Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story?

Do I Have the Right to Tell Your Story?

“I have no doubt in my soul that you will write a story that bares your soul. The story that broke your heart and mended it. Your words have the power to heal and to make readers heard. The story you choose to write will be one that only you can write, that can only be told there. You know what that story is.”

These are the words of one of my beloved writing teachers, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez. We were emailing back and forth regarding an essay I was writing in her class.

This essay exposed my soul.

I had dug deep to tell the story of what it was like to find out that my ex-husband and my friend were having a baby. I tried to connect with how I felt in my body, what sounds I’d heard in the background, and I tried to remember what I was wearing and where I was when I’d first heard the news.

But to tell this particular story, I also needed to tell their story – my ex-husbands and his now wife – and this, I knew, was risky. So risky in fact that the editor at The Huffington Post who later published this piece, wrote me a personal note before it went live, asking if I had thought about what was about to happen.

“I just wanted to double-check with you that you’re 100 percent comfortable with this running on such a huge platform and that the other people involved will be OK with it as well? Because once the piece is live, I can’t do anything about it if somebody freaks out and wants the story taken down.”

I’d typed back, “Yes, I’m sure.” before I could think about it, but I stared at the email for a long time without hitting send.

Was I ready for the comments, the” internet trolls” that would dissect my essay and condemn me (and my writing)? Was I prepared for people who would now think less of me because I had exposed this undesirable part of myself? Was I “one hundred percent” ready for the impact that this published essay might have on my relationship with my ex and his wife?

I felt like I was probably ready to expose my soul.  But what about theirs? Did I have the right to tell their story too? 

So, I clicked off the email and picked up my phone. I called one writer-friend after another, and each one of them gave me the same response (with slight semantic variations):

“You can’t tell a powerful story if you’re afraid of hurting people. Your first obligation is, to tell the truth.”

Another friend sited the great Anne Lamott, as quoted from her writer’s bible, “Bird by Bird”:

“You own everything that happened to you,” she says. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Later that day, I put my computer to sleep–still without hitting send on that email. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it. I had written the story that broke my heart and mended it, and now I needed to share it with the world. But in doing so, I was going to have to share something personal about other people. And if I’m honest, the respect, feelings, and opinions of these two people matter greatly to me. It was more than just a matter of “I don’t want any drama,” it was also a matter of “I worked very hard to get to the point where we all like each other and I don’t want to lose our status quo.”

Not publishing this piece would ensure that I kept my “drama-free” status with them.

Releasing it, on the other hand, would more than likely put my standing with the two of them in jeopardy. So how important was it for me to tell this particular story?

The answer came to me as I woke from a very fitful night of sleep.

When I got divorced ten years ago, I made up my mind to stop making decisions based on fear. Usually fear of losing something that I had or fear of not getting something that I wanted.  If I remove the fear from this decision, then what is my answer?

After my morning meditation and my ritual cup of decaf, I woke up my computer to find an email from the HuffPost editor, the cursor blinking beside her words. 

“So, what did you decide?”

I bit my lower lip as my finger hovered above the keyboard, closed my eyes and did the thing that I would want any self-respecting writer to do. I hit “send.”

Laura Cathcart Robbins is a freelance writer, podcast host and storyteller, living in Studio City, California with her son, Justin and her boyfriend, Scott Slaughter. She has been active for many years as speaker and school trustee, attempting to promote equity and inclusion at independent schools, and is credited for creating The Buckley School’s nationally recognized committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Her recent articles in the Huffington Post on the subjects of race, recovery and divorce have garnered her world-wide acclaim. She is a 2018 LA Moth StorySlam winner and host of the popular podcast, The Only One In The Room, which is available on all podcast platforms. Laura also currently sits on the advisory board for the San Diego Writer’s Festival. You can find her on Facebook @lauracathcartrobbins, on Instagram @official_cathcartrobbins and follow her on Twitter @LauraCRobbins.

Meet Our Memoirists: Dana Mich

Meet Our Memoirists: Dana Mich

On the first night of HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in 2017, I sat in a darkened back corner of the lower level “Commons on Vine” space of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Marriott Convention Center and listened to a handful of attendees read short pieces of their work at the conference’s open mic. It was late and, exhausted after a day of travel and my own reading and conversation earlier that evening as part of the Debut Author Panel, I was about to quietly sneak away and head up to my room when a petite young woman with an obvious baby bump stepped up onto the makeshift stage and began introducing the context of the piece she was about to share. There was something in her earnest description of revisiting her Jewish heritage through her grandfather’s experience during the Holocaust in the wake of her father’s death by suicide less than two years earlier that kept me rooted to my seat. Her essay was poignant, and, as she read, I recognized intersections in our stories of losing beloved fathers, and I felt a stirring of kinship.

 

This was my first introduction to author and founder of Moving Forewords, Dana Mich. Two years later, I am grateful to call her a friend. Since that night, I’ve gotten to know Dana and learned so much more about her story and her work, and I’ve been inspired by her sincerity and passion. I’ve shared in conversations with her about the challenges and rewards of bringing painful experiences to the page and shaping them into something meaningful for others, about the ongoing inadequacies we all feel when we embark on this writing journey, about the ups and downs of life and motherhood. I’ve celebrated her writing successes, including the publication of her powerful essay, “The Erosion of Stone,” in Tin House Magazine following the deadly 2017 rally in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. And, I’ve embraced her vision to create a space of support for other memoirists and been privileged to join with a group of talented writers to play a role in helping her bring that vision to life in the shape of Moving Forewords. I recently asked Dana to share more about her plans for this collective and her current writing project, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about our gifted leader.

 

 

 

Melanie Brooks: You are the founder of Moving Forewords and the linchpin that connects the writers in this group. What prompted you to establish this community of memoirists and what is your ongoing vision for the collective?

Dana Mich: When I began writing my memoir, I immediately fell in love with the genre. Using words to shed light on my largely unspoken personal experience, immersing myself in the curative wellspring that is storytelling, witnessing the transformative power language had on my identity, connecting with readers who I lifted up in some way with my voice—these are the experiences that writing true, first-person accounts offers, and I’m lucky to have experienced a bit of them all. But as rewarding as this art form can be, the work that goes into it is even more challenging. We memoirists are in the business of breaking silences, of offering private experiences up to public scrutiny and disowning deep-seated shame. And so added to my infatuation with the genre is my admiration for those who dare to write it. I see memoirists’—particularly women memoirists’—strength and persistence as infectious, and so my vision for the collective has been to build a tight-knit community of authors who share in this same calling, who are there for one another when the going gets tough (trolls, inner-demons, and gatekeepers, oh my) and who are audacious enough to be a light for others by sharing their experiences—both in life and in the writing about that life.

 

MB: Your educational background is in Human Biology and Public Policy and you began your career in the nonprofit sector, so your road to writer-hood has not been what some might label “the traditional path.” When did you first recognize that writing was what you wanted to devote your time and energy to?

DM: Central to the “hero’s journey” is the notion that at the climax of a story, something must die for the protagonist in order for something new to be born. Surviving my dad’s suicide was that experience for me. It’s what first brought me to the page, and what first taught me that art can heal. When I say that I became enamored with memoir writing—I mean it in an etymological sense: Amor. Heart. Love. I needed the fist of muscle in my chest to start beating again. Therein lies my passion for the craft.

And you’re right: My journey to writing certainly isn’t traditional. But I’m beginning to realize that I cleaved less from my educational path than my educational path cleaved from my true purpose. My maternal grandfather (in his spare time) was a poet and memoirist who tape-recorded stories for me and my sister to listen to every day at lunchtime. My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher who took it upon herself to teach me—before my memory even fully formed—how to read in both English and in Hebrew. My mom was a linguistics major whose 30+ year career was built on language—its elements, its symbols, and its utilization by people and countries in conflict. 

As for me: just before my thirteenth birthday, I was—as they say—”called to the Torah.” (That really Big Important Book.) I took a silver yad in my hand and touched it to the black, vowelless lettering on the scrolls, and chanted the portion that had been allotted to me. (If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the symbol of a wand, or the notion that in using it, our words are imbued with a divine power… well, there you have it.) The truth is, I’ve always been immersed in language and story, and I’m fortunate to know now why I’m so spellbound by it. 

 

MB: Last year, you wrote a powerful piece for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog called “The Proverbial Apple: Imposter Syndrome” in which you lay bare and then challenge your insecurities [which are, in fact, all of our insecurities] about your place in the writing world. What would you say to other writers who fear that their nontraditional paths to the writing life might make them less legitimate?

 DM: The greatest lie we’ve ever told ourselves, in this age of hyper-education, of specialization, of obsession with study, is that we need to earn the right to do the thing that lives in our bones. Look to hieroglyphics and cave paintings and the age-old tradition of oral storytelling: language and lore are what make us human. These systems of sculpting narratives were devised long before any university was. We spend our whole lives building ourselves up in the name of erudition when what we’re all really trying to do is get back to the source. 

Being born is your birthright to storytelling. Don’t let anyone (most importantly, yourself) stand in the way of your own unique pursuit.

 

MB: I know you are hard at work on your own memoir, Uncaged: A Memoir of Sisterhood After Suicide Loss, which explores, among other things, the impact of your father’s death by suicide. What has the process been like for you as you’ve endeavored to give this trauma narrative shape? Have there been particular hurdles that you’ve encountered along the way?

DM: For starters, I’ve written and ditched an entire manuscript. The hurdle, there, was time. I needed some emotional distance from my dad’s death to really see the narrative for what it was and also understand what would resonate most deeply with readers. The first manuscript was for survival. The second, though there will be some overlap (same crisis and climax, different arc and plot and themes) will be a completely different exercise. And it will be for thriving.

As for the writing itself, I suffer terribly from perfectionism—the mind’s false insistence that there is one “right” approach when it comes to writing. That hurdle is more like a dam that holds back the creative waters, that doesn’t allow them to flow where they’re pulled to flow. I’m slowly teaching myself how to dismantle that terrible barricade, though, and to just let the first draft out. (…Did we mention the planned title is “Uncaged”?)

 

MB: A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with Moving Forewords’ own Lara Lillibridge and two other writers about some of the unique challenges that we face when we are writers and parents. You have a beautiful eighteen-month-old daughter, Audrey, who obviously keeps you very busy. How has becoming a parent changed your approach to your writing?

DM: Writing requires you to find beauty in the small, ordinary moments, and there is no truer parallel than with motherhood. A cute anecdote: I’ve never talked to Audrey about dreams—I have no idea how I would begin to explain the concept to her—but the other morning, when I asked if she had nice dreams, she answered with some certitude. So I asked what she dreamed about, and she said, “Choo choo.” She’s obsessed with trains these days, so I have to believe that on some level, she knew what I was referring to and answered earnestly. Was it the quiet wonder in my voice? The fact that she was still rubbing her eyes? I don’t know, but it was a pretty special moment, witnessing her pick up on subconscious cues, embracing something ephemeral, and intimating to me her experience. To write, you have to invite in this exact kind of curiosity. You have to make yourself as impressionable and hungry for life as a toddler. And yet, at the same time, you have got to learn patience. Before, I was in a hurry with my writing. Now I’m not. (Though it’s certainly frustrating when I need the time and can’t find it.) As for writing and motherhood, I’m in both for the long haul. They are my life, and I am committed to letting both unfold organically.

 

MB: In founding Moving Forewords, you have fully embraced the notion that in the midst of the hard work of bringing our stories to the page, writers need a community of support. How have you benefited personally from the support of this group and what can other memoirists gain from this space?      

DM: Earlier, you asked what I would say to other writers who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, and I said that being born is our birthright to storytelling. That’s indeed what I would say—to someone else. Meanwhile, I have no problem assuring myself that I will never succeed as a writer; that I’ll never get a book deal; that my efforts are and will always be futile—I am fully capable of going straight down that self-debasing rabbit hole. (What the hell?!) This is why community is so critical—especially for women writers, who I know are nodding their heads in unison: not just to give to others in the way that we so expertly do, but to hear ourselves offer the kindnesses we also deserve to receive. Over and over and over again until they sink in.

This is exactly what I’m gaining from the group. And the power of it is immense and immeasurable. 

 

MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of yourself with us, Dana! And thank you for opening this space of support where others can learn from your hard-earned insights and those of the other members of this collective and know that they have allies on the writing journey.

 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

Dear Lisa,

My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I began to realise how dysfunctional and destructive this behaviour was. 

After the death of my parents, I took a leap of faith and reconnected with a number of relatives I had never met. This shed light on an otherwise dark past and brought much happiness to my life.

It has also led to a conflict. I believe my experiences are not unique and hope telling my story will help others feel less alone. I want to write the truth, but I don’t want to hurt my fragile extended family. How do I write my memoir without hurting the people I love?

Sincerely,

Fragile Family

 

…..

Dear Fragile Family,

Your letter contains two questions: Should I write this memoir, and should I publish it? 

The answer to your first question is a resounding yes. As Joan Didion says, we write to understand ourselves. If this family pattern is still bothering you, it’s worth understanding. The writing process might shed additional light on your family situation and increase your compassion for them. Over time, the story you’ve always told might evolve. There’s only one way to find out: write it down. 

In her Tin House podcast “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” memoirist Ann Hood says we should write like an orphan, especially for the first few drafts. Don’t tell anyone outside your writing group about this project, and definitely don’t show it to anyone else. As you write like an orphan, consider what else you need to tread through this forbidden territory. What messages do you need to counter? What family rules do you need to break? Who can cheer you on and offer support? 

The answer to second question—should I publish—is largely personal. While I can’t answer this for you, I can share some exercises that might help you make the decision that’s right for you. 

Step one: Write your story without an eye toward publishing. Write until the story makes sense to you. Request feedback from critique partners. Write some more. Once you’ve figured out what your story is actually about and how to frame it move on to step two. 

Step Two: Revise Toward Compassion. All memoirs reconcile the unintegrated stories in our lives.  To truly reconcile, forgiveness is required. This doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior or reconnecting with bad actors. It does mean unearthing and examining the layers in your story and creating truer, more complex human characters. If done properly, readers will see that while you may not know the causes of someone’s behavior, you understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. While it might seem like this step is about other characters, forgiveness is an act of self-empowerment. 

Step Three: Evaluate the Pros and Cons of Publishing. Once your manuscript is ready, make a list of potential rewards and losses you might experience. Upon creating this list, some people decide not to publicly share their stories. For others, the mission behind their words is more important. What matters to you? 

Step Four: Circle the Wagons. Essayist Meghan Daum says that if you’re not willing to write something someone might hate; you’re not writing something someone can love. If your work is honest and open-hearted, it will not please everyone. Nor should it. In the event of fallout, surround yourself with loving support. 

But also know that some families hunger for their stories to be told. In Krystal Sital’s memoir The Secrets We Kept, Krystal writes about the joy her grandmother expressed when asked about her experiences. Krystal writes, “no one has ever asked her before. This is the release she’s been yearning for.” 

Some books reauthor family narratives. 

In her memoir I Am Yours, Reema Zaman writes about the tumultuous relationship she had with her father and how he dismissed her early writings. As father and daughter come to understand one another, Reema’s father admits to fearing the ferocity of her fire and mourning the loss of the little girl who asked him questions. They choose to forge a new relationship that’s stronger than either could have imagined. 

But let’s be realistic. Not all stories have happy endings. When Lara Lillibridge was working on Girlish, she shared the galleys with her brother and sister but not her mothers, fearing they would pressure her to make changes.  Lillibridge says, “It pretty much decimated my relationship with them, though not necessarily in the way one might expect. I was as upset with my moms over their reaction to the book as they were with me for writing it. We didn’t speak for many months, but now we’re slowly rebuilding our relationship.” 

I am still writing my memoir, yet I’ve already experienced the complexities of publication. In 2015, I published an article in The Guardian about my brother Joe’s suicide. It led to an interview on NPR’s With Good Reason. While I told my father about the article and NPR interview, I foolishly and arrogantly didn’t tell Joe’s twin. Somehow, I believed he wouldn’t find out because we lived in separate towns. The story was syndicated. My brother heard it while driving through our hometown. He was furious, and rightly so. We haven’t spoken since. 

I would not go back and change one word of that article or interview, nor would I seek my brother’s input, but I would tell him about these publications and what I hoped to accomplish. 

Despite this sad turn of events, these publications healed my relationship with my father. I left home at seventeen during a tumultuous time in our family. The events are outlined in my book but suffice it to say a crisis occurred that led me to ask the school for a voluntary foster care placement. Throughout my childhood, my father had done his best to provide for us kids despite job losses, functional homelessness, and severe depression. When I left home, it broke his heart. We didn’t speak for several years, and while we eventually reunited, that period remained an unspoken tension between us. After listening to my NPR story, we talked about that terrible time. At the end of the conversation, he patted my leg and said, “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.” 

As you decide whether or not to publish, I hope you hold as much space for the potential good your book can accomplish as you do for any possible harm. But that’s all down the road. First, write. Write for yourself. Write to heal. Write to eradicate these old family patterns. I’m cheering you on. 

Warmly, 

Lisa Ellison 

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Writing in Retrospect

Writing in Retrospect

I am in the middle of writing an essay that spans a full twenty-nine of my thirty-two years of life. It hinges on an event that happened three Thanksgivings ago, but reaches as far back as my third birthday and as far forward as—well—now. And it is here, half-way through the writing of this essay (which is as heavy in terms of my emotional investment as it is long in word count), that I pause, close my laptop, and momentarily step away.


Last week, I read a piece of the essay to my beloved writing group–a handful of soul-sisters who have been meeting monthly, if not at times more frequently, for the past two years. I skipped over the beginning, which contained the most recent pivotal event in my life, and dove into the second section instead: my happy childhood years, my teenage struggle, my young-adult reckoning. This part was the most solid and well-crafted.


“Where does it go from here?” A member of the group asked once I finished. 


I smiled. These women know me inside out—my daily life, my aspirations, my past and the way it has molded me into the woman (mother, daughter, wife, sister) and writer I am today. I knew it was a question about narrative flow and thematic resolution more than one of particular events and details. Still, I struggled to find the words that might shed some light on the essay’s conclusion. Eventually, I was able to stammer out an answer. But it was so vague that a stranger could have hijacked my vocal cords spoken the words for me. “It ends with my life as it is now,” I said. 


In an attempt to be forthcoming, authors often begin their memoirs by defending their memories, by placing a big disclaimer on them, or both. “In writing this book I referenced journal entries, photographs, and travel itineraries” …“The events portrayed in this book are written as closely as possible to the way I remember them unfolding”. This exercise in admitting the fallibility of our memories and our resulting need for supplementation fascinates me. Lowering ourselves into the depths of our earlier lives is certainly no easy task. The human mind is limited in its ability to extricate perfectly intact scenes and information from the murky waters of our past. Yet, the creation of effective first-person narratives most often
requires retrospection. It requires writers to be standing somewhere further along in the storyline than the beginning. It requires a newly realized perspective—a feat that is usually achieved once an ending is reached, or is at least in view.


Often, the
earliest point at which a writer will even realize the potential for story is at the onset of the climactic event, as it transpires for them in real life. Many times, the full narrative arc can only be grasped after the story’s resolution. And perhaps this is the case for good reason: constructing story while still searching for its outcome can be a disingenuous exercise compared to writing about an un-tampered-with past. So while we want the vivid, precise kind of reportage born of writing that is immediate, what we really need is the cohesion and meaning writers imbue when they look back and tease out the pertinent memories (however blurred and misshapen) from the superfluous ones. What we need is writers’ hindsight.


All this goes to say: I’m stuck in the middle of my essay, but at the end of my lived experience, because I can’t seem to do the thing that many might think to be the easiest, the clearest, or the most straight-forward. The thing that doesn’t require defense or disclaimers. The thing that seems to only need my five senses and a pencil. I. can’t. write. the. now. 


I meditate on my problem during moments in which I feel most present: while watching my toddler pull clean fork tongs out from between her teeth and smile back at me with a mouthful of peas, while walking my dog and stopping to watch a white-flecked fawn romp in a neighbor’s yard, while tuning into my binaural beats tracks on YouTube and watching the neon ribbons of pixels spin and wave. Inevitably, I open my laptop to my essay-in-progress, scroll to the bottom, revisit my garbled notes and type a list of marginally improved bullet points. But what I find myself begging into the ether is:
What will I remember, later on, out of all that I’m experiencing now? And how will I know when I’ve arrived at the right “later on”—when I’ve metamorphosed into the woman with the best perspective—to finish the piece?


It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’m asking for communion with my own Future Me so that I can tap into her hindsight—her remembrance of the present moment. It’s like I’m trying to escape myself in order to re-arrive in my body. 


This, I realize, makes me a total lunatic—not only because my time-hop plan is impossible, but because what I can access now is infinitely more precise than what I will be able to later on. The glint of sunlight off my neighbor’s waxen magnolia leaves, the cracks in the sidewalk that the weeds shoot through, the crinkle in my toddler’s nose when she laughs—these are details I may not catch if I wait.


On second thought, though, maybe I’m not that crazy. Retrospective writing deserves real credit. In many ways, memories are so much stronger than our observations
in media res. Even if flawed or incomplete, memories leave lasting impressions on us, meaning that they influence our inner realities to a much greater extent (and for a much longer period of time) than the tidbits of information we gather in the moment. Memories answer the question: What pieces of my lived experience will (for so many curious and interesting reasons) become essential to me while the rest fall away? 


So here I sit, with my cursor blinking in the space where my fully lived experience and my unfinished essay meet. I turn up my palms to my future self offering her the heaps of minutiae that I’ve gathered. But it’s no use right now. Only she can tease out what matters from what doesn’t, and she has made it clear that she won’t be meeting me half-way. 


Where does my essay go from here? 


It’s a good question. I think I may just need to wait and see.

Meet Our Memoirists: Athena Dixon

Meet Our Memoirists: Athena Dixon

In April, I met Athena Dixon in person when she traveled to Massachusetts from her home in Philadelphia to present at the Muse and the Marketplace, a three-day literary conference sponsored by the Boston-based writing center, Grub Street. I drove into the city from my home in New Hampshire, and Athena and I spent a couple of hours chatting about our lives and our writing over dinner at a bustling Asian restaurant. Athena’s natural warmth and charisma made for easy conversation. I left feeling like I’d spent the evening with a long-time friend.

Athena is an incredibly hard working and versatile writer. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, No God in This Room, (Argus House Press, 2017).  She is the Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she unveiled in 2012. Her work has appeared in both print and online publications, and she’s twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, her powerful essay, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” appeared in the debut issue of Gay Magazine, a new magazine from acclaimed author Roxane Gay with a mission to offer “some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web.” It’s clear that Athena’s dedication to her craft and incomparable work ethic are clearing a path for her voice to be impactful to readers in a particularly meaningful way. I asked Athena to share some of her experiences navigating the literary world and the wisdom she’s gathering in the process. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her and her brilliant writing.

 

Melanie Brooks: You are a busy woman! Your literary life is dynamic and multi-faceted. You write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; edit Linden Avenue Literary Journal; speak regularly at conferences; and co-host a podcast for New Books in Poetry. You also work full time. How do you maintain your sanity through it all? What advice can you offer other writers who are struggling with work/life balance?

Athena Dixon: It can be a struggle. I always feel as if I have something vying for my attention. I do my best to allow myself downtime without feeling guilty about it. A friend of mine once told me that sometimes you need to input instead of output. So, when I am being “lazy” and not working on one of my projects I try to remind myself that whatever I am partaking in can possibly be included in something I will write later on.

I will say that I’ve really had to force myself to use Google Calendar to keep track of things because I’m still learning to say no and until I do so I need to be organized!

I’d say to approach your writing with both passion and logic. Yes, we all want to do what we love, but real life requires money. If that means you have to devise a schedule or a routine after your day job then you have to. That doesn’t mean you aren’t passionate, it means you have a job. Also, make dedicated time each year to attend workshops or conferences if you can. It doesn’t have to be one of the large ones. It can be anything from a local community college meet-up to an online course. Also, write when you can! There is no cookie cutter writer’s life. If you squeeze in lines during lunch break? Good! If you write an hour before bed? Great! If you know all you have is Sunday to craft? Then do it. There is no rule that says you have to write every day or like anyone else. Your journey is yours alone.

MB: Tell us about the memoir you are working on. What prompted you to begin that particular writing journey, and how is the process different from the other writing projects you’ve undertaken?

AD: My current memoir project is a collection of essays tentatively titled Reader Insert. It touches upon only a portion of my life, mainly the last eight or so years, but also reaches back to my childhood to give a foundation of how I came to be both accepting and disillusioned with my love life or lack thereof. I’d wanted to write a full life memoir, but I found my joy and interest in writing the essays that comprise the collection were the pieces that were pithier, more urgent, and raw. I took those kernels and reshaped the book.

My main inspiration has really been wanting to write for care burdened black girls, quiet girls, those who sometimes feel invisible or unheard. I had this nagging issue when I first began working on the original manuscript over two years ago that no one wanted to read such a thing. Thankfully, I’ve had a few friends tell me that my work is very much needed because there are people out there just like me who need a voice.

This is really the first full prose project I’ve undertaken. I’ve written quite a few standalone essays and even quite a bit of fan fiction, but this is the first time I’ve had to really think about how a collection of prose should be ordered, about through lines, and arc progressions. I’ve really been forced to be honest with myself and remove things in order to best serve the larger project and to organize by what makes sense versus what I love.

MB: In a recent blog post for Moving Forewords, “Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome,” you acknowledge the voices of doubt and fear that many writers wrestle with. Instead of pushing us to ignore those voices, you encourage us to “take stock of what [they’re] saying” because they might be trying to tell us something important about our work. Has taking this approach to self-doubt benefited your writing process? In what ways?

AD: It really has benefited me greatly. Instead of spending my energy on what can sometimes be false positivity, I can expend that same energy on trying to get to the root of what I’m feeling. Of course, there are days when those doubts and fears are really just doubts and fears. They aren’t rational. However, there are those times when they are trying to tell me something. I know when I haven’t fully prepared for an event or a task and I know that can sometimes manifest in me feeling as if I don’t belong. If I can acknowledge that, then I can better prepare myself for future situations that I know will spurn self-doubt.

Because I know my tendency to feel like an outsider or a fraud, I’m forced to really concentrate on making sure I’m prepared. I try to prep for events well in advance. I try to cover all my bases to avoid missteps. I concentrate on making sure the work I present to the world is the best I can possibly make it so it lessens my feelings of inadequacy. Doing each of these things has really helped me buckle down and hone my voice.

MB: In your writing and in your work at Linden Avenue Literary Journal, you strive to give voice to underrepresented writers. Why is this mission particularly important to you and what do you hope your voice can add to the conversation surrounding lack of inclusion in the writing industry?

AD: I remember feeling as if I was at a disadvantage when I entered writing and creative spaces in an academic setting. And this continued when I started submitting my work for publication. There is always an underlying current of expectation, the assumption that everyone has read the same books, attended the same programs, or know the same people. It puts writers from marginalized groups of any kind at a disadvantage because many times editorial boards do not reflect us as a readership or a world. And this spills over into the experiences and lenses through which they review and accept work.

When I started Linden Avenue, I wanted to make sure the playing field was level. It was my hope that by having black women at the head of the journal, we would be able to have a wider scope of experiences to allow the best work we came across to be published. These publications are not based on who someone knows, where they are from, or what their publication background may be.

In the end, I hope that I can contribute a safe and stable space for marginalized writers, one that doesn’t expect them to trade on trauma or carry the world in order to tell their stories. One in which they aren’t a token or regulated to special issues.

MB: We were excited to hear that you will be attending the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City next week. What are you looking forward to the most? How will this experience help to fuel your creative life?  

AD: I’m really looking forward to hearing from women who have blazed their own trails while still being fully present in other aspects of their lives. Sometimes creatives are forced into a “do what you love” narrative that does not take into account the other parts of our lives that need nurturing.

I think attending will really help me continue to be confident in the idea that everyone’s path is their own and it’s what you make of presented opportunities that can really push you forward. And, of course, being among so many successful and talented women is only going to make me work harder to be able to share my talents with the world.

MB: Thank you for this glimpse into your writing life, Athena! I’ve no doubt that your talents will continue to find space in the world, and I’m bursting with anticipation for all that’s ahead for you!

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