New Year, new permission to be creative

Well this is embarrassing; I haven’t written anything since November. Since that was the start of the holiday season it’s not too surprising, but it is a sign that when life gets hectic, writing stops. Does it stop for you as well? How do you keep the words flowing when you’re swamped by family and work and friends and activities that all seem so damn important.

Friends and family are important! But so is writing. Writing keeps me focused and centered, which makes me much easier to deal with. You’d think my loved ones would insist I write every day. “Here Terena, take this mocha and go to your room for an hour and write. You’re getting bitchy.”

I do it to myself; writing brings me happiness, but doesn’t benefit anyone else. I feel selfish when I take the time to create and rest. Most of the women I know feel the exact same way; our creativity doesn’t matter unless someone gives us permission to use it.

Bullshit! That’s my new mantra for the New Year: Bullshit!

Starting right now, I give myself permission to write. Permission to speak. Permission to have fun. Permission to take care of myself. Will you give yourself permission to be your most creative self?

Permission is just the start; you have to also follow through and do it. But if we wrap our brain around the idea that what we love to do is important, then we’ll take the time to do it. As long as we don’t think it matters, we’ll put everything and everyone above what we really want to do. I want… no, I need… to write. I can’t explain why and it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to justify my need. Justification ties in to permission. I don’t need to justify why and I don’t need anyone’s permission other my own.

No matter what you love to do, give yourself the time and energy to do it. Whether you love to garden, paint, sew, cook, sing, dance, take pictures, or knit baby booties, do it! Do it with all your heart. Even 30 minutes doing what you love will feed your creative soul.

But no guilt. Guilt kills creativity and happiness. If all you have is 15 minutes while hiding in the laundry room because your kids won’t stop bugging you, do it then. Don’t beat yourself up because you only had 15 minutes! Praise yourself for carving out a few minutes to be creative. No excuses and no guilt. We can do it!

Of course I have to follow my own advice. Who’s gonna help me?

 

 

I’m giving up fear for Lent

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image from Tin House

Hidden away in a large plastic bin are years of my writing; poems, plays, short stories, articles, essays… even a finished book-length manuscript. Why are they stored in a bin and buried in my bedroom?

Because I am terrified of rejection.

I used to send my work out, but after twenty-five rejection letters I quit. I couldn’t take the disappointment and depression any more. Every rejection felt like a rejection of me, not my writing. I was the loser who poured her soul into every word only to have all that work stomped on by a heartless editor. My writing was worthless, therefore I was worthless.

My ego became intertwined with my writing. How can it not? Writing comes from the heart; it makes you vulnerable. You have to open a vein into your inner core and let the creativity pour out. No wonder every rejection letter felt like a rejection of my soul. I was just another girl who thought she could write like the millions of others who think they can write. I’m not special. I don’t matter and neither does my writing.

Vulnerability turned to depression and depression became fear. Never wanting to feel that much misery again, I put my writing in a plastic bin and shoved it behind my bed.

The other day, someone asked me what I was giving up for Lent. Not being a Christian, I just shrugged and said, “candy.” But what actually is Lent? And why should you give something up to celebrate?

According to The Upper Room, Lent is the season of the Christian year when Christians focus on simple living, fasting and prayer to grow closer to God. For 40 days, the length of time Jesus wandered in the desert alone, Christians let go of material things and focus on their spirit. For this ritual to work you have to give up something you really love, or are really attached to.

I am absolutely attached to fear. Perhaps this is a blasphemous way of observing a holy tradition, but as I said, I’m not Christian. However, I do believe ritual and symbols are important and that reconnecting to our sense of spirit is vital. Making a commitment to something greater than ourselves makes us better humans. Some people find that in religion. I find it in creativity.

For the next forty days I will submit my writing. Every day, I will send one piece of my work out into the world and will not think about whether or not it is accepted. Acceptance isn’t the goal, getting over fear is. And I will do this in the spirit of Lent. I am letting go of ego and sharing my work with anyone who may find it beneficial. I am strengthening my creativity and weakening the inner critic who tells me I’m worthless. And if I get 40 rejections, so be it. I’ll decoupage them and make a gorgeous collage.

 

 

Air Your Writing Grievances!

festivus

Festivus, first depicted on the television show Seinfeld, is a secular holiday that allows for the Airing of Grievances. Got a complaint about a person? Air it out on December 23rd.

In that spirit, I would like to Air my Grievances about writing.

  1. I hate my compulsion to write. I am addicted. The need haunts my dreams, makes me grumpy when I don’t have the time to write and makes me resent everyone who interrupts my writing. Overall, writing makes me a bitch.
  2. My life is filled with imaginary characters who talk all at once and demand my attention, even when I’m surrounded by real humans. Writing makes me look like a crazy person.
  3. I have spent thousands of hours of my life pursuing perfection in writing. In those thousands of hours, I may have written four perfect sentences. Maybe.
  4. I have arthritis in my hands from thousands of hours of writing.
  5. Writing has made me a hoarder. There are boxes of journals, stories, half finished novels, outlines, bad poems and rejected manuscripts filling my attic and stuffed under my bed.
  6. Writing is life threatening. I will always get a great idea for a scene or story while driving. I will risk my safety and the safety of others to grab my cell phone in order to record that idea.
  7. Writing is boring. I would rather pick fleas off my dog than edit my novel. But like all good addictions, I will write and edit and write and edit until I go mad with boredom. This is why writers drink and their dogs have fleas.
  8. I’m sure I used the wrong “than” in the above section. And I am a horrible speller. But I will continue to butcher the English language because that is the only way I can get my writing fix. Being a writer and a horrible speller is a curse.
  9. I am terrified of rejection, but am compelled to write and submit and write and submit in a never ending cycle of masochistic misery.
  10. Writing makes me a narcissist. Everybody thinks their life story would make a great book. I am one of those people.

 

What are your grievances about writing?

In my own world, writing

Blogging? What’s that. Right now I am immersed in my own, silent writing. I’m hidden away in a world I’ve created through language and ink. It takes focus and dedication to create this world, so I don’t want to wander away for even a brief moment. If I do, I might lose my way. After months of false starts and ideas, I’ve found the path through my own little forest of creativity. Writing it down is like following a candle’s flame in the distance; keep the light in sight and you won’t get lost.

Occasionally I need to trust I’ll find my way again and leave my own world. The real world with all its problems and joys grabs my attention. It’s a tricky balance: imagination and practicality. I need to stay grounded and aware of life, while at the same time protect solitude so I can write. I don’t want to tune out reality so much that I lose touch with time. But I also don’t want to get bogged down in bills and politics so much my imagination suffers. My awareness is juggling intuition. I write, therefore I am.

Because time to write is such a struggle, I tend to hang on to that state of mind with all my might. Nooooooo… I don’t want to pick up my daughter from school or return a phone call or wash another towel. I want to lock myself in my room and write. I’m a mother and a wife and a dog owner and I have a garden. I love my family, but just like all moms, I tend to give them all too much. So I cling to writing as if it’s the only thing that’s really mine.

When I’m engrossed in writing my book, I don’t blog. I know we’re “supposed” to; gotta keep building that audience and platform, the experts say. But when writing time is fleeting, it’s hard to care. I just want to write; let my readers find me on their own.

My own writing world is calling. Time to chase that candle flame again.

A third into my book I have to ask: what am I writing about?

Writing, writing, writing… wait. What am I writing? What is the point? Who am I writing this for? Why am I writing this book?

Ak!

I was doing really well for several weeks, writing every moment I had in bursts of focused energy. The first section of my book finished, six lovely chapters focused on the first few years of my daughter’s life. And then…

The focus vanished. The doubts set in.

One complaint about “special needs memoirs” is how parents take over their children’s stories and make it all about them. The child is lost under the parent’s struggle. I don’t want to fall into that trap. My daughter is the one who struggles daily with her disabilities. This is her life and I am telling her story in the hope it will help others. But am I actually including her in the storytelling, or just rehashing my own fears and triumphs?

I don’t know.

So now here I am, staring at my screen and the 100 pages I’ve already written, unsure whether or not to continue. Do I stop? Start over? Keep going? Chuck the whole book and go back to writing plays? Am I able to write the book I envision? Perhaps I don’t have the skill. But I have to try.

I’ll follow my own advice and go back to that basic question: who am I writing this for?

Answer: Parents of children with disabilities.

Why am I writing it?

Answer: Because I want to help them find joy raising their children and not be overwhelmed with grief and fear.

How will I do that?

Answer: I don’t know.

Any ideas?

 

 

The Rough Draft, or Why my first draft is supposed to be awful

Fingers flying along my keyboard, I furiously write the first draft of my new book. I’ve given myself an unrealistic deadline: New Year’s Eve.   Hiding in my room late at night when I should be sleeping, I write. As soon as I drop my daughter off at school but before my first client, I write. I forgo the gym, forget to check my email and never return phone calls. I write in a frenzy with an unrealistic deadline calling the charge. Who cares if it’s unrealistic? This is the first, rough, god-awful draft. Getting words on paper, or screen, is all that matters.

You heard me, I said god-awful rough draft. My sentences are incomplete and my thoughts scattered. Most of my scenes don’t make sense and will be cut. My characters are boring and my dialogue worse. None of it is any good. I know that, but I keep writing. It’s not supposed to be any good yet.

My first drafts are always terrible. I’m really writing a fancy outline, piecing ideas together like a puzzle, waiting until later to fill in the middle.  Mostly exposition, I write down thousands of words each day as I try to create a cohesive structure for my thoughts. If I stop and worry about making the scenes strong or the prose pretty, I’ll lose the flow of the story, the heart that keeps the story together.

I love this part of writing a book.

Once the final page is written, I’ll let it breath for a few days. Then I’ll write again, cutting and filling and shaping the chaos I’ve written. With hard work the book will turn into something other people can read. That process can take years. I hope my rough draft isn’t so awful that I have to scrap the entire thing and start again. It happens. But I won’t worry about that right now. I’ll just keep writing, writing, writing, writing…

 

No time for social media because I’m writing

I hear it all the time: to sell books writers must be online marketing themselves. We need blogs updated four times a week. Active Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. Pinterest clip boards filled with images of scenery from our books. And now Instagram because people under 40 want to see us writing, not just read our Tweets.

How exactly are we supposed to get any writing done?

If I spend all that time looking for interesting things to post on my “page”, when will I finish writing a page in my book?

I’m sorry, but my life is not so interesting I think I should fill up the net with images of my toenails or what I ate for dinner. No one’s life is. But we writers will make things up to have something to share online. If only I could come up with that one clever Tweet that goes viral and suddenly I’m a star on line for a day. That one clever comment everyone will repost. My blog will get a bump and I’ll sell more books. It’s like winning the lottery.

If I spend creative energy thinking up funny sayings or hunting for inspirational quotes (which I do, I hate to say) then that is creative energy not spent writing.

Where is the balance? How do we write and still find someone to read it. Writing for yourself is no fun. Writing for thousands is thrilling. Or so I hear. Maybe if people like what I’ve written here in this blog they’ll share it and my blog will be featured all over Facebook. It’s worth a try.

Time to work on my book.

Interview with the Memoir: A Foreign Country, by Emjay Wilson-Scott

For my ongoing series of interviews with memoir writers, I spoke with Emjay Wilson-Scott, writer, artist and wine maker. Her book, A Foreign Country, shares her adventures in Sweden and Europe when she was a hippo,exchange student in the 1970’s/

Emjay has an MFA in Video Art from the SF Art Institute and a Masters in Scandinavian Language and Literature from U.C.Berkeley. Her poetry has been published in periodicals in Sweden and the United States. She and her husband own a small vineyard in Potter Valley, California, where they grow and bottle award winning Pinot Noir. Click the link to Naughty Boy Vineyards for more information.

Why did you pick this particular moment in your life to write about?

Despite my dyslexia, I have always felt a need to write, I wrote my first poems at seven (that I am aware of) and I wrote a children’s book as a child. I have written and published poetry all of my life, read poetry in San Francisco, and worked in Performance Poetry. I entered the Art Institute in order to start working with Video and poetry in the 80’s. I have some work in the Museum of Modern Art and had a show at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

After living in Europe, I felt a need to chronicle events in my life in order to understand them. I tried many times but never really completed a book. My Brother was killed in a car accident in 2001. It made me realize how little time we have. I decided to seriously start writing at that time. I actually took him with me to Sweden in the Character of Fred. He is the only semi-fictitious character in the book, but represents the American side of me that I attempted to hide.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

I was not very computer literate at the time and had a great deal of trouble with spell-check and Swedish words. I met with two other writers, but would only write and send them without reviewing as it was emotionally draining to write my history. They were amazingly patient with my messy manuscript.

Place is very strong in your book. You really feel the landscape and cultural difference. How did you achieve that?

I have a very good memory, which is sometimes a curse. Because it was such a milestone in my life, I was able to sit and remember and write. The most difficult part was actually sitting down to do it and rewriting.

You self-published. Did you consider a traditional route?

I submitted it to one publishing house and was rejected. It sat for another couple years. Like most of us, I fear rejection. I then figured since I had gone to all of the trouble to write it, I would like to share it with friends. I do not feel it is a great work of art, but I like having on record a time that is lost forever.

Do you plan to write another book?

I’m writing a children’s book right now.

Interview with the Memoir: Shannon Drury

This is the first in a series of interviews I’m doing with memoir writers. By interviewing memoirists, I hope to showcase excellent writers, as well as helping beginning writers and others tell their own story.
Ebook cover 978-0-9797152-2-8
Shannon Drury’s memoir, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, was published in 2014 by Medusa’s Muse Press (disclaimer – I am the publisher). In her book she writes about her struggle as a “stay-at-home” mom and feminists. Can you call yourself a feminist if you’re a stay at home mom and homemaker? Get a copy of her book and find out.
Thank you so much Shannon for taking the time to answer my questions. 
Your book really shows the intersection of politics and personal life. How hard was it to write a book that is both political and personal? 
It wasn’t hard to write at all. As a lifelong feminist I’m acutely aware of how social and political movements intersect with and influence our lived experiences. I couldn’t write about being a stay-at-home mom without reflecting on the unique set of circumstances that made that possible, even practical, for me. And I couldn’t write about feminism without reflecting on its influence on my life, including how it affects the way I raise my children.
But what was easy for me to write was very difficult to market. A hybrid anything is less marketable than “if you love Jessica Valenti’s polemics, you will love this!’ or “if you love Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, you’ll love this!” In fact, my neighbor just told me yesterday that she finished the book but can’t decide where to shelve it. I told her I’d sell her another copy!
How long did it take to write your book? Would you change anything about your book? 
Writing the book was the easy part, especially since I was building a framework on some previously published columns and blogs. I would guess that writing took a year. Editing, on the other hand, took some time. You can ask my publisher how she feels about that….!
You are very vulnerable in much of your book. How were you able to open yourself up so much, especially knowing there would be criticism?
I am of the opinion that the non-vulnerable memoir is not worth writing. I recently read a memoir that I thought I would love, as it was written by a fellow lefty mom like me, but the author barely revealed anything substantive about herself and her life. Without that glimpse of humanity, there is no opportunity for connection. Writing can be lovely for its own sake, but I write for a deeper purpose–to connect in some small way to the beating heart of humanity. That may sound corny or even quasi-religious, but it’s true.
Years of writing a column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and keeping up a personal blog have helped thicken my skin to criticism, especially from the online commentariat. One person on Goodreads said she knocked off a star because I cursed too much, and I can handle that. When I’m called evil and a rotten mother (which happened on Twitter recently), I know it’s not about me, it’s about their fear of what I represent.
That’s not to say that it still isn’t hard. Members of my extended family have the book but have yet to talk with me about it.  And I don’t mean in-depth analysis–I mean I have yet to hear “Hey Shannon, I read your book.” There is intergenerational discomfort about parenting, economic class, and mental health in most American families, not just mine.
 
What was the hardest thing for you to overcome when writing this book?
Ironically, for a dedicated feminist convinced that women’s stories have the power to change the world, I had to fight daily against the quiet but insistent fear that I am a nobody who has nothing to say. Impostor syndrome can suck the life out of you if you’ll let it.
Why was it important for you to write your book? What do you hope the reader gains?
I truly believe that feminism provides the best, most sane and compassionate parenting philosophy out there, but we’re still letting the conservative right own the narrative of “family values.” I think it’s essential for feminist moms to tell our stories, to connect the struggles of our own families to the broader failures of American society.
My readership looks a lot like me: white, middle class, educated parents. We’re privileged, and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s time that we stopped judging and/or arguing with one another for what we feed our kids (organic or conventional? breast or bottle?) and asked larger questions about the systems that have more control over families than individual parents do. As I write in the book, “when is a choice not a choice?” I think most American parents would “choose” to take a year of paid family leave when their babies are born, like they do in Sweden. The manufactured war between working moms and at-home moms is ridiculous–the real battle should be parents demanding that government officials make “family values” a reality, not a campaign slogan.
What advice can you give to other memoirists?
I have no better advice than “write like a motherfucker,” the directive of the aforementioned Cheryl Strayed. For me this means that the process is embarrassing, painful, and exhausting. If I look at it and can say “damn, this makes me sound ridiculous,” I am probably on the right track.
Can you recommend some good memoirs to read? 
One of my all-time favorite books of any genre is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home.” It is so smart, so revealing, so funny, and so tragic at the same time. And of course it’s beautifully drawn and designed. Other classic graphic memoirs are “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Majane Satrapi.
I am always late to trends, which means that I only recently read Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” In the last few months I read the new memoirs by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Viv Albertine of the Slits, but I still haven’t gotten to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which everyone raves about. I have yet to even read “Wild”! Reading comic books takes up a lot of my time, apparently.
Shannon Drury is a writer, at-home parent, and feminist activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and served six years as the president of Minnesota NOW. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. Read more from Shannon at her blog The Radical Housewife
You can buy her book from Medusa’s Muse Press, Amazon.com, Powells, and wherever books are sold. Also available as an ebook.

A Woman on the Margins

Longreads

Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2015 | 17 minutes (4,223 words)

I first encountered the work of the memoirist, critic, and journalist Vivian Gornick in graduate school when we were assigned The Situation and the Story, her handbook on personal writing. Gornick explains that the writer must create out of her real self a separate narrative persona. The narrator has wisdom and distance the writer may not, and can craft a meaningful story out of the raw details of life. This slim book cracked open my understanding of what it means to write.

In Fierce Attachments, her 1987 memoir, Gornick wields her narrative persona to construct an incisive, nuanced portrait of her conflicted bond with her mother. She describes the Bronx tenements where she grew up, the early death of her father, the complex relationship with their neighbor Nettie and, at the center of it all, a…

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