A Happier Writer

December 14, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Melissa Fraterrigo

Lately, when I catch myself feeling content, it feels weird, like I should be complaining about my colleagues or boss. I’ve done that before, but I’m not doing that now. Happiness, it seems, takes some getting used to.

Instead, I marvel at the beauty of the poem I just read, or consider my student last week who shared how writing her memoir has allowed her to make peace with grief. The other students in the class and I had nodded behind our Zoom screens. Inside I glowed.

I have not always been a happy person, much less a happy writer. Growing up in my suburban middle-class family, I didn’t feel like I fit in. My brother excelled in sports and my younger sister aced tests and danced ballet on pointe. I didn’t do anything remarkable other than read and this seemed hardly a feat. I carried this angst around like a calling card, as known to me as my own face. “Melissa, you have got to get that chip off your shoulder,” my mother would say after getting in a fight with my sister for the umpteenth time that day, or slamming my bedroom door when just the sight of my sister reminded me of all I was not. It wasn’t until my college rhetoric professor asked me if I’d ever considered writing that I began to think that there might be something I was good at.

Yet when you grow up feeling at odds with the world, such a viewpoint is difficult to shake.

In graduate school, I fretted over missed awards and whether or not my professor liked my story. The more I worried, the more angst I felt. I taught creative writing at several colleges, but became overwhelmed by the pressure to publish in order to earn tenure. The discontent felt familiar. I segued into editing and freelance work so I would have more control over my schedule, searching for the perfect fit, certain such balance would enhance my writing. I published a collection of short stories and a novel. But I missed the camaraderie of graduate school, so in 2014, I founded a creative writing studio to help others learn how to tell their stories.

For a while, things were good.

But this past summer my dad became ill, and all the stories that I had been cultivating disappeared. My heart raced even when I went to help him between treatments, cutting his lawn in old gym shoes and a ballcap. At the end of chemotherapy and radiation, he often slept through my entire visit. When he lost the ability to chew, I bought him protein shakes and made custard from scratch. At home, sitting at my desk, a clean pad of paper in front of me, I didn’t have anything to say.

So I began to reread older, unfinished essays, trying to reinsert myself. As I started reworking these pieces, I was moved by their potential. Even though they were half-finished or unfocused, I was proud of them. Despite life’s new uncertainty, I sensed myself existing between misery and perfection—and it felt powerful.

Anne Lamott in her superb Bird by Bird says perfectionism “…is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die…perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”

Life was clearly a mess now—and I could see the value in it. While my dad is currently stable, I know that someday he won’t be here and neither will I.

There is always someone else earning a better book deal or writing a more beautiful sentence than your own. As a writer, it’s easy to get caught up in what you aren’t accomplishing rather than seeing how far you’ve come..and delighting in the direction you’re headed.

A happier writer:

  • Can point out what feels electric in their work and notice the energy in others’ work.
  • Participates in a writing community. I began the Lafayette Writers’ Studio because I hoped to support others on their writing journeys, but I also hoped the writers would become a part of my journey. And they have, especially during the pandemic when we joked about what we were wearing from the Zoom screen down, yet workshopped each other’s pieces with vigorous care.
  • Learns about everything. We can never know what’s likely to trigger a story or make its way into a story. Even a loved one’s illness can enrich pages.
  • Makes a mess by embracing all of life’s pains and losses and disappointments. Good things flow from the unexpected.

A happy writer isn’t bound to one definition of success, but sees a kaleidoscope of possibilities. A happy writer pays attention to what supports their creativity and nurtures this in others. Each of us has the potential to be a happy writer. At least part of the time.

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Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was named one of  “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she offers live and virtual classes on the art and craft of writing. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @lafayettewrite

Word Doulas

March 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

Pregnant at 31 with my first child, I was so excited to wear maternity clothes. I’d been loaned an entire wardrobe by my husband’s cousin’s generous wife. Though my normal, unpregnant weight was creeping up, the scale still topped out at 115 pounds. I really didn’t need those stretchy panels in the pants just yet. The tent-like tops and dresses were like nothing I’d worn before. I paraded around the grocery store, so proud. Look what we’ve done! Our miracle. I couldn’t, after all, take all the credit.

Writing can be a lonely thing. Introspective and sometimes obsessive. Self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating depending on the subject, the daily news, the weather, my mood, my husband’s mood, our old dog’s state of health. Once written, scribbled late night in a coffee-spattered journal, lost in a jumble of disorganized computer files, or deleted with a single keystroke, the words may never be seen again. But a personal essay becomes not so personal once it’s found a home outside the protective covers of the journal or files. Once it’s left the womb.

I wanted to wear my words like those too-big clothes. To hide under the fabric of them while still parading them around. Look what I’ve done. This time there was no sharing the credit. The words were mine. All mine.

My daughter was born in an out-of-hospital birthing center. I’d packed my Joni Mitchell albums along with lavender oil and a favorite tattered volume of Mary Oliver’s poems. That bag went untouched. At one point I told the midwife I’d changed my mind and I was going to go home. Rather than argue, she climbed into the queen-size bed with me. She held my face in her strong, capable hands and looked me in the eye.

“Eileen, you’re in transition.”

That made all the difference. I knew I was close. I decided to stick it out. What choice did I have?

I wrote a very personal essay about my failed interfaith marriage after my secular Jewish husband fell in love with Orthodoxy and out of love with me. It was filled with rancor and I needed to write it.

My two critique partners pointed out the many phrases that were ugly. That could be offensive. What did they know? Neither had lived that life. I’d ignore their concerns. I needed to keep my authentic voice. My snarky, angry, authentic voice.

I reached out to a FB group and asked for readers who were or had been observant Jewish women. I received the generosity of their time and thoughtful comments. While opinions had a wide range, all comments were helpful in seeing the work through the reader’s eyes. Still, I didn’t change much in the essay. If I omitted everything that might be offensive there’d be nothing left. I put it aside—to let it roil and fester. To breathe. To rise like the challah I used to bake.

Finally, after a few weeks, I opened the essay again, I was able to step back and see what the others had seen. The parts that meant the most to me were buried under the anger. Tainted with resentment. Although that was part of the story, it was not the story I wanted to tell. At this stage of my life, I was ready for another transition. Ready to let go of some of the hurt. Some of the anger.

It took the strong, capable hands of another kind of midwife—my trusted critique partners, to ease this story into the world. I am humbled and grateful and most happy to once again, share the credit. Because without these gentle word doulas, I could not have held this story in my hands, feeling proud of what we’d created. Wanting to say Look what we’ve done.

_____________________

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction.  the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.

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