How to Stop the Hecklers (of Your Own Mind): Wise Words from Women Writers

Jen Grow  My Life as a Mermaid

 

By Jen Grow

What is the most difficult part of writing? This question came up at a recent Q&A where I had the good fortune to be a featured writer. The other writers on the panel, all women, talked about the insecurity of a terrible first draft, the anxiety that comes from being lost in a plotline, or the frustration with never-ending revisions. For me, the most difficult part of writing is the internal battle with perfectionism and self-doubt. It’s hard to have faith in the process of writing when you’re being heckled by your own mind.

In some ways, all of us on the panel were saying the same thing, calling it by different names. It’s not uncommon to become discouraged. Frustration, insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt are occupational hazards that have attacked some of the most talented writers I know, stopping them from writing altogether. For those of us not blessed with healthy egos (meaning, healthy, not big), it takes fortitude to persevere. Also, the subtle insanity of relentless hope.

While there are lots of ways to fortify oneself, the best thing I’ve found that doesn’t cause a hangover in the morning is to drink in the words of other writers who have persevered. I collect quotes, especially the wisdom of other women, and reread them when I’m feeling especially defeated. Here are a few gems that have kept me going:

“Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it.” This instruction from Anne Lamott is helpful when I feel as though I’m somehow lacking because I can’t write a brilliant story (or, in this case, blog post) from the very first word. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.” That’s why I was born? Cool. True or not, it makes me feel better to think it.

What happens after I’ve written my shitty first draft is this: I distract myself with eleven hundred other things. Not just time-wasting things to procrastinate, but necessary tasks that semi-responsible adults do to remain semi-responsible. Brenda Ueland gives me permission to do otherwise:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first — at least, for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.”

I love that she uses the phrase “ailments of discouragement.” Thank you, Brenda, for telling me the cat litter can wait and that it’s OK if I wear the same clothes three days in a row. No matter how often I put off loading and unloading the dishwasher, eat popcorn for dinner, or consciously choose not to binge on Netflix, there’s still, always, the intense pressure I put on myself to write more, produce more, publish more. Just look at all my other writer friends on Facebook. Seems like they’re publishing best-selling, award-winning works every other day.

“If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones — what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?)”

Yes, Lorrie Moore, I am raising my fist. Thank you for acknowledging that this is not easy, that it takes time, that I’m just like you. I could use a hausfrau, or maybe a clone — one that goes to work full-time while I stay home and write. On a bad day, this might be a cue for self-pity, except for the words of three very wise women.

Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

George Eliot : “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

And Alice Walker: The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

Thank you, ladies, for reminding me again and again to tap into my own power. I grew up in a working-class family and had limited ideas about what was possible. Even though I nursed my creative aspirations diligently, I believed that success was reserved for another breed of person and could never happen for me. It took many years to realize I was wrong — wrong in a good way. Fortunately, I was in great company with Sharon Olds: I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

With the great wisdom of other women to guide me, I still question my place in things from time to time. Not as much as I used to, and not with as much fervor, but still. I think it is the condition of every writer, male or female. So I’ll end with this quote from Andrea Barrett:

“I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Fortunately, for us, it did not work out that way.

***

Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. [My review is here.] She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She co-authored the book Seeking the Spirit (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs. 

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MY LIFE AS A MERMAID: STORIES explores the lives of women in deep, stormy waters

My Life as a Mermaid

My Life as a Mermaid: Stories

By Jen Grow

Dzanc Books: June 9, 2015

$14.95, 136 pages

It has been a good year so far for short story collections. Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime, Liz Prato’s Baby’s On Fire, and Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians (just republished for wider distribution) are particular favorites.

But the one that took me by surprise was Jen Grow’s My Life as a Mermaid, perhaps because I was unfamiliar with Grow before Dzanc Books sent me a copy of her book. The title and cover art piqued my interest, as did the fact that Grow had won the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition in 2012. And it turns out that honor was justified because Grow is a writer worth reading.

My Life as a Mermaid introduces us to a range of characters who are, like us, trying to make their way in a complex and confusing world. In a sense, the water image of the title and cover design reflect the human struggle to function in the water in which we swim. Like fish, we often aren’t even aware of the nature of our environment; it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. It also suggests the evolutionary pull that water has on humans, drawing us back to the beginning, security, and contentment.

In these twelve tightly wound and tightly written tales, Grow inhabits a range of characters. The opening title story explores the relationship of two sisters, one a discontented mother and housewife and the other a relief worker in Honduras. The former envies the latter her sense of adventure, fearlessness in the face of actual and existential risk, and her ability to avoid the traps of gender roles that inhibit her potential.

The narrator’s dilemma is clearly presented in these lines. “I fuss over my children in the same distracted, heartsick way while I count the tiny pairs of socks that come out of the dryer. I fold their miniature clothes into piles. Some days I feel like Gulliver, every part of me tied down by Lilliputians, as if, somehow, it is me and not my sister who has wandered into a strange land. The land of marriage, motherhood, and matching socks. It’s not what I expected. How did I choose this, wandering the grocery store with my squeaky cart?” A few paragraphs later, she tells us, “I’m envious. I would run away; I would like to be the kind of person who could run away.”

“Joe Blow,” one of this collection’s standouts, drops us down into the part of town we usually take pains to avoid, and provides a close-up of gentrification’s effects on a rough neighborhood, but one with a distinct character — and many distinct characters. Larry and Roger live in an abandoned pickup truck parked on the street. When Joe moves into the neighborhood, conflict ensues when he begins to renovate his house and clean up the street. The climax occurs when he calls the police to tow away the truck.

“What Girls Leave Behind” is a heartbreaker of a story about a mother who has lost custody of her daughters. In a bittersweet first-person narrative, Grow reveals that the mother is lost as well and that there might well be good reason for her daughters to be with their father. But she is always recognizably human.

The must-read story in My Life as a Mermaid is “Still at War,” one of the best pieces I’ve read about the effects of the Iraq War on those who serve. When Douglas returns home after a stay at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he is not the same man. “I stared at him for a moment and saw someone I didn’t like, a version of a man I might not have married. It was like suddenly realizing one day that you accidentally tied yourself to a stranger, maybe a tobacco-chewing hayseed who was as angry as he was skinny.”

When a man from their church comes over to interview Douglas about his experiences for a human interest piece he is writing for the church newsletter, we see clearly the contradictory nature of those effects. Douglas has lost a leg and is reeling emotionally, unable to sleep without nightmares, watching TV and drinking beer all day. But he puts on a brave face for the interviewer and says with enthusiasm that he’d go back in a second. Is he deluded? As the conversation progresses, Douglas becomes more philosophical and has some powerful words for his interviewer, and his wife.

“I Get There Late” introduces us to a female agent provocateur who imposes upon a married couples she hasn’t seen in years and then proceeds to make all kinds of passive-aggressive trouble. Of course, the most intriguing aspect of the story is figuring out what motivates the protagonist.

“Fixed” is another highlight of this strong collection. A young woman attends a hipster party in a warehouse loft in an attempt to cope with her grief over the loss of her boyfriend to a heroin overdose. It is a perfectly structured, poignant investigation of heartbreak, disorientation, and the yearning to belong.

“Small Deaths” is a gut punch of a story about a woman caring for her dying mother. The narrator’s reaction to her mother’s death is realistically surreal, for we often respond to death in what may appear to be strange ways.

“OK, Goodbye” closes My Life as a Mermaid in appropriate fashion, considering the collection’s themes. Grow has imagined several scenarios in which a woman attempts to leave her husband, but something always goes amiss — until she encounters a self-possessed young woman who inspires her to reclaim her younger self and move ahead without looking back.

Grow’s stories are crisply told, trimmed of unnecessary digressions and prolix prose. The result is a series of probing and memorable character studies of people doing their best to swim rather than drown in the deep and often stormy waters of their lives.