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Friday, August 31, 2018

The Adult Thing

Today a student was trying to guess how old I am, which is a popular game for all ages. It's great how skewed their sense of time is because most of them assume I'm in my 20's. Although I'm beginning to think they're judging less on looks and more on maturity level...or lack thereof. So I finally tell them that I'm 38 and one student tells me I look younger than her mother who is 33. I almost said, "That's because I don't have a teenaged girl in my house" but I caught myself. Her next question was, "How old was your mom when she had you?" I told her both my parents were 30 when I was born and of course she blurted out, "That's OLD!" I laughed because their concept of "old" is so warped, but then she seemed to reconsider her opinion. "Actually, that's not old. That's responsible!" Gotta love teens.

This week in class we are being asked to consider what it means to be an "accomplished" writer and it's funny because this is something I think about often. Like most people, I buy a book, I read it, and sometimes I'm left with barely lukewarm feelings and all I can think is, "How did this person get published and not me?" I think it's only natural that we as humans spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. If you asked me ten years ago what I would consider accomplished, I likely would have said something about the NYT bestseller list and a piece published in the New Yorker. At one time I even had dreams of seeing one of my books become a film.

By the time I actually had a finished book in my hand, I lowered the bar a bit. Accomplished began to mean simply published. I thought getting an acceptance from an agent or publisher would mean I had "made it" as a writer, until I started papering my office with rejection letters. I knew I had a good book and it occurred to me that an agent/editor's job is so largely subjective-- I would never be able to please everyone with my work so I had to work to fulfill my own desires.

Once my first book was self-published and I ambushed the world with it, I realized that true accomplishment as a writer is having someone come up to you with your book in their hands as they tell you how much your book meant to them in some way. My greatest accomplish became the conversations I had with folks who had read my book and come away from it having learned something. I enjoyed the press, I saved every article (and still do) written about my work, and though I could collect these little mementos of accomplishment, it meant more to me that I had started a long-running conversation.

I didn't consider myself successful until I started getting messages from strangers who thanked me for my work. When you write about something as complicated and socially taboo as mental health, positive reactions to your work are cherished. When someone reaches out like that, it means you've broken down a barrier, scaled a wall, kicked a stigma in the face. The greatest success I've had as a writer is turning my book into someone else's accomplishment. Some folks who read my books would never have openly discussed mental illness without my books as a vehicle. I've raised their social consciousness in a very small, but powerful way. On top of that, participating in the MFA program has helped me remember, regularly, that as long as I keep writing, I will have accomplished something profound, even if it never sees the light of day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Blogging Out My Laziness

So as you can see, I haven't updated this blog in two years.


My goodness, what have you missed? Let's see. I got engaged, changed jobs twice, wrote two more books, under contract for three more, started a PhD, dropped a PhD, started an independent publishing company, adopted a handicapped dog, and pissed off an entire town.

I've tried a number of times to maintain a blog or even keep a journal and I've learned one very important thing: I suck at it. Do I write every day? Absolutely. Do I have the discipline, hell the organizational skills, to blog or journal every day?


However, after a false start with a PhD that made me miserable (more on that later) I decided I wanted to finish my MFA in Creative Nonfiction instead and classes start on the 27th. I was looking over the syllabus for one of my classes and realized there was a module about blogging which necessitated either maintaining a current blog or creating a new one and let me tell you, I panicked. Hard. The only reason I'm even able to update this blog is that it's tied to my Google account otherwise I don't think I ever would have remembered the login info. I'm not kidding.

Now here I am, writing an entry for the first time in two years so I don't look like the laziest grad student ever (I'm not-- I promise. I just have literary ADD) and I don't even know where to begin! I started the MFA in CNF two years ago, shortly after my last post. Originally I had started in Creative Writing-- pure fiction- but the program wasn't what I was looking for. I finished and published my first novel in between that program and the new one but I had always loved nonfiction and wanted to learn how to make my work more accessible to wider audiences.

Here's something you might not know about me: I like asylums. No seriously, it's true 😂When I started writing in 2006 I was determined to write just nonfiction. I wrote very clean, very fact driven accounts of each asylum accompanied by full-color images that I had taken. My first book, Behind the Walls: Shadows of New England's Asylums was exceptionally well received. It sold out every time we printed it and it became a worldwide bestseller. It launched my career and got me a lot of press, but I noticed a rather disheartening thing: the people who attended my lectures were the same folks over and over again. They were nurses, psychiatrists, teachers, professionals in the mental health field. They were the people who were already used to talking about mental health every minute of every day. No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to broaden the scope of my work, this book I had worked so hard to produce, that I was so proud of, that was now held in college libraries up and down the East Coast.

I eventually realized that it was my writing that was the problem. I was the problem. My approach was dry, factual. I was never really able to convey what it felt like to walk into one of these buildings with nothing but a camera and walk the halls of some of the most infamous buildings in human history. So I turned to fiction instead. I wove my favorite asylum into a novel using as much historical fact as I could while weaving this tale of mystery that could have happened on the wards of Northampton State Hospital in 1959. Hospital Hill also became a bestseller and eventually won a regional literary award; I suddenly saw a shift in the folks who were coming to my lectures, who were now willing to talk about mental health in the context of a cozy mystery. They connected to Valerie, my main character, and they reviled the evil doctor who made her life miserable. They wanted more.

So I wrote another novel. Another asylum. Another mystery. But I wanted to do more with my writing. I wanted to go back to my roots and write more nonfiction, but I knew I didn't want to produce another textbook. I wanted to write something that people would enjoy reading, like a novel, while learning a whole ton of random stuff about asylums and mental health.

Enter the MFA in CNF. It was the kick in the ass I needed to learn how to write for a reader, a real reader like the ones who might pick my book up at the bookstore. I stretched my own weird reading boundaries (very weird, trust me) and started reading writers like Cheryl Strayed and Ariel Levy. I picked up memoirs by my favorite actors like Lauren Graham and missives on writing by Stephen King and Charles Bukowski. I even got up the nerve to cold call some of my favorite authors and bend their ears about their own books.

Am I babbling? I'm babbling. Dammit.

Long story short, my goal this semester is to keep this up to date and let you all in on my writing life. I'm beyond excited about this particular class this semester and for completing my thesis, but also about the next few books I have on tap. I realize too that I'm not the only one going through this process, especially the process with my current publisher, and it might be nice to share with other writers. Who knows, maybe I have some wisdom to impart! Let's hope...

Do come back.