For Crying Out Loud

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About twelve or thirteen or fourteen years ago, I started to cry.

Wait, that sounds like I never used to cry. I did, but like a normal person: if something really sad happened, I cried. End of story. I didn’t cry when reading a beautiful poem. I didn’t cry when telling a story about someone else. And I certainly did not cry over a trailer from a movie the likes of A Dog’s Purpose. I saved those tears for the actual movie!

Alas, something shifted: I entered new territory, and I am now a full-blown easily provoked crier. It’s embarrassing and maddening all at the same time. I was plenty in touch with my emotions before: I did not need someone to tear down the dam that held propriety in check. 

But here I am. Welcome.

Recently, I was asked to talk at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about how my first book came to exist and about my experience finding a publisher. I planned to open my talk with a poem, which I always do, but this time I chose a poem that has layers and layers of special meaning to me (“The Writer” by Richard Wilbur, which I talked about in a post last year, a poem whose last stanza forms the epigraph in my memoir). I had practiced reciting the poem over and over, all the while knowing I would probably get choked up when reciting it anyway. (I won’t cry when practicing, but get me in front of people and here come the waterworks.) Fine. I could manage that somehow.

(The really sad part about this new normal for me is that I absolutely love public speaking. I always have, and I still do. It’s why I once took a job in university admissions which had me standing up and talking in front of audiences of up to 150 people a few times a week. It’s why I loved going on television talk shows to represent a non-profit organization I worked for. It's why I still like it when people ask me to give talks at conferences and book clubs. But I digress.)

The day of the actual AWW talk arrived, and I’m usually excited but not nervous before giving a talk, but this time I was very nervous for a solid two hours before my talk. Geez. Maybe it was because I had participated in this workshop for years and I wanted to do a top-notch job for the people I knew, especially those I consider part of my writing community, the ones who had asked me to give this talk in the first place. 

I exited the building a half-hour before my allotted hour and took a walk around the campus, doing all sorts of breathing exercises that involve counting and exhaling longer than inhaling. 

I went back into the building. I went into the auditorium. I took my seat to wait.

Then my friend Kate Geiselman—VP of the AWW board—stood at the podium to introduce me, and as soon as she started talking, I could feel my throat closing. I was already getting choked up, and I hadn’t even stepped onstage. 

You don’t need to be a genius to know this is a very, very, very bad sign.

Sure enough, I walked up to the podium, set my papers down, smiled and started thanking—yep, the choking up started then. I hadn’t even gotten to Richard Wilbur and his poem with layers and layers of special meaning to me. I was still at the I’m Shuly and I wrote a book and I want to thank some people, and my ability to hold it together was going south. Fast. Goodness.

I paused whenever I got verklempt, which was every few sentences during the first five minutes. The audience waited. Someone brought me a tissue (thank you, Rebecca), though I never actually cried. Still, I felt like I was having a public therapy session. 

Finally, FINALLY, I got myself (mostly) together as my nerves calmed down. Yes, I got choked up midway through my talk when recounting the story of my husband suggesting I realize my dream of getting an MFA, but that at least felt a little appropriate.

In the end, I overcame my nerves and choking up, and I delivered (I hope) the content that AWW wanted me to deliver. I talked about my journey as a writer. I talked about all the steps it took to find the press that published my book. I talked about pitfalls I had encountered, and I doled out advice to writers looking for their own publisher. And I managed, somehow, to get the audience to laugh at least once—maybe more, but that part is all a blur. 

When it was over, a few audience members walked up to me and thanked me, and they did so either from a place of honesty, or a place of pity. 

I’m definitely not asking which.


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Sarah Manguso, Lady Bird, the Smell of Wood

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The writer rob mclennan interviewed me a couple of months ago, and the interview posted this week on his blog. It's always a privilege to be interviewed, and Rob's questions made me think a lot about the role of a writer in the world. This coincided with a conversation that my writer friends and I had recently in which we talked about what kind of effect we wanted to make as writers. Some of the group wanted to make people laugh and be entertained, some wanted to teach or help people think in a new way, and others wanted readers to know they were not alone.

I don’t think I ever write with a purpose in mind. I write whatever story calls out to me in that moment. I suppose I trust that its purpose—whether small or big—will figure itself out. What do you think? Should all writing have an intended purpose? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Here is the interview. Thanks, rob mclennan, for this opportunity.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book made me an author, and that was very important to me—for many years, my goal was to have a book. I never would have guessed my first book would be a memoir. 

My most recent work hasn’t been memoir: I’ve been focused on fiction and poetry, though at times the genres mix with each other.

2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?

I actually came to fiction first—bad fiction: I started writing short stories in sixth grade, quite terrible little short stories that I thought for many years were quite good. In high school I started writing poetry and have been writing it ever since. I came to memoir in the last decade when I realized I had stories from my life I wanted to tell.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

This all depends on the project. Some are easy and flow, and I do very little editing. Other pieces I labor over and revise so many times I lose track. Some poems take me less than an hour to write. Some stories I write for years.

Here is a link to the rest of the interview on his website.

The Double Dark Theory of Our Universe

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Years ago, when I was taking one of my first memoir workshops, I remember a classmate reading aloud to the class what she had written. She was very excited about her project—a book about her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. What she read aloud to us was her reaction in the moments after finding out her cancer had returned. Specifically what I remember is a long sentence that went something like this: “I cried, I was angry, I was sad, I was scared, I was confused, I was distraught,” and the sentence went on to include a greater list of difficult emotions.

As a listener, I understood her emotions on a mental level, but I didn’t actually feel any of the things that I knew as a writer she was hoping her readers would feel.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I was preparing an author talk to a group of writers: the Lost State Writers Guild. Because I am usually speaking to a group of readers (who aren't typically writers), my author talk centers around life lessons I have been given, but because this time I was speaking to writers, I also wanted to give more insights into the writing lessons I have learned over the years. 

This meant opening my talk with a new poem. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I always start my author talks with a poem I love, written by someone else, that has inspired me. The one I chose for this particular talk to Lost State was one I had come across by Chloe Clark on Twitter back in April.

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When I first read this poem, it broke my heart open. In the weeks that followed, I read it many times, both silently and aloud, and I began to study it more, to look at how the poet had taken something very emotional and never once used a word of emotion—like “sad,” “disappointed,” or “despairing”—to convey to the reader what was being felt. (Okay, yes, the word “happy” is used, but not to tell the reader that anyone in the poem is happy.)

The writerly lesson is this: when emotions run high (or what some people call “hot”), write cool, meaning don’t describe anger or sadness or crying. Instead, have some distance and coolness in how you convey these.

You can thank Anton Chekhov for this advice, by the way, not me. He wrote, “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly.” He also added, “The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.”

(Yes, I learned that in school. Thank you, Queens University MFA.)

Thank you, Chloe Clark, for allowing me to read it at my talk and to post it on my blog. This poem is quite a beauty.

And thank you, Lost State, for asking me to speak to your group. 


"The Double Dark Theory of Our Universe" is part of Chloe Clark's book, The Science of Unvanishing Objects: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018).

The red flower pictured is from the lovely geranium that the Lost State Writers Guild gave me as a thank you. It is gracing my living room window as I type this.