Do You Know Who I Am: On Writing and Identity

1 Comment

I had a job interview once for a job I sort of wanted. It was going to be a long commute and we needed the money. I interviewed with some peers and potential boss and then one of the founders of the company was going to meet with me. He walked into the room and the first thing he said to me was, “Do you know who I am?”

My impression at the time was that he didn’t say it in a gentle, awkward way that one would hope such a thing would be said. Instead, he said it in a cocky way.

My first thought was, why, yes, you’re the person I don’t want to work for, but instead I dutifully said, you are so and so, blah blah blah.

They offered me the job for which I was overqualified but when our negotiations broke down over vacation time, I was happy to walk away from the offer. He would not budge over a few days. And neither would I.

I knew who I was.

It’s rare that I know who I am. I consider my face blank and unrecognizable. This is how I see myself from within my skin, looking out. Tabula Rasa.

Who will know me? Who am I?

I have a published a literary thriller novel, a collection of short literary fiction, and a young adult novel. I am being gently encouraged to focus, write another thriller. Focus. Focus. Keep reaching. Become this.

Become what? Write what?

Here is something I have been reluctant to talk about. I try to be as professional as possible in this business of writing but maybe saying this here will help someone, too, because this is about something that jolted my sense of identity as a writer.

So here goes: In January, I learned that my beloved agent was leaving publishing. This was a tough blow for me. She and I had been working together for nearly ten years. I have come to count on her as a key part of my writing process. You might be thinking now, who cares? Who are you anyway? Who even wants to read any more of your stupid books?

These were all things I asked myself. Who are you? Who cares?

I care. This vacuum I am in lacks air and light and sometimes we need others to bring us that air and that light.

But all is not lost.

The good news is that her boss, the owner of the agency, kept me on as a client and for that I am most grateful. Having met and exchanged emails and phone calls with this woman I know I am in great hands. So that is good.

But who am I? Which writer? Which person? And what will become of my process?

Last week, I was at the AWP conference in Minneapolis. This was my fourth (or fifth?) time at one of these conferences. They are overwhelming and exhilarating. So much to see and do and experience. So many people to meet and so many people to reconnect with.

I will admit, though, that I spent much of the conference in despair. I was missing the huge part of me that is my family. I was anxious that people would not like me or that they would not notice me or, worse, ignore me.

Of course, it was all great. My one-on-one conversations with friends were the best part of it, but also the readings and panels were exhilarating and I left there feeling completely ready to write again.

And yet, still I am wanting. I want so much. I want my new book to be read and reviewed. I want it to get into the hands of people it might help. I want. I want. I want my novel manuscript that is lingering out there in the world to not be ignored. I want someone to read it and recognize what I am trying to say. I want that connection.

I want you to hear me.

Do you know how I am?

Maybe that man wasn’t being arrogant. Maybe he was legitimately experiencing a moment of crisis or maybe he was awkward about the weird dynamic that is the job interview. I can give him this now.

When I was pregnant, I worried that my child would not recognize me when he was born. I was worried that he would not love me. Of course, I was wrong. He was born with his heart attached to mine, knowing me in the way that no one else can.

Like a newborn, I push myself out into the world constantly with my words and always I am asking you this: Do you know who I am?

the bluff

Leave a comment

This picture is of the bluff where Laney lived with her grandmother. Of course, the one in the book is made up but this is the one I based it upon. This bluff exists in the lake where I grew, a place where I felt most free and also most trapped. As a child, I lived in the woods, the water, the mountains. As a young adult, I lived in my mind, in my books, in my anger.

The woods, the water, the mountains, the mind, and the books are still here but that anger has died. It has been replaced with determination and desire. And right now, that anger is also replaced with fear.

I’ve been having dreams this past week. Anxiety-fueled dreams that wake me up filled with belief that they are real.

No one shows up to my readings or just a few people show up or people show up but don’t care. All of this is wrapped up in my anxiety, of course, because this weekend I will be presenting THE BOOK OF LANEY for the first time. On Saturday night (3/28)  at 7PM, I’ll be at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport and then on Sunday at 2PM, I’ll be at Newtonville Books in Newton Center.

I’ve had my share of readings and reading in front of an audience is something I enjoy doing. So why the fear and worry?

Maybe it is because I feel a great deal of responsibility with this book. It’s not like I haven’t felt responsibility with my other books but with this one I am hoping to reach a specific audience of young people and maybe make a difference for them. I feel responsible that this book speaks authentically from the voice of a fifteen-year-old. I feel responsible that the material be treated with the seriousness and respect it is due. I feel responsible to victims and also to those who feel an urge to victimize. I want this book to help heal those who need healing and to reach those who are nearly out of reach.

Of course, I have no control over any of this but being given the opportunity and the honor to speak and read in front of an audience is one way in which I can reach out and with that comes the pressure to make it count.

I will make it count. I promise you I will. If you will meet me there, I will be there for you. Thank you to those who have already read this book and let it speak to them. Thank you to those who have let me know what it meant to them. You have given me such hope.

Thank you for coming to the bluff with me and remembering how we can come back to ourselves. Even in our darkest moments we have that possibility.

Thank you for listening. Thank you for hearing me.

 

 

pub day: today is my butter

Leave a comment

Last weekend, I made a double batch of zucchini bread because we have a busy week ahead. My son is in his second play and has seven performances between tomorrow and Sunday. I wanted him to be able to have something homemade in his snack and lunch so that even though he was busy, he would know he was loved and that I was thinking of him.

Unfortunately, I messed something up in the mixing and baking and the zucchini bread is, frankly, sort of gross. However, I have found that if you cover it with a lot of butter, it’s not half bad.

As I was choking down my butter-covered zucchini bread this morning, I realized that this is pretty much how I’ve made it through my life: examining my mistakes and failings and then trying to find a way to fix them, even if that means covering them with butter to make them more palatable.

Yesterday became a weird day and at some point I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I went to bed feeling horrible. I had a fever and my whole body was sore. Before I fell asleep I kept saying to my husband, “I feel like I am doing everything wrong.”

Even though it is raining out today and our big, ugly brown snow banks are melting all over the place, today is a much brighter day. Some sleep and perspective taking have been just the butter I needed.

Also, I have so much to celebrate: my third book–THE BOOK OF LANEY–is officially published today. I am extremely grateful to Lacewing Books for bringing it into the world and I am grateful to anyone and everyone who reads this book. For all of the work and the disappointment and the rejection and the self-doubt that goes into the making of a book, this day, when it is officially placed into the hands of readers, is the day that makes it all worth it.

I am taking this day. I am claiming it even though maybe I screwed something up in the mix yesterday, making that day come out a bit crumbly. Today I am going to say that I am doing things right. I’m taking this day and I’m covering yesterday with as much butter as possible and I’m saying thank you to you for sharing today with me. Thank you.

TODAY IS MY BUTTER.*

 

 

 

 

 

* in case you are wondering… all of that butter in the photo came from my freezer. I am a butter hoarder. Not proud of it. I just don’t want to run out. I also hoard toilet paper and canned beans. Make of that what you will.

 

 

 

 

 

Newburyport Literary Festival 2014 — wrap up

Leave a comment

Another year, another great Newburyport Literary Festival. I was thrilled to be a part of the festival again this year and to be able to share the day with readers and writers. It is, without a doubt, my favorite local event of the year and I am so proud that our town hosts it. And my great thanks to Vicki Hendrickson and Jennifer Entwistle for all that they do as co-directors of the festival. Amazing work, ladies!

Here’s a recap of all that I witnessed during the festival.

I was so happy to share the festival this year with my friends, Jennifer Pieroni and Pamela Erens. Pamela’s plane was delayed and so, unfortunately, she did not make it to the opening ceremony. Jennifer and I did, though, and it was great. The opening was a lively conversation between Andre Dubus III, this year’s festival honoree, and Ann Hood. Here I must admit that I have never read any of Hood’s work but I intend to now. She was such an engaging and charming speaker that I fell right in love with her. Their conversation was funny, informative, and full of heart. It definitely set the tone for the rest of the festival.

After the opening ceremony, we went to the Dinner with the Authors where we are able to connect with the fabulous Holly Robinson (who is so damn funny that she brings out my snort-laugh). Thankfully, Pamela was able to get on another flight and made it just in time to meet up with us at the dinner. I also was able to meet Jessica Keener and Caroline Leavitt, who were both so lovely and warm. All in all, a lovely night.

Saturday morning had me rushing out the door to get to the church on time. That is Old South Church in Newburyport where I was scheduled to introduce Wally Lamb. The night before I told my friends at dinner about my anxiety dream. I dreamt that I was at the church on time but I had forgotten my write up. I told a sour-faced group who were seated at the altar that I would be right back and I headed down the aisle. Unfortunately, I never made it down the aisle in the dream and never introduced Wally Lamb because I was too busy changing my clothes in front of everyone in the church. So my friend Holly triple-dog dared me to tell this dream in my introduction and it sounded like such a great idea after a glass of wine, but, alas in the light of the day, I decided not to. I did, however, tell the dream to the horrified pastor in my nervousness(sorry, Pastor Rob!).

Just before I was to introduce Wally Lamb, I noticed that Richard Russo was in the audience which made me FREAK OUT even more, but I managed to hold it together and give my introduction.

As for Wally Lamb, he could not have been nicer and kinder and his reading was excellent. He read an excerpt from We Are Water which made me cry. I think he must have known what wrecks he had turned the audience into because after his excerpt he read his account of signing at Costco.

After Wally Lamb, I raced over to The Book Rack to listen to Jennifer read from Danceland. Her reading was moving and excellent. So proud of my friend!

Meanwhile, my husband took our son to hear and learn from David Biedrzycki as he discussed The Art of Digital Book Illustration. They had a great time and learned a lot.

After Jennifer’s reading, we headed to Jabberwocky Bookshop to hear Caroline Leavitt read. My god, what a funny, warm, and engaging speaker and reader she is. If you have the chance to hear her read, do yourself a favor and hear her! She was fabulous. <–side note: Ann Hood sat next to us at this reading and by this point I was so in love with her that I had to physically hold myself back from telling her so!

After lunch came the 1PM panel I was moderating called, Finding the Story. On the panel were three excellent writers: Bret Anthony Johnston, Jessica Keener, and CB Anderson. What a great group the are. So generous with their insights into process and craft and all such talented writers. I was honored to share the stage with them and to have this conversation. We had an excellent audience with good questions and even ran out of time before we got to all of the questions. I actually loved moderating a panel which I’ve never done before. It was great fun.

After my panel, we headed back over to Jabberwocky Bookshop to hear Ann Hood speak and read. She was incredible. My girl crush went into overdrive listening to her entertain and amaze the crowd. I can’t wait to read every single one of her books. Team Ann Hood!

Sadly, I was not able to attend any of the 4PM events because by that point I was hobbling due to a poor shoe choice (note: wear comfortable shoes in your anxious, rickety-streeted town. You know better!) and so I had to go home and “rest” (i.e., go to the grocery store to make sure my neglected family didn’t starve) and change my shoes.

I met back up with Pamela and, after dinner, we headed to the Closing Ceremony. which was a wonderful discussion moderated by Lucy Kaylin, editor-in-chief of O Magazine. On the panel were: Richard Russo, Wally Lamb, Andre Dubus III, and Jenna Blum. They were all great speakers and so funny as they discussed their various Oprah experiences. Of the four, I have yet to read Blum’s work but I certainly will now as she seemed really intelligent and funny. All in all, a perfect ending to a great day.

I should note here that while it was raining and cold all day, people came out and enjoyed all of the free events. I am already excited for next year.

The very best part of the weekend, though, waking up this morning to my beautiful family who missed seeing me all day yesterday as much as I missed seeing them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

Leave a comment

Pamela Erens‘ smashing second novel, THE VIRGINS, is a novel destined to be a classic, mostly because it is so expertly written and expresses such truths, but also because it pulls from many classics all the while inverting them, offering readers a fresh view of that which we thought we knew.

In many ways, the novel’s narrator Bruce Bennett-Jones is Nick Carraway to Seung Jung’s Gatsby, as Bennett-Jones smugly and expertly narrates all of the action and emotion of the characters around him at his East Coast prep school, especially that of fish-out-of-water turned golden boy, Seung, and his sexy and exotic girlfriend, Aviva. The world that Bennett-Jones creates for us is fully his own, but director that he is, he is completely comfortable showing us the work of those who act around him, casting them, oftentimes, against the grain of expectation.

At the center of Bennett-Jones’s world are the beautiful, aspirational couple of Aviva and Seung. Bennett-Jones both covets their relationship and is repulsed by it. He does not wish to posses Aviva in every emotional way that Seung does. Instead, he wishes to ravage her, which could make Seung the hero, the romantic lead, Romeo Montague, and Bennett-Jones the villian. But wait, that is all too simplistic, for Aviva is no Juliet. She is not willing to give up anything for her romance with Seung, certainly not her life.

Aviva wants out. She wants someone who can please her as much as she wants to restrict herself from pleasure. She wants to breathe. She doesn’t know what she wants other than she wants to not be a virgin anymore, because after all, she is not the woman everyone perceives her to be. She’s a kid, she’s starving herself, and she’s scared.

She is also liberated. She can ask for sex. She can want to have it. She can be disappointed when she doesn’t get it.

So is Aviva Emma Bovary then? Is she Anna Karenina? Is she Edna Pontellier?

Through the eyes of Bennett-Jones, she is all of them and none of them, for she is not oppressed by anything external to her own thoughts and the desires that she wished she didn’t have. It is Seung who is oppressed. It is he who has to fight most against the confines of the world where he exists and the expectations of those around him, especially those of Aviva and his parents.

And it is Seung who, like Bovary, Karenina, Pontellier, pays the price in the end, as he stupidly sacrifices himself for that which he thought was lost.

Though they are central to the plot, the novel is not really about Aviva and Seung. From the beginning, we know who we are meant to follow and that is Bennett-Jones, who is Meursault in L’étranger, guilty, judged as much as he is The Talented Mr. Ripley, easily pushing forward when he has ruined the lives of others. And yet he seems to have something of a conscience, or at least he wants his audience to believe he does.

Even though we are not meant to like him, we can’t help but admire the way he maneuvers through his life and the lives of others, eventually getting his way (or at least telling us that he does). Ultimately, Bennett-Jones is utterly compelling; out from behind the curtain, he becomes the star of the show, and when it is his turn to take a bow, we give him a standing ovation.

Enter for your chance to win a copy of I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND

Leave a comment

 I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND is forthcoming from [PANK] Books in January 2013.

Click here and enter for your chance to WIN one of two signed copies. And please spread the word!