You’ve recently read Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts AND the deeper-in-the-catalog Bluets. You love Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. You own multiple copies of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. These are signs.Your manuscript is built of teeny tiny chapters. Can you even really call them chapters? Your book possesses multiple narratives. Some pages contain more white space than words. These too are signs.
When I see my students being all adult about workshop notes, I can’t help but try to understand why I wasted so much time pushing away what I so needed to hear. The answer I come up with: I subscribed too heavily to the idea that talent reigns supreme. I believed that these critiques meant I didn’t have enough talent to BE A WRITER. Another issue: I then lacked the skill to take a comment and revise, so I found critiques overwhelming. How on earth was I suppose to use these comments? How could I pry open this formed thing and begin to rebuild?
Welcome to the second in a four-post series on the writing lessons garnered from student success. Today's lesson:
Writing Is a Craft. Commit to Learning it.
You know when an ex wants to communicate with you, but they don't really want to commit to the vulnerability of actually communicating and so they send you a meme? Maybe this hasn't happened to you. I hope it hasn't. One of the dumbest memes I've been sent by an ex said something to the effect of, "Writing is easy. Just sit at the typewriter and bleed."
The intent of the sender I'll never know as he ONLY SENT THE MEME and no original language construction, but the message received was: Your area of success requires no skill. The only criterion for excellence in your chosen field is being ultra confessional and having no personal boundaries, dignity, or shame. (I do realize that there IS more than one way to interpret this quote and the sending of this quote, but I'd already endured memoir-shaming comments from this ex including an enthusiastic recounting of a Toni Morrison interview in which she said something like I'd never write memoir as I want to write the truth).
Admittedly, writing memoir does require vulnerability (some bleeding, if you must), but it also requires skill, skill that comes from years of writing and reading. Yes, folks, READING. If you want to master or even just halfway master a genre, you'll need to READ THAT GENRE.
It is also important to read outside of our own awareness bubble as that's how we, in fact, learn and grow. Following the book recommendations on social media from writers I admire has led me to a lot of books I might not have found on my own. Roxane Gay seems to read 24/7 and posts reviews on Twitter regularly. (Find a list of some of her favorite books here). One of the best books I read in 2018, Sonya Renee Taylor's The Body Is Not an Apology, crossed my path as I aimlessly wandered the aisles of the Elliott Bay Book Company. (You can see some of the other books I read this year here and find me on GoodReads here). (You can find a list of some of my favorite books here).
Breaking out of our bubble can be one of the gifts of education. And, many of the writers I've seen succeed are ones who've committed to taking classes. Coaching can give you what you want to learn, but an education should offer you what you need to learn.
Almost ten years ago author Natalie Singer took my UWPCE memoir class. In that class she started to write the stories she tells in her memoir California Calling. After she left my class, she continued to take writing classes and eventually decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics at UW Bothell, an interdisciplinary writing program with an emphasis on language and experimental forms.
In that program she read theory, poetry, and all sorts of writers she normally would not have been exposed to. It was partway through that program that she discovered the structure of the interrogation and started to crack open her California stories; her narrative evolved into a more complex and layered story, a self-interrogation, as the book is subtitled. Her commitment to learning the craft--to educating herself about literature, theory, and storytelling--cost her time, energy, effort, and U.S. dollars, but in the words of the great B.B.King, "Education is the one thing that no one can take from you."
I know not everyone can do an MFA program, but we can all push ourselves to learn what we don't know and even what we don't even know that we don't know. To read. To put in the time. To take a class here and there*.To approach writing as a craft. To be willing to apprentice in that craft.
Because we know sitting at the typewriter and bleeding is not enough.
And if you want to communicate with an ex, maybe send a letter or even a handmade card.
Looking for a writing coach? I’m relaunching my coaching business in the new year and have appointments available on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Learn more or book an appointment by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Places that teach writing classes IRL and online: Hugo House, Lidia Yuknavitch's Corporeal Writing, WritingxWriters, Grub Street, Creative Nonfiction,The Loft, the continuing ed program at your local university or community college.
My life slowed down, and in that slowing my commitment to teaching and coaching deepened. Client and student successes jolted me with pleasure. Witnessing their growth and accomplishment renewed my awe for the creative process. And, I began to realize that coaching had become central to my sense of purpose, that my best work these days often happened in collaboration with a client who was in the midst of a memoir or a personal essay. So why not move coaching to the middle of my life?
A memory from my MFA program: The professor looking around the room at our small group of nine and proclaiming: "You're all talented. It's impossible to know which ones of you will make it into print. The ones who make it will have tenacity. They won't let anything stop them."
His words thrilled me. If tenacity were The Magic Factor, I actually stood a chance. I didn't believe I was especially talented, but I burned with ambition and as long as I could keep that fire stoked, I was certain I could keep writing and submitting work.
Fast forward two decades: As a writing instructor and coach, it is my joy to witness students and clients breaking into print each year. And like my professor from days of yore, I hypothesize which factors are The Magic Factors of Success. Tenacity is one, for sure. But other it factors include a tenacity-on-steroids mentality of "Whatever it Takes," a commitment to learning the craft, a willingness to listen to notes and USE THEM, and a decision to bet on yourself. In the coming week, as we head into the 2019, I'll be writing about each of these factors.
Whatever it Takes
Yes, occasionally a writer sails into publication. (Annoying!) But for the most part, successful writers are ones who've decided to DO THIS whatever it takes. I can sense when a writer has made this decision. Their eyes telegraph a resolve. Their actions bespeak of that resolve. They solicit feedback and listen to that feedback. They revise. They put in the time. They anticipate rejection and get support to weather it. They expect success, but they do not expect instant success. They are willing to work and they are willing to endure a bruising or two along the way.
Cecilia Aragon is one of my former students who embodies Whatever it Takes. Cecilia would often prompt me to give her harsh and direct critiques, reminding me that she could take it and that she wanted to make her book the best it could be. I wasn't surprised to receive the news from her this month that her memoir Flying Free: How I Used Math to Overcome Fear and Achieve my Wildest Dreams had been bought in a preempt by Blackstone Publishing. Watch for it in bookstores everywhere in 2020!
Of course, you can't force a decision or induce resolve. Sometimes, you're just too early in your project or your career to feel this sort of unwavering determination. Small successes can help though. Take a chance or two--submit your work here and there, do an open mike--and one day soon you might be ready to say, okay, let's DO THIS. Whatever it takes.
Looking for a writing coach? I'm relaunching my coaching business in the new year and have appointments available on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Learn more or book an appointment by emailing me at email@example.com.
This week I had the pleasure to interview my dear friend and new author, Natalie Singer, on the publication of her new memoir, California Calling, a gorgeous coming-of-age story that takes a hard look at what it means to grow up girl and offers up a complex and nuanced investigation into how we become who we are. Lidia Yuknavitch says of the book: "California Calling split my heart open." And the book--to be released next week--is already getting rave reviews. It's a beauty. Get it. Read it. Tell your friends.
THEO NESTOR: Welcome, Natalie! I'm excited to dig in and ask you about how this book came to be.
A question I get asked a lot is “How long does it take to write a book?” I find this question hard to answer because I'm often drawing upon material I wrote long before I officially started a book and because I've usually written in fits and starts in between bouts of teaching and parenting and staring out the window. What about you? Do you remember when you truly started California Calling? Is there a scene in it that you think of as the book's genesis?
NATALIE SINGER: I agree with you, it’s hard to pinpoint. In a way I was writing this book since I was about three years old. I believe all our most important memories come back to us obsessively, or else sometimes stay subconsciously hidden until the right moment, so that we are compelled to do the important work of interrogating them. We need to investigate these intense memories in order to understand how our experiences have shaped us. This understanding is essential for our self-indentities, to know who we are. A handful of memories from my childhood have preoccupied me for a long time, and I think I have always known that I would eventually write about and out from them. One of those memories, of standing on a courtroom witness stand, is the scene I would say is the book’s genesis. But a handful of scenes—the courtroom when I was sixteen; me as a toddler listening to my parents’ records while they looked on; me at twentysomething driving down a dark California highway, windows open to the artichoke-and-garlic-scented air—are at the center of the book’s origins.
About eight years ago I began to write some of the material that eventually became the book. I first worked on a version that was driven by a more traditional narrative structure. I played around with versions of the surface story—after my family kind of exploded I moved from my Canadian city to California, a place I had romanticized since I was a girl. And as I worked and reworked the story, leaving it and coming back to it, I realized there were deeper themes at play, beyond the coming-of-age story. About three years ago I decided a more fragmented, lyric approach was what I needed and the book in its current form began taking shape.
Oh, and staring out the window is 100 percent part of writing!
NESTOR: California Calling is subtitled "A Self-Interrogation." Why?
SINGER: The book is built on a scaffold of queries, where an interrogative voice asks the narrator questions, often probing, sometimes confrontational. The book deals with both a literal silencing, having to do with that courtroom memory, and thematically with what I call the silencing of girlhood. These questions, which sometimes act as chapter titles, provide a way for the narrator to confront the state of being silenced. While this is the form I chose for this particular book, I think in a more broad way that memoir as a genre is always a type of self-interrogation.
NESTOR: “The silencing of girlhood.” Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way, but yes, that rings so true.
When I met you nine years ago, you'd recently decided to take a break from journalism and were just starting in on writing personal narrative. But most of those years in between you've been working full-time as well as raising a family. What helped to keep you on the path of getting your own writing done?
SINGER: Feeling that I wouldn’t be a good enough person if I didn’t write this book. Ha, how’s that for exposing my insecurities? Practically, participating in a series of classes and writing programs, starting with your yearlong memoir class nine years ago, helped me continue to move forward with my writing in spite of the intense demands of “real life.” Juggling writing with work and family responsibilities is challenging, but that pressure, for me, is also very motivating and even generative. With so little time, I learned to maximize the moments I had to think and write. I wrote parts of this book in between school pickups, on the soccer practice sidelines, in the driver’s seat of our minivan, at midnight in bed, at 7 a.m. Sunday morning when I could slip out undetected, and at weekend retreats where I could impose a necessary isolation.
Deadlines help me a lot—my journalist background—so being in an MFA program, which I completed in 2016, helped me push through and complete an earlier version of the book. The intensity of motherhood has actually fueled my writing. As a mother, I’ve learned to be selfish. It’s a bargain I made and live with: I love my children beyond all logic, but I am not willing to give up my art in order to mother them. Sometimes that means I miss things; sometimes that means I chose myself and my work. And yet I am still their mother and a damn good one. Somehow as women we have to answer for the quality of our mothering when we shave time off for art; men do not have to answer for this.
NESTOR: But what message would we be giving our kids if we deferred our dreams? If you have kids of your own one day, you can put your hopes on hold and then one day they’ll do the same for their kids? When does it end?
Okay, back to CALIFORNIA CALLING. What about your road to publication? What was that like?
SINGER: Magical and anguished. I knew I wanted to have the book traditionally published, but I tried to keep my focus on writing it and not worrying ahead about what would happen after. As I finished the draft I began to think about what the right publishing scenario would be. Because the book became a hybrid lyric memoir that I feel pushes up against the boundaries of the genre, it felt like an independent publisher committed to bringing readers more experimental or overlooked story forms, from traditionally marginalized writers including women, would be the right home. I entered the manuscript in a handful of contests with such publishers. I decided that if nothing happened with those contests, I would begin the work of finding an agent. I was a finalist in two 2016 contests—the Autumn House Press nonfiction contest, and the Red Hen Press nonfiction contest, where I was the first runner up.
During that busy and exciting contest season, I had nearly forgotten that I had sent my manuscript to what I had decided early on would be a dream publisher: Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, based in Portland, Oregon. Among other excellent books, Hawthorne published Lidia Yuknavitch’s breakout memoir, The Chronology of Water, a book that had become one of my totems.
The day Hawthorne publisher Rhonda Hughes reached out and said she wanted to publish California Calling was one of the most ecstatic of my life. I knew right away that she saw California the way I framed it, and that she would help bring the book to life in its perfect form.
Pursuing book publication can be very fraught. What helped me in addition to keeping my focus on the work while I was creating it was the opportunities that both contests and essay publication afford. In addition to being a finalist in those two manuscript contests, I’ve had several essays that were early versions of book excerpts published. One won the Alligator Juniper nonfiction contest, and one won the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction contest. Every publication and win helped embolden me and exposed my writing to editors and publishers who could become supporters. Submitting your work to journals and contest also builds the perseverance muscle: rejection becomes easier to deal with, and you nurture the grit to continue.
NESTOR: What's been the hardest part of the process of writing the book and bringing it into the world? What's been the most fun?
SINGER: The hardest process was figuring out how to structure the book, what form it should take. Before it was a book it was a pile of feelings inside me, and the process of translating those intangible feelings into a narrative felt at times insurmountable. One really fun thing: seeing the cover, and the book as a physical object, come to life. I’m not an e-book reader; I love the concreteness and beauty of a book as a paper-and-ink object. One reason Hawthorne is a dream publisher for me is that it prioritizes high quality covers with double-scored flaps, silky nonscuff matte lamination, and full-cover art (including flaps, back and spine), all designed by Adam McIsaac and Sibley House. I almost cried when I saw Adam’s visual interpretation of California Calling: the colors, typography, and overall design perfectly conjure the feel of my story and wink at some of the major themes in the book: the seventies, music, pop culture, and the chimerical nature of California and our personal mythologies.
NESTOR: OMG. That cover is to DIE for. Love it!
Natalie, thank you so much for visiting with me here on Writing Is My Drink!
Readers, If you're in Seattle, come to Natalie's book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday March 5th at 7pm.
To love the work of an artist or writer you believe has not received due recognition is its own special hell. You’re doomed to an infinite loop of recitation as you eternally rattle off X’s accomplishments and chant reminders of the existence of X. For me, X = Lynda Barry.
While many will register recognition of Barry’s name and some will even mutter a yeah, she’s great, few seem to fully grasp her genius and realize that before comics were cool and women could fancy themselves cartoonists, a young Lynda was spending her Sundays on Seattle’s Beacon Hill copying the images of Snoopy and Nancy from the funny pages. Even here in her home state, she’s not given the full heft of the credit she’s due. It seems to be forgotten that not only did Lynda grow up right here in Seattle, but she spent four mossy coming-into-herself-as-an-artist years at Evergreen.
In fact, it was at Evergreen State College that Barry’s drawing went from a pastime to a compulsion. After a rough breakup, she started drawing strips in which “the men were cactuses and the women were women, and the cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was at Evergreen where an editor of the school’s Cooper Point Journal named Matt Groening (Yep, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening) hounded Barry to give him a strip to print, and thus began a lifelong friendship and Barry’s first published strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek.
Yet, Barry does not seem to share my interest in elevating her literary status. Her own focus over the last decade has been on investigating the nature of creative blocks and helping others to regain the creative habits of childhood. Barry has taught an intensive undergraduate class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the last few years and has been a perennial instructor at the Omega Institute for several summers running, teaching image-based writing classes that rest on the assumption that everyone can write. Barry’s 2010 book Syllabus documents Barry’s intensive and sometimes chaotic teaching style, one that appears to demand as much from the students as Barry seems to ask of herself. Reading the furiously packed pages of Syllabus, we learn that, among other requirements, her Madison students must fill several composition books in a semester with daily sketches and are strictly forbidden from phone checking during class or even during class breaks.
The logic behind Barry’s immersive pedagogical style likely originates in her belief in the elixir of creativity. “I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living,” Barry said in a 2010 interview.
This theme that creativity renders life livable is a strand that runs through her work as does her interest in wrangling with art’s deeper questions. Her popular 2008 book What It Is returns to the obsessive questioning of the nature and power of the image that haunted Barry in her student days as at Evergreen. In What It Is, Barry documents her deep desire to recapture “the floating feeling” drawing offered before the adult “two questions” of “Is this good?” and “Does it suck?” supplanted the joy of goalless creativity. Urging adults to return to the youthful pastime of drawing, Barry’s 2010 book, Picture This, is organized around her attempts to answer the question, “What makes us stop drawing?”
Barry’s nearly 40 years of publication include over a dozen books, a handful of greatest hits collections, and bylines in numerous mags and online sites, ranging from the slick and self-satisfied (Esquire) to the alt weekly to the early promising days of Salon when Salon was still the voice-driven precursor to The Rumpus. It was on Salon that Barry began a serialized coming-of-shame story, “One Hundred Demons,” which would later become the 2002 eponymously titled book of Crayola-bright drawings on yellow composition paper.
One! Hundred! Demons! opens with a self-portrait of the author at her drawing table facing her “demon,” a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and that horrific scenery-chewing creature from A Little Shop of Horrors. On the adjacent page—typical to the binary philosophical questions that underpin much of Barry’s seemingly simple stories—the author asks herself two questions she wisely never answers: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” The rest of the introduction shows Barry discovering a painting exercise done by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th Century Japan that gives Barry’s book its conceit. She will face her demons, and she promises to take us along for the ride. I’m in.
Her demons are a catalog of exquisite coming-of-age shame tales that take place mostly in Barry’s Seattle’s Beacon Hill childhood and adolescence. Despite Barry’s early announcement of a fictional strand in the stories, I’ve rarely read stories of growing up female in the 70s that capture that gritty reality so well. Barry is the master of the specific detail that convinces: The Jungle Gardenia perfume, the hitchhiking in halter tops, The Loving Spoonful, the frozen chicken pot pies, the beaded earring selling hippies, and the younger friend you ditched when you hit middle school.
From the first story, “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend,” Barry drops you into her very specific world without explanation, knowing you’re smart enough to figure out your way without a map. On the first page, we see Barry’s Filipina grandmother giving orders in a mix of Tagalog and English to a young redheaded Barry, who is on the next page discussing the mechanics of “cooties” with a mix of black and white kids on the school playground. Turn the page and we are in the Philippines, visiting relatives and listening to an argument among the local kids on whether head lice change color with the race of their victims. A few pages later Barry flashes us forward into a relationship with a pompous ponytailed boyfriend and reader of the Lonely Genius Gazette who calls her “little Ghetto Girl.” In the final frames, elementary school art teacher Lynda has passed lice onto her ponytailed boyfriend. In his irritation with her as they stand face to face with their heads covered with lice shampoo and shower caps, we feel this primal shame of bug infestations and spending our time with people who don’t love us and how truly alike those two experiences are.
There is no brutal reality of female coming-of-age that Barry isn’t willing to wrestle in these pages: The random makeout sessions, the childhood molestation, and the adult expectation of resilience that really must translate into shame that goes underground and emerges in some random makeout session you’re not sure how you got yourself into (but maybe it has something to do with that wine stolen from the neighborhood synagogue). Yet, going through these 100 demons with Barry doesn’t feel brutal. It feels reassuring. It feels like being seen with all your broken parts and messiness.
It feels like genius.
Lynda Barry’s Tumblr blog: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/
1. What genius invented the Mandarin orange? I’m not a person who likes to struggle for food. Cracking and scraping my way through a plate of crab hardly feels worth it. Shelled nuts? Seriously? Sunflower seeds? No! Yet, I love the feeling of triumph that winning an easy fight brings. The mandarin’s peel shrugs off readily and curls beside me on the sofa. I am master of my world.
2. I love the cave of winter. The gray rain forces windows shut, the noise of the city all but silenced. Rain—especially driving rain—absolves me. Kayaking, camping, and the like are now out of the question. It is right that I am huddled inside, reading and writing and snacking.
3. Have we revered Freddie Mercury amply? As it IS gray and wet and December, I was able to devote much time yesterday to watching clips of Mercury on YouTube. Such full-throated operatic terror! Such sturm und drang! SUCH humor! And how very sly Mercury was. How majestically he slipped into our repressed 1970s homes under the seemingly innocuous label “Queen.” How masterfully he tricked all of us into singing along with “Killer Queen” in our Pintos and Gremlins as half our carload of friends plotted their way out the closet. Say it with me, “Freddie, we love you!” Freddie, you were so ahead of your time that you don’t even have a time. You were singular and without rival.
4. Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is literature’s greatest expression of the midlife experience. In a strange twist of fate, I was cast in the role of Ebenezer when I was 11, far before nontraditional casting was a thing. Even though some classmates teased me about playing a male character, I was overcome with joy to be cast–finally— in a leading role. I was convinced that all the love I wanted in life would come to me swiftly if I could just excel in some surprising way in an artistic endeavor. I threw myself into the role, growling my bah-humbugs with a severity that has no place in children’s theater.
The reviews were mixed, but memorizing the Ebenezer’s lines was prescient preparation for my adult struggle with the Christmas season and with the cynicism of midlife. I don’t think I will ever be as convinced by a sweeping character transformation as I am by Ebenezer’s. Tormented by the ghosts of Past, Present, and–most horribly–the Future, he snaps. He loves again. Of course, he does. He’s had the crap scared out of him. This isn’t a “I will change because it’s right” transformation. This is a broken hallelujah. This is the you’ve-been-beaten-out-of-your-own-denial shift of middle age.
I remember feeling his transformation brightening inside me as I raced across the center stage my one night in the spotlight (Christmas plays don’t have a long run). I remember the joy of arriving at the Cratchit home, the surprise on their faces that this time I’d come with love and presents. Part of me knew even then that Ebenezer was all of us. He’s often viewed as some aberrant jerk but, in fact, we all have to struggle with a heart that wants to close after disappointments. We all have to remember to stop counting and to give with abandon.
We love you, Ebenezer, and we forgive you.