March 21, 2019 § 14 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.
February 21, 2019 § 10 Comments
- I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
- I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
- I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
- At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
- When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
- I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
- I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
- I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
- I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
- I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.
I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.
Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.
January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments
I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.
Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.
In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.
At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:
I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.
What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.
In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.
Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.
As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.
Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.
December 18, 2018 § 29 Comments
Back in the days when I was scrabbling my way up the rungs of California’s state civil service ladder, I’d ask my boss how he was doing. Without a trace of irony, he always answered, “Living the dream!”
While I admired his morale-boosting, I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing besides moving paper from one basket to another and engaging in petty squabbles over the picayune nuances of policy memos and budget requests. I wanted to be a published—and lauded—author.
As a gangly, frizzy-haired introverted kid, I’d always been more at home in the school library than on the playground, and my first vision of fame involved having a row of my books on one of the library’s shelves. The girls who didn’t want to be my friend would read my name on those spines, and boy, would they be impressed. By high school, I still wanted to find my books in the local library, but it was even more important that my photo grace the cover of Rolling Stone. All the boys who’d snubbed me would be sorry then.
In young adulthood, I pictured myself as Woman of the Year on the cover of Time, with an accompanying spread in Vogue. After all, I’d written the great American novel and I was a glamorous fashion icon.
Fantasies of how becoming a big-time famous author would transform every aspect of my life evolved with age, but the gist remained the same; books would be my ticket to international star status and all the trimmings—beauty, dangerous boyfriends, a killer wardrobe and enviable hair.
Eight years ago, at 56, I retired to write. Having spent decades plotting award-winning novels in my head, I blithely assumed they would leap from my brain onto the page and into publication.
Intellectually, I understood this was childish, magical thinking. Yet while I’d matured in all the visible ways, my dreams hadn’t. Deep in my adult psyche, writing was still bound up with the Cinderella, star-is-born, meteoric success fantasies of youth.
Eight years later, being a writer doesn’t resemble any fairy tale I’ve ever read. As for most writers I know, the journey has been paved with plenty of rejection, disinterest, and the rude realization that writing is hard work. It involves skills and insight that don’t accrue by wishing and hoping.
I’ve published some essays and a memoir/art book about my dad. I can reread most of my work without cringing. I’m part of a supportive writing community of friends, mentors and critique partners. I consider myself a decent literary citizen, reviewing for journals and facilitating writing workshops for kids. Best of all, I write most days and my family honors and respects me for it.
Along the way, I also gained forty pounds. My migraines have intensified. I’ve avoided far too many social occasions, and, as the coup de grâce, I suffered a life-limiting bout of shingles. All symptoms (I now think) of years suspended in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for the next e-mail, phone call or social media post to tell me I’m good enough. I’m finally a real writer.
What should have been the happiest, most freeing, time of my life, has also been the toughest and most humbling. Linking my sense of self worth, satisfaction and joy to validation from others—the one aspect beyond my control—proved a recipe for anxiety, disappointment and depression. My perceived failure to become ‘famous’ strikes at the core of my sense of who I am and hope to be.
I remain committed to becoming a better writer. And it’s time for a re-boot—a conscious shift in how I perceive and approach my work. It isn’t a race with prizes or a popularity contest.
It isn’t a contest at all.
At 64, I harbor no lingering need to date rock stars, nor do I especially want to encounter my wrinkled mug on magazine covers at the grocery store.
What I want now is to express what it is to have lived a particular life in particular places and times. When I get it right, when I read my words back to myself and think, yes, that’s it, there’s no better validation.
Living the dream doesn’t look the way I imagined it at ten, twenty or even fifty. It isn’t the incredible writing career I fantasized. But I have the luxury and time to live a literary life. This is the dream, here and now. The fairy-tale bits have fallen away, but my life is still transformed.
Dorothy Rice is the author of T 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a Memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.
December 11, 2018 § 17 Comments
In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.
Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.
In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:
As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.
I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.
Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.
Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.
I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.
As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.
But the ending.
I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”
I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.
A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.
But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.
I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.
I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.
Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.
After all, people will want to know what really happened.
Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.
November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.
Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.
November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.
“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.
Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”
When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.
“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.
I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!! Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”
He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.
“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”
Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.
I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.
“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.
I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.
It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.
“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.
“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.
Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.
I had hated the waiting.
I resisted his notes even more.
I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.
“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”
“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”
“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?
I broke the paragraph in two.
Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:
To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?
She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.
When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.
If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.
Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Photo credit: Diego Moncayo
November 6, 2018 § 18 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
September 11, 2018 § 9 Comments
When my family arrived at the beach this year, my two teenage boys ran to the surf. They didn’t hesitate as they dove through the curling waves. I wasn’t so bold. I meandered to the shoreline and let the waves lap my feet. I waded in further. I watched the kids beyond the break. At some point, they tried to pull me in. I resisted. They laughed, rolled their eyes, and told me to dive in. I moved out deeper until the waves broke against my waist. After too much agony, I finally dove.
“It’s about time,” the boys called. “What took you so long?”
Why did I do this to myself? Why didn’t I dive in like they did? I knew how. But I got stuck. What if a wave knocked me over? What if I stepped on a broken shell?
I find myself hesitating on the shore when I’m writing too, questioning my story rather than letting it flow. Learning to trust I have a story to tell has challenged me as a novice non-fiction writer. It didn’t help that I spent part of my beach vacation reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which sent me into an existential spiral of self-doubt. I wanted to edit every sentence I’d written. Not a bad thing, but I was on vacation. I hadn’t even realized I had a trust problem until my mentor focused on a couple of sentences I’d dropped into my memoir about three drafts ago. She returned the draft to me with a note telling me to “DIG DEEP HERE.” It was a “very important moment in the narrative.”
I couldn’t ignore her comment. She was the third person to make it. Why didn’t I trust the others’ feedback? But I wasn’t ready to jump in. Instead, I played with sentences, changing a word here or there, hoping that would fix it. It didn’t, any more than watching the waves would get me into the surf. Yet I knew by now I had to address it, not play around with it, however uncomfortable I was. I had to wrestle with my past, with my rocky relationship with my mom. I had to tell the truth about a lie I told to my daughter and why I told it.
Yet, there I was again, standing at the water’s edge. Stuck. I thought about what I needed to write as I walked my dog each morning. I brought my pages to therapy and talked to about what I needed to write and why it was so hard. When I commented I thought I could cover the material in a paragraph, my therapist laughed.
“Oh, it’ll be more than a paragraph.”
After days of inching toward the deep water, I remembered what I learned from Allison K Williams at a memoir workshop earlier this summer. She emphasized how important it was to “deal honestly” with our own behavior, including our bad behavior. While we could be heroes in our stories, “even heroes mess up,” Williams wrote in a recent blog, Heroes and Villains.
I had to dive into my inner villain. I wrote and rewrote. I re-read the paragraphs. I liked them, particularly the simplicity of how I ended the section. I put it down and came back to it a day or two later. Then the doubt crashed over me. I wrote a few more sentences to make my point, forgetting that once was enough. I sent the revised section to my mentor. She loved it. Except she said, I over-explained. I began moralizing. I should have trusted my original ending. My kids would have rolled their eyes at me.
I told my mentor, I needed to trust myself more.
It’s not easy.
“Trust your material,” Zinsser wrote. “It seems hard advice to follow.”
The more I trust my writing, the better it becomes. I see the weaknesses on the page, particularly my desire to tie everything up neatly. To keep the trust, I’ve given myself a new editing tool. I read my work aloud and ask myself whether my teens would roll their eyes at me. If they would, I know I did it again. I let those sentences go, scattered like broken shells on the shore, and dive.
Christine Corrigan is a writer. Her essays have appeared in Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Racked.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. At 51, she’s working on her first book, a memoir about surviving cancer twice. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2.
September 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
When asked what my memoir-in-progress is about, I sometimes say, “I’m writing about the year I was raped as a teenager.”
It’s a great way to shut down a conversation.
My description is almost always met with awkward silences, lost eye contact, mumbled “I’m sorry’s.” Then I change the subject so they don’t up and leave.
I’m frustrated by this reaction—about 1 in 6 women will be raped, which means 1 in 6 women that you know. My experience isn’t particularly unusual, and recently, reading and writing about it isn’t that unusual, either. It seems that when it comes to talking about writing about it, though, we’re not quite there yet.
At times I don’t mind the awkward responses—in fact, they serve a purpose. It’s healthy to make people face what I have experienced, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. But overall, I find fielding their discomfort exhausting. And there’s only so big an impact that a sentence-long conversation can make.
But being a writer is not only part of who I am, it’s also my job. I like talking about writing, but even if I didn’t, it’s not something I could easily avoid.
Eventually I figured out a workaround: when somebody asks, “What’s your book about?”, I usually mention only its secondary plot.
“I got sick with the plague bacteria while traveling around the world at age 18,” I say. “It’s a pretty weird story.” They nod, enthusiastic, eager, to hear more. They take what I say at face value, satisfied that’s a meaty enough topic for a book-length project, that there’s no second story lurking beneath.
Though this strategy works, I wish I didn’t have to rely on it. I wish I could bring up rape, and writing about rape, in everyday conversations—without ending those conversations. I wish that I didn’t have to hide this central aspect of my identity as a writer in order to fit into social situations. I wish I could talk about the subject of my book as easily as I’ve noticed many other writers talk about theirs.
Recently, there has been an outpouring of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction about sexual violence and rape culture. Authors are incorporating their experiences of violence and harassment into their work—not only including it, but even centering it. These issues come up in writing conference panels and workshops and book reviews. We are talking more—but not enough, and the conversations don’t yet come easily.
Paradoxically, I think the only way to solve this issue is to keep telling my story. For now, that mostly means sharing my story via writing—an option I find far less emotionally draining than facing conversations in person. I’m writing these stories in my memoir, in my personal essays, in my reported articles. But I don’t want to stop having spoken conversations about what my writing is really about—not completely.
What I want is for the responses to improve. I want all of us no matter how difficult it is, to engage with the difficult subject of turning sexual violence into art. Not knowing what to say is not a good enough excuse not to say anything at all—there is always a better alternative than shying away from the conversation. I want the subject I’m writing about to be treated like other books’ subjects: with curiosity, respect, and interest. I want writing and talking about rape to be normalized, because if there’s one thing that feeds rape culture, that allows violence like what I experienced to continue, it’s silence.
So when in doubt, listen. Ask me to tell you more about my book. I hate the initial, awkward moment of telling—I hate not knowing what response I’ll have to handle, I hate the emotional labor involved in “cleaning up” after these conversations—but like many writers, I love to talk about my work: its craft and career challenges and triumphs. And I want the conversation to be about the artistic process of writing about trauma, not about the trauma itself.
As the #MeToo movement grows, as we become more accustomed to hearing stories of violence and harassment, I hope I can answer the question, “what’s your book about?” honestly, without ending the conversation. But until we reach the point where #MeToo stories are more easily accepted in day-to-day conversation—or perhaps, in order to reach that point—I plan to continue writing mine. I hope you’ll join me, whether by listening, asking questions—or writing yours.
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution—all while traveling alone as a teenager. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Entropy, and elsewhere.