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Guest Posts, writing

Exclusive Virtual Writing Workshop with Sarah Sentilles!

April 18, 2021
sentilles book stranger care

Readers, writers, Angela here to let you know that one of our favorite humans, Sarah Sentilles, has an amazing opportunity available! Pre-order a copy of her book, Stranger Care to get exclusive access to a one-hour generative writing workshop via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available.

Wait, so who is Sarah Sentilles?

Sarah Sentilles one of a handful of writers I am always eager to work with. She is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels.

How do I sign up?

  1. Preorder book
  2. Go to this website.
  3. Scroll down just a little bit and provide your name, email, and order # and hit submit.

Please note, the offer is only valid until May 3, so preorder asap so you don’t miss it!

What do I need to bring?

The workshop will be held via Zoom and Sarah is a big fan of writing by hand if you are able. So bring a pen, pencil, notebook, laptop, whatever works for you and be ready to have your writing world rocked in the best way for an hour.

Jen and I will both be there, leave a comment if you are going as well!

 

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic, writing

When The Smoke Clears

March 24, 2021

By Joanell Serra

Early one morning in February 2020, I found a spot on a bench in downtown Oaxaca and scribbled in my journal. Sunshine, my personal drug of choice, spilled like a pool across the cobblestones. I was meeting nine people in an hour to go on a temple-climbing adventure, followed by a Mezcal tasting. I knew every minute of the day’s schedule because I had created it. I was hosting my first international retreat, women had flown in from both coasts to experience this magical city with me.

I can’t believe it’s really happening, I wrote. It’s almost ridiculous to be so happy in February.

Already a few days into the trip, my seasonal depression had ebbed upon arrival like mist burning off a lake. My asthma also cleared up, my migraines became infrequent and even my degenerating hip complained less.  Winter blues and chronic pain paled in the light of Mexican sunshine.

For years, winters were a long slushy slide into despair, until I came to understand that along with medication, meditation and therapy, winter travel was crucial to my mental health. I shifted my career for more flexibility and for the last five winters I’d travelled to sunny locations whenever possible. It was a much healthier option than increasing my medications or slipping into a dark place. This retreat was a high point, combining work, community, and Southern travel during my most vulnerable time of year.

A month later, the contrast from that blissful week in Oaxaca was stark. I contracted COVID-19 on a plane from NYC back to California. Because of the medical providers’ lack of knowledge, my asthma and poor testing, things spiraled. I was both sicker than I’d ever been and told it “definitely isn’t Covid.” (But it was.)

I landed in the ER one afternoon as my oxygen was low, where I was treated like a leper with a bomb strapped to my back. I sat alone, surrounded by yellow danger tape. I knew if I got better, I needed to do something creative and impactful in response to this experience.

Fortunately steroids, antibiotics and TLC from my family brought me through.

Weeks later, I was given the opportunity to co-edit an anthology titled (Her)oics, about women’s pandemic experiences around the country. Grateful, I jumped in.

As the spring and summer unrolled, things got progressively worse in the world, while we managed a new order in our own house. Both my husband and I were suddenly home full time. Our youngest joined us, after his employer laid off all his employees, and a second son and his partner, having escaped Manhattan, moved into our extra room.

There was much to be thankful for—I had recovered and no one else got sick. And while the house was crowded, it offered enough outdoor space to make it work. We tried to enjoy long dinners together on summer nights, marveling at the concurring blessings and hardships.

But the news of increasing racial violence brought new distress, as we collectively tried to protect our youngest son, a young man of color, from the pain of feeling “othered” both locally and nationally. Our middle child, who lives nearby, was fighting things off with a compromised immune system and the oldest was a public school teacher. Each choice we made as a family seemed fraught with danger.

I felt like I was juggling swords on a seesaw. As long as I stayed centered, nothing dropped. But the summer weather was my ballast, and everything changed when the fires arrived in Northern California.

Supernatural, Mars-like and apocalyptic. It was hard to find words for our sky, a thick orange haze from morning to night, with no real sense of time. Being in Sonoma, every whiff of smoke brought back a barrage of fire memories from 2017 and 2018. My phone beeped incessantly with a “Red Flag” alerts and the the air quality index stayed in one zone, “dangerous.” We boxed up our photos and valuables, and kept a suitcase packed by the door in case we needed to run.

“Have shoes and keys ready,” became my before-bed mantra to the family.

Despondency descended.  My work as a therapist became increasingly challenging, and my writing stalled.  I pictured my words floating off the page like ashes, no substance to pin them to the page. What does a seasonally depressed person do, if their “happy” season goes up in smoke?

Of course my asthma kicked up badly, and when I called my neurologist due to increasing migraines, he wasn’t surprised. “We’ve all been inhaling toxic smoke for weeks.”

Through all this, I worked on the (Her)oics anthology. In a sincere effort to be inclusive to diverse experiences, I offered free online workshops before the submission deadline. I worked closely with emerging writers on their pieces, sometimes through three or four drafts. The first piece to make me cry was about a family with three teens, grieving the loss of their father in quarantine. The first to make me laugh was a woman announcing she planned to survive the pandemic with weed and masturbation.  My heart broke for the woman who could not see her son, who lived in a group home. My anger rose as I read about a writer in Arkansas going to work every day in person, despite her diabetes, in a state that would not mandate masks. My anger turned to pride as she revised the essay, and shaped it into a powerful piece which we included.

Every submission moved and inspired me. I noticed I wasn’t as depressed on the days I met with writers and that my sense of isolation faded as I connected to “strangers” through their stories. I woke with a sense of expectation, eager to see the new submissions.

One writer, Parnaz Fouratain, submitted an essay titled Writing, and other Uncertainties. Her last lines stunned me, because they spoke for me, for this project. “It is a time to be awake, to see the world, perhaps, the way a child sees it, uncertain, bewildered, open. And when this time passes, and the peace and silence returns, the words will come, and we will all tell our stories.”

Eventually the fires abated. We had made it through another fire season, still standing. And to my relief, I’d fought off a surprise attack of depression, not with travel, or sun lamps or increased Prozac. My medication was listening to women’ stories. This was the newest antidote in my arsenal against SAD: the words of other women, the stories of displaced souls, the bold and naked truth of heroines. In my bleakest winters, Prozac and therapy had gotten me through. In this season of raging fires, I drank instead from a fountain of truths.

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and elsewhere. Her Debut novel, The Vines We Planted (Wido, 2018) was a Los Commadres Latinx Book of the Month Club Pick. She is co-editor of the (Her)oics Anthology, a collection of women’s essays about their pandemic experiences. out March, 2021 with Regal House Publishing. Twitter @Joanell, Facebook and Insta: Joanellserraauthor. 

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Jane Ratcliffe Interviews Caroline Leavitt

February 21, 2021
coma

My first introduction to Caroline Leavitt was several years ago in a private writers’ Facebook group where members were raving about not only Leavitt’s chops as a writer, and her generous wisdom as an editor, but the seemingly boundless magnitude of her heart. I was intrigued. Slowly I began reading my way through her work and was spellbound by the precision of her language, the propulsive thunder of her plots, her vivid, particular insights, and the way tenderness haloed every cell of her worlds—even the tough stuff.

All of this carries through in her latest novel With or Without You. On the brink of a comeback, rock musician Simon encourages his girlfriend Stella to celebrate a little too hard. Stella, a nurse who knows better than to mix drugs with alcohol, does so anyway, driven by a yearning to revive a love and life that that had long been lost to her. Rather than a revival, Stella first slips into a months-long coma and then comes the other side with a whole new set of yearnings, ones that surprise her, along with a staggering artistic talent that forces her to honor this new version of herself even if it means she has to leave behind things she loves.

Leavitt is no stranger to comas. After giving birth to a healthy baby boy, a rare blood disorder caused her to hemorrhage so severely she was put into a medically induced coma for three weeks and underwent numerous extensive surgeries. Given memory blockers to ease the trauma, Leavitt spent several more months in hospital before finally returning home to her husband and son with her dramatically altered body.

This isn’t Leavitt’s first time channeling her experiences into her work. 2003’s Coming Back to Mes Molly’s experience more closely aligns with Leavitt’s. Slipping into a coma after giving birth, she too remembers nothing. Leavitt found this novel actually fed her triggers rather than provided any solace. So Leavitt decided to write about a woman whose experience was the opposite of hers; a woman whose life was actually improved by the coma. And hence Stella was born.

Caroline Leavitt and I chatted over Zoom about quantum physics, the miracle of our bodies, and what it means to be healed. As it turns out, the rumors were true, her heart and wisdom do seem to know no bounds.

 Jane: Like Stella, you were in a coma for three weeks. As you were coming out of it, you had the distinct impression that “This is like The Matrix and my other life was a lie.”  Stella also wonders if “everything she had lived before was a fake world.” I found that really fascinating. Could you could talk about this experience of these dual realities?

Caroline: Quantum physics says that time is a man-made construct, and that eventually it’s going to stop. I remember when I woke up in the middle of my coma, I had this sensation that everything before this was not real. And this is real. I felt that I was in a high glass, steel and concrete building. I could hear a laugh track and I thought, I’m in a TV show and there are people walking around. It was very vivid. As vivid as me sitting here and talking to you. I just felt I can’t move but I have to. This is a nightmare and I have to get out of it. And I didn’t know if anybody from my other world was going to be with me. I was terrified. And then a woman came over to me, I guess she saw that I was awake, and gave me a shot. I went under again.

For Stella, I wanted it to be a little different. I did want her to move away from her past world into a new world. But I didn’t want it to be as traumatic as it had been for me. So I did a lot of research. I talked to Joseph Clark at the University of Cincinnati and he told me that when people are in coma your brain is firing and rewiring, and things are changing. He said they don’t know exactly what happens, but some people come out with totally different personalities. Angry people can come out very peaceful. And a lot of people come out with sudden new talents. There’ve been cases of people who’d never spoken a language and they’re speaking fluent Mandarin. There was one woman who asked for a violin repeatedly. And her family said, “Why? You don’t play violin.” They finally got her one and she was a virtuoso and started playing concert halls.

They don’t know where that comes from. It could be from cellular memory from generations ago. Or it could be changes in the brain. Whatever it is, I thought, that’s incredible. And it made me wonder what else the brain can do. We construct our realities and we live in those constructed realities. But what if there’s something different?

Jane: Stella doesn’t go back to her former life. Did you return to your former life?

Caroline: Not totally. It’s very funny for me to say but the coma was a kind of gift to me because it really changed me in a lot of ways. I used to be a very shy introvert, and I became much more extroverted. I still was on all these funky meds for a year and they made me look really bizarre. I was on massive doses of steroids. I was huge, like a circus lady, and my hair fell out. My skin turned gray; even if I put makeup on, makeup on gray skin is very weird. We had no money and our medical bills were in the millions. My husband had lost his main gig because he was spending too much time with me and our baby. I had a friend who worked for Victoria’s Secret and I used to write catalog copy. I called her and said, “Do you have any work for me? We’re so desperate.” With those catalogs you can get ten or fifteen thousand just for writing about blue sweaters. So she said, “Yeah, I have a project for you. Come on in.” And I said, “Look, I can’t come in because I’ve been really sick. I’m okay now, but I look a lot different.” She laughed, and said, “Don’t worry about that, that doesn’t matter.”

So I wear a muumuu, that was the only thing that fit me. And I put a kerchief around my hair. You could tell something was wrong. I tried to put on makeup and it looked terrible. I got on the subway, and immediately there were four teenage girls all highly fashionable, and they were snickering at me. I got to Victoria’s Secret and everybody there is twenty-years old and beautiful, with rivers of hair and glowing skin and tight little dresses. And here I am in a muumuu and kerchief. As my friend came out, I saw her face drop. She walked over to me holding work in her hand and said, “I’m so sorry, I cancelled the project. I should have told you, but best of luck and blah, blah.”

I remember walking out and my husband, Jeff, was waiting for me. I was really upset. And Jeff said, “You know what, fuck them.” We were walking by a store and there was this skinny, little sundress. And Jeff said, “Do you like that dress?” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t wear that. My arms are too big.” And he said, “Yes, you can. I bet you’ll look great in it.” So he talked me into going in there. And I bought the dress. And I wore it. And every time I said, “My arms are flapping,” he’d say, “no, they’re not. You look fine.” When people looked at me, he would look at them and they’d back off. That changed me. It’s really hard not to be sucked into what people look like especially in New York, but after that day I pulled out of that. I began to realize not only doesn’t it matter, it’s wrong.

What I started to do is when I would walk in the streets, I made it a point of finding someone who looked like they really needed a compliment. Usually, it was old ladies who had taken the trouble to dress nicely. I would walk by them and say, “Oh, you look really nice.” And they would get radiant. And I thought, well, that’s much better than walking around worrying about whether you’re wearing something that the New York City fashionistas are going to approve of.

The other way that the coma change changed me is I have a real sense that any moment anything can happen. It can be something good. It can be something bad. So I’ve told myself that the moments that I have left, I’m going to be the kindest I can, work as hard as I can, be as loving as I can. And not worry about the stuff that I’ve always obsessed about, things like fame, and who likes me and doesn’t like me. All this kind of stuff that I feel is ridiculous now. And I’ve become calmer. I used to be upset about everything. In that way, it’s been it was a real gift for me.

Jane: Did your experience leave you a more empathetic person? It sounds like it did. Or did if it leave you more fearful in anyway?

Caroline: No, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I used to always worry about what should I say and if I say something wrong are people going to think I’m stupid or whatever. When people are showing me that they’re sad or something’s terrible, in the past I would try to rush in and fix it. Now I rush in to listen. I think a lot of times people just want you to bear witness and just be there.

Jane: Both you and Stella have the experience of feeling disconnected from your bodies. What is your relationship like with your body today? Did the coma strength it or weaken it?

Caroline: When I was in the coma, they didn’t know what I had, they just knew I was filling up with blood. So they did these five emergency operations. Nobody thought I was going to survive so they really made a mess of my stomach; they cut muscles, my belly button that was over on the right. I have scars up here. And scars across here. And I’ve indentations from the drains. When I got home, I had to learn how to walk and do all this stuff. But I was so happy that I was here, and I had survived. And there was my baby. So I began to look at my stomach differently. I could never wear the tight clothes I’d worn before because my stomach is sort of triangular. But I began to see it as a medal of honor.

A few years passed and the doctor said, “If you wanted to repair your stomach, you could.” And I thought about it, and I realized I didn’t want to because this is the body that got me through what it got me through. I look at these scars and I see badges of honor. My husband has been great about it. He will look at those scars and say they’re beautiful.

Jane: I love your husband.

Caroline: Oh, he’s wonderful. Even when I was bloated and had no hair, he always made me feel beautiful and desirable. And that things were going to be okay. And that that helped a lot.

Jane: America is living through such tumultuous and traumatic times now. Has what you’ve lived through provided you with any particular coping skills for times like these?

Caroline: It has actually, because I know that feeling of fear and worry over what’s going to happen next. And I have learned that you have to stay in the moment and not project too much. I had a nurse I loved when I was in the hospital. She came in when I was panicking because they wouldn’t let me go home; they kept saying you have to another three weeks and then another three weeks. And this nurse came in in the middle of the night when I was really upset, and she said, “I’m going to give you a gift. What you have to tell yourself is start small. Do you think you can get through the next ten minutes?” And I said, “Yeah, probably.” She said, “Okay, so that’s all you’re going to do. You’re going to take life at bite sized and once you get through the next ten minutes you going to acknowledge that and then get through the next ten after that.” So that’s what I do now. I don’t want to ruin the moment I have now, by going into a fantasy about what it’s going to be like, if I or someone I love gets COVID.

I’ve had enough terrible trauma in my life that I know what can work and what can help. And I also know a little bit more about how to help others. As much as people don’t want to go through these terrible things, it really helps to be a better person in a lot of ways.

Jane: You wrote an essay about being in a coma for The Daily Beast, at the end of it you write: “And in the end, creating her [Stella], writing her experience, made all the difference for me. In the end, that was what healed me.” Can you talk about how this happened? And what does being healed mean to you?

Caroline: Well, that’s another great question. The first novel I wrote about my coma, which was directly after the coma, was very much based on me. It was sort of dark, because I was feeling dark at the time. There wasn’t a lot of hope at the end of the book, it just ended with Molly, the woman who was like me, not knowing if she was going to get better. And I didn’t feel better after writing that book.

When I wrote Stella, because she actually was better in so many ways, I just felt like thanking her, because her journey made me feel a whole lot better, and made me feel that tragedy is not always tragedy, because there were things that come out of it, that can give you better things and richer things. And I just loved her so much. It really felt to me like she was leading me by the hand saying, “look, this is okay, now. You went through that, but there are new things, and let’s move on and look on to the future.” When I finished the novel, I felt like, Oh, I don’t have to write about coma ever again. And that was kind of a nice thing, because it made me feel Okay, I’ve processed that. Now I can write something else.

Jane: So is that what being healed feels like to you, that you don’t have to keep processing that experience anymore?

Caroline: Yes, because I would keep processing and processing and thinking about it and worrying about it. And things would set me off. If I saw a soda that I had when I was in the hospital, I would panic. And now, the only vestiges of the coma that I have left is that I don’t like going to sleep. I’m very afraid of that.

Jane: Well, that actually ties in with my next question. Stella develops an understandable fear of going to sleep because she’s afraid she won’t wake up again. I think post-illness PTSD is more common than we realize. Do you have thoughts on this?

Caroline: Your body definitely remembers. I had gone to a therapist, and I felt like my mind was okay, but my body kept reacting and reacting and reacting. There’s muscle memory. It’s not like your mind; you can’t talk it away. So then it just becomes a question of how I was going to handle it. Writing about Stella helped a lot. And as I said, the only thing that I’m still not quite sure what to do with is the whole thing about going to sleep. I’m very afraid that I’m going to go to sleep and I’m not going to wake up. The only way I get around that is if I can make myself so exhausted, I will sleep. I don’t want to take sleeping pills. I tried melatonin. It didn’t really work. I tried wine that didn’t really work. Plus, I woke up feeling terrible. So it’s a process. I always think everything has a cost: happy things, sad things. The happy thing is that, okay, I’m alive. Nobody thought I would live. Twenty-four years later, I’m fine. And I’m healthy. And if the cost is that I have to grapple with this fear of being asleep, then I’m going to deal with it.

Jane: Growing up, Stella’s parents had been “bohemians” and hadn’t provided her with much security, often not having enough money for the electric bill. As an adult, Stella became a nurse because “she had never wanted to be that scared again.” Yet, of course, she is that scared again; possibly more so. What are your thoughts on safety and security? Are such things possible? If not, how do we stay sane amidst the fluctuations?

Caroline: That’s a really good question. For me, it comes down to stopping the panic before it starts. It’s actually something I learned in cognitive therapy. You can’t catastrophize. Say you don’t have money for the rent. And you say, “Okay, I’m going to get a job to make sure I have steady income.” And then that job fails. You can start catastrophizing and think, “I’m never going to get another job, and I’m never going to be happy.” I try to be in the moment and say, “Well, has that happened yet?” The answer is usually no. “Has it ever happened in your life that you’ve never been able to get a job and that you are on the verge of being homeless?” No. “Do you have skills?” Yes. “So you could get a job if you wanted to.” Yes. It’s a series of practical questions that I ask myself so I don’t fly off the handle.

Jane: Libby, Stella’s friend and doctor, ruminates about a plane trip where a man had suffered a severe asthma attack. She rushed to help him, only to be pushed aside in favor of a male paramedic. And during her hospital rounds, she faces daily misogyny. Despite strides forward, this is a common experience for women in most professions. And now during the pandemic, with so many children home, women are having to set aside their careers to keep the home front running. What was it like to write a character like Libby who is brilliant and capable and yet undermined simply for being a woman?

Caroline: I loved writing Libby. I talked to a lot of female doctors because I wanted to be sure that this still happened and they had story upon story upon story where every female doctor has to be twice as good as their male counterparts. A lot of people would say, “I want a real doctor,” when a woman doctor would come in. The women would say, “I am a real doctor. Do you want to see my credentials?” It didn’t matter whether they had gone to Harvard med school. People always preferred the males.

It’s in every profession. It’s less so in the literary profession, but it’s still there. If you write about a domestic drama, then it’s women’s fiction. But if a man writes about a domestic drama, then he’s Jonathan Franzen and it’s brilliant and look how well he knows women. And he doesn’t know women at all. It’s just a male version of what a woman is.

I think it’s a constant battle for women to keep saying, “you’re wrong, and we’re going to keep going forward and sooner or later, all these bad, stupid feelings will die out and women will prevail.” It’s terrible in medicine. Women doctors are not given the opportunities that male doctors are. People who are the chiefs of staff are male, male, male, male. I wanted to write about that.

Jane: Listening to you, I’m thinking how we’re so thrilled about Kamala, and it is thrilling. But we haven’t even had a woman President yet. We’re thrilled just to get to Vice President.

Caroline: I know, I know. The scary thing is when you think of somebody like Hillary Clinton, who could have been president, there were a lot of women still who weren’t ready to accept that. My sister and my mom, both did not like Hillary. And I kept saying, “Why not?” And it boiled down to, she’s too strong. And I said, “Well, don’t you want a strong woman?” Or they’d say, “She’s not nice.”

Jane: Look who we ended up with! Not nice! Ugh.

Caroline: I know. It’s so bizarre. So there’re a lot of women who do not help that at all. I got to know the nurses really well at the hospital, and I loved them. And a lot of them would tell me that they were the ones who really knew the patients. And they were the ones that really advise the doctors. I would say, “Well, do the doctors listen to you?” And they would say, “if it’s a woman doctor, always. If it’s a male doctor, they would get upset, ruffled feathers about it.” And I thought, Wow, that’s really ridiculous to have that going on now, but it does.

Jane: The more Stella embraces her new talent of painting, the more her psychic abilities awaken. Do you think we all have these abilities and have lost touch with them?

Caroline: Because I believe in quantum physics, I don’t think there’s anything really woo-woo about talented psychics who have intuition, or can read things, or can tell certain things. I truly think that thoughts are energy, thoughts are out there in some form, and talented psychics can pull that out and see it. And I didn’t want Stella’s talent to be seen as anything woo-woo. I wanted her to be seen as, well, her brain has changed and maybe she can go into a parallel universe and tell what’s going on, or she’s just more intuitive. People don’t listen to their intuition. There’re a lot of times when you have a gut feeling about something and you don’t follow it, but if you do, then that can be opened up.

I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve known things. When I was really young, I was engaged to this guy, and I used to tell my friends. “I know he’s going to die.” And they would say, “Oh, come on, what are you talking about?” I knew he was going to fall off his couch and die. My friends would say, “You’re ridiculous.” The night before he died, I had a dream that was really disturbing, and I told him about it. He said, “Oh, you’re just nervous about the wedding. We’re getting married in two weeks.” And the next day, he died. He had a heart attack and fell off the couch. So I kept thinking, How did I know that? I mean, that seems like a little close. But maybe it was in the atmosphere, and I was able to pull it out.

Jane: Even as Stella evolves into a more independent, creative, and true-to-herself woman, she longs for who she used to be, who, in part, was someone living her life to please others. It’s almost as if she feels guilty for leaving behind the people who weren’t truly supporting her. I think women in general struggle with this, even if it doesn’t involve an illness.

Caroline: You know, as soon as you said that, I thought, oh my god did I do that and then I realized I most certainly did. I grew up in a family where I was the people pleaser and the fixer of the family. I was the Pollyanna and it was really important to me that everybody be happy, and everybody be loving, everybody liked each other. My sister had this terrible personality change when she turned seventeen. She became very hostile to me to the point of viciousness. I went to my therapist said, “What can I do for her? What can I do for her?” And the therapist said, “Well, you know what, you might have to do something for yourself, which is to separate yourself from that viciousness. Just say something like, I love you, I’m here, but I’m going to live a happy life. And now the happy life might not include you.” And that’s what I’ve had to do. It was a terrible decision, but I feel much better, because I’m not getting screaming phone calls. I’m not getting things that I’ve sent her returned to me all ripped up. But I do feel a yearning that like, Oh, if only I could help her because that’s what women are trained to do. But sometimes you have to realize that you have to save yourself and live your own life. I’m not harming her life. I’m just saving mine.

Jane: The novel ends on such a positive note. Toward the end, Stella says, “We all have multitudes inside of us, each of them young with hope. Any moment, something amazing can happen.” Do you share Stella’s optimism?

Caroline: I do. Because I have seen myself change. It wasn’t easy. I grew up intensely shy and fearful. I would never tell anything dark or any secret. When I went on book tour, I had to learn to speak to people. I began to carry talismans. I had red cowboy boots, because I thought any woman who wears that is kickass and brave. And when I wore them, I felt that way. And I began to experiment more. I would tell people deep emotional truths that embarrassed me just to see what would happen. I learned that people opened up more to me when I did that, and I became more and more emotionally honest.

I started writing more essays saying, this is what happened to me; this is this is the truth of it. And it felt so freeing, because my mother would always say, don’t talk about family, never say anything bad about your sister or your father. And I thought, well, how can I heal if I don’t mention that? And I found that writing about it made me feel more connected to the world. And I also feel that’s the way I want to live. And I don’t know what else I’m going to do or be, but I love the feeling of being brave. I do feel that we can change. We can have these amazing lives. It does take work, and it does take pain. But it’s like in writing, you learn to sort of like the pain because of what it can teach you.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Modern Love, among others.

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Creative Nonfiction; Longreads; Guernica; Vogue; New England Review, and The Believer; among other publications. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Michigan with two cats and a dog.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Becoming A Brave Artist

September 29, 2020
book

By Chelsey Drysdale

I read his memoir in two sittings, watched his prerecorded online class, took a cozy afternoon workshop he led, and savored a rainy-day lunch across from him, surrounded by mutual writer buddies. To close friends, he was my “literary crush.” Single for eight years, loneliness my unflinching shadow, at 43 I believed the swift jolt of infatuation was resigned to memories. I basked in this fresh fascination because it reminded me someone new could still light me up.

When I handed him his book to inscribe for my mom on his book tour, he buried his face in the title page with a sharpie.

What the hell is he writing to my mom? I thought.

“When are we going to do this again?” he asked.

Any time you want.

He said he and his wife had a guest room in their house if my friend and I ever wanted to visit.

That’s a wonderful and terrible idea, I thought.

At home, I opened the book and saw these words: “Donna: I have a secret literary crush on your daughter. Don’t tell her!

***

I’d experienced chromosome-altering heartbreak, a sham six-month marriage, a gut-wrenching broken engagement, ill-timed encounters, and problematic flings. Scared of more loss, my subconscious demographic of choice is a man like him: a smart, creative father with a stellar sense of humor, tall, with dark hair, muscular but lean—and taken. Inaccessible men are the tantalizing cheese wedge poised on a trap. I wanted to know him, even if I couldn’t have him.

***

When I read the author’s inscription, my inner, dormant teenager emerged, ready to flourish on false potential. I danced around my studio, swinging my hips, snapping my fingers, singing a wordless, made-up tune.

I still got it, I thought.

I broke the words into meaningful segments, scavenging for crumbs on a trail to nowhere, nibbling tiny bites, wishing they’d provide nourishment. The word “secret” gave me chills; the word “literary” suggested he was a fan of my work; the word “crush” implied he felt a stirring in his belly when he saw me too; “don’t tell her” was wily because the message was for me.

I showed the dedication to a handful of girlfriends.

“Oh no he didn’t! Oh boy! Buckle up!” a fellow career single woman texted back.

“Oh, that’s adorable,” another friend said, having been a mistress.

“Dangerous,” my sister said, having been a wife.

His note propelled bawdy, unfulfilled fantasies for weeks—the perfect sidetrack to block any real chance for intimacy elsewhere.

***

While his memoir was a mesmerizing concerto, the author’s latest novel was wildly inventive. I read it inside three days, then devoured his other four with the same intensity. I starred words about the inevitability of isolation and relinquishing expectations about what life should be. I sat slumped on the hardwood floor sobbing for a boy ignored by his mother. I underlined phrases about truth and love at all costs. I shared my desolate bed with his tomes in an intimate act with no adverse consequences.

This is the kind of writer I want to be, I thought.

In recent years I’d been plowing through unending trepidation in a flurry, writing like a madwoman, angst cresting on publication days alongside rare pleasure. Before, I’d been consumed with an innate lack of conviction and debilitating fear of failure—the same lifelong anxiety that had led to unsolicited singledom and childlessness too.

After whittling an essay collection for three years, I was mystified by the ending. How was I supposed to finish a book about romantic love when I’d never retained it?

***

Motivated in part by increasing amorous reveries, the tug of creative kismet propelled me to email him.

“I’d be stoked to help you finish your essay collection,” he wrote. “Plus, I really dig that piece you published in WaPo. Double-plus, you have cool hair.”

“You had me at ‘you have cool hair,’” I replied.

We moved a racy tale from page 76 to page one, and we were off on a fruitful journey. Bonus: His editorial notes were delivered via video chat. On days we connected online, I awoke with childhood Christmas morning enthusiasm, ready to unwrap hidden treasures. I took extra time fixing my hair and makeup and made sure I didn’t wear the same shirt twice. I treated our cyber encounters like scholarly dates in an otherwise solitary existence.

During our meetings, I gazed at him on my laptop screen, admiring his handsome face and calming voice, relishing in his golden counsel. He read his favorite words of mine back to me in a measured tone that suggested they mean something. He said I wasn’t afraid to be “brazen.” He told me to “play up moral ambiguities” and be “fucking serrated.” My jaw dropped with recognition when he called three important men in my life a “triptych of superimposed happiness.” When I turned in a revision of chapter six, he said, “This is what Chelsey’s capable of. Every scene is dialed in.”

I floated two inches off the ground.

In eight weeks, we covered eight chapters. In the process, he became privy to private details and facilitated my emotional voyage on the page. All the while, my feelings for him grew stronger.

Is this like falling for your therapist? I wondered.

I addressed emails to the Book Whisperer, Fairy Godmentor, and Unicorn. Despite my fawning, he remained a professional, nonjudgmental friend. His book inscription proved to be an innocuous gesture. As a result, I adored him more.

Before our time was up, we mapped the rest of my manuscript, now a memoir.

I got choked up during our last online exchange.

“You don’t know how much this means to me,” I said.

“Are you going to make me cry on a Monday morning?”

“You’re a really special person.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” he said.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” I replied.

The absurdity is not lost on me the unattainable editor I chose to guide the unpacking of my love life is someone I wished, in an imaginary world of impeccable timing, played a starring role in it.

***

In the coming months, our contact was relegated to Instagram likes, retweets, and the occasional email. I felt special when he wrote, “Wanna hear a secret?” and told me about a book deal he wouldn’t announce for another four months.

When I was in San Francisco, he commented on an Instagram photo, “Maybe we can see each other this weekend!”

When we realized I was flying out as he was flying in, he emailed, “We’re like ships in the night.”

Months later, I finally hit him up for the coffee get-together he’d promised more than once. He suggested walking around the lake by his house. We hadn’t seen each other in person since the Festival of Books before our video chats. There we’d walked side-by-side to his signing booth, our arms draped across each other’s lower backs. I felt unanticipated electricity shoot through my hands.

Even so, I sensed a demarcation that protected the commitment he had for his precious family unit. I respected it. Yet, driven by curiosity and what I considered an extraordinary connection, I tested it anyway.

At the lake, alone for the first time, he gave me a stiff side-hug. Then we strolled the circular three miles slowly, discussing his recent career feats and the material I added to my manuscript post-mentorship. I told him an acquaintance’s recent seedy encounter I thought might work in his fiction. We laughed and locked eyes when he cracked a dirty joke.

At an opportune moment, I broached the topic I’d been stewing about for months: this essay. He hadn’t read it yet, but knew it existed. He’d emailed, “I utterly trust your talent and conscience. We are pals, and don’t worry…”

I didn’t think it was possible to feel this way about someone again, I told him at the lake.

“Then I met you,” I said.

He was quiet, staring at the ground as we walked.

“Meeting you gave me hope it’s still possible to meet someone else,” I said. “I realized I’m not dead inside after all.”

He laughed. “I’m glad I make you feel not dead inside!”

He asked if he could read the essay.

“Of course!” I said. “I want your approval. I’m terrified.”

He stopped to use a nearby restroom. Then I changed the subject.

After we finished circumnavigating the lake, I asked, “Do you have time for lunch?”

A knot formed in my throat, a familiar feeling of short-lived excitement giving way to unrelenting seclusion.

He declined and hugged me goodbye. When he pulled away, my hands slid down the arms of his black leather jacket, a natural motion meant to lead to the intertwining of fingers. He tensed. I froze and awkwardly gripped his forearms instead. Then he left.

When I think about men from my past, I envision a man-shaped cartoon-cutout in a brick wall where they’ve each leapt to a hasty escape, as if my gift is making men disappear, when really my brand of magic is orchestrating ludicrous, unworkable scenarios to set myself up to be snubbed as a way to reinforce the false notion I’ve long suspected: I’m not lovable.

This felt like that.

Back at my computer, I sent the author an earlier version of this piece. He’d made me feel safe. After I hit send, I no longer did. Now I risked feeling rejected as a person and a writer. I lost sleep.

***

After our last video chat, I stared at a blinking cursor, with six more chapters to rewrite. I panicked.

I can’t finish this book without him, I thought.

But I forced myself to trudge forward. I wrote as if he would still read what came out of me, his closing remarks echoing in my head: “I’ll be in the front row when you publish this book. Keep going keep going keep going…”

I began to trust my instincts as I tried to make sense of my past. Glimpsing my empty studio apartment, absent of all the men I’ve worshipped, I finally understood what it meant to be my own advocate. Succinct sentences were tiny miracles. Exploring secret scenes was freeing. The author no longer needed to commend my creation for me to see it was working. For the next two months, I wrote with an uncharacteristic determination and finished my manuscript.

But intrepid writers stumble eventually. A year later, when all publishing progress had stalled, and the author had read this essay without comment, whatever creative energy I’d tapped into ceased. I couldn’t write, and I began to question whether publishing my memoir was worth the agony of upsetting its unsuspecting participants.

I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to seeking validation through the sultry eyes of lovers gazing back at me. When I write, I substantiate myself instead. While the soft glow from my computer screen is no substitute for eye-to-eye moments shared with another human being, a self-directed liaison with words incites a confidence I’d only expected to have as a result of being one half of a duo. Conversely, when I don’t write, my self-esteem plummets, and my monkey brain goes into overdrive: You’re not good enough. You’re alone because no one loves you. Give up.

After months of immobility, I heeded the author’s earlier advice to finish this essay: “Get out of your own way. There’s no reason not to write more.”

***

I rebroke my heart to have an unforeseen love affair, not with a man, but with my manuscript. Publishing my memoir has to be worth it. Self-sabotage is a death knell, and writing is the road to contentment over which I have control. I can’t send a shout-out to my nonexistent husband for his undying support. I am unable to thank my unborn children for showing me the true nature of devotion. I can, however, render self-awareness my superhero trait. I will never be a mother, and I may never be a wife again, but I have become a brave artist.

If I ever fall in love again with an unattached man, I’m sure it will be a direct result of living an authentic authorial life, building my self-worth without another person’s adoration. Even on the bleakest days, as I work toward publication, I return to the same thought: Someday I will create the life I’ve always wanted, and I will deserve it.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, writing

A Writer Changed My Life

May 4, 2019
writer

By Pam Munter

As a writer, I’ve been asked more than once: What book changed your life? My response is always the same: It wasn’t a book. It was a writer who never wrote a book. I wish I could say she was my hero but I barely knew her. Sometimes the most surprising act of kindness can transform a life.

Her name was Clara McClure and her family lived in a white clapboard house across the street from us on eucalyptus-lined Hartzell Street in then-middle-class Pacific Palisades. It was the late 1950s, long before the dawn of cultural feminism. This was the era of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” the traditional family unit writ large. Nobody was a stranger in our neighborhood, full of stay-at-home housewives, including my mother, who frequently met in each other’s homes in the mornings after the husbands and children were gone for the day. They’d drink coffee, smoke their cigarettes and talk about family members and other neighbors who weren’t there. Continue Reading…

Call for Submissions, Guest Posts, writing

Call for stories: The Extraordinary Project

May 28, 2018
call
Manifest-Station Contributor Suzanne Clores has a call for stories:

That one secret moment when something truly otherworldly/extraordinary happened. You heard a voice. You knew a friend’s future. You saw another type of being. You dreamt a terrible or wonderful truth about your health no doctor had told you. What was it? Did you teach yourself to forget, or does some part of you remember?  I want to hear your story, no matter how mysterious or fuzzy or clear. At least once we’ve all had a moment like this, then stared at the stars or stayed up at night asking questions about why we’re here. Are we all connected (yes!)? Do my actions matter (yes!)? Do I have guardians or guides or invisible forces coming to my aid (I don’t know! Maybe!)?

The Extraordinary Project is a highly produced podcast devoted to exploring our questions about these invisible worlds, a journey into our deepest and most personal perceptions. No need to be witchy or precious or certain or believing in any way. Whether you’re a yogini or meditator or crystal carrier or pizza loving wine enthusiast, your story matters. I’d love to hear you tell it. Please contact: Suzanne.clores@gmail.com.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking here.

 

Guest Posts, writing

On Authenticity, Life, Writing, and Those Hairy, Tooth-filled Teratomas

February 11, 2018
teratomas

By Heather Candela

Was it the bible or the bard who said there’s nothing new under the sun? Either way, it’s gospel truth. Beautifully original is impossible. Especially living in today’s world. The world of social media, where I realize every day that even if I think I’ve gone and done something worthwhile — baked something bodacious and beautiful; written something poetically profound; experienced some sort of mommy enlightenment – I’m knocked back down to my rickety reality with a single swipe of my Instagram. I’m barely hanging on, and I definitely can’t compete.

Take, for example, Joanna Gaines’ perfectly appointed farm house sink, tiny bean sprouts perched prettily all in a row on the ledge behind it. Planted by her daughter. My girls, they planted seedlings once. They mildewed and drowned in their own Dixie cups. The seedlings. Not my daughters. I did manage to keep them alive. So there’s that. And they are currently beautiful and independent and flourishing, even if their little bean sprouts never made it. So, yeah — there’s that. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing, Writing & The Body, Young Voices

Yesterday I Bled Brown Blood: Writing The Future

May 17, 2017
venus

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Demetra Szatkowski

I hand you my pain one piece at a time
sometimes all at once
messy unsure convolutedness
And you make sense of it

and hand myself back to me

healed

***

Venus in my first house. Venus in my house of self. Venus saying, who are you, how do you relate to yourself, how do you see yourself, how do you let others see you.

Today I woke up and bled brown blood. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Truth, writing

Escaping Loneliness

May 10, 2017
loneliness

By Michael Wayne Hampton

“Loneliness, and the feeling of being unwanted, is the worst poverty.” – Mother Teresa

Introduction:

I’ve felt an essential loneliness throughout my life, and from the time I was a child I’ve struggled to feel the safety, understanding, and love that I imagined could be found in emotional closeness of others. Whether this defining emotion for much of my existence has its roots in a childhood where I often felt disregarded, out of place, threatened, and alone, in my neural biology living with Bipolar II, a psychiatric disorder which leads 17% of those it impacts to commit suicide, or is the result of all the unnamable psychic forces which shape one’s life is hard to quantify or define clearly. What became clear was that the continuation of this all-encompassing grief, as severe depression for the initiated moves far beyond sadness, had escalated to not only threaten my life, which it had nearly taken before, but had grown to the extent that I was left to either submit to the waves of hurt which battered me, or find a way to live and create. At the midpoint of my life survival, rather than living, had become purposeless and too much to bear. The comforts of religion, the rational accounting of all I have to live for, did nothing to inspire me to do more than live out each day distracted by work of social media until the night came where I could drink my sense of self away to sleep. In the last six month my ever-present loneliness, the sense that I was worthless and unloved, threatened not only my life, but my ability to create art, which in many ways I cared much more about than my own life. To move beyond the aching of questions unanswered, the silence that never left, the ghosts I carried, I turned to books to study how to exist. Stoic philosophy, social psychology, and Eastern religious traditions helped me form, and continue to form, a framework to evolve into a person who can do the work he felt he was born to do without the necessity for external support or acclaim. It’s a work in process, multi-faceted, and includes a number of various but cohesive personal lifestyle, physical, and psychological processes and projects, but in this essay I will focus briefly on the nature and impact of loneliness on the artist’s life, how ancient philosophy, theology, and modern psychology can aid an artist in moving past their personal loneliness no matter its roots, and present concrete principles that can be incorporated to escape the sense of loneliness toward the goal of better engaging in creative Flow states. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing

Butterfly of the Moment

March 22, 2017
writer

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

After graduate school I drifted into a glamour job as a publicist for a well-known book publisher, where they paid me a pittance to write press releases and book jacket copy. It was fun for a while, until I went to my high school reunion and someone said, “I thought by now I’d be reading about you in the New York Times Book Review.”

“No,” I said, cringing. “I’m the publicist who makes sure other writers books get reviewed there.” I’d been editor in chief of our school yearbook; my poetry had been published in the school literary journal. My classmates remembered me as a writer; I was the one who’d forgotten.

So I signed up for a fiction writing class at the New School in Manhattan with an instructor who’d once written for the New Yorker. I’d never written short stories before. I turned one in; the next week, he returned it with a note: “I have several strong feelings concerning the story’s marketability. Rather than go into them here I ask that you telephone me so that we may discuss those possibilities.”

He wanted my permission to give the story to his agent, Candida Donadio, a name I knew from my work in book publishing. She was legendary, a hard drinking, potty-mouthed, tough old broad who’d been the agent of her generation, representing Thomas Pynchon, Mario Puzo and Phillip Roth. I felt like a fraud. I’d written exactly one short story. But I told the instructor yes.

A week later Candida sold the story to Cosmopolitan magazine for the dazzling sum of $1500. She invited me to a celebratory lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I’d pictured her as a cultured, elegantly dressed older woman; the maitre d’ showed me to a table where a short, heavy-set woman with hair coiled in an unfashionable bun atop her head sat chain smoking.

“Why you’re just a baby,” she rasped. We shook hands. I could barely breathe, let alone eat. I was kneeling at the altar of literature. All through lunch she fed me publishing tidbits. The first book she’d ever sold, she said, had been a novel by Joseph Heller called Catch-18. They changed it because Leon Uris was already publishing a book called Mila-18. “He switched it to ‘Catch-22 because Oct. 22nd is my birthday,” Candida said.

What was I doing there? I was an imposter. This was a fluke. Should I come clean? “You know,” I ventured, “I don’t have a body of work to show you yet. This is my first story.”

She cackled. “You’re full of shit,” she said. A month later she sold my second story to Cosmopolitan.

It’s not supposed to be this easy, I thought. And of course it wasn’t. Over the next few years I wrote several more stories, amassing a collection of encouraging rejection letters from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Each Christmas I sent a gift box of fruit and cookies to Candida’s office. “You’re a honey for thinking of me, and I send you in return good wishes for the New Year in which I hope to see a novel by L.C.,” she wrote.

I produced that novel. Candida hated it. She returned the manuscript to me with a note so crushingly painful it still makes me shudder. It ended, “I regret so much. And after all the years of pears and cookies. Lordy!!”

Eventually I scraped myself off the floor.

Even if I wasn’t a novelist, even if the most high-powered literary agent on the planet told me I was full of shit, I was still a writer. Isn’t a painter still an artist even when no one buys his canvases?

“It is necessary to write,” Vita Sackville-West said, “if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.”

I still fill the days with words, because I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing calls me home — to myself.
ketchup+is+my+favorite+vegetable-Front+Cover+090915+reduced
Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir, Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Brain, Child, Brevity, Literary Mama, and The Manifest-Station. For more information, visit her website at https://www.lianekupferbergcarter.com/, follow her on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/LianeKupferbergCarter/ and Twitter at @Lianecarter.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Guest Posts, writing

Writing About Us

March 6, 2017
writing

By Kathleen Harris

In my freshman year of high school, I’d written something that my English teacher deemed “exceptional.” I was called to her desk after class, and praised for my creativity. A kind and encouraging letter was sent home to my parents as well, highlighting my potential.

I’d been writing since I sensed the pull of words — somewhere around age 4. Not short stories, of course, but angular, awkward attempts at words — and their accompanying stick-figure illustrations — to highlight my frustrating attempts at communication. In our Queens apartment, my mother would find torn envelope flaps, seventies singer-songwriter album sleeves, and my parents’ own high school yearbooks, all adorned with my pencil-scratch efforts at language.

As a child, I knew that words could be soft and loud. Words hurt, and they healed. They allowed me to escape into books containing bright, colorful pictures, and enabled me to get lost in the mystical lyrics printed on double-fold album covers. I’d take stacks of books to my Raggedy Ann-covered twin bed, hugging them to my small chest and leaping over the sharks I thrilled myself into believing were swarming in the churn of parquet bedroom floor below. I was on a life raft, safe in my room, happily adrift with words. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing, Young Voices

The Broken Container

December 13, 2016
container

By Raisa Imogen

Last year, I was in Paris during the terrorist attacks, and I don’t know how to tell that story. Similarly, I don’t know how to tell the story about Trump’s recent election. But there seems to be a strange and shivering thread between the two events. Both violent, painful, chaotic. Yet Paris was somewhat contained. This election is not, the common mantra being: “we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

We tell stories to make meaning of trauma, to contain pain so we can better examine it and give it value. But sometimes we are in such distress that the container cracks. We can no longer write or speak in the same way, we can no longer contain the pain or carry it comfortably.

Paris: the cherry glow of sirens, the bitter cold, windows slamming shut, a vacant Eiffel tower. Alternatively: my friend who calmly held my hand, the family member who made a quiche, a café filled with people drinking champagne the next day.

Either it becomes a story of horror and fear, which you’ve already heard, or a story of healing and bravery, which feels mawkish and insincere.

I think we dislike narratives which exist in gray, uncertain space. We want them to have logic, to land on one side of a binary — tragedy or comedy, conflict resolved or broken open, a character whose biggest desire is fulfilled or wrenched from them completely. Climax, falling action, resolution.

But trauma, especially when it first occurs, isn’t a neat and tidy narrative. Sometimes there is no narrative at all.

The New Yorker recently featured a piece where sixteen writers weighed in on the election. As my friend Marie Scarles observed, “There are so many different versions of why Trump won, and so many ways for us to imagine the future. Should we pay more attention to poor whites? To Muslims? To women? To LGBTQ? To racists? To immigrants? All seem urgent, but none can be held as the be-all-end-all.”

We are searching for a straightforward answer, an immediate ending so this can be over and done with.

After the election, hunched over my carrel in the library and unable to write, I got a text message from my father: “Trauma turns us into animals, which means story-telling turns off. We revert to fight, flight or shock.” But sometimes, maybe our storytelling tendencies shutting down is a good thing. Maybe it allows us to survive. Narratives can be healing, but they can also be dangerous.

By attending to many different perspectives, perhaps a new story will eventually arise, something both nuanced and messy, something which contains many strands. Perhaps it will be a story of hope, but a particular kind of hope, which Rebecca Solnit describes as, ”an ax you break down doors with in an emergency… [it] should shove you out the door.”

For now, we are living in uncertainty. The story is that there is no story, at least no singular one. Which means there is no singular conflict, no one resolution. I wish I had a coherent story to tell about Paris, but I don’t. For me, the container is still broken open, as it is now for America post-election. This means we must listen to each other, and listen carefully.

raisa-tolchinsky

Raisa Imogen was born in Portland, Oregon, grew up in Chicago, and is currently studying at the University of Bologna in Italy. Her poetry can be found at www.raisaimogen.net and at The Kenyon Review.

 

Join Ally and Jen Pastiloff for an intimate online course about what it means to be a woman at this time. Space is very limited. Course runs Jan 12-Feb 9, 2017. Click the picture to sign up or to get more info on the course and its perks!

Join Ally and Jen Pastiloff for an intimate online course about what it means to be a woman at this time. Space is very limited. Course runs Jan 12-Feb 9, 2017. Click the picture to sign up or to get more info on the course and its perks!

 

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Guest Posts, writing

Notes On Not A Memoir

October 2, 2016
memoir

By Janet Clare

The black hearse crossed in front of our car on the way to my first chemo appointment. “Think it’s a bad omen?” I asked my husband, “like a black cat?”

That was nineteen years ago so it wasn’t a portend of things to come. I was, and remain, one of the lucky ones. And, don’t worry this isn’t a cancer-survivor memoir. This isn’t even a memoir. I didn’t have a rotten enough childhood to write a memoir. Not perfect, mind you, but it wasn’t a locked-in-the-closet, raped-by-my-father, thrown-from-the car by a drug-addled-mother kind of upbringing. No alcoholism, no overtly deviant behavior. Misunderstood? Certainly. It was the ‘60’s. Everyone was misunderstood.

It was a time of long hair and dark clothes, of seriousness and hopefulness, unrest and social progress that we innocents thought would never end. The world was expanding and we thought it would go on forever, and ever better. A time when some of our dreams for a more civilized, humane and liberated country actually came true. We never imagined fifty years later it would all go to hell. It seemed impossible. But at some point our country put on the brakes to enlightenment and skid to a frightening stop. Then backed up and went the other way. But this isn’t a treatise on political angst, either. Continue Reading…