Last February, I left my three young boys, my job, and the ten thousand things I “should” be doing at any given moment, to put writing first. This was something I had never done. For all my talk of wanting to prioritize a calling that has doggedly pursued me over the years (as I’ve just as doggedly tried to ignore it),
My instructor at GrubStreet had pointed out gently to me and my comrades in the Memoir Incubator that if we were serious about birthing our books someday, we were going to have to commit to caring for them attentively during their period of gestation.
Residencies, she said, were a great way to do that. So, with great furrowing of brow and biting of nails, I applied for one at the Virgina Center for the Creative Arts. After I sent in my application, I checked my email obsessively until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I forgot about it. I have since learned that artists’ colonies of this type have an algorithm that calculates the average length of time the human brain will obsess over something it wants (especially related to its creative self-worth), wait until said length of time has passed, and then spit out an email at the applicant while they’re at the grocery store on a Thursday, causing a massive surge of anxiety and cortisol in the bread aisle while they tap frantically through to see if the email has little balloons floating down it or not. Happily, mine did. So, after two flights and a meandering taxi ride, I arrived at the rolling, sculpture-dotted grounds of VCCA in Amherst, Virginia.
The colony offers retreats of various lengths to writers, composers, and visual artists in a breathtaking bucolic setting complete with circling hawks, antique silos, and red clay pathways. Each person gets their own studio, and is provided with three meals a day. Coffee is available at all times, and it is very quiet. Aside from the coffee, this is unlike life in my regular household in every possible way. As a mother of three, I would apply for a residency just to have someone cook for me for ten days, let alone being given a quiet space of my own where I could sleep through the night without a small human in my bed. On top of all this, I had heard from previous attendees that VCCA was special, as colonies go, for some intangible quality of the artists it attracted, who were apparently totally awesome—but in a charming and humble way—and for the nature of the place itself, which was described as “magical” by each and every former fellow I asked about it. And it was, I found. But why?
Writing is hard. So yes, with all excuses not to write stripped away, sitting at an empty desk in rural Virginia, I had a few moments of sheer panic. But the words came, and some of them were worth not deleting, so I did the best I could and made some headway on my book. But the real exercise was not in writing. Like any shame-driven masochist worth their salt, I can make myself sit at a desk and weep and write anywhere, so doing it in Virginia really wasn’t that big of a deal.
What was hard—in applying, in accepting the fellowship, in leaving the kids and the “real” job and the ten thousand things, in sitting at the Buick-sized desk each morning with the barn cat sauntering by and winking at me—was really committing to this thing I love, but am ashamed to love for reasons that still mystify me.
It was a chance to exit what I have always been told is “the real world” and enter a world that turned out, for me, to be infinitely more real than any other I’ve stumbled into. For my wide-eyed inner girl-child, it was like falling down a rabbit hole into an old wardrobe and then stepping out the back into an enchanted forest. At VCCA, everyone was like me: a terrified, creative introvert posing as a gregarious, confident extrovert (you can imagine how exhausting this is). We sat at breakfast and ate our eggs and hash mostly silently, and then scurried back under our logs to make art. At one point I turned to a composer next to me and she just held up her hand and pointed at her coffee. Now, that is some boundary-setting I can get on board with. For the first three days, no one even asked me what I was working on. It was heaven.
I heard at a writers’ conference last spring that in developing an “action plan,” and creating a “platform,” one should have an answer ready to the pernicious questions people ask at cocktail parties when you tell them you’re a writer. “Oh,” they say first, “what do you write?” and then, worse still, “have you written anything I would have read?” Since the most polite answer I can ever think of in these situations is “fuck you,” self-promotion hasn’t historically gone well for me. But at VCCA, everyone treated their own work, and mine, with a kind of compassionate respect that I had never experienced being practiced at me by a such a large group of people. And they taught me, by example, to practice this compassionate respect toward myself and my own writing. They listened carefully, without interrupting, when I finally came out of my shell enough to talk about my book. They nodded and patted me on the back when I cried through dinner after a rough day in the trenches. They never, ever…not once…asked what I did for a “real job.” The relief and gratitude at having found this tribe—my tribe—to teach me how to take my work seriously, was, indeed, magical. So until I can afford an expensive publicist who will say “fuck you” for me at parties while I go get a club soda, there are places like VCCA. I’ll be back.
Guest blogger Alicia Googins is a graduate of GrubStreet, Inc.’s 2016-2017 Memoir Incubator, and a recent recipient of the Emerson College Full Tuition Fellowship for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Cambridge with her three children.
Memoirist Michelle Bowdler applied for the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc. in January. The fund gives encouragement and grants to feminists in the arts—both writers and visual artists. It grants $500-$1,500 to 20 women biannually.
After she applied, Bowdler did what many of us writers do when we’ve put heart and soul into an application for a fellowship, a residency or a pitch. She hit refresh on her inbox every two seconds.
Bowdler, who works as a health care administrator in higher education, wrapped up GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator in May. She credits its instructor, memoirist Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for introducing her to the world of fellowship opportunities and encouraging her to apply.
“Alexandria told me, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try,'” says Bowdler, whose memoir, The Idea of Order, looks at the crime of rape through a social justice lens. She describes her own activism after learning of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in warehouses and police departments around the country decades after the crimes occurred, and how her efforts led her to revisit her own unsolved crime. Applying for the grant was a huge commitment to believing in herself, since, she says, her memoir is very personal and the material is sometimes difficult to write.
One afternoon in May, while checking email during a work meeting, Bowdler read, “Congratulations!” The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc. had granted her a $1,000 award. Alexandria was the first person she texted to share the news.
“Receiving the Deming award was thrilling and humbling for me,” says Bowdler as she recounted the awed reactions of a group of older social activists she knew professionally who knew Barbara Deming’s work first hand.
These days, Bowdler is writing essays while she revises her memoir. A sexual assault survivor, she recently contributed an essay to the anthology Resist: Women Speaking Truth to Power in the Age of Trump. McFarland Press will publish the anthology in early 2018. The essay is about sexual assault policy and what it means to have a president who acknowledged sexually assaulting women. Alexandria alerted her to the opportunity during Bowdler’s Incubator year, Bowdler pitched two ideas to the editors, and they requested two essays.
She also contributed an essay about LGBTQ rights, which she co-wrote with her 18-year-old daughter. Bowdler has also published several articles that have helped her build a platform for her memoir-in-progress. In 2016, her article “Why Donald Trump’s Words Matter,” appeared in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column. A Path Appears, a blog sponsored by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn, published her post “The Case for Clearing the Rape Kit Backlog” in 2015, the same year The Boston Globe published a story about her, After night of terror, years of anguish, she finds meaning.
Bowdler hopes to use her grant for an unfunded residency, to take another GrubStreet course or toward anything that furthers her work on her memoir.
“**ck the gatekeepers,” said Richard Hoffman, Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. He was one of four memoirists present on June 12 at Trident Booksellers and Café who have written about trauma. Melanie Brooks, Alysia Abbott and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich also shared their writing experiences as part of the event “Writing Hard Stories: Memoirists in Conversation,” presented with GrubStreet.
After cussing the gatekeepers out—those who aim to dictate what should be voiced in memoir—Hoffman went on to describe them. “Gatekeepers have a fear of unwelcome information…they put boundaries on art. They’re censors. We need to hear people’s voices.”
Hoffman has experienced gatekeeping first hand. Editors, he said, tried to remove an episode of child sexual assault from a draft of his 1995 memoir, an episode that, he said, was the book’s linchpin.
Hoffman’s candor made me glad I braved a sweltering Monday night for the event, centered around Brooks’ 2017 book: Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma. I felt ready to storm the gates of the New Yorker, where Jia Tolentino had recently written the article, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over” (and I haven’t even finished my memoir).
For her book, Brooks interviewed memoirists to investigate how they survived the inevitable psychological turmoil of writing their “hard stories,” and to gain insight and encouragement while writing her memoir. The memoirists she included tell stories about the death of a partner, parent or child; about violence and shunning; and about the process of writing, and attest to the healing power of putting words to experience, she said.
Her memoir, which, she says, is almost complete, explores the devastating impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. In the thorny throes of writing my hard story, I’ve dog eared dozens of pages of her book, so I can return to the passages for a moral boost when I feel discouraged.
“The memoirist must awaken an issue in the larger community,” observed Hoffman. In his case, it caused the arrest of the coach who raped him and at least 400 other boys. “It was never about me. It was about a crime in the community,” said Hoffman. As a result of writing his book, Hoffman now belongs to, as he described it, “a global network of people breaking through the barrier of shame.”
Abbott spoke about writing her 2014 memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. “AIDS didn’t just happen to me. It was much larger,” she said. “That helped me to write it.”
Marzano-Lesnevich revealed that she didn’t want to be held back by her emotional responses, so she learned to have empathy for her “little girl self,” she said. Her memoir The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, debuted in May. In it, she writes in part about the impact of having been molested.
The larger issues raised by Abbott’s book resonate through The Recollectors, “a storytelling site and community for the many children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS,” which Abbott and author Whitney Joiner co-founded. The discovery of this online community, Brooks commented, was how she first learned of Abbott and her story.
I reluctantly went back out into the heat feeling buoyed by the community, grateful for the writers’ insights and looking forward to digging into Hoffman’s Half the House—the only book of the four that I have yet to read.
Wall sits, Wall Street, Wall St. Wall sit. Boardroom table with people around the table “seated” without chairs. Some kind of caption, maybe “the emperor’s new chairs.” Boss sits in a real chair. Employees sit in imaginary chairs, saying how comfortable they are.
“Let the students talk,” said writer, teacher and editorial consultant Katie Bayerl to a group of 826 Boston’s assembled tutors. As a newly minted tutor, I was feeling lucky. Not only did I get to work with a bright and funny group of Boston school kids right in my neighborhood, but let’s face it, most of the time they were busy teaching me. “Is this, like, the first iPhone ever made?” cracked a high schooler during one session, snatching the phone I had been using to keep track of his 15-minute writing session. “Yes,” I replied, and when I was your age, we wrote in cuneiform.” We all cackle, and then get down to the business of learning about lobster backs and developmental biology.
Now I was learning again, as Bayerl gently lobbed the fruits of her years working with children to us. She teaches in the teen program at Grub Street Writers. In addition to letting the students talk, she advised: Personalize; Create choice; Move, play, engage the senses!; Break it down; Let students do the thinking too; and Forget about perfection.
Another short list of things to remember that she displayed also helped: You don’t have to solve everything; You’ll add value; and You know more than you realize. Breaking up into groups to solve tutoring challenges, we devised several collective solutions. Bayerl left us with my favorite tutoring advice of the evening as we wrapped up: “Fear is the only instinct that isn’t great.”
I’m honored that I was chosen to read an excerpt of my evolving memoir at the Grub Street Writers Spring Open House. I generated the pages in Memoir in Progress with Dorian Fox. Prior to the class, I had made tons of progress on my memoir. In my head.
Just like life, the class was transformative, joyful, difficult, and painful. This was memoir and I loved it. I entrusted my struggle with a cycle—a theme of my writing—to nine strangers who critiqued the pages in class, while I sat there feeling exposed. “What do you think of how he’s characterized this woman in his life?” asked Dorian of a fellow student’s work. “I think it sounds sexist,” I said hotly.
A few weeks later I came to class early and sat with the student on the couch at the end of the hall. We looked at one another. My feedback hadn’t shut him down. Sharing our writing had created an opening for him to tell me about his struggle with his son. That day, he gave me precious insight into being a father. Over the course of the ten weeks, I felt privileged to be part of an outpouring of talent. There were stories about illness, emigration, relationship struggles, lost siblings, divorce.
I realized we were all writing about the same thing. One night toward the end of the term I looked up at our necks bent over our notebooks. I saw how fragile we all are. And how strong, to be telling our stories in one small lighted room in the dark.