Non Sequiturs: Finding Literary Inspiration in Stream of Consciousness

l-e-kimball-author-photo  Seasonal Roads

By L. E. Kimball


I’m not sure who came first, but it must have been either Chevy Chase or Steve Martin. It was too early for Tim Allen, though he comes often. Not Steve Martin, though. The last time he arrived in my dreams, he never went on at all. Just hid under my desk because he said if he came out, I’d force him to have sex with me.

I assured him I only wanted him to fix the oven.

I always have trouble with Steve, it seems. And that’s unfortunate because I always have such hopes for us. There was this one night he showed up (he was our next door neighbor and we all had sloping front lawns in the dream neighborhood) and he was exasperated because the trees and bushes—everything and anything he tried to plant–slid down out of his yard into a big pile in the road, accordion-like. We were used to this in our own yards. But Steve thought this was my fault; I thought so too.

                                                 “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

I dream about comedians. Lots of them. But I dream most often about Steve Martin or Tim Allen.

I write about comedians, too, sometimes, as in the excerpt above. Even when I don’t, they influence me and therefore, they influence my writing.  Once in a writer’s workshop, the members read my comedian story (above) and they said a character (and by inference the author who wrote it) must be a total narcissist to dream about famous people, comedians notwithstanding. But I can only say that when I watch them, the good ones, I realize I am looking at the smartest people on earth, that in order to understand the nuances and subtleties of comedy and language, they must be brilliant—and I suppose I identify with their neuroticism, their angst, their sadness. They influence me because even though they realize that tragedy and comedy are a heartbeat away, and they might even argue there is no difference between them, they do laugh and they make me laugh, and laughter is the only thing that gets me through this life.

 Tim Allen showed up one night and we spent the night looking for hood ornaments. Like in his book, I’m Not Really Here. Everywhere he turned there were hood ornaments. He looked at me seriously at one point. Comedians, he told me, are the only people who know that The Divine Comedy is a journey from Heaven through Purgatory ending in Hell, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what Heaven and Hell had to do with hood ornaments.

But I was thinking how my comedian phenomenon itself is synchronistic in nature. Well, maybe it isn’t, I guess they’d have to really show up in my bed to qualify, but it seems synchronistic just the same.

                                                 Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads

 

All comedians are philosophical but none more so, it seemed to me, than Steve Martin and Tim Allen. Steve Martin studied philosophy; Tim Allen has obviously done the same in at least some limited context. Woody Allen and Robin Williams come to mind . . . .

But regardless, my fascination with comedians is something that needs to be said about me.

So one night I was lying in bed contemplating a character I wanted to write about whose husband had been cheating on her. The relationship was toxic, yet neither could let go of it.  Failed? Maybe. Yet toxic or not, nothing is truly “failed” until it is over, or so I was thinking. As I was pondering the complexity of this, I looked over and saw my husband snoring away in bed with me, mouth wide open, inhaling with enough force to rattle the walls and pull the curtains from the windows. I thought about how people in bad relationships sort of “feed one another” and I started to laugh. A short story, I think to myself: comedian sections interspersed with a second person Kafka-esque magical realism that might depict the paradoxical, sad (yet humorous) nature of toxic relationships, of marriage—a story where the woman sees her husband as a metamorphosed giant amphibian bug, the two of them trapped in a maddening purgatory…

 

You sleep naked now. Before he had insisted on it. Now it’s your personal revenge.

Next to your bed stands an oak nightstand that once belonged to his mother, dark, heavy grained, upon which rests a delicate lace doily, a pair of dime store reading glasses, a few books written by women he refers to as your “harpies” (Atwood, Oates, Moore, Proulx), and a book called Trout Stream Insects, an Orvis Streamside Guide. Oh, and that collection by Kafka you stumbled along at the library reading selection of the month.

Next to the books there is a square jewelry box your own mother gave you—made of glass the color of purple oxidized blood. It has a matching lid that is attached on two sides with antique brass hinges, the bottom lined with plushy white satin—stark against the red glass—and on top of the colorless satin the daily ritual:  the results of today’s foraging.

Not too extensive; certainly not a collection as diverse as what is featured in the Orvis Guide:  a couple mosquitoes (one you slapped after it had sucked a bit of blood from your kneecap), a medium-sized house fly, a papery mud-colored moth, and two tiny gray spiders … not the real fuzzy kind because, after all, that could be a little too much.

All dead.

Oh, and tweezers. You always need tweezers.

                                                    “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

There is some connection to luck—or lack of it—tied to writing for me. Some connection to the universe, a cosmic energy or whatever you want to call it, something one must “tap into.” Talent is involved– we writers always think there is at least some of that—and certainly fortitude. But synchronicity is part of it: that place where luck and fate meet faith.

You might, however, think luck and fate are antithetical to one another. I’m a mixed philosopher type, believing neither in determinism or indeterminism. (Mills maybe?) Causal relationships between one event and another somehow still related to volition/signs/luck/opportunity.  If three people are thrown into the sea, the determinist might say it’s all fated so he might as well not swim. The indeterminist might think it is all chaotic chance and not swim either, but a mixed philosopher, according to Mills, might swim until a boat or plane showed up. Now the determinist will stubbornly argue that the mixed philosopher only believed he had some control over the outcome because he was raised to believe it, while someone else believed they had no control because he (she?) was raised that way—or circumstances had conspired—so he or she couldn’t believe, but these are still, he’ll argue, all causal relationships. Well, OK, maybe, but I maintain that if a person believes a thing—for whatever reason (perhaps just reading Mill) – he might, nevertheless, actually change the course of events.

So these days, despite the nagging feeling that I really might be fated to believe in Mill and ultimately have no control over anything at all, I believe anyway.  And this belief has led to the next insane belief:  that someone out there at some point might indeed connect with my work—and therefore save me!

 

Your friends tell you straight out. About wine bottle and glasses on innocent shopping sprees, back rubs in chance moments they’d spent alone with him. Vague suggestions you had better keep him satisfied. 

Once you protected them from him. Now you no longer bother.

He doesn’t do confrontation.

You left the orange peels in the sink again, you say. No reaction. You’re tracking mud all over the house. Not a flicker. I don’t like it when you drink every night in front of the kids. Nope, not even an up-yours, kiss-my-ass kind of look. Nothing. What was it Margaret said? A riddle:  What is more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich lack it, and if you eat it, you die?

Nothing.

The answer was nothing.

                                                     “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

Synchronicity. Jung coined the term and defined it as “meaningful coincidences” (if those coincidences occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related). I’d have some pressing life question or writing conundrum on my mind and suddenly someone on TV or in the grocery line would be talking about something completely unrelated to my problem and yet would seem to have the answer to my life/writing dilemma. This seemed to necessitate a sort of mindful living, a sort of Buddhist-type tuning into yourself while simultaneously turning outward to the universe around you. And that necessitated, in turn, an underlying sort of optimistic outlook toward life and my work that belied outward appearances to the contrary.

 

Why is it always funnier to watch someone doing something asinine if they run by a window or a door, far away? Like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Watching him wrassling that snake down the lawn looked so much funnier through the window with his wife unaware of his predicament than it would have up close and if she’d seen it—

That private joke with the audience.

Maybe it’s easier to laugh at people from a distance.

                                                        “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

So on this particular evening, I had seen Chevy Chase in Fletch, dancing with the animated characters in one scene and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I giggled. Full of a synchronistic black humor myself, I sat up and finished the entire story in three hours. Here is the ending:

 

You remember the insects—how they hatch over rivers in the early evening.

Mate and die.

These days comfort comes only in your ritual. You do it not just for you, but because you know he needs it, has come to depend upon it as much as you do. He snores and heaves, mouth hanging open like usual. Pink sticky tongue oozing out of the gash that is his mouth, all of it vibrating with the shuddering gasps of his next breath. You’re tired and you think maybe tonight you’ll just skip the whole thing. But it’s the only thing left for either of you and it must be done.

You lift the tweezers from the bedside table, open the glass lid of the box and poke through the assortment. You look over to see if there is any further change in him. His teeth seem shorter, mouth bigger. Thumbs? Does he have thumbs? It’s something you’d like to know, but his hands are tucked underneath him.

What will it be? You decide on the mosquito, the one you slapped this morning while reading Margaret Atwood, and using the tweezers, you pick him up gently by one papery wing. Is he quite dead? Maybe a wiggle or two. You drop it then—carefully onto his tongue. As far back as you can manage.

Then it’s gone with hardly a falter in his breathing. What will it be next? Maybe the spider next. You lift one, a semi-fuzzy, grayish-brown one, by one of its back legs, hold it suspended over his waiting, eager mouth. You wait, you wait, keep waiting…

You drop one more insect—the moth—into his eager, greedy mouth.

It seems right—for both of you.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

“Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads


L. E. Kimball has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Washington Square (New York University), Orchid, A Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Lynx Eye. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published by Switchgrass Press. Her second novel, Seasonal Roads, was published by Wayne State University in 2016. She has also had creative nonfiction published in dozens of national publications such as ByLine, Exceptional Parent, and Country Almanac, and she’s been published in the op-ed section of The Detroit News. Author Lisa Lenzo reviewed Seasonal Roads for Read Her Like an Open Book on August 15, 2016.

Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA, both from Northern Michigan University. She is currently an Assistant Contingent Professor at NMU.

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Writing Out of Rage: How Sexual Politics Inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”

This essay was originally posted on March 30, 2015, but it seems appropriate to post it again as 2016 crawls off into the sunset.

Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping  Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342

By Keija Parssinen

The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.

It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.

As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.

Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.

I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.

The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.

When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.

Memoirist Alexis Paige: On Manuscript Re-entry, Narrative Nonfiction, and Re-visiting Craft Basics

alexis-paige-portraits-_-ben-deflorio-photography-img_8893  not-place-on-any-map-by-alexis-paige-1925417212

Photo: Ben DeFlorio Photography 


By Alexis Paige

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

For more years than I care to admit, I have been working on a memoir about my unlikely journey through the Texas criminal justice system, including a 60-day stint in the Harris County Jail, one of the largest and worst in the country, with a terrible record of inmate sexual assaults, in-custody deaths, and violations of health and sanitation standards. I say unlikely because I am white, educated, middle-class, and have good teeth. All these factors marked me as an oddity in the jail, but I was told by my pod-mates at some point weeks into my sentence that the combination of my whiteness and nice teeth in particular marked me as suspicious, possibly a narc. I started the memoir long before I knew what I was doing and became so mired by the labor that I began to write little scenes and vignettes for relief, to feel a sense of accomplishment. The vignettes became their own labor, for in them I found myself finally confronting the sexual assault I had buried like a drum of nuclear waste and stored in some Area 51 of my own consciousness. In sidestepping one book, I found myself writing another.

But now that this other book is about to be published, it’s time to re-enter the jail manuscript, and re-entry, unfortunately, is not at all like riding a bike, not a simple matter of picking up where I left off. I am different now than I was even 18 months ago when I set the book aside, which is to say that the memoir’s retrospective narrator is different, the vantage point altered. You become the writer you need to be to finish the book, my MFA mentor David Mura once said. I didn’t ask him what happens if you don’t become that writer. I’m not certain where this becoming has located me now in relation to my memoir project, but something palpable has shifted. In rereading the draft recently, much of it felt off—not the events of the story, nor, I don’t think, the structure, but some tonal nuance, some quality of insight. In the hopes of steeling myself for the task, I decided to go back to basics and to re-read two of my favorite creative nonfiction craft books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time in Memoir.

For the writer of narrative nonfiction and other storytellers, The Situation and the Story is a revelation. Every other sentence is something that needs to be written down, remembered, revisited, and made into a writer’s tattoo. So much clarity and insight and depth are distilled into this small volume. It is the clarity I especially admire; it has the quality of carefully brewed wisdom, and inspires the feeling that we are getting her best stuff.

In important ways, Gornick’s ideas about the different components of nonfiction narrative—the situation and the story—dovetail with Sven Birkerts’ ideas in The Art of Time in Memoir. Though he talks about time, and she largely about person or persona (the nonfiction narrator), both writers are engaged in a complex discussion of structure, or of what Gornick calls “organizing principle.” Both writers, I think, are interested in the way in which good nonfiction emerges from a place of contact, collision, force acting upon force. Whether concerned with persona or time, we must not render a flat self or a flat experience. The voice and the events must rise out of an important shaping force, a kind of texturizing pressure, a place of axis as a place of access.

One of Birkerts’ examples of the important friction that time provides is in an analysis of Annie Dillard’s lyrical memoir, An American Childhood. The explicated passage is a nighttime scene of sense and felt memory as narrated by Dillard’s child self from her childhood bedroom. Birkerts writes, “The author here enacts in compressed form [that it is compression seems important] what the memoirist more commonly works out on the macroscale, namely, the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the now” (37). It is this place of collision that he highlights again and again, the place (or time) where story meets the apprehension of story.

Gornick uses different terms, but I would suggest that she examines fundamentally the same phenomenon—how friction makes the magic of narrative nonfiction (principles, which of course, apply to all storytelling). “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void,” Gornick writes. “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, and experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts” (14). It seems that each is talking about this critical engagement—whether engagement with self or experience or time. Both writers assert a fundamental truth about writing, namely, that writing is art making, much like sculpture or painting; to locate narrative or self is to locate the right place/time/self of the story and the right place/time/self of the telling of that story. The right juncture, perhaps. This location must be one of moment and of movement—not in any traditional sense of drama—but in the mind of the memoirist. I suspect this location has changed for me now, and I need to locate some new juncture in my ever-becoming mind. The goal of the memoir, perhaps, is to find the wormhole from now to then; the problem, of course, is that the now is always moving.

What we remember has intrinsic force and value to us, but the force and value of the memory is driven by its active apprehension of that memory in the now of its rendering. My writing is never flatter than when memory is unearthed by way of a kind of forced dredging. Engagement might come in the form of a self in conflict or a time of conflict, but story can’t emerge from static experience or a static self. In re-entering my memoir, in particular the skin of the retrospective narrator who was cryogenically frozen in 2014, I have found that the fit is off. So how does a writer re-engage in order to make art? Confronting the narrative forces of time and persona, and re-calibrating my narrative persona to one of this writing moment, to this now, I hope, will make the difference. I need to start again, which is not to say that I need to start from scratch.

In the beginning of her book, Gornick takes the reader to a funeral, wherein eulogy after boring eulogy stretch on without texture or meaning—that is, until we come upon a story shared by a woman who spoke of the complexity of her relationship with the deceased. The difference between the stories that didn’t work and the one that rose in sharp relief from the others, the story that stayed with Gornick, was that the latter “had been composed” (4). It is not experience, even dramatic experience, that makes a great story, but a writer’s shaping that makes a story. On this point, I think that Birkerts and Gornick would agree that the shaping is the art making. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick says. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). If I use my own memoir as an example, I might say that the situation is this: middle-class white girl from the North gets in trouble with the law in Texas and confronts her alcohol problem in the process. But the story, the fulcrum of the experience, is the discovery or the recovery of identity amid failure. Wait, no, this was the story in some old version. Then, later, it was the story of confronting racial privilege. And now? It’s still all those things perhaps, but filtered through some newer, actively-grappling self-definition.

The situation or series of events can be anything, Gornick suggests, so long as it’s well made, so long as the situation is drawn through a compelling story. And a compelling story—emotional experience, the apprehension of experience—can be delivered only by a particular narrator, one who knows him- or herself at the time of the writing. First, the narrator must be reliable. Much is made of this reliability in nonfiction circles, but defining reliability is fraught. Do we mean a kind of competence, like a court reporter? Or do we mean something else, something akin to authenticity? Gornick suggests, by way of an example from Orwell, that a reliable narrator is one who inspires trust by admitting defect, wrestling with mixed feelings, and by rendering inner conflict. I have come to believe that this kind of narrator has tolerance for ambiguity and for his or her own unresolvedness—that trying to make sense of one’s mess is what makes the work interesting.

In response to Orwell’s reflection on the ugliness of imperialism, Gornick writes, “The man who speaks those sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in” (16). Gornick argues that the reliable narrator must implicate him or herself; it is by the act of self-implication that we come to know and trust the persona of the story.

Interestingly, she distinguishes the narrator’s persona from the writer him- or herself, much in the way we distinguish the speaker of a poem from the poet, but I find the use of the word persona paradoxical. Persona suggests a construct, something not real. Perhaps this paradox fuels some of the wonderful friction out of which stories are made. Of course, as a practical matter, the writer must construct a narrator, a persona, in order to win over the disinterested reader. The writer can’t be all of her selves; Gornick points out that our real selves, all of our selves accumulated, are just boring and whiny. We save these selves—all of them in their accumulated banality—for our dear, patient friends and family.

Gornick draws some other important connections between writerly concerns and personae. She writes about style and persona, about persona rising from a kind of stylized, yet authentic, self. As in the case of Orwell, she writes, “the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose” (17). That this something was genuine seems an important point to make.  The other concerns she has us consider in terms of creating a narrator include distance and subject. She suggests that her own lack of narrative distance sank her early drafts of a memoir about Egypt. She was too close; therefore, there was no movement, no arrival at clarity.

Finally, Gornick suggests the writer keep in mind the “disinterested reader” to avoid the trap of memoir as therapy, testament, or mere transcription (again, these are pitfalls Birkerts has observed). She writes, “the shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of ‘becoming’: undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self that Cather calls inviolable” (93). This movement toward clarity helps me to think about my own project because I realize that I have to re-enter the manuscript now and move toward a newer, fresher clarity so that the reader can experience “becoming” along with me. As Gornick points out, “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom” (91). The door to the wormhole has moved, even if only slightly, and I need to line up the portals once again in order to find the story. Re-entry, like everything else, is just a matter of time, work, and physics.


Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize and twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published on December 5, 2016. Paige teaches writing at colleges and universities throughout New England and writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. She can be found at alexispaigewrites.com.

Right, Like a Man: Chris Jane on the power of gender in an author’s name

Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane    Pretty Much True

I prefer the way I write when, while writing, I imagine being read as a man.

There’s an immediate freedom to not be apologetic. To do as we were taught in high school English and eliminate the self-conscious “I think…” from the writing.

I’m not sure when it happened, the shift into having to pretend.

My father, a single parent, never gave my sister or me the impression that being female was considered a weakness or would limit us in any way. Now and then we’d have to fetch him things, and we were tasked with decorating and undecorating the Christmas tree, but that was because we were his kids. It had nothing to do with being girls. That I was a “girl” was so separate from my identity that I would sometimes be confused about why I didn’t feel more like one. Females my dad’s age who had soft, styled hair and wore perfume and nail polish were curiosities. I wanted to ask them questions about womanhood. I wanted them to somehow infuse me with the kind of femininity I saw blooming in the girls my age who wore clanking bracelets and pink lipstick.

That absence of innate femininity combined with being raised by a man contributed to my being comfortable with – and preferring to be one of – the boys. I didn’t fear them and hadn’t been raised to defer to them. We were friends, and we were equals. It never occurred to me that their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, or opinions were (or should be) more valid than mine. I was pretty sure I was even as strong as they were.

It took a woman telling me I was not, in fact, as strong as a man to introduce me to what is often a completely arbitrary system of inequity: At around 20 years old, I applied to be a stock person at a liquor store in upstate New York. I knew I could lift the boxes because I’d done it for about a year at a previous job. The store owner, a woman in her late 60s, immediately said no upon taking my application. I asked why. “You’re a girl,” she said. I told her I could lift the boxes. I asked her to allow me to demonstrate. “I’m not going to hire a girl,” she said. “I need a boy.”

I wanted to scream at her, “BUT I CAN DO IT!”

Even if I had proved I was capable, she still wouldn’t have hired me. I was a girl, and that was that. Worse was that she wouldn’t even let me try. Automatic disqualification.

It took a little over ten years for gender as a hindrance to come up again (and ten years, when you think about it, is pretty good). I was looking for an agent for Pretty Much True, a book that would seem to have had everything going for it: It was a war novel about the first year in Iraq (2003) that was being shopped around while service members were still in Iraq and that had been written by someone who had first-hand experience with war.

Turns out it wasn’t the right kind of experience.

One agent wanted more action in the first few pages of his war novels.

Said another male agent, “The market for war stories is pretty saturated.” (If you and I were having a conversation, this is where I would pause to allow time for counting through all the new male-dominated, male-written war novels and movies that have been released in the last seven years.)

What he meant was that there was no market for a literary war story written by a woman about a woman if the female character’s war experience didn’t include guts (by this I mean bloody innards), guns, grenades, and guys’ guys.

After the book’s eventual release, I discovered that although a few men had been very receptive and had even endorsed it (one of them decided he liked it enough to publish it), I was having a hard time getting “regular” men to read it. It’s never been a goal to write specifically to women; male readers were/are just as desirable. But how do you get men to read about a woman who isn’t shooting a bunch of terrorists? (And would men who don’t typically read “women’s books” read that story, even?)

“Where’s the drama or action in waiting?” said one male reader who took some persuading to get to read Pretty Much True.

Some of the most suspenseful and intriguing stories involve waiting…waiting for a court decision, waiting to be found by a killer, waiting for an acceptance or rejection letter, waiting for the return of a loved one, and all other manner of waiting. And of course it’s never just waiting; it’s waiting “plus”—plus a story, plus characters, plus conflicts, etc.

But put a woman waiting up against the word “war” in a book by a female author, and the waiting – unless it’s a soldier waiting for the action to begin – is thrust into a male arena where it immediately suffers by comparison and becomes the object of perplexity. “Waiting? What? What are you—really?”

“Your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses,” said a man, who hadn’t read Pretty Much True, while interviewing me about it for a literary blog. “Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community?”

I wonder whether, following the release of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, The Things They Carried, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, or American Sniper, the natural target markets were veterans and active service members.

(I don’t really wonder. It’s assumed that the general public will be interested in the masculine war experience.)

A military consultant working in Hollywood, when approached about the potential film viability of Pretty Much True, said – also without having read the book – that it would be a great story for a specific female-focused cable channel, but that America might not be ready for another “dark” at-home war story. After all, Brothers had just been released.

Yep. One movie that explored nothing at all having to do with waiting, but that did have a woman in a primary role, had just come out. Add 1984’s WWII movie Swing Shift, and there we were flooding the market again.

Amusingly, the same man had mentioned, just moments before, that he thought the public was ready for another war movie.

(You know, a real war movie.)

Because males were clearly having better luck selling their war stories, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe in which Pretty Much True had been published under a male name. Men writing a lot like women, even about women, generally achieve higher literary acclaim and garner more universal interest than do women when the story has nothing to do with war (Irving, Eugenides, Franzen), so wouldn’t the same be true if it were a story about a female during wartime?

No idea. But the temptation to approach future writing and publishing projects as a maybe-male, if even just to experiment with reactions, grew.

I officially decided on the name change at a party in Florida over the summer. When I told a man that I was thinking of using a gender-ambiguous pen name, he said, “I apologize on behalf of my sex.”

It hadn’t even been necessary to tell him why I was doing it.

Said another man, upon seeing the cover for my latest novel and noticing the name change, “I wish it weren’t necessary, but I can see why you’d do it.”

“But people do take women (and women writers) seriously,” it will be, and has been, argued.

It might be easier to agree were people not still saying, “My favorite authors are X and Y. My favorite female authors, though, are ….”

It might be easier to agree had novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay for Wild, not recently thought it necessary to describe Wild as “not like any chick flick” he’d ever seen.

I’ve seen the trailer. Chick flick (read: movie directed expressly at women, and by definition pretty frivolous) doesn’t even come to mi—

Oh. Right. It stars a female.

Obviously that would be the natural conclusion.

My father raised me to be confidently outspoken, and to be myself. Until recently, I’d considered it the highest mark of honor to put my name on my writing—middle initial included. Anonymity was not for me. Pen names, I’d reasoned, were for the timid or the reclusive.

Now I just want to be reasonably sure I’m getting a fair shot at being read by a mixed audience and at being taken seriously as a writer. Life is short, and I don’t want to waste time fighting, no matter how legitimate the fight.

And as legitimate fights go, that this needs to be a fight at all is bleeping ridiculous.

Chris Jane, author of Pretty Much True and The Year of Dan Palace, is a former adjunct English professor, former feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and a former editor at American Fiction (New Rivers Press). Jane’s series of interviews with writers and others in the publishing industry, 5 On, can be found on Jane Friedman’s writers’ resource website. For updates about this (or, if you just wanna), please follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismjane or visit http://chrisjane.net.

Soul Retrieval: How an Ecuadorian Shaman Inspired My Transformation Into a Writer

katherine-a-sherbrooke-400x600 By Katherine Sherbrooke 


Only three days into my time in Otavalo, I began to understand that traditional Ecuadorians revere one thing above all else: Pachamama, or Mother Earth.  They believe she holds all answers within the branches of her hands, her mountainous breasts, and her river veins. They touch her skin by walking with bare feet on her rounded back, and they show their gratitude to her constantly—tipping a water bottle toward the soil, mid-hike, mid-conversation, to offer her a sip of water before taking a drink themselves, or laying a crushed cocoa leaf on the ground for her before chewing their own.

The emotional connection many Ecuadorians have with the earth was brought to life for me when I met Mama Concha, a revered shaman who lives just outside Otavalo. A stout woman with a kind smile and a face the color of honey, she struck me immediately as the personification of Mother Earth—wise, nurturing and powerful. She moved with a slow shuffle, her white lace shirt tucked into a long gray skirt, her waistband lost under the hang of her bosom. Her eyes were wise and girlish at the same time, her embrace loving and fiercely strong. I trusted her immediately and wondered what I might learn in her presence.

I had come to the Andes hoping to gain some insight into my future. Having recently left my job, I was struggling to figure out my next move in life. I wasn’t the only woman I knew feeling somehow unsettled, unsure of the future. A dear friend suggested to a group of us who were all facing transitions of some kind that a week in Ecuador might do us all some good. Whether it was curiosity about visiting the shamans she had told us about, or simply the chance to separate ourselves from the unrelenting chaos of our American lives for one week, we all jumped at the chance.

And I had high hopes that the trip might offer me some clarity. Should I start another company? Were the knots that tightened in my stomach when I thought about it normal, or were they a warning sign of some kind? Was my need to nap every day for six months after I had quit to be expected, or was this level of extreme exhaustion a marker of something else that I shouldn’t ignore?

I had spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, what kind of job I could have that would make my mark on the world. “Writer” had perennially occupied the top spot on my wish list, but at twelve-years old I was already suspicious that I didn’t have enough story in me to be worthy of that profession. Having been taught to “write what you know,” I suffered from, as I recently heard Colum McCann put it, “the curse of the happy childhood.” Nothing dramatic or horrifying had ever happened to me. I had nothing to write about, and I was pretty sure wishing for good material to come my way wasn’t such a good idea.

Then I saw Ordinary People. You may remember the book, by Judith Guest, or the movie starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. There was so much to wrench the heart in that story—the teen-aged boy, Conrad, who tries to commit suicide after the death of his brother, the stoic mother unable to accept the blemished remains of her family, the loving father desperate to fix his broken home—but it was the psychiatrist that grabbed me most. Played in the movie by Judd Hirsch, he is the one that helps the teenager come to grips with the crushing guilt of having survived the boating accident that killed his brother.

The story affected me so deeply that I added “psychiatrist” to the list of things I wanted to be. Even if I hadn’t lived a novel-worthy life, I was thrilled by the idea that I could help other people who had experienced trauma and needed help sorting through the rubble of their lives. Why I thought that same person, inexperienced in life and loss, could expertly guide someone through unthinkable hardship or heartbreak I’m not sure, except that the idea that psychiatrists undergo extensive schooling and training gave me some measure of confidence (I had always been good at school), and the psychiatrist of Ordinary People was presented almost as a non-person, that is to say, his background and personal story seemed not to matter in the slightest to Conrad’s plight. So I added the job to my list.

As happens with many young people, my career path was neither well planned nor a logical outcome of my childhood musings. I wound up co-founding a business. But my quest to build a great company had a lot to do with the Judd Hirsch in my heart. I was determined to build a company in which every employee mattered, where no one had to leave his emotions at the door—the excitement over a pregnancy or heartache over a sick parent— in favor of corporate efficiency. My co-founder and I knew our company would be more successful if we made it a part of our culture to recognize the challenges and triumphs in each person’s life and help them rise to those occasions in whatever ways we could—things a simple as allowing for a flexible schedule, providing sabbaticals, or even just encouraging real conversation with Kleenex at the ready.

It was a wonderful time. It is truly remarkable what giving employees permission to be a whole person in their work environment can do for their ability to rise into their best selves. And yet, as the company grew from fifty employees to two hundred to almost one thousand, I took the responsibility of each employee’s happiness personally, and it weighed on me deeply. Conversation alone couldn’t cure a sick child, couldn’t solve for a messy divorce. How much could I actually help anyone? How much could I fix?

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After more than a decade of building the company, and then selling it, I felt an exhaustion begin to overtake me that I couldn’t ignore. I needed a break. When I announced I was leaving, everyone’s first question was whether or not I was going to start another company. My most common answer was, “I don’t know if I can. Now I know how hard it is.” But even as those words came out of my mouth, I disliked their sound. I had never been one to shy away from hard work. Anything worth being proud of takes an enormous amount of hard work. We had been successful; we had built something of value. What was it then, that was giving me such pause? I had high hopes that my trip to the Andes might help me sort through it all.

The first shaman we visited essentially told me that I was tired. He said that to live a long and healthy life, it was important that I not let my energy get so low, that being with Pachamama would help me understand this. Great, I thought. I didn’t need to come three thousand miles to know that I’m tired. So much for major revelations.

Then we went to see Mama Concha. After feeling my pulse, waving lemon branches along the edges of my body, and working her hands up and down my legs, sometimes grasping my ankles tightly, she asked me through our interpreter what I did for a living. I paused. I wasn’t sure if this woman would understand the word entrepreneur, let alone the specific business I had founded, which was complicated to explain. Before I could come up with a suitable answer for her, she asked, “Are you a psychiatrist?” I felt a wave of pride wash through me. She had sensed that I was more than an entrepreneur, that I had helped people in an emotional way. She had recognized me as some kind of healer, someone like her. Tired or not, perhaps it was my true calling after all.

I smiled at her. “No, but I know what you mean,” I said. “That’s how it felt.” Then, to my surprise, she waved her index finger in front of my eyes like a scolding, and said in a stern voice, with no need for the translator, “No more. No more.”

I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. She sat with me then, and through the translator, gently helped me to understand that a true healer can take on the problems of others without feeling them herself, like Pachamama, who finds a way to heal herself regardless of what is thrown into her waters, who finds a way to sprout through the concrete we slather on her face. While I might have a certain amount of ability to help others, I simply don’t have the constitution for it. Mama Concha told me that for every person I had tried to help, I had unwittingly given them a small piece of my soul, and that my soul was scattered in pieces around the globe. This was the cause of my exhaustion, the source of my inner anxiety about doing it all again. She then performed what she called a soul retrieval, a ceremony to call back the lost pieces and make me whole again.

While I at first felt deeply disappointed that a role I had long valued above most others—the ability to heal— was not my true strength, it was also a relief to understand why trying to occupy that role had taken such a toll on my physical and emotional well-being. I realize now that we all have our unique gifts, some that we value more than others, some that it might take us much of our lifetime to discover. Trying to sort through which one has more “value” than another is a fool’s errand. Instead, we should simply focus on what fuels us, and gives us sustenance. Doing those things will inevitably lead to something positive, for ourselves and for others.

And then I had another revelation. The reason I had always dreamed of writing fiction was because of the power reading fiction had always had over me—to take me to a different time and place, to allow me to put on someone else’s clothes for a while and look at the world through their eyes, to understand something about myself by feeling deeply what each character feels. Brain science has actually recently proven that when we are transported deep into a story, our brain catalogs the experience in the same way as if it actually happened. Great stories build our empathy, swell our hearts. I realized it was finally time for me to give writing fiction a try.

And as luck would have it, after being in Ecuador, I realized that I just might have something interesting to write about after all.


Katherine Sherbrooke is the author of the just-published novel, Fill the Sky (SixOneSeven Books, October 2016) and a family memoir, Finding Home (2011). An alumna of Dartmouth College and Stanford Business School, she wanted to be an author from the time she opened her first book, and lived on books like food and water for a long time. Somewhere along the line, though, she caught the start-up bug and co-founded a Boston-based company called Circles. After more than 15 years with that entrepreneurial adventure, she “remembered” her original dream and finally sat down to write. She currently serves as Chair of the Board for GrubStreet, a writing center in Boston. She lives in a nearby seaside town with her family.

Chaos Outside the Study Door: Virginia Pye on Balance in Writing and Life

Virginia Pye author photo 2_0  virginia-pye-books

Last night, at a bookstore reading in Boston to celebrate the launch of her second novel, the author mentioned the “mental multitasking” required of women writers. We must live double lives, she said, or even triple, I’d suggest, as we juggle writing, paid work, and often, family.

The day before, an aspiring writer and friend sat on my back patio and lamented how she can’t make time to write during the academic year. Her job as an elementary school librarian and her community involvement are so time consuming, though also greatly rewarding, that there’s nothing left in her mind late at night or early in the morning when she finally pushes aside the tasks of the day and sits down to write.

Another friend, a best-selling author with three young children, recently texted me: “I’ve not been working, in any real way, for something like two months. And I feel almost panicky about returning to my manuscript.” That she is highly successful and widely respected seems only to ratchet up her anxiety, not calm it.

Frantic, worn out, and living multiple lives, the woman authors of probably every book that Bill Wolfe so skillfully reviews on this blog writes with chaos just outside their study door. Male authors no doubt face similar, difficult pressures as those experienced by women, and of course each artist’s challenges are unique, but for the purposes of this blog that focuses solely on women writers, I’m interested in sharing my own experience and that of other women I know who have pursued writing through various stages of life. They may not have recently made a big transition in their lives, as I have by moving to a new city, but with children careening about, or paid work to complete, not to mention spouses or partners who require a certain amount of attention, we women writers must struggle to block out the noise of our lives.

In her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind is churned and frothed. And to write I must be a clear vessel.” If anything, achieving this ideal state of mind has become even more elusive for women writers. To succeed at putting meaningful words on the page, the woman writers I know juggle complex schedules, financial pressures, and the needs of loved ones in order to find the clarity Virginia Woolf described.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to create the ideal conditions for writing. I taught writing at a university and tutored at a high school, but I still managed to write daily. When my first novel didn’t sell, I pressed on and wrote another one. I had a strong second draft under my belt when I gave birth to my first child. The delivery was complicated and left me exhausted and debilitated for months. The experience of having almost not survived made me all the more grateful to be a mother.

In the first months, my attention was focused on recovering and and enjoying my daughter. The thought of writing hardly occurred to me. I remember my husband setting up the changing table on what had been my writing desk. The irony of that choice wasn’t lost on me, but it didn’t matter: I had no regrets about putting writing aside. And in the following years, I continued to prioritize being a mother over being a writer of long form fiction.

But eventually the urge to write began to return. I first found myself penning poems, mostly about motherhood, but also about nature and gratitude for life. Eventually, these became prose poems. Then they became short essays on mothering. Then finally, I wrote short stories in which I created fictional characters and worlds, my imagination reignited and engaged once again.

By then, my son, born three and a half years after my daughter, was ready for preschool. I had spent almost eight years being a full time mother. Although not every moment was idyllic or easy, I loved those years with my children. But as I returned to writing, I was now ten years older and with no published novel to my name. I felt greater internal pressure to write than when I’d been an aspiring writer in my late twenties and thirties and had all the time in the world. As a result, I dove back into the practice of novel writing each day when the children were off at school. I returned to my craft with a vengeance.

I remember feeling keenly aware that some of my peers had continued to write published novels while having children. That hurt my ego and made me ache for the legitimacy that being published bestows. But in looking back, I can see that I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to recover from childbirth then commit myself fully to being a mother, building up my reserves in order to raise my family, and perhaps also in order to have the mindset to eventually return to novel writing. Now, as a recent empty nester, I relish my uninterrupted days. At the same time, I miss the clamber and vitality that I had grown used to in our home.

Today, I see more women writers who are young mothers and who also somehow manage to publish highly accomplished work at the same time. I envy their sense of purpose and success, though I know it can’t possibly be easy.  The pressures on these women are enormous, but they still manage to maintain their imaginations and inner lives. Pursuing their work, even in brief, free moments, helps these admirable women maintain a sense of themselves when they might otherwise feel like they’re drowning in the monotony and challenges of motherhood. I remember that feeling and how hard it was to strike a balance.

The world continually distracts us from our work at the same time that it nags us to be successful. We feel we should be at peek productivity all the time, in every season of our lives. But for many of us, that isn’t possible. We need the fallow periods as well as the ones in which we write with sharp focus. Both of my published novels were written fluidly and with a clear sense of purpose, but I have a half dozen other unpublished ones, including the one I’m working on now, that took years to write. Each book has its own rhythms, its own demands on our imaginations and lives. If everyday living swamps us, then I think it’s helpful to accept that fact, until, once again, the balance shifts and we reach a place where writing can become a top priority.

On Facebook and Twitter, every other friend seems to be publishing a new book every other week. I’ve recently seen posts by women writers who have dashed out final scenes before going into labor, or written right through chemo treatments, or while dealing with the death of a parent. If true, those are remarkable achievements. But I’ve also seen mention recently in reviews and interviews that some authors have “lost” whole years to travel, or childrearing, or in the case of a recent young man who was compared to Dickens, to years of playing video games. While I don’t recommend that distraction, who can say what feeds the mind of the writer?

We need to have faith that our skills as writers will still be there when the time is right for us to create. My best-selling author friend and my school librarian friend will each get back to their writing when the time is right, and perhaps because their lives are so full right now, they’ll return to it with a new and more enlightened mind. The increased wisdom and empathy that we gain from living our lives well is surely reflected in our writing.


Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch and was called “riveting” by Library Journal. Gish Jen wrote, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Virginia’s debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a Finalist for the 2013 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Caroline See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating,” and Annie Dillard described it as, “A strong, beautiful, deep book.” Her award-winning short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writing Life: Jane Delury talks and laughs with Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt and Elissa Schappell

Three of the most interesting and entertaining writers on the contemporary fiction scene are Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt, and Elissa Schappell. Each has a distinctive voice and style, but their fiction probes individual character and cultural shifts with an accuracy and emotional intensity that makes their books particularly satisfying reads. They are smart, funny, and intellectually restless people, and that shows in their work. In this interview for Read Her Like an Open Book, Jane Delury explores the serio-comic writing life with the three East Coast authors. After you read this, you’ll want all of them to be your next-door neighbors. But for now, you’ll have to enjoy their books.


Since you began writing, what has changed from book to book? Are you consciously trying to do something new with each project?

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Jessica Anya Blau:  I’ve actually tried to do the same thing over again, but when I do that, I feel like a complete fraud and a failure . . .  an asshole who has nothing new to say. So, each book I’ve written has been new to me. In that way, each one was difficult in novel ways and with a whole new depth. There’s a general terror in writing—the fear of failure, fear that I’m dumb, fear that I’m not up to the task I’ve set out for myself—which only seems to grow with each project. In general, I write despite my feelings.

Caroline Leavitt 2016Caroline Leavitt:  I’ve always tried to do something new, whether it’s setting things in different time periods, or changing point of view, but I seem to do it in twos. My first two novels were in first person, my last two were in the 50s, and then the 70s in third person. Of course, this adds to the terror. Like Jessica, I am on the verge of nervous collapse ALL THE TIME. But I have to share my favorite John Irving quote. If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, or losing control of the whole thing, then you’re not trying hard enough. I loved that quote so much, I tracked Irving down and wrote him a letter about how much better his quote made me feel. To my shock, he wrote me back a two-page handwritten letter talking about all sorts of things, and ended with, “But I didn’t say that. Though it sounds like I COULD have.” So, I’ve learned that doing new things, getting more ambitious and complex, equals nausea, terror, shock.

JAB: A two-page letter from John Irving?! That’s amazing. I wrote Alice Munro once and got back a post-card that said, “Jessica, keep writing.”

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Elissa Schappell: Clearly I need to start writing some fan mail. God knows I admire so many writers. Anyone got a Ouija board? I’d love to get in touch with Dawn Powell and Jane Bowles, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys…

Every time I start a new project, I think, I want to do something different. With Use Me, the idea that you could write a novel in stories was all new to me.

With my second book, part of a two book contract—a promised novel—I had decided I was going to write a “big” Tom Wolfe-style novel—an IMPORTANT book—socially relevant, with a capital T, Topic. My subject was race—the relationship between white upper middle class liberal mothers and their black and Filipino nannies—it was about privilege and drug addiction, plastic surgery, passionate female friendship, sex… all the hits.  I spent almost two and a half years working on that book—working against all my better instincts, slogging through it like I was writing a book report—and it was shit.

At the same time I was writing stories so I wouldn’t stab myself, which saved me. Because when I wasn’t trying to be a good girl and finish my homework (which is what that novel felt like) when I let myself write what I couldn’t say out loud, or say without screaming—when I let myself be angry and bold, when I chucked the map and just felt my way in, the writing wasn’t terrible and every other word wasn’t a lie.

Has the process gotten easier, or harder? Did you know what you were getting into when you chose to be a writer?

CL:  It’s always impossible. I have what I call writer’s amnesia. I forget how hard I cried and whined and panicked about the book prior to the one I am writing at the time. I think somehow that being so panicked is something new, and then all my writer friends sigh and laugh, and my husband says, “You were just like this last book. And that’s how I know your writing is going well.”

JAB: Yes, I guess it’s like having a baby. You forget until you remember. And you don’t remember until you’re there, vomiting and pissing on the table, screaming for someone to knock you out and make it end.

ES:  That’s exactly my process! Have you tried laying a rubber sheet out on your desk? It really helps quite a lot.

JAB: I’m so going to try that!

ES: As to easier or harder, I think this book I’m working on now is by far the hardest book I’ve ever written, and I’m in a flat out panic. It’s true, I tell my friends and family, I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not working—I’m lost. And its exactly what Jessica is talking about. They all nod, and say,Yep this is exactly what you said last time.

Although no one has suggested this means the work is going well. It’s more, Buckle up it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I didn’t think about what I was getting into—I never thought about a career as a writer. I thought I was going to be a painter, or an actress or a veterinarian, or a DJ (yes, really—I was that far gone) writing was just what I did.  I have no other wage earning skills, and certainly not at this age. I could tell you all about my checkered employment history but it would just make you sad.  Three words: Balloon delivery girl.

However surprised I might be that I became a writer—no one else, not my parents, or my friends from childhood or college seemed surprised. I was so disappointed at my 20th high school reunion, here I thought I was finally going to out myself as a writer—show them my true face, and instead they nodded at me…. “Oh, yeah”, smug little fortune tellers, “We all saw that coming. You were always a writer. Except for one woman who said, “I thought you’d be a toll booth operator.”

JAB: I ran into a high school friend once and when she asked what I was doing, I said I was writing. she said something like, “Oh that’s cool you’re riding. Do you own your own horse?” I said, ‘No, I don’t own my own horse.” And that was that. My father said to me (and this is a near-exact quote): “You were a beach bunny, I thought you’d grow up to be a wife.”

CL: No one thought I was going to be a writer except for me. My mother wanted me to be married and have a man take care of me (writing could be my little hobby) and my dad wanted me to be married and to be JEWISH-married.)  I had a high school teacher who sniffed at me, “Sorry, you don’t write that well.” A Brandeis writing professor told me that I would never make it, that he could see me as a Montessori nursery school teacher because I was such a “sweet little girl.”

I had no idea what I was getting into when I sold my first novel. I was so scared, I threw up a lot. Then, when the book took off, I thought, oh great, this is my career, every two years I’ll write a book and it will do as fabulously as this one did. HA. HA. My second book didn’t do as well and my publisher folded (not because of me, though!). The next publisher folded just as my novel came out. Then, I got a three-book deal with a BIG publisher who did absolutely nothing for me and refused to take my calls. I got another three-book deal with a different big publisher, and guess what I’m going to say? By then, I had a great new agent (I was always terrified of my first agent and had to pretend to smoke—I have never smoked in my life—to make myself feel brave). Even with my new agent, my ninth novel was rejected by the big publisher as not being special enough. Algonquin bought it and made that ninth book a bestseller the first month it was out. The editor who rejected it as “not special” sent me an email the day it made the NYT bestseller list, only she meant the note to be for her gynecologist, and it was really, really graphic! I let it go, but she emailed it again, so I had to tell her that I was not her doctor. She said, “Fine, how are things?” I told her, and she never wrote back.

How do you feel about the pressure put on authors to promote themselves now? When you release a new book and go on tour, what gratifies and bugs you the most?

CL: It’s tremendous pressure. Most writers I know are socially awkward, scared, nervous, and the ones who aren’t drink or drug themselves to be outgoing. What I love about being a writer is being able to write, to be in my house with Jeff, my husband, who also works at home. I actually love social media because I don’t have to leave my house to do it! I can go on twitter and Facebook and feel that I have been given a shot of human interaction and then go back to my day. And I’ve made and met real friends there—people I never would have met if I just awkwardly approached them! I haven’t figured out how to do Instagram, yet.

JAB: Yeah, you’re actually great at Facebook. You’re real. Authentic. It’s like everyone’s your best bud—the kind of bud you talk to on the phone while you’re emptying the dishwasher. I like seeing your stuff. And Elissa’s great on Facebook, too. Elissa’s political and says all the things I would say if I weren’t afraid and too shy to say them. I feel a little embarrassed promoting myself but I accept it as part of the package—I want my books to be out the world so I’ll do whatever needs to be done. The very kind marketing woman at HarperCollins just set up an author page with me—the whole thing made me nervous—I was worried no one would tap that like box. I also recently started Instagram but was told by several people I was “terrible” at it because I kept posting pictures of my diapered, fishy-smelling, one-eyed dog. One of my daughters has my Instagram password now and she randomly goes in there and deletes the photos she thinks would turn people off. She also randomly posts pictures, too.

ES:  I understand that social media makes some people queasy.  I also think that when a writer says, I don’t understand it, or, It’s not my thing that they sound a bit like an old codger complaining about newfangled technology, What do they call it, TV? It’s nothing more than radio with pictures. Just a fad!

My publisher told me, or let’s be real, threatened me, “You have a choice you can make a Facebook page, or we will set up a Fan Page for you.” That did it. I didn’t like it, but I did it. In the beginning I didn’t say much but posted videos of bands I loved and whatever nice press I got. It felt artificial to me, but obviously I got over that. Now I really dig it.

It’s good to have a place to hype the things you love and hyperventilate over the things that make you insane.

I agree with Jessica. Caroline is great at Facebook. She’s a natural, very open and intimate—you feel like you know her and you like her. And Jessica’s page is sly and beautifully curated. In both cases, you can see how the work grows out of each author’s unique sensibility.

I am much more political on my page then I am in my fiction. What is more tedious for a reader then to turn to a book of fiction and find instead a diatribe about the venal, blood-and-money-drunk radicalized Republican party’s depraved indifference to the lives of ordinary human beings, particularly people of color, women and the poor?

What about touring?

JAB: I love touring. I love meeting people at readings. I love staying in hotels. I love watching people in airports. I’m so grateful for my publisher, so happy that they’ll send me on a tour.

CL: I don’t like the plane wait, the plane ride, and the plane descent. I do love having a hotel room and getting room service (though on my last tour, I was obsessed with bed bugs, and I kept having to look at every bed until I simply was too tired to bother about that.) I love speaking to large crowds (lunches! Dinners! Organizations!) because it feels exhilarating and I love to talk. I always want to be paired with another writer at bookstores because I worry less that no one will show up, except two people who heard there was going to be cake.

JAB: I showed up at a reading once where there was one guy. Front row. Center. Holding the book.

ES:  I know that guy! The guy in the tinfoil hat!  I am always so grateful for his presence. Sometimes it’s just him, the bookstore owner, and whomever they could rustle up in the bar next door. If it’s cold maybe we get a couple of guys who were just standing around a trash can warming their hands. Books can throw some serious heat.

I had a panic attack on my first tour. I ordered room service—roast chicken and a bottle of Evian—and the bill was something like $50. I flipped. I called my husband, literally hyperventilating, and gasped, “I ordered a $50 chicken… I am in so much trouble…”  I thought I should return it, or at least the ten-dollar bottle of water, it seemed reckless and like I might be taking advantage of the company’s largesse. He talked me out of it. Can you imagine?

CL:  I love speaking to readers. I worship indie bookstores and book clubs. The only thing that bugs me is if people get my name totally wrong (okay, this happened only once, but I was introduced as Mrs. Harriet Lev. COME ON!)

JAB: Is there a writer named Harriet Lev?

ES: I agree with what Caroline said. Indie bookstores are the lifeblood of book culture. The people who work in those stores—no, who work in those temples—the folks who hand sell books, they may be our last best hope of saving the culture from the nincompoopery of the mass industrial entertainment complex.

JAB: Agreed. Hooray for indie bookstores! Down with nincompoopery!


Jane Delury’s stories have appeared in publications including Narrative, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of Baltimore.

Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, is out June 28th, 2016.  Her previous books are The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, and the national bestseller The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. Recently, Jessica ghost-wrote a memoir that is coming out with HarperColllins in the fall of 2016. Jessica grew up in Southern California and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. You can learn more about Jessica’s new book and all things JAB at www.jessicaanyablau.com.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author (she wants to tattoo that on her forehead because she still fears it was a mistake) of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You–and 8 other novels. Her new novel Cruel Beautiful World will be out October 4th and she begs everyone to please buy it, read it, and spread the word—and if you want to be her best friend, she also insists that everyone buy and read the work of Jessica Anya Blau, Elissa Schappell and Jane Delury. More fun facts at www.carolineleavitt.com

Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is the former Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.