now I feel so much better. It was totally like therapy.”
I get why people say that. In my personal essays, I write narratives that thread through my life, and sometimes that feels really cathartic and revelatory and all of the wonderful things we associate with therapy.
I still need therapy. I believe that everyone deserves to have the opportunity to unpack their experiences with the guidance of an empathetic professional. Not just because it has made me a happier, more well-adjusted person—it has also made me a better writer.
My therapist H. is a psychiatrist and I’ve been working with him for about a year. His office is in Brookline, MA—if you live in Boston, you’re probably nodding because everyone’s therapist is in Brookline. H. is compassionate and thoughtful and incisive, but none of that really matters for my purposes as a writer. What is special about H. is that he practices Internal Family Systems (IFS), which has been incredibly effective for me, especially as a nonfiction writer.
IFS is a therapeutic technique that posits that inside all of us are distinct parts that serve important purposes. As we move through life, our experiences give birth to different elements of our personality, elements that protect and advocate for our central self, sometimes together and sometimes in conflict with one another.
In my case, there’s a big cast of characters. The queen bee is my intellectual part, who steps in to analyze whenever I become remotely uncomfortable. “I see you’re feeling overwhelmingly sad as you talk about the sudden death of your father,” she likes to say, leaning back in her leather armchair, “Let’s redirect—mention an article about grief you once read in The Atlantic!”
My quietly building part tries to keep me on track with long-term good-for-me goals, but she is often neglected: “You have a shelf of books you haven’t read—why are you watching Gossip Girl again?” Then there’s my people pleasing part. She works overtime at cocktail parties and in job interviews, but she’s at her loudest when my mouse hovers over the “submit” button: “You can’t send that essay out, what if it makes people mad?”
If it sounds a little awkward, that’s because it is. Actually, it’s almost unbearably awkward, at least at first. But it’s worked—over the past year or so, I’ve gotten better at understanding the different components of my personality, developing compassion for myself, and gently shifting all the parts of me to work together with something approaching harmony so that I can live the life that I want to live.
It’s no coincidence that my year in therapy has been very fruitful creatively. Once a week, I talk to an audience who expects me not only to tell a story, but to be really clear on who my narrator is. H. will often gently press me—“Kat, I get the sense that another part just jumped in. Is that accurate?” And I have to take a beat and assess: now, who was that speaking? Was it my intellectual part, swept up in analysis and losing the emotional thread? Was it the part of me so desperate to connect with others, she never says anything controversial? Was it my inner warrior, who wants to defend me, even when I have behaved badly? I have to understand, because H. is sitting right there, in the chair across from me, and he wants to understand.
I have started to bring those kinds of questions with me when I sit down to write. As a nonfiction writer, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking of my narrator as me, with baggage I know by heart. But someone reading my work doesn’t know all the parts of me. As an essay writer, I have to introduce myself to my reader over and over again, clearly and concisely, in a way that allows me to get to the truth of what I want to say in a given piece. IFS has forced me to think about which parts of me are driven to write an essay so that I can allow those parts to step forward and be in the spotlight. It’s helped in the crafting of essays, too; I know not to let my intellectual part lean too hard on research, and I dial down my inner warrior so my narrator doesn’t come off as defensive.
It’s easiest to speak the truth when I am really clear on who is speaking.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering: this essay was written by my intellectual part, and my people-pleasing part really hopes you liked it.)
Kat Read owns way too many cookbooks and is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program. Find her online at www.kataread.com.
March 12, 2019 § 91 Comments
- Writing is an invitation to humility—you realize you’re on the wrong track, you’ve lost connection with a scene, an emotion, a voice. The return on that humility is when your imagination lets you slip into someone else’s skin. The tales you come up with tell the story you are trying to tell when you sit down to write and also the story of the years you spend working on the book. Rendering a/your life into art changes you.
- Trust your intuitions but trust (admit) that you don’t understand what your intuitions are telling you. They have their own truth and direction; your job is to follow where they lead. This doesn’t mean you don’t exert control, but you don’t exert as much control as you think you do. And you are often at your best when you don’t.
- Defend your story; don’t give up on it. At the same time, accept that you actually don’t know what the story is that you can tell. It’s likely that what you thought is your story is not your story but a way to discover your story. The poet Richard Hugo talks about what he calls the ‘triggering town’—the place where everything starts, that lets you fly off on the next leap of the heart.
- Trust your dissatisfactions with what you’re doing. The more you trust them, the more chance you have to make changes.
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes; they tell you what you are trying that you don’t have control over. They suggest that you are venturing into new territory where you’re not yet sure what you are doing. They’re a sign that you are stretching yourself.
- Learn about and trust your own rhythms as a writer. That means not only when you write best in the day or week but where, how often, and in what ways. Do you work from outlines? Write the end and then figure out how to get there? Or do you write with no idea where you are going or why? (And if you’re stuck, then your system isn’t working for you anymore; give it up.)
- Write the first draft so you can get to the second and third and fourth because you can’t get to them except through the awkward and ugly and insufferable and embarrassing and seemingly useless first, second and third.
- It’s nice to think that art develops organically, from seed to sprout to leaf to narrative. Yes and no. Keep asking yourself, “What work is this moment/scene/word doing?” Answering requires calculation. You manipulate characters, alter lines of dialogue, make up narrative moves. You strategize, reorder, play God. You keep returning to the truth.
- Tangents can turn out to be the heart of your book. It might take you months or years to figure out what to do with those seeming throwaways—how to put them where they belong, at the center of the story you didn’t know you were after.
- Make someone else read your work. Forgive them for not loving it or you and for the things they tell you. You asked, remember?
- Send your manuscript out when you think it is ready and be pretty sure you’re wrong—it most likely is not yet ready. But send it anyway. Then send it again. In between, ask yourself why others don’t think it is ready. Pretend you believe they know better than you. Pretend they are wrong. Pretend there is something to learn or do next.
- Don’t waste too much time with the Imposter Syndrome and Fraud Police: that inner voice of doubt that says you have no talent, that everyone knows this but is too polite to tell you. The voice that screams that you are and always have been a fake; that your comeuppance is coming. It might be true. But it might not. And no one knows, even you.
- Maybe my favorite quote about being an artist or human being, and the one I’ve found the most difficult to live by, comes from a Chinese art manual:
Never lose your awkwardness. Awkwardness once lost can never be regained.
If you’ve got anything to add to this world of ours it won’t come from pretending to be someone else. Trip, stumble, admit that you’re an awkward oaf like all the rest of us awkward oafs. Write as you fall, why you fall, how you live with the bruised ego, why it’s worth getting up.
Paul Skenazy won the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize for Temper, CA. The book is available from your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Miami University Press.
February 26, 2019 § 12 Comments
I’m a performer to my very core, a person who aced every Show-and-Tell, a woman who never met a mic she didn’t adore. I started life as a ballet dancer reveling in stage time and show people. But context is everything. No one likes to be conspicuous, not even performers. They love standing out–but only in their proper places, the stage or the audition. My current, stay-at-home writer/mom gig hasn’t provided too many theater settings. Now I’m conspicuous: a flamingo in street clothes.
Sometimes I wax on about things no one else thought were weird. “You guys! That Uber ride! We were packed like sardines, but no one was talking! His breath was SO strong, and we kept hydroplaning, then “Don’t stop, get it, get it…” played, and I’m thinking WE’RE LISTENING QUIETLY TOGETHER TO A VULGAR SEX DESCRIPTION, and I. Almost. DIED!!!!”
But I hear, “That’s just Uber.”
I feel crazy. But I promise myself to work the scene into a piece of writing.
In conversations, I often worry I’m moving too much, monologuing about something no one else cares about. I wonder if they’re thinking, She’s interesting… or GEEZ, I thought she’d never shut up. But if someone clicks a link, they’re interested. So onto the paper it goes.
I regularly sit on my hands and wrap my legs to keep from dancing N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” lip-syncing “California Dreamin’” or performing the entire choreography of The Nutcracker in waiting rooms and grocery stores.
I hear a lot of, “You have to come to keep the conversation going.” Or, “show us a dance!” The invitations remind me of the career and colleagues I’ve lost. Rather than enjoying the opportunity to perform, I do it with a touch of sadness. I puzzle over it all by typing.
Once, in my child-filled minivan, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” demanded that I pull over. The thought of backup dancers all working together behind full-force Mariah so thoroughly clouded my eyes with longing, I couldn’t see through my windshield.
Lonely and conspicuous, I pour my performer self onto the page. Writing hasn’t yet solved the need to dance, but I’m finding an audience who love to read about it.
Recently in New York, I bought tickets to see a former colleague dance in Aladdin. Jace and I hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, but dance company friends are family, worth vacation cash.
I spent an insane amount on double scotches in adult sippy cups then settled in with friends. When Jace danced on stage, I misted like a mom at graduation.
You’re front and center, baby! On Broadway!
He’s tapping! On Broadway!
He was speaking lines! Popping through trap doors! Taking a curtain call! On Broadway! My pink palms stung with enthusiasm.
We girls smugly pushed past all the kids and parents waiting at the stage door, our names on the list. I admired the bulletin board, covered in call sheets perforated with a million pushpin holes, each one the memory of a callback, letter of dismissal, or renewed contract. There was a familiar lack of opulence, lots of poured concrete, and metal stairways. Pressed to the side, I shyly smiled at the exhausted performers exiting to cheap dinner, stiff drinks, and long subway rides. I wanted to shout, “I’m in your club!” and follow them out.
Jace came around the corner and I wrapped my arms around his sweaty muscles. “I am so proud of you.” He laughed in my ear and hugged me. “Want the tour?”
The New Amsterdam is the second-oldest theater in Manhattan. Huge photos of Ziegfeld Follies girls line the walls backstage. Jace was a great tour guide, like someone trained at Disneyland. But I honestly didn’t care for factoids. I wanted to gaze toward the house seats and beam into the balconies. My back straightened and clavicle spread. I pressed into my hyper-extended knees, and my feet turned out involuntarily. My little nostrils sucked backstage smell into my brain. It was as though someone held out white-dusted hands saying, “Remember cocaine?” And I could only answer quickly, inhaling deeply, “OH. MY. GOSH. YES.”
Costumes had Sharpie names in them same as ever. Lit mirrors showed no technological improvement. I could see the trap doors and tricks. Every mark on the stage directed me: “strike a pose!” While Jace answered questions in the wings, I stole back to center stage and sank into a perfect 180-degree split in my mom jeans and cheetah sweater.
Memories swished through me, but one thought rose to the surface:
This just can’t be over.
Barely into my career, a stagehand’s mistake sent me crashing to the floor and ruined my back. Devastated and no longer fit for classical ballet, I was dismissed from my places to be safely conspicuous. I retreated to practical pursuits: college, marriage, clean house, pregnancies.
I’m wildly thankful for my family.
I miss that old self terribly.
Dancing on the page helps me find and reincorporate her. Like Roald Dahl’s BFG, I package sensations to blow into people’s ears. Maybe the effort will reveal a path back to theater, my true home. For now I write to build my own stages and studios. I shout from the page, “Come in! See my thoughts. Add your feelings. Let’s be conspicuous!”
Jessica Ribera moved to Seattle at 17 to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now, she lives there with her husband and four wild children. Her work has appeared in The Mighty, Scary Mommy, the Brevity blog, Fathom Magazine, and Red Tricycle. The Almost Dancer, her memoir of dance and disaster will be published by White Blackbird Books in 2019. Find her as @jeskybera on Twitter and @thealmostdancer on Instagram.