August 29, 2019 § 27 Comments
One of my favorite Leonard Bernstein songs (lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is a cheerful, upbeat ditty about the wreckage of broken dreams in New York. In verse after verse, a bright young thing comes to the big city from the cornfields, experiences a measure of success, then works a drudge job while never creating again. The actress flipping flapjacks, the opera singer tossing trout at the fish market, the writer who hasn’t written a word. All their dreams in pieces at their feet.
But here’s the thing about pieces: you need them to build other things. I led a writing retreat this week for three memoirists, and we got talking one night about the ways we’ve been burned, by relationships, by family, by unscrupulous writing “coaches.” I mentioned a thing I say a lot, that I’ve written about in my newsletter, a phrase that gives me comfort every time: If you like where you are, you gotta be OK with what got you there. I said that if a fairy godmother came down and said I could go back in time and have a great high school experience instead of a horrifying one, I’d say no.
I’ve gotten too much good writing from bad things.
Before the retreat, we were all at a writing conference, the wonderful Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. During the conference, I was approached a couple of times by writers with a deep, dark confession. They’d been “Anna March victims.” March—not her real name, as we all eventually found out in this wonderful LA Times article detailing the scam—recruited writers to pay her large sums of money up front, then didn’t deliver the promised editing, coaching or, as she put it, “book midwifery.” The scam kept going because the victims were ashamed to say they’d been taken advantage of, or worried that March’s literary might (as it was perceived during her grifting period) would crush them.
I feel for these writers. It’s a shitty situation to be in, to discover that your instincts were wrong, or that you’d overridden some perfectly good instincts to hand a couple thousand dollars to a con artist. I feel for their wasted money, their wasted time, their wounds from asking themselves “How could I have been that dumb?” or “Was it me? Was I just not good enough?”
But you don’t have to get conned to feel wounded. Did you get your money’s worth at your last conference? Finish your book in that pricy writing workshop? See a payoff yet from all that time on social media?
The problem with this line of thinking is seeing writing as a race with a finish line, or a game with a prize, instead of a process. There is no “done.” There is no amount of money and time you can invest that guarantees a payoff. Many MFA grads never publish. Many great books get remaindered. Great writers, including my teachers and mentors, finish books, then putter around the garden and the internet wondering, will I ever write again? Great human beings get conned, dumped, wounded physically and spiritually.
It’s not you.
And it’s not a waste.
That horrible realization you’ve been scammed is one day going to be either material, or a thing you survived. A thing that proves you can survive. That bad relationship is teaching you what you don’t want in the next partner, or how you can be a better partner (marriage #2, right here!). The failed book is proof you wrote a whole book—and you can do it again. The debilitating illness is a chance to pace yourself, to value small moments more than showy accomplishments that later feel hollow. All these things suck, and you are legitimately entitled to be angry, sad, and/or defiant about them. Feelings are facts, too. But these catastrophes and misspent time and futile efforts are also the pieces you have to work with. The fragments you will take up, sand off the edges, and shape into your story and your life.
You may not yet be thriving, but survival alone is proof you’re on the way there. You may not yet be publishing, but you have a lot to write about, a story to share. The gift of memoir is telling our readers they aren’t alone. You’re not the only one who feels like this. Experiencing the tragedy of waste builds empathy and allows us to embody our readers’ experiences, often in a way they cannot themselves process or put into words.
That’s our job. To study our craft and learn to use the best words we can to share the things that happened, the things our readers are suffering alone. To have the courage to step out of the shadows and say, me, too.
Bernstein made a song out of broken dreams, a good song, a song that’s lasted.
What will you do with your pieces?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She has one spot left to finish your book in Italy in October. Get references 🙂