Category: Personal

Wrestling with the personal: why it’s so difficult to be honest with readers, and why I’m trying now

Wrestling with the personal: why it’s so difficult to be honest with readers, and why I’m trying now

As my 47th birthday approaches, it occurs to me that I haven’t been very forthcoming with my readers. In the decade plus since I started my blog, I have offered writing advice, book reviews, and the occasional bit of news, but for the most part I have kept my distance. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable–okay, comfortable at all–sharing my personal life publicly. As social media leads us into ever-more public exposure of the most private parts of our lives, I have resisted.

Case in point: yesterday, when a friend tagged me in a facebook photo challenge, with the instructions to “post one black and white photo of your life each day, with no people and no explanation,” I took a few photos in my very lived-in office, one of my living room in slight but livable disarray, one at a taco truck where I bought lunch to bring home, a few on my walk with my husband. Ultimately, what I posted was a photograph of a ceiling light, entirely out of context. It is so glaringly impersonal that almost nothing can be gleaned–beyond my taste in light fixtures (although, it could just as easily have been taken outside of my house, so really, it doesn’t even necessarily reveal my taste in light fixtures).

the completely impersonal ceiling light photo
The photo that felt too personal for the B&W challenge

Why this  discomfort with sharing? First, there is the knowledge that once it’s out there, it can’t be clawed back. Information is easy to find these days, but we don’t need to make it easier. For example, my bio vaguely says I live in Northern California. Some versions of my bio still say that I live in San Francisco, even though we left San Francisco eight years ago. Photos of the taco truck and of our walking trail would reveal my location with more specificity. One might call me paranoid. Such are the hazards of cohabitation with a man whose life has been threatened more than once by people with the means and quite possibly the inclination to make good on their threats.

Beyond that, I can’t shake the feeling that writing about one’s personal life is blatantly self-centered. As a teacher, I believe that I have something of value to share in a single sphere: writing. I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing through two decades of practice, trial and error, big wins and fizzling losses. I assume that people come to my blog for that kind of information: things they can learn about books, writing, and the writing life. I have never been comfortable with the idea of a blog as a personal journal. I should qualify that: a named blog. I have on occasion blogged anonymouslywith some degree of freedom.

On religion and reticence

Perhaps my reticence, at heart, has something to do with my Southern Baptist upbringing, and the compulsion I felt from a young age to hide things from my parents. It took quite a bit of orchestration to hide things from my mother, whose world view was constrained by a deep-seated, moralistic way of thinking that grew out of her own strict religious upbringing. (Moralistic, not moral. There is in fact a glaring lack of morality in the Southern Baptist doctrine as it was practiced by the churches of my youth. In that sphere, morality was almost entirely about denying oneself and others pleasure in any form, never about generosity toward the less fortunate, tolerance of others, or love for those with differing opinions. In my adulthood, I have come to see the religion I grew up with as deeply immoral, but that is a subject for another post.)

On the occasions when I did publish essays or posts that revealed anything personal, I felt conflicted. Any such exposure has almost always been followed instantaneously with regret. I’m not talking about the times when I wrote quite openly and lightheartedly about sex?—?which I did for Salon, Playboy, and other publications. The fact that those essays are out there doesn’t bother me. In those instances, I was writing about the past, and I was also writing through a filter: holding my feelings close, never entirely showing my hand.

No, the personal writing that scared me was that which dug deeper and revealed more?—?about who I was, where I came from, what I truly believed or needed or feared. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to delete a blog post or facebook update in which I felt I’d said too much. If it was an essay published in a magazine, of course, there was nothing I could do once the cat was out of the bag— but I’ve always been very careful about what I put forward in an essay to be published in print or by any publication that is out of my control.

The exception

In 2012, I published an essay online titled “I hope this letter finds you.” The essay is about being raped by my boss when I was working as a server and hostess in Knoxville in my twenties. I wrote it first for a print anthology about work, and I later posted an updated version of the essay on Medium as a response to those who attacked Bill Cosby’s accusers for not speaking up sooner. As I explain in the essay, I had my own reasons for not speaking up. While my rapist was not a high-profile career-ruiner like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Trump, he did sign my paycheck, a paycheck I desperately needed. As soon as I published it, I began hearing from friends who had read it. This made me uncomfortable, so I made it private, then public again, then private again, too many times to count. Each time I post it or link to it, I do so because it feels important?—?not in its uniqueness but, by contrast, in its utter lack of uniqueness. It is so common, so unsurprising, so banal.

I post it or link to it each time a group of women come out publicly against a high profile predator and are reviled for not speaking up or going to the police sooner. And as soon as I unearth it, I think, “Who will see this? Who do I want to not see this?” The first time I posted it, my mother read it on facebook, and I was filled with regret. I didn’t like the fact that it opened up channels for her to pry, to turn my matter-of-fact past into a vehicle for her emotional intrusion. This is too complicated a dynamic to go into here. With the caveat that I had a mostly happy childhood and was raised by loving if complicated parents, I will say that my fear of my mother reading my work sometimes makes it difficult to write anything personal. Knowing she will see it , analyze it, and want to talk about it has caused many a thing to go unwritten.

On journaling & playing hooky from the “work” of writing

In A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy writes, “It has caused me much grief that I’ve never been completely seduced by the craft of journal keeping. A laziness takes over, and I abandon most of them over the course of a summer…”

I journaled obsessively as an adolescent?—?although I wrote in tiny cursive, and often in code, once I discovered that even my journals were not private in our home. (The habit of writing so illegibly that only I can decode my writing has stuck with me, much to my husband’s dismay, as he is my first editor on every novel, story, and essay, and he can’t make heads or tails of my handwriting). I dropped the journaling habit in college and picked it up again in my early twenties. Those journals were a repository for my truest thoughts and feelings. It was the 80s and 90s, and blogs had not been invented. If livejournal had existed then, I’m certain I would have used it, although I doubt I would have used my real name. After I had my son at 35, time became a more precious commodity, and I stopped what little journaling I’d previously done. I’ve started many journals in the past twelve years; the shelves of my office are littered with notebooks that contain a few pages of fevered writing, followed by empty pages.

My journaling has followed much the same pattern as Conroy’s —well-intentioned beginnings followed by laziness?—?although mine generally start when I am away from home. A recent perusal of my shelves yielded Norway journal, Paris & London journal, Iceland journal, China journal, and a whole slew of Hawaii date-here journals. With the exception of the China journal, which actually takes up three complete notebooks and is exhaustive in its recording of my time living and working in Beijing in my late twenties, the journals persist over a course of a day or two before being entirely abandoned. What this tells me is that I have to be in a state of utter relaxation to even contemplate beginning a journal?—?hence, all of those journals started while sitting alone on the beach early in the morning in Hawaii.

I can trace the end of my journaling for good back to two events that happened at roughly the same time. In 2004, our son was born. After his birth, I journaled for the first few months, recording with intense interest his milestones alongside the bliss and exhaustion of being a new mother. I didn’t want to forget a thing, and because every moment receded into the fog as soon as it occurred, I knew a journal would be my only reliable memory of those first months of his life. Six months after our son was born, my agent sold my novel, The Year of Fog, to Bantam. Although it was my second novel and my third book, it was the first book that had been picked up by a major New York publisher. A year of extensive revisions followed prior to the book’s release.

In addition to revising The Year of Fog, I had signed a two-book contract, so I had another book to write and deliver. I was on contract with the same publisher for various books from 2005 to 2017. Basically, as soon as I started getting paid to write, with deadlines to boot, I stopped journaling. My writing time went into my novels instead of into journals that I knew would not be published. When writing became my job, I felt guilty for any writing that wasn’t job-related. The deadline always loomed. Writing was my contribution to our family finances, and spending my limited writing time on anything other than the writing I was getting paid for felt like playing hooky.

Getting personal

I don’t expect I’ll ever take up journaling again in the traditional sense. For one thing, I’m trying to downsize my books in preparation for a big move, and journals just seem like more books to sift through and store. But I do want to take a more personal approach to my blog?—?which may, in some way, serve as a kind of edited journal. I am an introvert who listens, gathers stories and feelings, and selfishly guards my own. At parties, people talk to me?—?not just chit chat but real “This is who I am, this is what I want,” kind of stuff. Most of my life, acquaintances and strangers have revealed deeply personal things to me, only to look up with surprise at the end of a monologue and say, “I can’t believe I just told you that. I’ve never told anyone.”

I have gone through life collecting other people’s stories. In my novels, I reveal myself?—?as all authors do to some extent. My novels are never autobiographical, but for someone who guards my life with such vigilance, it is perhaps inevitable that the novels act as a safe confessional. I don’t tell my own stories, but some version of them seeps through.

I come back again to the question: is there any value in sharing my life in a more personal way? I grapple with answering this question in the affirmative. The only way, in fact, I can come to a “yes” is by thinking about what inspired me to write this post and take this new approach in the first place. As a reader, I find myself increasingly drawn to stories that reveal rather than conceal. There is A Lowcountry Heart, mentioned above. I found it at my local Books Inc. yesterday, began reading it yesterday afternoon, and was awake for much of the night, thinking about the border between the public and the private, trying to unravel in my mind the nature of my own strict boundaries. Other books of a highly personal nature have stayed with me over the last few years as well: Making Toast: A Family Story, by Roger Rosenblatt; Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro; Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Something in these writers’ willingness to share has spoken to me, and more: it has drawn me in. These books have kept me in their grip.

I cringe when writers claim that writing is a particularly difficult profession. I’ve worked retail and restaurants, I’ve pulled auto parts from high shelves in a sweltering warehouse, I’ve pounded the pavement of New York City selling credit processing machines, I’ve gotten in cars with strange men in the middle of the night in China en route to a work meeting in a country where I didn’t speak the language, have a working phone, or have a single yuan in my possession. I can say with sincerity and utter truthfulness that writing is the easiest job I’ve ever had. I’d never want to go back to any career that involved a cash register, customer service, account management, or Mandarin. Writing isn’t a hard job, in my opinion. It’s challenging to write as well as one wants to write, of course. One can easily become mired in the narrative and lose the thread of the plot. One can get it wrong in a million different ways. But there are much more difficult ways to make a living than sitting down to write in the morning with my cup of coffee, after I’ve taken my son to school. Pretty much any way I can think of to make a living, aside from reaping investment dividends or a trust fund ATM (nice work if you can get it), is more difficult than writing.

But there are choices one must make in terms of whom we reach and how we reach them. The writing life is a constant negotiation with ourselves and with the ones we love or have loved, the ones we have left or been left by, the ones who passed through our lives and made any sort of mark. How much will we tell? When will we tell it? How much will still be visible to the discerning reader after all names have been changed? Will we reside safely for the entirety of our careers in the realm of fiction, or will we allow ourselves to say more? Will we?—?selfishly and recklessly?—?allow ourselves to be known?

It’s the question I’m grappling with now. I have no clear answer, and I may change my mind tomorrow or next week. I may delete this post tonight, in the middle of the night, after coming to my senses. But, for the moment, inspired by a few writers I admire who’ve elegantly traversed this terrain, I think I’m going to give it a shot.

Writing tips for busy moms: how to balance writing and family

Writing tips for busy moms: how to balance writing and family

The latest episode of the Writing and Publishing Podcast comes to you from curbside at my son’s school on a Friday, with one minute to go until the bell rings. Why, you ask, am I recording a podcast at my kid’s school? Because the biggest challenge for many writers I know is how to balance writing and family. In this podcast, I talk about what works for me (until the bell rings).

Listen to “Writing for Busy Moms” on Spreaker.

Decluttering for Creatives: A Break-Up Letter to My Stuff

Decluttering for Creatives: A Break-Up Letter to My Stuff

Decluttering can be particularly difficult for creative people, especially writers.

Because we mine our own pasts for stories, we tend to hang on to mementos that feel significant. We are collectors of observations, but also of objects. We often are prisoner to the notion that the things around us will spark ideas. And while sometimes they might (having just the right pen really does encourage me to write), there is deeper inspiration, I think, in sparsity. When the clutter is cleared away, when our surroundings become more spacious through the absence of unnecessary things, we can think big. This month (the month of my birthday), I begin my journey to decluttering. I hope you’ll follow along (you can get posts delivered to your inbox), and offer your own ideas and questions in the comments section. On my first day of decluttering, I begin with a break-up letter to my stuff.

Dear Stuff,

It’s not me, it’s you. You’ve been around too long. Don’t get me wrong; you have (mostly) served me well. I have loved you (sometimes). I have needed you (on occasion). But our relationship must come to an end.

You know who you are. The clothes I have lived in, the shoes I have walked in, the plates I have eaten from, the coffee cups I have drunk from, the books I have read (and not read), the notebooks I have failed to fill, the toys my son played with when he still played with toys, the clothes he wore when he still liked piggy-back rides, the hats that made his head itch, the $32 organic sunccreen that made him sneeze, the basket of perfume samples that make me sneeze, the pans I don’t cook with, the bread maker I’ve never used because who has self-rising yeast, the timeless LBD I never wear because the last time I wore it, 14 years ago, I got drunk in front of my husband’s boss and shouted, in a room full of very respectable people, “Where’s the wine?”, the papers I’ve never filed, the files I’ve never organized, the filing cabinet that is one giant junk drawer, the art I’ve never framed, the frames with broken glass, the Halloween skeleton I never manage to pull out for Halloween, the stained Christmas tree skirt, the plate that says “Cookies for Santa” that I can never find until Easter, the Easter basket I can never find until Labor Day, the old wrapping paper, the cords that were once used to power some device that has long since disappeared, the devices that have long since disappeared (I know you’re around here somewhere), the greeting cards I bought and never sent, the envelopes for which I can’t find the matching cards, the endless slips of paper on which I have scribbled notes to myself that I can’t read, the glitter, the half-bottle of glue, the pipe cleaners I bought for craft projects when my son was young enough do do crafts, though he never embraced crafts, the jumbo crayons that were on his desk the first day of Kindergarten, the pens with too fine a point, the pens with too felty a point, the sweatshirts (so many sweatshirts!) my husband bought me out of kindness, which have kept me warm for many years but which take up an entire large dresser drawer, the photo albums I never put pictures in, the lamp I never liked because the light it gives off is dingy…it is time for us to part ways.

Yo once made me happy (or most of you did, anyway), but now you just make me anxious. We had some great times together, but no longer. When I look at you, I find myself thinking, “Why are you here?” And yet, instead of letting you go, I just look away. Many of you are still here because of nostalgia (I cry just looking at you, crayons from Kindergarten), but plenty of you are here because of inertia (hello, old pens and dingy lamp), a few of you are here because you were expensive and it seems wasteful to say goodbye (poorly fitting designer silk dress in colors that skew “clown,” I’m talking to you), and some of you (mostly in the kitchen), keep insisting you’ll one day be useful (a history of culinary disinterest assures me that you won’t).

No matter the reasons, the effect is the same: you make me tired. It’s time. I imagine my home without you here?—?shelves where the books I cherish are easy to find, drawers where the new batteries I need aren’t buried beneath the old coasters I don’t, closets where nothing suffocates. When you are gone, I know I will breathe better. I might miss you for a minute, but I’ll deal.

Losing you will bring me closer to the person I want to be. Lighter. Less crowding on the page and off. More white space. Think Danish (the design style, not the pastry). So, dear stuff, goodbye. No need to make this harder than it needs to be. Go with grace.

Sincerely,
Michelle

This letter was inspired by Courtney Carver’s 21-Day Decluttering Challenge. Thanks, Courtney! It’s part of my series on simplicity and decluttering for a creative life.

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Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections. Go here to view Michelle’s current online writing classes.

If I Were 22: A Few Things I’d Tell Myself If I Could Go Back in Time

If I Were 22: A Few Things I’d Tell Myself If I Could Go Back in Time

If I Were 22:

A Few Things I’d Tell Myself, If I Could Go Back in Time

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If I were 22, I’d tell myself that all of those journals I painstakingly kept, scribbling away with colored pens while Enya’s voice spilled out of the boom box, would just end up gathering dust. I’d advise myself to get on with the business of writing fiction instead. I’d tell myself to study some really good stories, like the works of Grace Paley, instead of wallowing in Anais Nin, who always made me feel as though I was not having quite enough sex (although, in retrospect, I was probably having plenty).

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A record of one’s days is relentlessly and uselessly Jungian, while a pile of unpublished stories is an education, an apprenticeship, a step in the right direction. I’d tell myself that the sentences I thought were so pretty, with all the linguistic flourishes, were actually just really long. I’d tell myself that there would come a time when I would prefer Steve Forbert to Enya, In n’ Out to Wendy’s, Ismail Kadare to Anais Nin. I’d tell myself that the only passions of my youth that I would still be passionate about in middle age would be solitude, books, and writing.

I’d tell myself that the apartment that came with my internship with Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tennessee, would be the last free apartment I’d ever have, so I ought to enjoy the two bedrooms, large kitchen, and brand new furniture, none of which I had to share. I’d tell myself that when I did start sharing an apartment, with a fellow former intern at a subsidized housing complex across the street from a police station, I should keep it cleaner. I should make greater effort to spend time with my roommate, a nice girl from Ohio, who was a lot of fun.

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My desire to be quiet and alone, punctuated by brief bouts of longing for conversations with strangers, would never waver. I’d say, “When you were 11 years old, you preferred to be alone. Now, at 22, you prefer to be alone. When you are twice as old as you are now, you will still prefer to be alone. Not existentially alone, not alone in life, but alone in the moment. It is your nature; embrace it. Don’t feel the need to go out just because young people ‘go out.’ If you want to stay home and write, stay home and write. There is nothing wrong with that.”

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#848484″ align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”I might say, “Less makeup. More sunscreen.” And “Cable-access news is on its way out, faster than you can say pleated jeans.”” parallax=”on” direction=”left”]

 

 

I’d tell myself not to worry, that I would not always be poor and uninsured, that I would not always have to pay for necessary surgical procedures on my Visa card or agonize over the purchase of a pair of shoes from Payless. I’d tell myself that the cheap shoes, like the credit card surgery and the tanning salon job that paid $5 an hour and the cable-access news job that paid nothing, were minor bumps on the way to a more comfortable existence.

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Oh, I’d tell myself to stop after the third beer and the second shot. Definitely, I’d probably tell myself that.

When the elderly gynecologist patted me on the knee suggestively and whispered that I had a pretty cervix, I would assert that I had every right to slap him. There were a lot of people I should have slapped in those days, but, having been raised in a Southern Baptist church where teenaged girls were referred to as “righteous foxes,” I was conditioned to graciously accept shady compliments from men in positions of authority.

I’d tell myself to end the engagement to the sociopath sooner, and to be kinder to the next fellow, who was and is a very good man. I’d tell myself that the sociopath and the very good man would both soon be a matter of history, anyway, because in a couple of years I would walk into a stuffy classroom in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on the first day of my MFA program, and meet my life head on. I’d tell myself that this would be a good time to forgo the small talk and quote Grace Paley instead: “Hello, My Life.”

I’d tell myself to keep the shoes and the dress I wore on that irreversibly significant day, and to throw away a lot of other stuff, instead of carrying it with me from apartment to apartment, house to house, for many years, watching it expand, sponge-like, to fit whatever space I lived in.

 

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#848484″ align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”I’d tell myself that a decade seems long until it’s behind you.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

 

 

That the shortest decade I would ever experience would be the one between my son’s birth and his tenth birthday. That on a spring day in 2015, the boy who once felt as light in my arms as a loaf of bread would look up at me and say, “I bet I can pick you up.” And then he would pick me up. And I would realize that the next decade would move even faster than the last, and I better hang on and practice “being in the moment,” a skill for which there would one day be many helpful apps.

Braum’s Ice Cream in Fayetteville, 1995; wedding in Yosemite, 2001; San Francisco, 2004; Little League, 2015

 

“What are apps?” my 22 year old self would surely ask. To which I would reply, “I really can’t explain it.”

 

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#848484″ align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”I’d tell myself that the next twenty years would be okay. That all the places I couldn’t imagine going, I’d eventually get to.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

 

I’d tell myself that I would work in Beijing, and I would work in the Empire State Building, and I’d see the Northern Lights in Iceland, and I’d ride a bus through Patagonia to Ushuaia, the town “at the end of the world,” that I’d honeymoon in Budapest and take my kid swimming in Oslo’s public baths during a startlingly warm Norwegian summer, that I’d get lost on a mountain in a thunderstorm in Slovenia and be rescued by a troop of young boys who, many years later, would find me on a thing called Facebook, which was on a thing called the Internet, which predated those things called apps.

I’d tell myself not to lose the photograph my boyfriend took of me with my parents on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty in 1999, the last photo of the three of us together. In a few months my parents would be divorced, my boyfriend would be my betrothed, and we’d be on our way to San Francisco, the city of my dreams. In the photo, my parents, who have not yet told me about their plans to end their thirty-year marriage, stand on either side of me, and in the background, the Twin Towers rise up, so ugly and imposing, and yet, it seemed, so reassuringly permanent.

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Because the need to write would never go away, and through every bump in the road that desire would keep me going. It would always be what I came back to, my parachute in case of tragedy, my planned soft landing. Well, if A, B, or C happens, at least I can write about it. Though, deep down, I understood that, in the face of real tragedy, it was quite possible that I would cease to write. Because words can only take you so far. Because there is such a thing as the unspeakable.

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More optimistically, I’d remind myself that I was young: at 22, I couldn’t wrap my mind around that fact. At 22, I believed my time was very short, that I must do and experience everything as soon as possible. I’d tell myself that, one day, life would indeed be short, but for now, the road ahead was long and meandering, and scary and sometimes dangerous, and often not very easy, and yet, mostly wonderful. I would tell myself that the next twenty years would bring more happiness than I expected, less turmoil than I feared, and, blessing of blessings, nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d tell myself to stop worrying so much, and just get on with the ride.

This post was inspired by the #IfIWere22 tag on linkedin.

CLMP Firecracker Awards

CLMP Firecracker Awards

The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has announced the shortlist for the 2014 Firecracker Awards, which celebrates small press and independently published books. Here are the finalists in fiction and creative nonfiction:

CREATIVE NONFICTION

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press)
Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House Books)
The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson (Tin House Books)
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye (Two Lines Press)
Surrendering Oz by Bonnie Friedman (Etruscan Press)

FICTION

Hum by Michelle Richmond (FC2, an imprint of University of Alabama Press)
List by Matthew Roberson (FC2, an imprint of University of Alabama Press)
Search for Heinrich Schlögel by Martha Baillie (Tin House Books)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke (Tin House Books)
Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen (Graywolf Press)
Songs for the Deaf by John Henry Fleming (Burrow Press)
Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard (Open Letter)
The Family Cannon by Halina Duraj (Augury Books)
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov (New Vessel Press)
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books)

I’m delighted that Hum received a nod, along with another FC2 title, Matthew Roberson’s List. View the complete shortlist for the Firecracker Awards here.

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