Have you ever felt stuck in your isolation as a writer or mired in the world of your story? For months, I revised my novel and tried to turn it into the best version of itself but something was missing. I hadn’t explored the fullness and complexity of what it meant to be a writer in the world today.
I knew it. I felt it. Still, I couldn’t unlock what was missing in my story or in me as a writer.
Sometimes, you just have to switch things up and risk everything to engage with a new community of writers. The day I arrived on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon to study at the Tin House Summer Workshop, I gawked at literary luminaries like Lauren Groff, Alexander Chee, and Benjamin Percy.
You don’t belong here with real writers. Many of these writers have MFAs and book deals; you don’t. This isn’t for you.
Self-sabotage is real. If I told myself enough times that I wasn’t worthy and didn’t deserve to be in that writing space, I would eventually believe it and inoculate myself from tough critique and defeat. My workshop leader for the week was Tayari Jones, whose bestselling novel An American Marriage was the Oprah Book Club pick. Imposter syndrome stalked me in the classroom. It’s hard to learn in workshop when you’re fangirling but by mid-week I’d settled in enough to soak up her wisdom.
Tayari’s advice will forever transform the way I tell stories. She taught me that conflict isn’t borne of hostility, that too much estrangement and anger strangles narrative. Our workshop inspired me to soften the mean mama in my novel and bring the temperature down on my protagonist who “yanked curtains” and “snatched silverware.” Tayari said, “We learn to connect with characters by seeing them connect. You want to make all your characters feel like they’re right, like they have a legitimate point.”
Lectures from the most unapologetic badass authors I’ve ever met buoyed my spirit and girded me for the fight we’re all in to make our voices and stories heard. Memoirist Kiese Laymon talked about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse and the secrets and lies we tell in our nonfiction narratives in hopes that readers will forgive us for the hurt we’ve inflicted upon others. “In our intent to write honestly, sometimes we write other people’s trauma out of our stories,” he said. If Kiese could courageously tell his truth, I could at least own the space I had earned as a writer at Tin House. [Read more…]