Is Writing an Act of Bravery? How About Sleepovers?

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An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.

I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.

I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it on Facebook, they kept referring to it as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to—always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”

I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays—admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention contending with years and years of rejection as a writer—is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.

That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.

I had been mulling this over for a few days when I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.

“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”

“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.

“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”

“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot, and it’s brave that I do it.”

He was enthralled.

“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”

“You do?”

“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”

“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”

“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.

This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no—that was the wrong answer.

I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.

I don’t know. But I nonetheless like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.

And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.

Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!

Susie

Personal Essays that Will Gut You

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In between projects, I’ve been finding myself writing personal essays. In the past six months, I’ve written five of them and published two (here and here; fingers crossed for a couple more that are currently being read by editors at two of my bucket-list publications). Writing these essays has felt like a good way to stretch my muscles a bit, the way a fiction writer might work on flash fiction between novels (my friend Katie Williams tells me she does this). And of course, when I’m writing personal essays, I’m also reading them. I feel lately like my world has been defined by these little written testimonials; essays have been finding me and demanding to be read. If you’re looking for them, personal essays are everywhere.

A well-written essay is a very powerful thing. You might see yourself in it, or you find yourself opened to an experience you’ve never had. Often, a personal essay can be both funny and tragic at the same time. A well-written one has the power to gut you like a good break-up song. And they’re more efficient than a book: often, you get a memoir’s worth of experience condensed into 1,200 words or less.

So today, I wanted to share a few of the essays that I’ve read recently. Some are not newly published, but were new to me. Get yourself a cup of tea and ten minutes, and try one out.

“The Feast of Pain,” by Tim Kreider (New York Times, April 26, 2014). 

Melancholic, hysterical, about everything and nothing, and very real. Excerpt: “I’m not just ghoulishly thriving off others’ pain; I’m happy to offer up my own if it’s any use or consolation. A friend of mine lost her father a few weeks ago, and still lies awake at night sick with guilt, torturing herself by wondering what she should have done differently in his last hours. I ventured to confess to her, incommensurate to her own grief though it was, that I still wake up in the night panicking that I might’ve accidentally killed my cat with a flea fogger, even though the cat was 19 years old and obviously moribund. To my relief, this delighted her. She now uses “flea fogger” as mental shorthand to stop herself from second-guessing herself into insanity.”

“Why I’m Okay with Having Only One Child” by Andrea Meyer (Elle.com, November 5, 2013 (and recently reposted on CNN Parents)

The title says it all—but not really. Excerpt: “After eight hours of drug-induced labor, I gave birth to a beautiful, lifeless four-pound baby girl we named Nina. After holding her, singing to her, and finally crying endless, helpless tears, I went home with Harlan, the delivery nurse’s command—’Come back and have another baby with us’—ringing in my ears.”

“Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” by Wendy Ortiz (New York Times Modern Love column, July 26, 2012).

A woman recently wed to a man quickly discovers she is not straight. Excerpt: “After the first of the new year, I came out to my husband. I turned over in bed to face him, and the sobs burst out of me and pooled between us. My chest heaved, my face was wet and contorted, but I forced the words out, finally, despite the pain. He sat up in bed, brought his hands to his face, and wailed. I knew neither of us would sleep that night and possibly many more nights.”

“My First Story,” by Charles McLeod (The Quivering Pen, September 9, 2013).

I’ve blogged this one before, because Charlie is a friend of mine. And it’s worth a re-read. Excerpt: “He’d gone in for a routine operation to have a vein removed from his leg.  The night before, unbeknownst to him or anyone else, he’d had an embolism in his intestine, and was dying from sepsis, his own waste poisoning him.  He went into a coma the next morning, and died while I was on a plane from Washington, DC to Detroit, trying to get back home.  While I can’t know for sure if he ever read my story, my guess—an educated one—is that he did not.”

“Why Did I Keep Such a Terrible Secret for So Long?” by Amy Jo Burns (Dame, undated, but recent).

A testimonial and a coming-out about childhood sexual abuse. Excerpt: “I shared it because exploring my own regret led me to discover the ways in which I still can be strong. I shared it because the story doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to many other girls who were just like me in Mercury and in hundreds of other towns, those who dared not say a word, so scared were they of the consequences. I shared it because people in my hometown were more outraged that the girls had spoken up than they were that a serious crime had been committed.”

“Difference Maker” by Meghan Daum (The New Yorker, September 29, 2014 issue)

This essay chewed me up and spit me out. I read it out loud to my husband on a recent road trip, though I kept having to stop because I was crying too hard. It’s just beautiful. Excerpt: “And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing—not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work—was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetual second-guessers we already were. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I meant this a million times over. To this day, there is nothing I’ve ever been sorrier about than my inability to make my husband a father.”

Do you have a favorite essay, or essayist?

What I Learned from National Poetry Month, or, Trying to Get Published in a Major Magazine, or: How to Tweet?

After the intensity of my daily posts in May for National Poetry Month, I haven’t blogged much. I actually had a brief mourning period when that month was over–mostly, I felt relief because choosing the poems and blogging them felt like a very important task that I was constantly worrying over–but I also loved the feeling of being so connected with readers and poems. Many people wrote me privately to say thanks, and, as I said on the last day, I felt after posting those daily poems like I was reminded of poetry’s great importance in my life. My recent feelings of cynicism about poetry’s power were dashed in favor of a great respect and awe for that most underdog of forms, teacher of children and adults, reminder of the daily wanderings of the mind, irreplaceable, sturdy, delicious poetry, for which we should all be very grateful.

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

So have I been writing any? Not a lick.

In fact, I owe the esteemed Mike Dockins a postcard poem in a big way, but I’ve been very busy attending to other things: personal essays.

And brooding, of course.

I turned forty this past year, and had the important realization that, to quote a good friend, life should not be treated like a rehearsal. What would I have to lose, I wondered, if I just put myself all out there? More to the point, what will I feel if, on the verge of 50, I’m still in the same place I am now–mostly happy, mostly lucky, yet angsty about my writing career? I don’t have an answer for that, but suffice it to say I decided this year to push my writing in every direction possible until it makes sense not to. To be relentless in my pursuit of an agent for my memoir. To be shrewd, smart, driven, and careful. To keep at it. And, though this may sound crazy, to learn how to Tweet.

Yes, Tweet. One thing about this crazy stupid world of ours: you can become someone, sort of, through social media. I guess if you do it right you can at least generate interest, book sales, a following. And more and more, my rejections from agents say things like “I need someone with a strong media platform” or “You’re very talented but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sell this in the current market.” Maybe my work is unsellable, or maybe I just need to work harder, better, different, to become someone with more cache and power. So I’m trying both to get published in more high-profile places than poetry ever allows (read: personal essays in women’s magazines with huge readerships), and, well, to Tweet about it. Or something.

But back to the personal essays. And angst. A friend recently stopped writing. She said she was too wrapped up in ideas of her own success, too obsessed. If an agent told her her book lacked X, she’d stay up all night rewriting it. If a different agent then told her it lacked Y, she’d freak out and rewrite it again. She asked me, if your memoir never gets published, would you still want to keep writing? And for me the answer was a very quick yes. Maybe that’s crazy; maybe the fact that I am not yet published means I should give this up, but the truth is if I could do anything all day long, it would be write. So I’m keeping at it. For now. Until it makes sense not to. What’s my point? I don’t know. Something about perseverance.

The personal essays, wow–they’re fun. And raw. It’s a challenge to remember that while you can ramble and play with language all you want in a poem or a longer work, in an essay that will stand out online or in a women’s mag you want to be pithy, smart, funny, honest, not too cerebral but not too light. It took me a lot of revision to get the first essay polished up and tight as a drum, and I think it’s really, really good.

Now to find someone who feels the same and wants to publish it.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @susiemeserve.

Onward, friends,

Susie