Your Life in Words – A Guest Post

creativity man dancing

Welcome back! I’m celebrating my return to the blog with my first guest post from a writing colleague and friend I met over a year ago at a writing retreat. Jaime is working on her first novel, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading a portion of it. 

After a tortuous summer—during which I found writing difficult at best—it seems fitting to look at this often dark side of the creative arts. 

Mental illness

Staring at a blank piece of paper or the insistent blinking of a cursor on the computer screen is a tortuous business. We’re supposed to be writers, or aspiring writers, at least. That means we must actually write something, anything, to fill the page, meet the word count, beat the deadline.

But as all readers of writing blogs know, writing is hard. Taking the same 26-letter alphabet that’s available to everyone and creating something new, different, moving, evocative – not so easy.

Sometimes I wonder if the “torture” we put ourselves through is self-inflicted to draw out our angst and emotion. (*Please note: I understand that true mental illness is not self-inflicted.)

Think about it: many of history’s greatest artists across all genres have been truly tortured ones: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace. And that’s just the writers.

The worlds of dance, music and painting can claim their fair share of men and women burning from the inside out to communicate and, possibly, rid themselves of their demons through various forms of visual, musical or physical expression.

creativity man dancing

Creative Commons: https://vimeo.com/groups/weekendchallenge/videos/135494749

I’ve been a journalistic writer most of my life; fiction is new to me and I’m not very good at it. So to better understand and learn the craft, I follow a few blogs, read or listen to the occasional tutorial, and twice have attended weekend writing retreats (where I met this blog’s host).

Without a doubt, the two most innovative, wrenching and electric pieces I heard during those getaways where written by people who’d endured life-altering loss, neglect or disappointment.

These writers utilized their damaged psyches to thread words in combinations that, like a poke in the eye, force you to see the possibilities you’ve missed but they found. Their pain is a tool they wield to create.

Which makes me wonder: do we have to be damaged to produce great work?

A quick google search of “writers mental health” generates 12.6 million results in less than one second, with a Wikipedia article on “Creativity and Mental Illness” leading the pack. One Indian study from 2007 intimated that writers are more in touch with their feelings than “noncreative” types; perhaps those of us who sit before a keyboard are more sensitive and empathetic than our left-brain peers.

A 2003 article from the American Psychiatric Association goes so far as to investigate the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” essentially saying that yes, there’s a link between mental health and creativity. One blog noted that writers “were found to be 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population.”

Eek! Which comes first, artistic virtuosity or intellectual/emotional instability? Does that mean that a well-adjusted, reasonably happy person should lose hope? If your life isn’t ping-ponging from one crisis or drama to the next, should you shelve your dreams, unplug your computer or toss your journals?

No way.

Because in my decades on this fine planet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that life has a way of evening-up the score, no one gets away unsinged. I doubt that the intensity of injury or history of hurt matters. Whether it was being ostracized at the high school lunch table, weathering a bitter divorce or caring for someone you love who’s in pain, everyone gets burned.

Let’s be honest, pursuit of this craft is itself some kind of crazy – we write for months, edit, revise and re-write with the understanding that rejection is far more likely than acceptance. We’re all a bit nutty.

Our minds are fertile ground. Chances are you don’t have to dig too deep to come across an emotional scar or unresolved personal trauma.

And while it’s doubtful that I’ll ever achieve the agility of language that seems to flow from my favored authors Amy Tan or Ann Patchett, I can still mine the joys and sorrows of my life experience to put words on paper.

I am a writer, beckoned by the blank page and demanding cursor, not tortured by them.

Jaime guest blog

 

Jaime Baum is an aspiring fiction writer and recovering journalist. Currently a media relations consultant for a national PR firm, in the past she’s written for Make It Better magazine and the Sun-Times News Group as a features and business writer.

2 Thoughts on “Your Life in Words – A Guest Post

  1. Great post, Jaime & Suzanne! I’ve also wondered about this connection between personal trauma and creativity. Do you have to have suffered in order to have something to say? Can you still write an interesting personal essay, memoir, or even fiction, without having a defining tragedy in your past? I love your conclusion: as humans, we all experience pain at one time or another. The relative intensity doesn’t really matter. It’s more about how you draw on it and express it. (Of course, I can also relate to the nuttiness of simply being a writer!)

    Good luck with your writing projects!

Leave a Reply

Crying in Restaurants

Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil
Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil

Flickr: loungerie / Via Creative Commons

This is going to be my thing: sharing work that’s been previously rejected.

The following is a true story. The idea for the piece came from a writing exercise while on a writing retreat at Ragdale, an artist community on Chicago’s North Shore. Oh, and the title is courtesy of Dani Shapiro.

I submitted it twice and received two rejections: one with a personal note that they’d just published something similar; one with some suggestions for changes.

Writing is revision, and I’m arm-pit deep in revising my novel. So I’m not suggesting that we all run out and post our crappy stuff that couldn’t hack it elsewhere.

But I loved this piece. I loved that it happened. I loved writing it. I cried writing it. I’m glad it’s out of me, and I don’t want to work on it any more. I want to share it for whatever it’s worth.

The writing of it was the point. Not the publishing of it. Sometimes that’s enough.

 

Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil

My newly formed writing practice is fueled by a medium iced tea and a shortbread cookie at the local Panera coffee shop. In these two hours carved out of a busy weekend, I aim to add 500 words to the first draft of my novel, and I vow to stay off the Internet. But first, I reinforce my commitment with writing tips and encouragement from my favorite authors.

still writing

I begin with a chapter from Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. In its pages, I see shades of myself in a description of her mother, a frustrated, middle-aged woman, clickety clacking away furiously on a typewriter.

My eyes fill with tears and my stuffy nose blocks the yeasty aroma of the café’s freshly baked bread. These hours with my laptop in the corner booth are my attempt to finally pursue a passion long denied. I’ve written my whole life but never allowed myself to believe I was a real writer.

I’ve written my whole life but never allowed myself to believe I was a real writer

Maybe the catalyst was an emptying nest, age spots on my hands, or preparing to celebrate my own mother’s 70th birthday. Whatever the cause, a few months ago, I realized I had to give writing everything I had, or regret it for the rest of my life.

Still Writing was a reward for meeting my word count goals. It joins Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and other sources of inspiration on my shelves.

For years, instead of writing, I’ve collected lives of real writers; living vicariously through Natalie Goldberg, Brenda Ueland, William Zinsser and many others.

For years, instead of writing, I’ve collected lives of real writers

Long ago, after reading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write, I filled countless yellow pads with morning pages. There were flashes of stories in those pages I didn’t yet have the skill or courage to tell.

Back then, I marveled at King’s brazen recounting of his rejection slip collection. What nerve to believe he had something to say, and how fortunate for his “dear readers” that he never gave up.

I’m part of the tribe because I write

In a later chapter of Still Writing, Shapiro recalls sending an early manuscript to author Tim O’Brien, one of her literary heroes. His unexpected and encouraging endorsement symbolically welcomed her into the tribe of writers.

A chill passes over me. Maybe it’s the air conditioning on this hot summer afternoon, or maybe it’s that this morning my son handed me a copy of his favorite reading assignment for the semester: O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I close Dani Shapiro’s book and open my slim silver computer, prepared to add pages to my rough draft knowing I’m part of the tribe because I write. I allow myself one foray into social media to message the author who inspired my writing session today.

I click on Shapiro’s Facebook page not knowing who manages her account or if she’ll see it. I thank her for Still Writing and confess that reading her words and pursuing my passion has unleashed a flash flood of tears in this very public place.

Hours later, my laptop timer and the condensation on my watery iced tea signal it’s time to head home and make dinner. I’m satisfied with 873 words added to my manuscript. Before packing up, I check Facebook and see the message waiting icon. It’s from Dani Shapiro.

I wipe away new tears and take a screen shot of her generous, encouraging comments. As to my crying in the coffee shop, she empathizes and says she once thought of writing a book based on similar experiences. She’d call it Crying in Restaurants.

Dani Shapiro Facebook Message

 

 

 

6 Thoughts on “Crying in Restaurants

  1. Barbara Armstrong on April 5, 2016 at 7:51 am said:

    This will be copied and added to my files from my WRITER daughter and when she has her novel published, I will show it to her and we will probably be in a restaurant and we will both be crying!!!!!

  2. This is a great piece, Suzanne! I love those seemingly random synchronicities that give you chills. They’re kind of like trail markers, letting you know you’re on the right path. …I’d say you’re not only part of the writing tribe, you’re part of that tribe of encouraging and inspiring writers who welcome others into the fold. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  3. Daisy Wawrzonek on April 6, 2016 at 12:06 pm said:

    What a wonderful story!! Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply