by Nancy Eberle
I’ve been writing fairly seriously for about a year now. Though by seriously I don’t, of course, mean I’m doing it as a job, or that I’ve actually earned any money doing it. But seriously enough that I don’t feel guilty anymore for spending most of my free time with my laptop and ignoring the dirty dishes and unmade beds.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
1. Don’t write defensively (at least for the first 2-3 drafts). The whispered commentary and raised eyebrows in my head, in anticipation of others’ reactions, are so constant and compelling that if I don’t make a deliberate effort to shush them, they will affect my writing, and not for the better. When I sit down to write, the first few drafts are about letting my voice—my snarky, raw, judgmental, sometimes overwrought, hopefully occasionally witty voice—speak. The Greek chorus can take a look at things later. My mother-in-law too.
2. Don’t share any writing until you can see the words on the page. This is related to lesson #1. There isn’t an exact formula. It may take 5 or 6 passes over the writing, or a couple of weeks for the print to cure, but at some point I will have spent enough time with a piece, and gotten enough distance from it, that I can look at it with a semi-critical eye. At some point I will stop hearing the words mouthed in my head as I read and start seeing them on the page. Often I’ll suddenly notice a missing word here or there, or an errant homonym that’s been hiding in plain sight. That’s when I know I’m actually seeing my writing—not as a stranger would—but maybe as a kindly aunt would. That’s when I know I might be ready to share it.
Lessons #1 and #2 are two sides of the same coin, though the steps can’t be combined. They have to be done sequentially, and—I’ve learned this the hard way, thanks to instant “publishing” on the internet–if I want to feel good about my writing down the road, I have to take the time to work through both. In the end, promising myself that I’ll do that Orson Welles/Paul Masson, “We-will-sell-no-wine-before-its-time” thing, is the only thing that frees me up to write with any heart or soul in the first place.
3. When you’re struggling, ask yourself, “Is this my story to tell?” I don’t write about nice stuff. My fingers are drawn to the laptop keyboard by ugly stuff itching to get out: dirty laundry that needs to be aired, demons ready for exorcism, old baggage sitting pointedly in the middle of the room. You pick the cliché—that’s why I write. To clear out the mess in my head. This means I often write about not-nice things that other people have done—my parents, former partners, old friends. Of course I write about my own faults and screw-ups and role in whatever carnage I’m picking through too, but that’s my decision, my choice to reveal.
What I struggle mightily with is what I am entitled to share about others. Where is the line between my story and theirs? Am I merely using that person as a prop or has their story bled over and become part of mine? This is harder to figure out than it sounds. I can usually tell when my urge to include an unflattering anecdote is because it sounds poetic, or nicely illustrates a point I’d like to make, or simply makes me look not quite so awful by comparison. What’s harder to be sure of is the other end of the spectrum, when it feels like the impact of someone’s actions is inextricably entwined with some small truth I am looking for.
One obvious solution would be to try and put myself in their shoes and think about how I would feel about that person sharing an equivalent tale about me. This helps a little, but the mental gymnastics it requires, and the fact that the stories are necessarily filtered through the fine mesh of my own perspectives and interpretation, usually leave me feeling like I’m standing between two mirrors, my own thoughts reflecting back onto themselves over and over, on into a fuzzy, unsatisfying infinity.The best I’ve come up with is to sit with my writing in quiet moments and ask myself several times, “Is this my story to tell?” I feel like the answer, if I listen closely enough, is usually there.
4. Writing sucks. Good writing, that is. Good, brave, honest writing. If it’s easy, and doesn’t leave you with a little headache and sweaty and eyeing the clock to see if it’s late enough in the day for a little drinky-poo, you’re probably not doing it right.
5. It doesn’t have to be Pulitzer Prize material to be worth sharing. I’m not the artsy type. I have artist friends, and artist relatives, but I don’t make art, don’t always even really appreciate it. Sure, I get a kick out of knitting up a pair of colorful socks to give as a gift and I like to arrange a room in a pleasing way. I even play around a little when I cook sometimes and think about flavors and textures that’ll play off each other and end up as more than the sum of the parts. But my Germanic forbearers and I don’t really believe in art for art’s sake. In fact, we’re a little embarrassed for you and thought that “found objects” installation you dragged us to see in the coffee shop down the street was self-involved and perhaps not the highest and best use of your time.
At least this was me before I started writing—and more importantly—sharing my writing. Though the first time I read a piece in my Intro to Memoir class I nearly barfed. I definitely hyper-ventilated a bit. I’d specifically chosen something to read that wasn’t too dark or revealing or edgy, and I’d practiced reading it out loud to myself, to my cat, and my husband ahead of time. But I was a nervous wreck and totally bombed the delivery. I stuttered, I stammered, I couldn’t catch my breath and my voice was high and pinched and nasally. I could feel my classmates staring at my face as I read, waiting to see if I was going to burst into tears or otherwise self-destruct.
And at first I thought the applause and kind words when I finished were born of pity and their collective relief that I didn’t pass out while standing there in my sandals and flowered skirt and flash them all my undies on the way down. But as my blood began to flow again and I tried to breathe, Nancy, breathe, I started to listen to what people were saying. And they sounded sincere. I’d spoken in my voice and they’d heard me. I’d written about something they understood or recognized in themselves or at least found interesting, and they were trying to tell me that. My piece wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure I’d failed to “show, don’t tell” all over the place, but we’d connected, all of us, for a few minutes right there in that room.
As we were walking out, a classmate turned to me and said, “You’re a writer, Nancy. You know that, right?” I could barely sleep that night I was so excited. I was hooked.
Over the next few months, as I had the opportunity to read a few more pieces and to be amused and jarred and moved by my classmates’ writing, it started to dawn on me that this is what all those silly art installations are about. In fact, what all art is about. Expressing yourself. Pulling back the curtain of daily life for just a moment and flashing a bit of humanity. And when for those few seconds we see each other, and know we are seen, it’s magic. It’s a totally worthwhile thing to do. Maybe one of the most worthwhile things in the whole world.
© 2014 Nancy Eberle, Madison, Wisconsin.