September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
Writing-adjacent activities that don’t involve opening a Word document to craft new sentences kept me in the literary loop this past year. They are both essential to the process and exceptional diversion tactics. I reread published essays and my unpublished memoir as a reminder I once produced. I scrolled “lit Twitter” and retweeted essays with which I connected. I made a list of possible essay topics I will never write, including “What I Learned from My Dead Grandma about How to Stay Single.” I “Kondo-ed” my bookshelves, ditching 62 books that don’t “spark joy.” I submitted a personal essay 37 times (so far) and then wondered if Submittable was broken when the last submission remained “in progress” for eight months (and counting). Mainly, I did my best to embrace the opportunities of the Pacific Northwest as a Californian living in Washington for 10 months without close friends and family.
I attended the Portland Book Festival, where I absorbed wisdom from Jamel Brinkley, who reminded us to “stay curious” and “focus on things off to the side” to craft a fuller world. On the same panel, Rob Spillman said Tin House received 20,000 submissions a year—before its final issue was announced. As an editor, he’s looking for material he “didn’t know was possible;” characters not “on [his] radar.” He’s “interested in day-to-day survival.”
Despite being inspired, I didn’t write.
I signed up for a one-night Mindful Writing workshop at the Hugo House, a beacon of light in a dark Seattle. There I tried to get unstuck. Anna Vodicka talked us through freewrites in a candle-lit room. She cited Writing Down the Bones when she reminded us to “feel free to write junk” and “always have tremendous kindness for yourself in this process.” She asked us to name our pesky inner critic and send her on vacation. I named mine after my toxic sixth grade teacher. As part of my newfound, theoretical contemplative practice, I thought, “I hear you, Miss Salter, and I’m not listening.”
To curb our interior chatter, we inhaled for four counts; held for six; exhaled for eight. We beat our chests like Tarzan and did “goddess squats” and yelled, “Ha!”
Anna asked, “What is a reasonable writing practice goal you could set?” and suggested channeling other writers: “Hey, Mark Twain, what should I do now?”
I left with a temporary willingness to “put [my] energy toward the next sentence and let go of end goals” because “failure is integral to practice.” Vodicka propped me up long enough to revise the one essay I’ve been trying to publish. I quit holding back and spilled it all. Then an imaginary Miss Salter whispered, “You’re not good enough,” and paralysis was restored.
I returned to the Hugo House for a Maria Semple lecture series, of which I made it through three of five classes before succumbing to the flu. With her guidance, I realized the short story I had been trying to conjure was, in fact, a novel. I cursed out loud.
“At least you know what you’ll be doing for the next five years,” my novelist friend said, offering condolences.
Semple said, “The story starts when we see coping mechanisms not working. How are fears externalized?” She detailed what she called “gap scenes”: the gap between what protagonists want to happen and what actually happens. “Characters are forged in the gap,” she said. “True character is revealed in choices a human makes under pressure.” A character’s choice at the end of a scene should be a “one-way gate.”
After jotting ideas for my nonexistent novel, I put them aside, afraid my first real leap into fiction would land with a thud.
Then I went to AWP. On the first day, Pam Houston made me cry when she read an essay about learning to love a man like she loves a mountain. Later, R. O. Kwon said her book sold after eight-and-a-half years. “I was happy for 27 seconds” before reaching “a whole new level of anxiety. I have stayed in that state since that phone call.”
That will be me, I thought.
“The life of an artist is being told no,” Garth Greenwell added. “The one yes is what matters. Don’t let them lie to you. Don’t lose hope.”
Like Houston, Greenwell brought tears to my eyes.
At a nighttime reading in a shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, Greenwell read a stunning sex scene.
“I need to up my game,” I said too loudly afterward.
The woman next to me fell over laughing.
“I meant the writing, but that too,” I said.
The AWP book fair was a writer’s candy store. There I met a former editor in person who said my work in her journal was still one of her favorites. I chatted with another editor about my unpublished piece. He told me to “slice and dice” it and send it to him. That weekend, I cut 900 words to make it 2,000. He sent a form rejection.
Back at the Hugo House, I stepped onto a stage twice to read excerpts from my memoir to a large room filled with strangers. On the train three months after the first reading, a man approached me and said he was relieved my mom didn’t die in childbirth.
In spring I jumped at the chance to transcribe three episodes of my favorite literary podcast, which chewed up weeks of writing time but made me feel productive.
There are endless ways to avoid creating art while staying connected to the writing community; I’ve found them all.
I “finished” my memoir manuscript two years ago. Now it needs a fresh ending.
“Maybe you haven’t lived it yet,” a writer friend said.
Maybe. But I can’t let that become another excuse to sidestep blank pages.
Living out of state with ample time and a traveling roommate was a self-imposed writing retreat I squandered. But, back in California, writing about not writing is writing.
So, I’m back? I sure hope so.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.