June 7, 2018 § 13 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
April 11, 2018 § 30 Comments
By Laura Gilkey
These are the first words I am typing on my brand new laptop computer. I bought the laptop, I told myself, so I can write when I need to write, where I need to write. An investment, I said.
My husband went to the techy store with me, wholeheartedly supporting my investment. He believes in me, the poor guy. We chose a middle-of-the-road laptop, no bells or whistles, not a huge amount of memory and a three-digit price tag, not four. I just need it to be fast, I said. I need it to keep up with me. With all of this writing I’m going to do.
This investment came just two weeks after I invested in attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, an hour’s drive north of where I live. I was so proud of myself for committing to it, despite a near-crippling case of Imposter Syndrome. I catered the conference to my own particular palette these days: memoir, grief, research, trauma. I was riveted by three full days of panel discussions with incredible voices who tell incredible stories. I filled a legal pad with emphatic notes. My mind was brimming with words like intersectional and liminal and narrative arc. I couldn’t wait to get home and write. Of course, first, I made a list of more than twenty books referenced during the conference, books I clearly must read before attempting to properly tell my story.
Three months before the conference, I invested in a writing coach. She is someone whose work I greatly admire and whose opinion I value implicitly. I chose her because six months ago I invested in her online workshop for mothers who write, and it was exceptional. I produced good work during those ten weeks, and I learned a lot from her, and from the other mothers taking the class. So I hired her. Which is so great. Except that I’m not giving her anything to work with. Since our agreement, I have sent her fewer than twenty-five pages of manuscript. And that was two months ago.
But hey, I haven’t been procrastinating, I tell myself. I’ve been doing field work. I’ve been studying the barred owls that will play so indelibly into this story. I’ve been keeping a detailed journal of their behavior and of my experience observing them. And I’ve been writing the letters to my son. I have to write those. More than a hundred now.
I am completely procrastinating. Jesus. The laptop, the conference, the owls. This essay. As much as his story burns in my chest, as much as I know I cannot live with myself if I do not write it, I don’t want to. What is my problem? I wrote for 772 consecutive days when Benjamin was sick. I shared my writing with a blog audience that grew to several hundred per evening. I didn’t edit myself, and I certainly didn’t care who was reading what I wrote. I wrote because I had to. I wrote to survive.
I know I need to write now. There is something so big at stake here. But I don’t want to recount the chronology of my son’s death last February. I don’t want to go deeply into the pain Benjamin felt when his liver and his spleen grew to twice their normal size. I don’t want to smell that occult blood again or feel the unwelcome shift in the alternating pressure mattress or watch him try to push away the inevitable. He was nine years old.
I do want to convey the joy he brought to our family, though. To the world. That was a big fat note I wrote on my legal pad at the conference, and starred: to capture the magnitude of the loss, you must capture the magnitude of the joy. And I need—need—to delve into the unmistakably divine events that have happened since his death. I have no idea what will come out of those pages. That’s why I need to write them.
One of the AWP Conference panelists I saw—twice, actually—offered readings of her “craft essays” as accompaniments to each literary piece she read. These were breakdowns of her observations, not about the subject matter, but about the process of writing it. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand why she felt the need to write them, let alone share them with other writers, but now I do. This procrastination of mine, this series of investments, this anguish is just another layer of the storytelling experience. It helps me understand the importance of the knowledge I hold, because of Benjamin. It tells me to be brave, like he was. To go into the pain. I will tell his story and I will do it right here on this laptop, so help me God, and I’ll do the best job I possibly can.
Laura Gilkey is the mother of two sons: Banyan, a healthy, rugby-playing adolescent, and Benjamin, who died of leukemia in February 2017. Laura’s writing through Benjamin’s cancer treatment is archived at BenjamintheBrave.com. Additional work has been published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mommy Magazine, and Pulse Voices for Medicine. Laura co-produced Maternally Yours, a weekly community radio program, for five years. Guests included CNN Hero Robin Lim, Right Livelihood Laureate Ina May Gaskin, and Dr. Maya Angelou.
March 21, 2018 § 33 Comments
By Vonetta Young
You squirm as you feel the inevitable question bubbling up to the surface whenever you’re around your spouse’s colleagues.
“Are you a lawyer, too?”
You sigh shortly and confess, “No, I’m a writer.”
You still hate saying it because you feel like a Fakey McFakerson every time you do.
“Oh, a writer!” They inevitably exclaim. “What do you write?”
You sigh again. “I write about myself.”
And there it goes: Not only are you a Fakey McFakerson, you’re also a narcissist.
“Would I have read anything you’ve written?”
You imagine what they might be thinking since you haven’t responded yet. They might be thinking that you are not a real writer. They are correct.
Real writers don’t panic when their spouse’s colleagues ask what they do.
Real writers don’t have MBAs.
Real writers breathe for the sole purpose of writing.
Real writers enjoy every minute of writing, even the painful bits.
Real writers effortlessly emote and are in touch with their feelings. They are not prone to disassociation.
Real writers don’t let themselves get lured into the shiny darkness of Twitter and Facebook, where they watch nature videos of the smallest cat in Africa catching a bird in her mouth in the dark of night.
Real writers read way more than you do. How the hell do they read so much? Because they stay off the internet.
Real writers don’t need someone to double check every word they’ve written. They’re confident in what they write.
Real writers’ only weakness is that they work too hard. They are perfectionists. They are too honest.
Real writers are white, male alcoholics like Hemingway and Kerouac.
Real writers don’t wonder where they’re going to submit things while they’re writing them. They just write, dammit, because they love it and it’s their calling.
Real writers write every day, even when they don’t feel like they have anything to say.
Real writers always have something to say.
Real writers’ words are edited in the air between their brain and their fingers.
Real writers are quirky and imaginative, not cerebral and realistic.
Real writers don’t question virtually every word they put down on paper.
Real writers love when the sun shines into their windows so bright it physically hurts their eyes.
Real writers use Apple computers.
Real writers are carefree; you are not. Your mother told you so when you were in high school.
Real writers are bold enough to protest and raise their fists and shout.
Real writers make metaphors about making bread, and they…just…work.
Real writers have artist friends.
Real writers do yoga.
Real writers lift weights solely to gain a better understanding of what it means to struggle, as if they weren’t already intimately acquainted with it.
Real writers live in Brooklyn; you lived in Manhattan until you couldn’t cut it, so you left.
Real writers have one childhood home; you had seven.
Real writers were raised by both parents.
You are not a real writer.
But if you’re not a real writer, then who wrote this?
“Maybe,” you finally respond. “Do you read Brevity’s blog?”
Vonetta Young is a DC-based writer working on her first memoir. Her essays have been featured in/by Catapult, Ozy, The Billfold, and Levo League. Follow her musings at vonettayoung.com and on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.