Stick the Knife In: Then Twist

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist (a new essay about writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s no mystery why my thoughts keep going there – I’ve been writing a memoir about being a sister for the past two years. Naturally I would feel vulnerable writing about family, right? After all, the funny/but not funny joke in nonfiction and memoir writing classes is: “I want to write about my family, but I have to wait for them all to die first.”

That’s a bit extreme. But it does show the depth of vulnerability many writers experience when even considering writing about personal topics. And family is often one of the most personal. Of course there are many other subjects that are also personal, and require a writer to be vulnerable. Illness, physical or mental trauma, experiencing some event (either painful or joyful) out of the ordinary – all of these have their place on the vulnerability spectrum. Writing about any of them requires the writer to go inward, excavate, examine, and then turn that into engaging prose.

So much easier not to even go there. So much easier not to probe.

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The Cheering Section

I was trying to think of a way to announce that I just signed with a literary agent this past week, who will represent me and my brand new memoir, The Queen of Everything, without sounding like I was bragging. That’s the weird thing about social media (for me, anyway): whenever I “announce” or “share” publication news, or news like this – that I have signed with an agent – I feel like I am “tooting my own horn.” The fact that I am using so many quotation marks, by the way, shows my ambivalence about this.

Most writers I know are pretty solitary creatures. We can socialize at cocktail parties just fine, and I think I even make a pretty good dinner partner; but I can also go for huge stretches of time alone with my laptop and books and notes. I normally take time every morning for walks with friends, and I spend dinner and evenings with my husband. But during the time when most people are either at work or golfing or playing tennis, I am happily alone. For hours.

At the end of all of those long hours, sometimes a book is born. Along the way, short stories and essays and poems also get birthed. The shorter pieces get sent out and published, submitted by the author herself, and today you can even publish a book on your own. But most professional writers I know dream the dream of having a book taken on by a literary agent, who will then sell the manuscript to a publisher. I myself have been dreaming this dream for many years. I myself have had several false starts on books that went nowhere.

But now I do have a book. And an agent. I have not met Liz Parker of Inkwell Management in person yet, but she sounds really nice on the phone, and she has a good sense of humor. She must, if she loves my book, because my book is pretty funny in parts. In other parts it’s pretty sad though, but that’s pretty much what a memoir is – like life, it has funny and sad parts.

When people ask me what my book is about, I say it’s about being a sister. The funny and the sad parts. Liz said, about my sister with a brain injury – who is the fulcrum of my story about being a sister – that my sister is a “rock star.” I never thought of my sister that way, but I am so happy that she just naturally came across like that in my book, and that Liz saw that she is a rock star. That made me want Liz to represent my book.

Because in life we all need a cheering section, whether we are writers or not. Or if not an entire cheering section, at least one or two or three people who wish you well and are cheering you on to do better.
 

Indian Summer

(Originally appeared in my essay collection Lake Forest Moments)

There are always those precious days in early fall when we are granted a few last glorious days of summer. Even though there have already been chilly mornings, and the pumpkins hang heavy on their vines, suddenly it gets hot again for a day or two, and everyone gets as giddy as though it was spring.

This is the best time to call friends and family together and go down to the lake for an evening barbecue.

We meet friends at the lake pavilion with footballs, beach towels, and coolers of food. Our collective children, seven of them between the ages of ten and fourteen, also sense that this will be the last true day of summer. The previous weeks of school are shed in a flash as they run with abandon, barefoot through the sand, whirling and laughing and calling out to one another.

In a few years they will all be teenagers and we will be lucky to get them to come with us at all. But for now we are envious of their freedom to jump and twirl, their ability to live in the moment. Continue reading

Keep It Real: Edited by Lee Gutkind

Here are some thoughts/notes on writing creative nonfiction, using Lee Gutkind’s excellent book published in 2008, on the subject: Keep It Real. I highly recommend reading it.

Keep It Real, a collection of writings on narrative nonfiction and memoir was compiled by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. The subtitle of the book is Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. I was intrigued by this title because I am very interested in the blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe this book would help me to see what those lines are in a way that might help me in my own work. Every time I read fiction I find myself wondering how much of the fiction is from the author’s own life and how much is completely from an author’s imagination. Does it matter?

In Poets & Writers, in an interview of fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, interviewer Nina Shengold notes, “She scatters autobiographical crumbs throughout her fiction.” What makes this autobiographical fiction writing different than creative nonfiction then? In Gutkind’s book he tries to address this, “…the anchoring element of the best creative nonfiction requires an aspect of reportage.” And, “…creative nonfiction…presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Continue reading