This morning, I made some oatmeal and some jasmine tea, and played around on the internet some. Then I got an email from Creative Nonfiction, an awesome magazine that comes out 4 times a year and often features a theme for the issue. The theme I submitted to? “Mistakes.”
At first it looked like the typical email. Thank you for submitting your work to us. We received over 800 submissions, you get the point. I only have one piece of writing that’s still out there, waiting for a response, and when I saw this email and read the first few lines, I thought, here it is, another email rejection letter. I almost expected it. The piece I submitted to this particular contest was experimental, with an unusual structure. And I hadn’t had a ton of time to write it.
But then I kept reading. And the email said that about 10% of the original submissions for the contest were still being considered, and mine was among them!
OMG! WOW! Wait, what?!
So whether or not this essay places in the contest, or gets published in the “Mistakes” issue of Creative Nonfiction, I want to tell the story of the essay, because the whole process of this essay was unique for me as a writer, unlike other pieces I’ve written.
It all started when I took a class called Forms of Nonfiction this fall. On the first day, we had to get in groups and talk to each other about what we wanted to write about. One girl in my group said she was working on essay for Creative Nonfiction, that they were having a writing contest on the topic of “Mistakes” and she was writing a piece about getting a tattoo of a boyfriend’s name when she was younger. I hope she submitter her piece and is also up for consideration. She didn’t stay in the class so I don’t know what happened to her or her essay, but it sounded good.
So I pondered the topic, mistakes, for weeks. The one thing that came to mind, the thing that always comes to mind when topics of regret or coulda shoulda woulda come up, was leaving Washington College, and most days I don’t think of that as a mistake so much as a fork in the road that makes me wonder what if I’d gone the other way. And I’ve written about it, already. I did a piece on regret in 2003 that was all about that decision. I wrote about it again after I finished writing the last few chapter of Moonchild and the topic was haunting me. I addressed it again in my essay “Blue Alchemy.” And I knew I had to work some of that into Moonchild itself. So, all in all, it was a little played out.
I couldn’t think of another mistake that really warranted a writing piece, not that I haven’t made them. There was the time I let a friend take the blame for something I’d done, and shut her down when she wanted to tell the truth, and lost my friendship over it and lied to my parents for about seven years. There was the time I got my first cell phone without reading ANY of the fine print or understanding what my plan meant and then used it, A LOT, while on a crazy adventure that left me mostly in places that only had roaming, and I racked up a cell phone bill of a few grand (which I later paid off). There were shitty things I did as a teenager to try to feel loved that were hurtful to other people. There was probably the biggest and heaviest one, getting into a relationship with someone in my mid-twenties who I knew should just be a fling, eventually letting him live with me and enabling his massive amounts of drinking and putting up with all kinds of crap that I shouldn’t have.
But here’s the thing: I’d already written about most of those things, and none of the topics were calling to me. And I wasn’t even sure they were exactly mistakes because they led me to new places and taught me things. And that seemed disingenuous, a little too prescribed, to write about a mistake as something that ended up not really being a mistake in the big picture. The route in an essay like that, and its destination, would just be too obvious.
The deadline was November 1st and by mid-October I hadn’t come up with anything. One morning I was on Facebook before work and just thought, hey, maybe I won’t submit anything this time around. I didn’t want to force it and nothing was coming up naturally. There would be other contests and calls for submissions, by Creative Nonfiction and other magazines, and maybe I just had to let this one go.
Then I got in the shower, and my mind drifted to another piece I was working on, this crazy hybrid fiction/non-fiction piece that uses alternate points of view and mostly centers around a conversation. For some reason, I thought of having my character/me tell the other person in this conversation about this time I threw away a journal scrapbook I’d made of all these messages, and I immediately felt overwhelmed with feelings of regret for having thrown away the journal.
And suddenly I knew, THAT was my mistake! It was perfect for a personal essay because I didn’t know where it would land. It was anything but prescribed because I was still at odds with what I’d done. It couldn’t have an outcome laced with platitudes like “It all happened for the best,” or “if I had it to do over again I’d do it the same because at least I learned from it,” because I didn’t feel that way. It was funny, I could say and feel that about the other things, even the relationship, which ended up being destructive in so many ways, but about tossing away this journal scrapbook? I couldn’t. It was exciting as a topic for an essay because I knew there’d be discovery for me as the writer along the way.
The other thing I knew right away was that I wouldn’t present the essay in chronological order. I wanted to juxtapose some writing about making the book with discussing the mistake of throwing it into the ocean. I wanted both to be happening at the same time in the essay because I thought that would create a stronger impact of what the journal had meant, and also the care I’d put into making it, and amplify the feeling of regret. I spent hours, days, months making the journal and I knew that breaking up the making of the journal into sections and spreading it throughout the piece might invoke the sense of how much work and time went into making it.
For a few days, I worked on the essay in my head. In my actual daily writing life, I was working on this hybrid lyric essay/textbook chapter about chirality in organic chemistry for my Forms of Nonfiction class and had a mid-month deadline. But in my head, I was forming this “Mistake” piece, layering in all these issues of memory, keeping memories, art out of memories, who owns the memories of situations or relationships.
I started writing, and let me tell you, what I had at first was one hot mess. The word limit was 4,000 and my original draft was almost 13,000. And it went all over the place. I’m a writer who often goes on tangents and that kept happening, naturally. Then came the task of whittling it down. And arranging it. As I did that, some of the tangents stayed in and some of the things I’d originally composed in my head (the issue of who owns the memories or the art that’s made from them) went into the scraps file.
When I had all the raw material, I broke it into three sections–making the journal in 2003, throwing away the journal in 2006, and reflecting on it from 2013. I pared those down, trying to only pick details that I thought were relevant or that reverberated in other parts of the essay. This was hard to do (and probably still needed some work when I submitted it) because it’s hard to be objective about your own life, especially when you don’t have the luxury of some time to let a writing piece sit and marinate. But I had a deadline to meet. So I kept going.
I broke the three sections into thirteen smaller sections so they could be braided together. I found titles for all my sections, which was a nice artistic thing for me because in the journal I was discussing, I’d found titles for every page when I was making it. So the art of writing about real life was imitating the act of originally making the art.
Then I got a little more of that when I decided to print out the essay, cut out each of the small, titled pieces and arrange them physically so I could see how to arrange them in the piece. I did this on the floor of an office at my job at a time when I was not on the clock but did have access to the office. I hope my boss doesn’t read this because I was a little drunk when I did it, and it was like one in the afternoon. But like I said, I wasn’t on the clock, just sitting in an office, arranging these thirteen pieces of paper into one big piece. And there was some art mirroring life mirroring art in that too, because in originally making the journal scrapbook thing, I’d cut out scraps of paper and arranged them then too. Then I labeled each section of the essay with the year, hoping to make it a little clearer for the reader.
And I had discoveries along the way. I found I kept writing about lights in the distance, completely accidentally, so that became the title of the essay and then had a revelation, mid-writing and editing, about what that title meant. And I found a place to land that felt honest and liberating at the end of the essay, and it was also surprising.
There wasn’t a lot of time to edit but I worked on it pretty obsessively for about a week. My amazing and insightful friend Edie read SEVERAL versions, including the super long original, and gave me feedback about what spoke to her, what worked and what didn’t, that was invaluable and guided my editing process. I was still editing up until the deadline day.
It was a Friday night and my apartment was an absolute disaster. My friend Karlos came over and was about to drive me to Salem for the NFB of Oregon State Convention. I was still working on some last-minute editing and my brain was so fried that while telling Karlos a story about a past NFBO convention, I told him that someone had turned “red as a cucumber.” I think I was mixing up “red as a tomato” and “cool as a cucumber” or something. We both started laughing. I submitted my piece and then packed up and we left.
Later in November, I turned “Lights in the Distance” in for my Forms of Nonfiction class. I knew it would be met with some resistance. The structure was fucking weird and I knew it. There was a lot of material in the essay about love, sex and relationships and that’s always iffy, how that’ll go over in a writing class.
And the feedback I got was…probably the most confusing critique I ever received. The suggestions from different people were completely contradictory. No one understood what I was trying to do with the titles. One person wanted a lot more about the two men I’d written about as part of the piece, and others wanted less. Some people thought the structure was confusing and didn’t work at all, and the professor thought it was fine. It needed to start somewhere else. The beginning was the strongest part. It needed to end somewhere else. The ending was the strongest part. It needed to be condensed. It needed to be expanded. Everyone thought it was about something different than what the others thought.
I walked away from it pretty discouraged. It wasn’t so much that the people didn’t like it–I think for the most part they did–just that I came away feeling like everything was wrong with the piece, and it was such a mess that it was unfixable. For the end of the class, I made some of the changes the prof had suggested and some that my group had suggested. I had a hard time figuring out where I thought it should go so I tried it out, and I kind of liked the original better in most ways, but had also made some changes that I thought might be important.
So, with all that, I kind of looked back on the essay with a bit of embarrassment, ambivalence, and frustration. I just couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I knew what I’d wanted to do with the essay when I conceived it, and when I wrote it. The weird structure had artistic reasons behind it. It was all created with thoughtful choices, but I was just left with the feeling that for all I’d put into it, it just didn’t work and I couldn’t figure out a way to make it.
This morning’s email was a nice surprise. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been kind of down. I have mono and it’s really dragging on. I had to put off some classes because of it and now won’t finish school until the fall, which makes me feel at times that I’ll just never get out of school. And I’m still down about the anniversaries of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley’s deaths. It affected me way more than I thought it would. And for the last month or so, I’ve been slogging through a major revision of my memoir manuscript, and it’s been brutal and slow-going. I’ve gotten through two chapters so far. Nothing like going through old versions of your work to make you doubt your writing ability, unless it’s trying to supplant that older writing with newer writing and constantly questioning if it’s any good. And it was a Monday morning.
So, you know, I am THRILLED that my essay with a weird-as-fuck structure that deals with love, sex, relationships, art and most of all, memory, is among the 10% still being considered for the contest. I don’t know if it’ll make it past the next cut–I think there are some things that did need fixing, like making the relevance of the titles come out more, paring down some of the stuff about the guys–and I kind of wish I could send a slightly updated draft. But even if it doesn’t go any further, I am honored and grateful to be included, and I totally needed the boost and validation for more current, experimental writing. It was like an affirmation that these new, kinda strange directions I’m going with my writing might speak to someone.
Still, though. I’d love for my piece to get selected, get published, win some cash, you know, the writer’s dream. Most of all, I’d LOVE to get published in CNF. I’d so love for it to be this piece and this publication. So, think good thoughts for me, and keep your fingers crossed.
Results in mid-May.