Mad Typist

The Writer Tag and Blog Hop

Ok, so I have been tagged for the Writer Tag and Blog Hop by the wonderful Sonal Champsee. She is both funny and smart, and that pretty much describes all of my most favourite people. Plus, she’s nice. She didn’t just tag me for this thing, she emailed me first and asked me if I had the time to do it and if I wanted to do it. (That’s very nice.) And, at the time, I was, like, Yes and Yes! But then life got crazy and I got busy and now it’s been on my To Do List for two weeks. Today, I’m moving this task from the To Do List to the Doing Right Now List.

The Writer Tag and Blog Hop is an opportunity for readers and writers to learn about new writers (through four questions). Since the Tag moves through friends and professional acquaintances—instead of, say, by genre—you may get connected to a writer you’d never have known of otherwise. For example, I am tagging my dear friend, Jeffrey Ricker. He lives in St. Louis, MO, USA and writes awesome YA and genre fiction that is totally unlike anything that I write. Now you get to check him out because he is my friend! Yay!

Here are The Questions:

1) What am I working on?

Like always, I am working on multiple projects at once. Because I write creative non-fiction, I usually have a few articles competing for my attention. For example, I was working on an article about parenting in the age of internet pornography, which I continue to tweak while I shop it around to various publishers. I’ve also started on a shorter piece that I’m really excited about. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a humorous piece on how one particular family arrangement could save you a fortune living in Vancouver, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Puh-lease. What arrogant asshole came up with this question? Next!

3) Why do I write what I do?

Probably because I’m not very good at making up stories or inventing characters.

I love telling true stories. I like the craft of it, especially when I get to combine various real-life stories to make meaning out of lived experiences. “The Devil’s In Her Mind” (Rhubarb 34) and “The Wrong Way” (The New Quarterly 124; you can find a link to the full essay here) are two examples of when I used this technique most successfully (I think). The making-meaning part of writing brings me the most satisfaction. And if I can do this without ever telling the reader how to feel or aggressively guiding them to a conclusion of my own, then it’s even better. Ideally, when people read my work, I want everyone to find their own unique meaning.

I remember when “The Wrong Way” was being workshopped and someone said, “The stories about the pets don’t belong in this piece. This is a story about your sister!” Someone else said, “The stories about the pets don’t belong because it’s a story about a dysfunctional family.” And then someone else said, “All the stories belong here, because it isn’t a story about your sister or one family. It’s an essay about grief.” That one piece could be so many different things to so many people, well, that’s a great feeling for me.

4) How does my writing process work?

Oh dear.

Well, I get one tiny, little idea for a piece. One thing someone said or one moment in time. And then I start thinking about it. I think about it for a really, really long time. Every time I think about it, something firms up in my mind, or settles. Or I add pieces. Or I take away pieces. And this all happens very slowly in mind—sometimes for weeks, usually for months, or even, rarely, for years.

Then one day, it becomes The Day. It is like the piece has been percolating so slowly for so long and then one day it wants to boil over! It’s suddenly a dire emergency. And I have to write it all right away or else. I’m not really sure what “else” is, but it is INTENSE.

Then I’m like a mad fiend, pounding away on my laptop, until it all comes out. Pretty much like this:

Gross, right? I know.

Once, I thought about a paragraph for over a year. I thought about it on a daily or weekly basis. I thought about what I wanted to accomplish. Then when I figured that out, I thought about how to do it. Then one day, I was taking a shower, and all the words came to me. All the right words. I jumped out of the shower and fiendishly pounded those words out. Sat back, made a few edits, and then—that was it. I was done.

I remember telling a writer friend of mine the next day about how pleased I was about that paragraph and how it had all gone down. And he said, “Oh, and then you woke up the next day and realized it was garbage?” And I frowned, and said, “Noooo. It was good. I should hope it was good—I’ve been thinking about that one paragraph for over a year!” He told me about his process: where he gets an idea, writes it down, looks at it later and realizes it’s shit, then has to painstakingly edit it for weeks or months to get it right. Well, I think I probably go through all of those same steps. I just do most of them in my head.


How I Got My Confidence Back, or The Story of Winning The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest

When I found out that my essay “The Wrong Way” had won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, I was ecstatic, but also sworn to secrecy. Considering that the piece was published in November and I now also have an interview up on the TNQ website, I think it is safe to say that I no longer have to keep it on the DL.

So, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about the curse of perfectionism, grad school, failing, and validation—or, how I lost my confidence and how I got it back.

In September 2011, I started an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I would say, and I think most would agree, that UBC’s master’s program in creative writing is easily the best in the country. My year was, apparently, one of the most competitive ever.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time and, on a whim, I applied to the program a mere two weeks before the deadline. I only submitted in two genres (three is recommended), creative nonfiction and screenplay. I wrote at least part of both submissions during that two weeks.

After I submitted my application, I realized that I was never, ever, ever going to get in. I realized that instead of showing breadth in my writing, I submitted the same thing with each piece: comedy. Stupid, stupid! Why did I do that? I was tortured by the fact that there was no way I was going to make it in. I was betting that after reading literally hundreds of applications—probably filled with some pretty serious writing—the Graduate Committee was going to read my manuscript submissions and laugh.

Now that I think back, that is probably exactly what happened. They probably did laugh. But not in a bad way; more like in a relieved way. No doubt, my writing stood out from the mass of serious writing because it was funny and lighthearted and that made it different. Different enough to get noticed.

When I got into the program, I was nervous and excited, but also confident. I had always been at the top of my class. Then I started taking workshops and I realized that we were all The Best. Over 300 applications were received, half of which were immediately discarded because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of UBC’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. Out of the remaining 160-something, it was whittled down to less than 25 students. I was one of them. I was The Best. Just like the other 20-odd students.

But, if we were all The Best before coming to UBC, we certainly were not all The Best in the program. No, the program only had one person who was The Best and I was most certainly not it.

It’s really hard when you have one of those crazy Type A personalities and some sort of perfectionism death wish and then all of a sudden, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be The Best. My best—which had always been more than enough—wasn’t good enough anymore. In the past, if I needed to succeed at something that was difficult, I just tried harder. But in grad school, surrounded by astonishingly accomplished and talented writers, I found that no matter how hard I tried, my best would never make me The Best again.

It was a really difficult lesson, but I learned it over the course of Fall Term 2011. I accepted that I would always be on the congratulating side of things and never on the congratulated side. I watched as my new friends were awarded prestigious national awards for their writing and went on book tours. And I was happy for them. Very happy. But I wasn’t so happy for myself. Actually, I was pretty sad.

In Spring Term, things got better. Two small pieces that I had written in Fall Term had been published (in WestCoast Families and Fringe). I wasn’t thrilled because I hadn’t been particularly attached to either piece, but a couple of my classmates pointed out that they hadn’t published any of their Fall Term pieces.

Then I wrote “The Wrong Way” in early 2012. The workshop was divided, literally, in half. On the right, the students felt it was too long and I should cut, with a thousand suggestions of what should be omitted. On the left, the students insisted I shouldn’t cut anything. Andreas Schroeder, our Creative Non-Fiction writing instructor, sat back and watched the argument boil. Occasionally, he would smirk this little smile towards me, as if to say, “Isn’t this funny?” When the workshop was over, he declared how much he enjoyed watching a spirited debate.

Normally, when the camp is deeply divided in a workshop, it means that something needs to change. But after class, Andreas told me, “This essay is practically perfect.” He told me not to submit it to the slush pile, but to only submit it to contests “because it will win a contest.” Knowing that he’d judged many contests, I never doubted him.

Andreas requires that everyone submit a re-write of each assignment. I went through the comments given to me by my fellow students and made some changes and submitted my re-write to Andreas. When he wrote back and told me to change everything back to the way it was except for one sentence, I knew the piece was ready. I had also been scoping out creative nonfiction contests and had decided the TNQ‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest was the best fit for “The Wrong Way.”

In July 2012—several months after submitting the essay—I found myself sitting in the parent waiting room at my son’s tutoring service. I decided to check my email on my phone. When I saw an email from TNQ, my heart sank a little. Like most writers, I am close friends with Rejection. I assumed it would be another rejection, and although I was bummed, I looked at the date and realized that I still had time to submit it to another contest.

Now, remember, I was reading this on my phone, on a tiny screen, just a few words at a time. I saw the sender. I saw the subject line, which read “TNQ Personal Essay results.” Then, just as I was about to read my rejection, I saw that someone had been cc’d the message. As an editor at a literary magazine, I was skeptical that they would cc someone on a rejection letter. That just didn’t make any sense. Unless…perhaps it wasn’t a rejection letter.

And then I was filled with a new thrill. What if I was short-listed?! In that moment, I honestly didn’t even care if I won, I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of just being short-listed.

Then I read the email:

Dear Sierra,
The editors have completed the judging process for The Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest and I am delighted to inform you that your essay, ‘The Wrong Way’ was the winner. The judges were hugely impressed with your ability to tackle the difficult subject of grief in a way that was personal but not melodramatic and overall felt that it was a thoughtful, original and well-crafted piece. …Congratulations on a superb essay. We look forward to introducing our readers to your fine work.

Best regards…
The New Quarterly

Just like that. Just like that, I went from what seemed utter obscurity to a state of acknowledgement, validation, and acceptance.

Yes, I know it was just one contest. But it was my first. And you always remember your first, right?

Although attending an MFA program, especially the non-fiction class with Andreas Schroeder, led to a vast improvement in my writing, winning the contest gave me a new confidence in that writing. And, well, I think confidence—or, rather, the ability to make friends with Rejection without letting him bum you out when he gets all negative—can make the difference between success and failure.