"Write what frightens you, what feels too dangerous to say....It’ll be the core of your writing and where you are most likely to find your voice, your subjects."
Wisdom from Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, here.
The first thing--after "Congratulations"--that my mother said when I told her I'd won Chatelaine's personal essay contest and it would be published nationwide to a circulation of 3 million was, "So...is this a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay?"
That was four months ago, and it took me almost to the eve of the issue's appearance on newsstands last week to process and be ready for the fact that, yes, it is a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay, and I am putting it out into the world more visibly and on a larger scale than anything I've written or published before.
This is what we want as writers, right? This is part of why we make art--for the pleasures and challenges of the work itself, certainly, and for the drive that makes it impossible for us not to do it--but also, if my query and submission charts are any indication, for the publication. For the audience. For the desire to be read. But I was recently amused to discover, looking through a list I wrote a year ago, that I'd identified as one of my needed areas of development: Comfort with being visible.
Amused, because this Chatelaine win has shown me just how not-comfortable I am with visibility--with the stated intention of all this work I do. With a huge component of my life's goal. I received the proofs a few weeks ago, opened the PDF on my computer and recoiled. Physically pushed myself away from my words, all laid out pretty, awaiting my final approval. Last stop before 3 million readers, and all I wanted was to close it up and run away.
"Be fearless. Write the things that scare you. Go there," says Ayelet Tsabari in an interview that was among the numerous places where I took courage on the path to publication. This has long been my guiding principle. I have written the things that scare me. I have gone there. But it's one thing to go there in the privacy of your writing nook, in your quiet back garden, on your front porch in the rain--chasing the essence of what it is that wants to be said through you, or of what you need to say, listening and groping and reaching and refining until the story becomes the story it needs to be. It's one thing to do this, also, for your nice little literary journal audience, or your anthology that will need to be sought out by interested readers in the specific places where it is sold. I've never been published in something that can be bought at the grocery store check-out. I've never been read by an audience measured in millions. It turns out I like to be able to hide.
Learning I won the Chatelaine contest, I was amazed, I was thrilled, but I also felt like I'd taken a snapshot of myself with my pants down and was sending it to the whole world.
It was surprisingly painful.
It took me a while to realize what in particular was freaking me out about the Chatelaine essay's large-scale publication, about telling my parents anything beyond "I won a contest." Was it the sex? The leaving behind the faith they reared me in? I've written about these things before. And then I realized: a crucial part of what I write about in this essay is the depression my dad suffered throughout my childhood, and the deep ways that it affected me and my future relationships with men. In a light bulb moment I recognized that freaking out over this publication, I was responding from my little-girl self, eight years old and under no circumstances supposed to let anyone outside our immediate family know the secret of Dad's "dark seasons." (The first time I ever told, and the first time I uttered the word depression--and even then I wasn't sure it was the right word, because it'd never been spoken--I was 19 and braving therapy over this very issue.)
And now here I was, telling the secret, and telling it big.
Once I realized that, I felt freed. Taboos need to be broken. Mental health needs to be talked about. I'm no longer a little girl. This is my story and I have a right to tell my story. I wrote my dad a letter, printed out a copy of that PDF, and mailed it to him a couple weeks before the issue came out. He responded with a text message that made me cry. He said the essay was beautiful, that he was sorry, that he is glad things are better now. It was healing I didn't know I needed. My mom said similar things--you've fit so much into this piece, you're a beautiful writer, we're so proud of you. I was bowled over by the warmth and generosity of these people who raised me, by how lucky I am to have their support.
After that, my fear of visibility dissipated.
"The stuff that causes me anxiety...is usually a road map to where my creative growth can be found," said Merrill Markoe in another piece that gave me courage.
Because this is what we have. This is where we need to write from. If we are writers, we don't really have a choice.
Last summer a friend forwarded me Chatelaine magazine's "Write for Chatelaine" contest, a call for "deeply personal stories about love, loss, friendship, marriage, dating or family." They wanted "creative, compelling and soul-baringly honest."
I thought, deeply personal stories that are soul-baringly honest (slash revelatory slash embarrassing)? Love, loss, friendship, marriage, dating, family? My specialty.
I wrote the first draft by hand, just exploring for fun, a break from the full-length novels I'd been mired in. Riffing on ideas to see what would come out. A couple writer friends convinced me that what had come out was worth pursuing. It was the best kind of writing process, the essay I started referring to as the one I wrote by accident. The final draft I refined while on vacation at my parents' lake home. A first reader prodded me to go deeper into territory I'd been happy to skim over. That's when it became emotionally arduous, and I found myself on the night of the deadline, after a busy day full of family and activity, after my kids were finally asleep, sitting up at my parents' kitchen table facing details from the past and seeking a way to comprehend and reconcile them. The deadline was midnight. My parents' rural internet is unpredictable. At 11:30 I was writing brand-new paragraphs. At 11:50 I was trimming earlier paragraphs to make room for them. At 11:58 I hit send. Then I checked the rules again and saw that the deadline was actually 11:59.
And in the fall I received the news: the essay I wrote by accident won the contest.
It's on newsstands now, a deeply personal story that is soul-baringly honest, about my best friend and me, our relationships with men and how they impacted our friendship, mixed in with some father wound and some emergence from religious repression and into fledgling feminist fervour, and how these things affected the two of us differently and affected our interactions with men differently and affected our approach to our relationship. Meeting and falling in love with my husband is in there too.
It's been an exhilarating and terrifying experience, preparing to be published with such a personal piece to an audience significantly huger than any I've ever been exposed to. Googling Chatelaine's circulation--3 million--gave me a heart attack, and not in a good way.
I needed all the months between the win and publication--to become comfortable with this kind of visibility, to talk with (some of) the people I've exposed in the piece, to accept that this is my story and the story has a right to be told. On Thursday I checked a newsstand and they were still carrying the February issue, and I experienced a small moment of relief, reprieve--for one more day, the essay is not widely available out in the world. But then I started getting texts and tweets from friends who'd gone to different newsstands, and it is indeed, widely available out in the world.
And I'm ready. I'm happy, and I'm grateful, and I'm enjoying the ride.
Just in time for Valentine's Day, the folks at Little Fiction/Big Truths have compiled a bunch of their past stories about "everybody's favorite four-letter word." Check out The Love You Love, which includes my story Firebombs. "Granted some are more heartbreaking than heartwarming, but that's love, right?"
Every time I engage with words in a tactile way--the letter I wrote to my dad this week with a pen and paper, this book I'm editing in Track Changes that became too hard to see clearly until I printed it and physically spread it out on my floor--I'm reminded how much I love the embodiedness, the connection, the physicality of leaving my screen behind. Of touching with my hands, of seeing the words end to end in physical form. Of handling them. My eyes see differently and my brain engages differently. It's a difference I'm trying to remember to explore more often.