All posts in "Pencil Box for the Soul"

The truth about personal essays and what the “personal” should be

Before I began writing professionally (and for a long time while I was), I was a therapist. Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality and bound to it by law, except in very specific cases. As a writer, how do I reconcile writing essays that include other people while writing a really good essay as well?

It’s difficult and sometimes takes a really long time.

I want to acknowledge that I’ve come across writers who feel that their story, their truth and how they want to say it, has a right to its voice. On the page. In public. I totally get that. The once-massive publishing empires (and the smaller ones, too) who have had to re-find their audiences online as print takes a backseat seem to get that, too. It seems like the internet is full of those stories, over-shared essays (though fashioned with lovely essay techniques like imagery and voice) that have been written a few beats before the author had enough insight to write about them. Many of these essays are longer than they need to be and include minutely crafted details that are very well written but skate the line of self-revelation and veer into something else entirely.

That something else is what keeps me up at night when I’m working on an essay.

In relationships, in therapy, the point is to be open and real, to dig more deeply and release resentment. To me, essays are about relationships and so similar guidelines apply. In relationships there are hurts and betrayals and fears and joys, but not all of those things are for public consumption–and really, should they be? A good essay, for example, will show how the resentment started and hopefully how shift in the author’s perception occurred, a perception that allowed the author to release the resentment and then write about it. These essays stay with us and as writers we’re proud of them, not because of the clicks and the compliments, but because of the changes we actually made inside and, secondly, our ability to document that shift in essay format.

What if “my truth” ends up not being “the truth” and someone else–not me as the writer–suffers? The fact is, I’ll suffer as well. The thing with some personal topics is that, because we ourselves are so inside the story, we have blind spots to it and to ourselves. When criticism comes (and it often does) we are thrown and hurt. We regret having gone public. With the internet, everything lives on.  One way to look at the “why” of the personal essay is as a vehicle to understand our way out of the old stories we tell ourselves, and give them a richer, more universally personal meaning…on the page. That takes time because insight takes time to develop.

Certain stories need not be told. Others must be told. The question is, how to tell them. When it comes to personal essays, who is the story really about? The story, the essay, is always about the writer.

So, how can I reasonably maintain another’s privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth, especially when those people I mention in the essay helped me—knowingly or not—find it (perhaps the hard way, but still)?

Here are some ideas, some general guidelines I use for myself, and suggest my writing clients consider:

Keep the focus on myself. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me. Having this ground rule requires discipline, but it has helped me create works that go deeper and wider than I ever could have imagined.

Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” The personal essay is a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me.  So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).

No gossip. Don’t “write” behind someone’s back. I might not have learned a lesson or reality about myself had this person not been in my life.

The relationship comes first. I place the relationship, rather than the story of the relationship, as the priority.

The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel true discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself.

Kids grow up and learn to read. Enough said.

Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep (yes, it’s happened), I put it aside and reevaluate later. Sometimes I’m anxious because I’m working out the meaning of a situation, other times I’m anxious because I feel/know that the piece is relying too much on the “shocking” details that might elicit page views today.

Finally, keep in mind, this is not about stifling your voice but in grounding yourself in self-discovery and documenting that with integrity.

What the art of weaving teaches us about the art of writing

“Some things cross my path…I don’t think I can force ideas. I usually see something and it causes my brain to spin.”
-Claudine McCormack Jalajas


Claudine McCormack Jalajas is an expert writer in the field of technical writing and learning, and the author of the contemporary weaving book Beaded Bracelets. For eighteen years she has been involved in proprietary computer software documentation and training for many Fortune 500 companies across the United States. She is also the designer of beaded art, creator of original designs that are worn or displayed in the home. Her enthusiasm for bead stitching is obvious through her constant development of jewelry (she confesses bracelets are her favorite).

I wanted to find out how she moves so fluidly between right- and left-brain states, and so asked her to muse on the following question. Her answer relates to writers of fiction and nonfiction—just substitute the words beads and thread for pen and paper.

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” I asked about her view, as well as if she actively seeks ideas for her creations, or if her style was to wait and see what crosses her path and then allow her own vision to develop.


 by Claudine McCormack Jalajas

“I’m not sure possession is the correct word. I admit that I have little piles of beads and crystals on side tables in the living room, back sitting room, my bedroom, and my office. I carry a little container of beads or a project in my bag (just in case I get some free time—nothing makes a long train commute go faster). Sometimes on the train to work I will suddenly think of an idea and sketch the possibility on a piece of paper, napkin, sticky note, back of deposit slip, anything I can find so I don’t forget (because I will). I like to look at designs by other people too. Often I will begin making their pattern and imagine a way I’d like to modify it. It’s similar to cooking for me. I see a recipe and think, “that looks interesting…. I’d bet it’d be great with rosemary and goat cheese…”  And so I start to change the way it’s written and then soon it’s completely new and my own.  I’m not averse to doing what other people do—sometimes they have really cool ideas. I just have a habit of seeing what else could be done. I’m sure people do that to my designs as well. When someone tells me that something I taught them inspired them to make something else I’m completely flattered.

“At night, once everyone’s in bed [she’s married and has three kids] and I’m pretty sure I won’t get interrupted; I will take a threaded needle and start putting beads together to see how they will fall. Beads don’t always behave the way you imagine. More times than I’d like to admit, what I think will happen doesn’t actually happen. But a lot of ideas for things come from those mistakes. I rarely pull things back apart because I can reuse parts of the beadwork to develop something else.  I came up with a snowflake pattern once when I was trying to remember an earring pattern (instead of just pulling out my own directions). Once I realized I was making a mistake I realized it would make a great snowflake so I just kept going.

“I keep all my beads and supplies in various small bins. One of those bins happens to be a bunch of half-created pieces and mistakes. I don’t like to waste beads but it’s not a waste for me for two reasons. One, I don’t always have time to create the whole piece because I need to write the instructions and teach it. Once I’m sure it will do what I want, I stop working with the beads and get writing. Also, when I was in college an accounting professor told us to never erase mistakes—just cross them out. You may realize later you weren’t completely wrong and need to reuse what you did OR you can use it to avoid going down the same path. We were encouraged to keep our mistakes in plain view. I guess that idea always stuck with me. You just never know.  So I take pieces out sometimes and see what it would look like if I placed them this way or that way.

“Bead weaving is time consuming; recreating all that work every time would be awful. So reusing portions works well. Just the other day I was trying to come up with a necklace design. I used 3 strands of previously created tubular herringbone and as I was aligning the pieces realized it would make a great bracelet. The creating–it just never stops. (Um, okay, maybe I am possessed?)

“When I first got my book deal I was in a panic that I couldn’t come up with enough ideas—25 bracelets? No way—couldn’t be done. I wound up with more than I could put in the book and had to have friends over one night and asked them to help me pick out which ones went in the book and which didn’t.  It was a nice problem to have. And even after I was done my brain just saw bracelet ideas everywhere.

“Some things cross my path…I don’t think I can force ideas. I usually see something and it causes my brain to spin. It could be colors (sunset—bright oranges and deep purple are awesome together) the wooded roadway (deep greens, blue sky, deep brown tree trunks) on the way to taking my daughter to her horseback riding lessons, or a sign on the side of the road outside Tupper Lake that makes me realize that a woven basket has some really cool texture to it and might look great as a bracelet cuff.”

Fear [not]: A writer’s meditation

For today I remember that I am here to be a scribe (or a transcriptionist–whatever works) to ideas, emotions, humor and instincts—elements that are eternal. I practice waiting for them. I practice opening up my notebook and holding my pen (or opening my computer and touching the keyboard) and wait for the words to come, knowing they will.

Leave fingerprints

What is your footprint? Your fingerprint? Every bit of what you write includes some aspect about you. Writing can be a discovery process for you, or a statement about you. Recognize the beauty in that, that every bit of what you write is inherently valuable for simply those reasons.
Now, understand that some fingerprints become permanently published (think legal docs…wanted and unwanted!), while others fade (smudges on glass, for example). Likewise, some works are published, others aren’t meant to be – or weren’t meant to be. That said, all are real and lead to the next something.
Keep leaving fingerprints.

Does rejection have a purpose as far as writing and creativity are concerned?

In continuing this month’s theme of there is no one right way to write, today we explore the purpose of rejection with book critic/author David L. Ulin, journalist Jennifer Nelson, and science writer/journalist Kayt Sukel.

Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?

DAVID L. ULIN: Yes, rejection definitely has a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is to tell you to work harder. Sometimes, it is to piss you off. Just before I started “The Lost Art of Reading,” I suffered a rejection that really threw me. But I used it, as I was writing, as a motivation, a push to dig deeper, to write more fully, and it helped carry me through the book. Rejection is part of the dynamic, and if you can’t handle it, you need to go into a different line of work. It toughens you, and if you think about it the right way, it can lead you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, to rethink certain strategies — or to strengthen your resolve. Like anything else, it’s a tool to be used.

David L. Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith. He has edited two collections of Southern California literature: Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Black Clock, Bookforum, Columbia Journalism Review, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Follow him on Twitter: @davidulin

JENNIFER NELSON: You know, I have never been too waylaid by rejection for whatever reason. Probably because woman’s magazines, I pitched incessantly, up to 30 or more query letters monthly. Only a small percentage of my ideas ever made the cut, maybe 10-20 percent, which netted me a 3-5 stories monthly so I was quite familiar with rejection! I learned very early on that it was nothing personal and that if one idea got shot down, I was a day away from thinking up another great idea. That said, there were definitely times when I became attached to my ideas, or in the case of book work, a book proposal. Since those projects are so much larger than a mere article idea, you have a lot more time, effort and energy vested and so you do feel those rejections a bit more deeply. I tend to let myself wallow for a brief time—a few hours to a day– and then move onward and upward. As far as the role they play in creativity, I think rejection does serve some purpose mostly in terms of motivating me to move on when something is rejected or to dig deep, in some cases, and figure out how to make something work that’s getting negative feedback or rejection.

When I was looking for an agent for this project (AIRBRUSHED NATION), I received many rejections maybe 15-20 from agents who thought the magazine industry was dead, or that nobody wanted to read any negative things about the chick slicks even though they admitted my proposal and chapters were well done. I didn’t agree and kept pushing on. For one, I strongly felt the magazine industry was definitely not dead! And also, I envisioned Airbrushed Nation to be more than a report on some negative things in the women’s magazines, but rather calling out and educating whole generations of women who may not have realized the negative effect reading some of the glossy’s messaging had on them. When I did find an agent, she felt exactly the same way. The earlier rejection served as motivation.

Jennifer Nelson is the author of AIRBRUSHED NATION: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines. hundreds of articles for leading publications such as Self, Women’s Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Oprah, Parenting and many other health, women’s and lifestyle magazines. She teaches Stiletto Boot Camp, a women’s magazine writing course at and is a popular presenter at writing conferences across the country.


KAYT SUKEL: Rejection has many, many purposes.  Some in the publishing world refer to it as a “necessary evil.”  But you know, I don’t see it as an evil anymore.  Sure, rejection has definitely taken a few bites out of my self-esteem over the years.  Maybe more than a few!  But time and time again, it has made me a better writer.   When working on the idea and proposal for DIRTY MINDS, the rejections I received helped me recognize and address the project’s shortcomings.  If you can learn not to take rejection personally—and hopefully to learn something about yourself or the piece of work in the process—it’s a boon.

KAYT SUKEL is the author of DIRTY MINDS: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships [out today!]. Her writing credits are diverse and impressive: personal essays in the Washington Post, American Baby, the Bark, USAToday, Literary Mama and the Christian Science Monitor as well as articles on a variety of subjects for the Atlantic Monthly, the AARP Bulletin, Continental In-flight Magazine, Parenting, Cerebrum, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, BrainWork and American Baby magazines. She also wrote the essay, “I Had an Orgasm in an MRI Scanner” for The Guardian, which talks about an element of the research she did for her book about which she eloquently and entertainingly explains in her DIRTY MINDS book trailer.

When you sit down to write and nothing happens

There is no one right way to write. 

This was my hypothesis when I began The Writer’s [Inner] Journey. The blog has gone on to be name as a top site for writers by scores of websites, and was a finalist for a Bloggie, among other honors.

One of the things I love about the 5-Question [Author] Interview is that, sometimes, I ask the same question of various authors. This month I’m going to do what I always thought I’d do when I began the blog, and that is display the varying responses given by different authors to a particular question I’ve asked about their writing.

So, let’s begin…


Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing? {Or a path to someplace unexpected?}

ROB ROBERGE: …If I’m producing nothing, that’s because of my relationship with the process, I think. It’s me not being in the right state of mind to write. So, it IS something. It’s just not something very conducive to writing, maybe.

On the days when very little or no writing worth keeping is the result, I try to wait it out. In Buddhism, there’s this notion that if something is boring for two minutes, you should sit with it for four minutes, and if it’s still boring, sit with it for eight minutes. And so on. The point being, EVERYTHING is there…you just aren’t there FOR it. Well, the rhetorical “you” here being me. I try hard to never be prescriptive. My experience to the process is mine and there are writers I respect tremendously who have entirely different ways of going about it.

But, when I produce nothing? For me, it’s never the THING, I’d guess. It’s my relationship to the text (or lack of it in that moment). And it’s usually caused by me allowing my ego to invade the process, where it does not belong. In early drafts especially, I submit to language, rather than try to govern or lead it. Those show up more when I revise…when there is already something to work with.

THE COST OF LIVING (Other Voices Books) is Rob Roberge’s fourth book. Previous books include Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010), More Than They Could Chew (Dark Alley/Harper Collins, 2005) and Drive (reprint, Hollyridge Press, 2006/2010). His writing has been featured in Penthouse, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, Black Clock, “Ten Writers Worth Knowing” issue of The Literary Review and many others.


YUVI ZALKOW: This happens more often than I’d like to admit. Maybe it is a touch better than nothing, but it just doesn’t seem to be what I expected or what I wanted from that writing session. Sometimes, I’ll write the scene I intended to write but it is just flat or boring or clichéd. I’m not driven by word count like some people I know are, so even if I do write 1000 words, if they suck, I’m disappointed. However, I’ll typically just give it a few days before I revisit what I wrote. When I revisit the writing, usually I can pluck something useful out of it. Or even just discover a core issue with my storyline or my character or something like that. I try not to let myself get too disheartened; I try to think about what I learned from the experience that can help me moving forward.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m always constructive about these difficult moments. Some weeks, I just mope and feel sorry for myself.

YUVI ZALKOW’S debut novel (A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS) is now available online and in stores, and was a Rumpus Book Club pick for July 2012. His stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Carve Magazine, and others. He is the creator of the “I’m a Failed Writer” online video series and has been rejected more than 600 times by reputable and disreputable journals. Follow him on Twitter:


JESSICA ANYA BLAU: Yes, you’re so right, it’s always the path to someplace unexpected.  Last year my computer crashed and I lost about a hundred pages (I use Dropbox now).  I never really rewrote those pages, I wrote something completely different using only the idea behind those pages.  So even that “failure” was a path to someplace unexpected.

Jessica Anya Blau’s second novel, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, was a Target stores “Breakout Author” series pick.  Her first novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, was picked as a Best Summer Book by the Today Show, the New York Post and New York Magazine.  The San Francisco Chronicle, along with other newspapers, chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. Jessica’s website is here: