For the past few months, I’ve been working in mama-bear cave land. I climbed out once or twice. And this is what happened. My latest piece for Hippocampus Magazine is about murderers and dictionaries (the really big ones), Shakespeare, nagging pebbles and shenanigans. I hope you’ll join me there.
My first blog title was “This Messy Life,” an acknowledgement of — and tribute to — small grace inside a tumbled day. Life hasn’t let me down.
In the last three-plus years, I’ve strung words through everyday disruptions — car repairs and children’s colds, wild pets and homeschool hills and self-replicating laundry piles. Sometimes, rejection letters came in triplicate, or worse, but there were always bright rays of acceptance too, in all its varied forms. Foster kittens came and went (and climbed and clawed), until the last three stayed for good. A bad concussion stole a year. Through it all, the dog stole socks. He’s good at that, and merry.
Ups and downs. This messy life. It’s what we all go through, between, around and over.
Sometimes, it gets harder.
hiatus: a break, a gap, an interruption or suspension
I haven’t written in awhile. I’m not inventing tales or stitching up the seams of essays. I’ve got no wayward characters in my head. No voices, lilting.
lacuna: a pit, an empty place, something unfilled or blank or missing
In a true bit (or bite) of irony, just after publishing an essay on how I learned to manage motherhood and writing, the motherhood got more intense, demanding. Right now, my daughters need more Mom — more in scope and time, more in challenge and inventiveness. There isn’t any me left over for the spill and catch of words.
break (noun): an interlude or intermission, a hitch or lapse, an open space or breach
break (verb): to fracture, fragment, impair or injure; to hesitate or interrupt — but also to change, decrypt, decipher, as with codes — and then there’s the breaking of a dawn, engendered.
On my worst days, I wonder why I ever started writing, if it just ends up like this. On my better days, I try to be less black-or-white, less absolute, less humorless and bleak. My latest piece for Hippocampus touches on the struggle, the ebb and flow of writing:
“For a myriad of reasons, sometimes we are writers on the other side of words. We are mired in low tides, gasping. . . . for all the years I’ve tried, there is no perfect balance, no deft juggling move that leaves me mistress of all realms. Instead, I dog-paddle through a shifting mercury of roles. Sometimes, I have to put the pen aside. This is never easy, never smooth.”
I hope you’ll join me there for the rest of my essay on writing tides and lessons learned from seabirds. As for this space, it may be quiet for awhile. In hiatus, a lacuna, a break and somewhat broken, in every varied sense.
I’m not known for risk-taking. Rapid change can give me hives. Maybe it’s a mom thing, that desire to protect the nest. But once upon a time and long ago, I got my navel pierced in London on a whim — after trying to do the job myself, and landing in the ER with metal in my gut. ‘Tis true, ’tis true.
Now, in nesty-mom-land, I keep the belly ring as a reminder that there’s more to me than laundry bins and yoga pants. I like writers who celebrate the power of risk, the exhilaration found in leaping. My guest today is a master at scavenging opportunities from uncertainty.
Isaac Fitzgerald is a no-holds-barred writer, the co-founder of Pen & Ink (with a book forthcoming), co-owner of The Rumpus, and publicity director at McSweeney’s. That’s a lot of party hats. In his four years at The Rumpus, Isaac served as site manager, emcee, book club guru, and managing editor. He was Rumpus co-pilot when Cheryl Strayed stepped aboard as Dear Sugar. In every role, he’s worked to show readers “how beautiful things are when you step off the beaten path.”
Isaac also tumbles off skateboards. He reads. A lot. He gives himself tattoos. He juggles impossibilities and makes art out of the splatter. He says of risk, “Try it. You fuck up. You fail all the time. But when you succeed a little, it’s great.”
I need more of that. More leaps. More risks. More beauty on the crooked path. Thanks for the reminders, Isaac — and welcome to The Hatchery.
Lisa: I’m a huge fan of Pen & Ink, your Tumblr blog on tattoo stories. My current fave is Anna Schoenberger’s pacman tribute to her Grammie. Each story is a piece of a journey; each tattoo is a glyph along the way. You’ve described tattoos as “permanent ink scars” and your own tattoo philosophy as “No regrets.'” As a writer, how do you use your scars to make good art?
Isaac: My father kicked me in the head with an ice-skate when I was three. It was completely by accident, but that doesn’t mean that’s not a great opening line. I feel that way about every story I tell — if you start with enough suspense, you can hold anybody’s attention long enough to tell them some boring shit that’s actually true. My father didn’t kick me in the head on purpose, but that scar is one helluva leaping off point for a story that involves a man named Dr. Fox, my mother carrying me into the back of a truck, and blood pouring down my face while I sang “Jingle Bells.”
Lisa: I’d read that tale. Okay, so at forty-three, I’m considering my first tattoo, an infinity symbol, as a reminder of the way life splits and frays and then comes back together, something like the pain and joy of giving birth — to a child, a story, or a self. Thoughts?
Isaac: Do it! Tattoos are stories that we carry with us. Reminders of what we’ve done.
Lisa: Several of your early published essays were risky pieces about taking risks — smuggling medical supplies into Burma, being a bend-over boyfriend. Of your fiction writing, you’ve said, “Mainly I write stories out of a desire to show my personal life, but with a veil.” What do you make of that line, in writing, between risk and safety, exposure and veiling?
Isaac: At the end of the day, all of your writing’s going to piss somebody off. When I wrote that buttsex piece, my father didn’t speak to me for six months. Then he called me and said, “How about them Red Sox?” The point is, the folks that love you and care about you are always going to understand that you want to share your experiences. Eventually. The ones that can’t forgive you? Fuck ’em. What’s the point of telling a story that everyone already knows is the truth, but you pretend like you’re lying? The older I get, the less I think writers should use a veil.
Lisa: As the managing editor of The Rumpus, you helped a lot of writers pull off their veils. Cheryl Strayed started Dear Sugar with you behind the wheel. Your co-workers see you as “a cross between Bruce Springsteen and a cheerleader,” as someone who “always stood behind his writers, championing their work, and encouraging many of them to write about subject matters they’d long kept secret.” Roxane Gay says of you that, “He makes me feel safe about being vulnerable in my writing.” That’s a huge compliment from a woman who is a powerful writer and editor in her own right. As an editor and a champion of good writing, what’s your best advice to other writers?
Isaac: There’s this quote — I can’t remember who said it. Something about writing like a… motherfucker?
To be completely honest, I think it’s useless for me to give writing advice. Some people say put your ass in the chair X number of hours a day, other people say go out into the world and have adventures first, and everybody says all kind of shit about what’s supposed to help you write more and better. Different things work for different people. Who am I to tell people how to write? That’s why I like “write like a motherfucker.” Because it means write like a motherfucker in your own way.
Lisa: I think I’m always finding my way — it’s changed countless times. You were managing editor at The Rumpus for four years, and it’s been a significant curve in your life. How did those years shape who you are now, and what do you miss about that time?
Isaac: I was so lucky to work with such an incredibly talented group of people. The Rumpus was never going to make anybody rich, but damned if it didn’t make us proud of what we built.
Lisa: In June, you took on the role of publicity director at McSweeney’s. What thrills you the most about this change? What scares you?
Isaac: The same thing that scares me is absolutely what thrills me. It’s an uphill battle to keep people talking about books, let alone buying them. But I’m a believer in what McSweeney’s is about, and has been about since its beginning: books that are as beautiful as the prose that’s found inside of them.
Lisa: Hands down, you are a champion of books, Isaac. Last question — what’s on your desk right now?
Isaac: A warm beer and a CD player/alarm clock with the front ripped off (still functioning). One will go in the sink, and one will wake me up tomorrow.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He has also written for The Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is a co-owner of The Rumpus and publicity director at McSweeney’s. Follow him on Twitter.
For forty years, I wrapped myself in worry. I fretted my way through high school and college and a PhD. I stewed over grades, and whether teachers liked me, and if I’d get a job or end up in a cardboard box. It was the same in the early years of marriage, parenting, and writing. Did my husband really love me? Would I scar my kids forever if my temper snapped? Would I accumulate boxes full of unsold words? I am really good at calling up catastrophe. It’s a frightening talent.
All that worry, though? It made me quiet — intent on blending in, quelling any ripples. I cringed a lot, both physically and emotionally. I avoided full exposure. I kept myself locked tight.
Something changed when I hit forty. My kids were six and four. I’d been married for nine years. I was (finally) writing a novel. For all those reasons, voice began to matter. Forty felt like a Grown Up Year. Finally, I was an adult — don’t ask me why that never occurred to me at, say, twenty-five or thirty-seven. Forty was the year. Suddenly, I was old enough to step away from what other people thought, to care less about opinions. To take a chance. To speak my voice.
It’s liberating to find your own voice as a person, as a mother. Confrontations don’t melt me into puddles now. I’m not fearless, but I’m closer, especially with my kids. More important still, I’m teaching both my daughters to speak their minds, to never swallow silence, choking down the words.
Sometimes, though, voice still stumps me as a writer. Recently, Nina Badzin wrote a compelling guest post for The Hatchery. In it, she spoke about her love of simplicity in language. She sparked a marvelous conversation about the relationships readers have with words, what people embrace in language and what makes them turn away.
I’ve been practicing this type of balance since the fabulous Roxane Gay said my short story “Blown” was overwritten. Ouch. After I put some balm on that, I realized she was completely right. I re-wrote the story and she accepted it for PANK. Since then, I’ve been trimming, hacking off those extra clauses. Sometimes I pile words in teetering towers. I have to work on being spare.
Voice, in writing, isn’t easy. I’m a literary writer. I don’t see that changing — it’s how I read and see and hear. It’s wired in the pathways of my brain. I am and always have been enraptured by the sound of words, by their flow and cadence. But, I am learning that voice can be modulated, shifted into different registers. I can yell, sure, but I can also whisper. And there’s a place for both.
My current goal is to adjust my voice to suit my audience. How is this different from being the people-pleaser I once was? All the stories are still mine, and it’s still up to me to ring them true. I can put as much power in a whisper as a shout.
Variety gives strength, and the more confident I am with my own voice, the more I can listen to other voices too — my kids, my husband, other writers, editors, and friends. When I don’t feel threatened, I can open up. I can recognize the many ways and places where voice truly matters.
Have you ever struggled with your own voice, in person or in writing?
“It’s not a Guinness record – no ten-foot fingernails or human cannonball. No smallest waist, or longest legs, or 15,000 Barbie dolls. Guinness wouldn’t blink at me. Still, in quiet ways, it’s something. My kids are six and nine and, until last spring, I’d never left them for an overnight.”
For the rest of my essay on the wavering conflicts between motherhood and writing, on guilt and incompletions, please visit me at Literary Mama.
They’re hosting a related writing prompt as well. Check it out here, and submit by August 15th for feedback from their editors and a chance to be published on the Literary Mama blog.
I hope to see you there.