“It’s taken me a long, long time, but I’ve learned to swim in my own lane.”
—Paolina Milana [on writing]

Paolina Milana is the author of The S Word, a memoir about secrets—those a young girl coming of age in the middle of crazy does her best to keep—secrets about her mamma’s schizophrenia; secrets about her sexual awakening; secrets about her seduction that turns to rape; secrets about being the good Sicilian Catholic girl. There are so many secrets that silence and nearly suffocate her, until she finds the strength to save herself. Paolina won the Psychology Category in the 2015 Indie Excellence Awards for The S Word.

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MEREDITH: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?

hite flag…even putting the manuscript in a drawer and trying to forget about it. Even when the story was going to press and then the publicity started, I wanted to say, “Whoa! Never mind, Fugettaboutit.” And I did. The only problem is that the Universe wouldn’t let me completely walk away. Some person would cross my path that reminded me of why I wanted to tell my story or some scenario would unfold right in front of me that would underscore the need for my story to be told. At the end of the day, even though I struggled with spilling the secrets and exposing myself and my past, I would drag myself to my laptop and just start anew. I got myself through it by telling myself that it didn’t have to go anywhere…it just had to get onto the page. And if I chose to make that the end of the journey, okay, but I could not stop until it was all out.Paolina black and white shirtPAOLINA: In writing The S Word, I found myself scared and paralyzed no less than about a million times in the decade-plus that it took to vomit the story out of me. There were times when I pretty much just decided to wave the

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MEREDITH: Some people refer to their creations as their children. Some view them as entities entirely separate from themselves. Sometimes it feels to me like our creations are more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?

PAOLINA: Given that The S Word is my memoir (the first of two books…the next one called The C Word), my creations are, indeed, real. Sometimes I wish they were not. LOL For me, I had to view this all as the exact opposite. I had
to pretend that this all happened to someone else…that the people in my path were just made up…and in dong that, I was able to – I think – treat them more objectively and fairly. While my “creations” started out as wanting to expose and blame and bring to light all the injustices suffered, this frame of reference allowed me to realize that everyone was doing the best he/she could in any given moment, and that forgiveness and redemption allowed each of my very real creations to morph – like your water example – between good, evil, right, wrong, prey, predator, innocent and guilty.

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MEREDITH: When you are in the middle of a project that feels the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub and the only thing you can do is row (put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard), how to you nurture youThe-S-Wordrself/support yourself when there are no signs that offer feedback because it’s too soon for feedback and the only thing you are supposed to do at that moment is to keep rowing?

PAOLINA: Actually, this is the part of the process that I love the most. When you’re just lost in you and your story, and you don’t have those voices of doubt and negativity and judgement screaming at you, it’s for me the purest moments of joy and of transcendence. There have been times in writing some of my other stories when a character will do something, and I literally have to sit back and say….”no way…you did not!” I love when they tell me what they are doing or thinking.

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MEREDITH: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?

PAOLINA: When I was looking for an agent or publisher, I only sent out a few dozen queries. Believe me, it felt like a ton more than that. But I was researching and finding the right person for me, or who I thought to be the right person for The S Word. Turns out, those people didn’t think they were a match. And so rejection after rejection came. That said, not a single rejection was a form letter; rather, each one was heartfelt and a note of encouragement, simply telling me that they loved my story and wanted to make sure it found a home with the right person who could take it to where they thought it deserved to be. I was told by Jennie Nash, one of my writing mentors, that that is rare, and I should take it as a sign to carry on. Acceptance, I have learned, can only come from within.

And to “keep the faith,” I would find myself taking out pen and paper and documenting the timeline of my life, recalling every incident or memorable moment in my last ten years on this planet. I marked each with a smiley face or a frowning face: death of a parent, wedding day, etc., etc. Doing this exercise reminded me that life is full of ups and downs and that sometimes when you are in a valley, you can’t see the top of the mountain and its view until you climb out and look back at how far you’ve come. Without fail, every single peak in my life proved to be somehow influenced by the valley that came before. Remembering that helped me keep the faith.

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MEREDITH: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)? How do you handle that in writing groups or when you share your work?

PAOLINA: For me, I’ve never been one to look on other’s papers or to compare my writing with others. I always love and appreciate a great story, whether I’m writing it or someone else. And maybe it’s because I used to be a reporter or that I’ve made my living writing for decades and throughout, I’ve been critiqued so much that I really don’t take it as anything other than feedback – mine to choose to take or not. Oh, sure, sometimes every one of us thinks, “wow, I really suck at this,” or “OMG, why can’t I write like her?” – but we need to recognize that for what it is…humility, a dash of fear, a sprinkle of reverence for others, and momentary doubt on ourselves. All of those come and go…as long as you don’t allow them to stay. Someone once told me that the quickest way to unhappiness in through comparison. It’s taken me a long, long time, but I’ve learned to swim in my own lane. Only I can do the “Powerlina stroke.”

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Born and raised in Chicago, Paolina currently lives on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in California. She blogs at PaolinaMilana.com [<<awesome blog] and welcomes the opportunity to share her stories with interested audiences.

[Thanks, Paolina!]

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Susan Shapiro is an award winning writing professor at The New School. She’s written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon and Tin House. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of 10 books including  “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” “Lighting Up,” the coauthored memoir “The Bosnia List” and the new novel “What’s Never Said.” You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet

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MEREDITH: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?

SUSAN: Early on I had trouble writing and publishing  on my own and put certain systems into place to help me have more confidence and be more productive. This included  weekly therapy with a great shrink who was one of my “core pillars.” I’ve written about this in my memoirs Lighting UWNS_NEWCoverp and Only As Good as Your Word.  At this point I have a great spouse who is also a writer,  two very supportive critical weekly writing workshops filled with colleagues I love and admire, and classes I teach two nights a week. That pretty much saves my life and my work.

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TH: Some people refer to their creations as their children. Some view them as entities entirely separate from themselves. Sometimes it feels to me like our creations are more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?

SUSAN: I definitely call my books “my babies.” They’ve given me a lot of joy -tinged with worry and angst.  Though I also think of my students in a maternal way too.  A mentor once told me “Every book will break your heart in a different way.” That’s true too.

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MEREDITH: When you are in the middle of a project that feels the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub and the only thing you can do is row (put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard), how to you nurture yourself/support yourself when there are no signs that offer feedback because it’s too soon for feedback and the only thing you are supposed to do at that moment is to keep rowing?

SUSAN: Again, I’m lucky to have  my writing workshops, therapy, a  wonderful spouse and teaching jobs – which  all fuel and feed me. I also sometimes hire ghost editors to help me with book projects. I’ve mostly use former agents and book editors. I can recommend some great ones. They’re almost always right.

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MEREDITH: You’re in the hub of many writerly-literary relationships, and a very generous supporter of many writers. How does cultivating a writerly community fuel your writing? Does it provide a charge? Is there ever negative energy associated with it? An energy drain?

SUSAN: It provides a big charge. I love writing alone all day and then going out to teach big exciting classes  at night. It keeps me young. I also love my two writing workshops. They give me deadlines and  help structure my life.

Yes there’s been negative energy,  before I had good boundaries. I wrote a piece for the Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt called Quitting Guilt which started “I spent the last two years saying no.” And in those two years I got everything I wanted in life.

I had a brilliant addiction specialist  who helped me quit cigarettes, alcohol, dope, gum and bread. He’s the coauthor of my bestselling addiction book “Unhooked.” He helped me get a rigid schedule together that really works for me. I wake up and write seven days a week, usually from 9 to 5 pm. Then I go teach. Then if I have any more energy I go out. I basically quit my social life – and say no to going out to  breakfast, lunch, dinner and many social plans and out of town events. It just started taking too much of my energy and I wasn’t enjoying it. I was doing it for other people, not getting the time I needed for myself, my work and my husband, then I felt resentful. So now I let go of pleasing anyone else. My shrink once told me “You’ll never get anything from an unhappy person. They need all their energy. You’d get more from a stranger who is happy.”

Interestingly  I’m so much happier and more successful now. I actually have way more to give. Though it has to be on my schedule.

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MEREDITH: Taking the stance that creativity, creation, growth and expression are all natural states, why do we get stuck?

SUSAN: One of my mentors was an older,  wildly prolific  bestselling author. When I once told him I had writer’s block, he said “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Don’t be self-indulgent, just get to work every day.” He also told me “a page a day is a book a year” which I found very helpful. I  don’t get stuck that often anymore. Maybe that’s  because I stopped pressuring myself. The writing doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just has to be on the page.  That’s my job, to get it there. I have teachers, critics, agents and editors whose job it is to tell me what’s working and what isn’t.  And that’s what I tell my students.  I’ve published 10 books in the last 11 years. When  people ask me what’s my secret to being prolific, I say “I’m not afraid to suck.”  Someone in my writing workshop once came up to me and said “I can’t believe how bad your first draft was.” And I said, “you know, it’s funny. You didn’t bring in any work today and you have no books out. I brought in something brand new and rough and I’m on book ten. So maybe there’s a correlation.”

Visit Susan at http://www.susanshapiro.net

[Thanks, Susan!]

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