The difference between writing and writing a story

[A meditation]

Today I dedicate myself to the story. It is not enough to write well. It is not enough to be called a good writer.

Today I dedicate myself to: My writing serves the story. To finding the story. To understanding the difference between writing and writing a story.

Today my writing serves the story.


The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Shanna Mahin

 How do you know what you don’t know?
Sometimes I figure it out on the page.  

—Shanna Mahin 

SHANNA MAHIN is a high school dropout who rallied late and has become optimistic about a strong finish, due in no small part to a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Colony Fellowship, and a few summer residencies. She’s the author of OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS, which is her first novel.

Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing? 

SHANNA: It’s never nothing, once I sit down, but it’s the sitting down where I have a disconnect. I hate writing—loathe it, actually—but love having written.  It’s like the gym. I know once I’ve done it I’ll feel like a champion, yet it’s the last place I want to go and I’ll come up with every possible excuse to not show up.  Once I do manage to drag myself to the page–after I’ve explored every alleyway of my antiquated social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, blogs), after I’ve caught up on every email in my inbox, after I’ve done the dishes and two loads of laundry—and I finally sit down to the empty space, well, it’s never nothing.  I may have a rocky start.  I may blather on for pages.  I may only get one single sentence from all my effort.  But it’s never nothing.

Part of the problem, I think, is how I’ve trained my brain lately.  My online diet is filled with snackable content.  It’s great for my side job writing Facebook games.  I flit between media outlets like Tinkerbelle—even the valuable ones like The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Rumpus—spending only a few minutes in each place before I’m on to the next.  Writing isn’t like that.  Neither is reading, for that matter, and my reading life has suffered lately as well. I think when you’re willing to dive deep and wait for results, they come.  Willing is the operative word in the preceding sentence.  I’m working on it.

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope? 

pretty-thingsjpg-2befae7f46d0b10fSHANNA: I have a seriously unhealthy addiction to fame and celebrity, partly the byproduct of being raised in Los Angeles by a failed actress and a failed director within an extended, successful Hollywood family.  (I’m still not sure if that’s a thread in the memoir I’m working on, but it certainly does keep coming up.) I grew up anchored in the maligned notion that achieving celebrity guaranteed happiness.  I was doomed from the gate.

I’m going to float a possibly controversial opinion here.  I think that creative people (and I realize I’m speaking in sweeping generalizations) usually come from a place of trauma.  I’m not necessarily talking about neglect or abuse, although the childhoods of most writers I know fit that description in one way or another.  I think there’s a hierarchy of need for validation in creative performance and it goes:  stand-up comedian, actor, writer…and then it gets hazy after that.  Probably musicians, then visual artists.  Not sure where directors and models fit in, but I’ve covered most of the population in Los Angeles, where headshots line the walls at the dry cleaners and the car wash and aspiring actors pay thousands of dollars for showcases attended by the mailroom staff of major talent agencies. [So true:] We all just want to be understood, to be seen. It’s the human condition.  Writers have the human condition on steroids.  It’s what makes us such powerful observers. Prices and prizes.

Meredith: What is the real meaning behind finishing? 

SHANNA: Yikes.  This is another topic that’s really close to the bone for me.  You did this on purpose, right?  For me, as long as my work stays incomplete I can’t fail.  And although I’ve done a shitload of work on the subject of failure, and I’ve had brief, shining moments where I’ve been able to fail and embrace that failure as an opportunity for growth, it still scares the shit out of me.  While this book I’ve been working on for six (uggh, SIX) years remains unfinished, I still have the possibility of everything tucked inside it. Once I deem it finished, the real potential for failure opens up.  This is both the best and the worst thing that could ever happen to me, I think. I’d also like to state for the record that “opportunity for growth” really means “holy shit, here comes the pain train.”  All aboard!

Meredith: Are you ever frightened of your own ideas, or what’s inside you? Does it help to know it – or not really, when it comes to getting the words on the page?

SHANNA: I write memoir, so I’m always looking to mine the things I’m afraid of for my writing.  Lucky for me (ha!), that’s pretty much everything.  This is not hyperbole.  I’m a seriously terrified motherfucker.  Here’s a random sample of what I’m afraid of, right now, today:  I’m afraid my dog is going to die soon.  I’m afraid I’m about to have an aneurism because I’ve been having pounding in my ears.  I’m afraid my husband is sick of me.  I’m afraid the upstairs neighbors are bothered by my new smoking habit.  I’m afraid that if I tell you the truth you won’t like me.  I’m afraid I will die alone and homeless like my mother.  I’m afraid people are talking about me.  I’m afraid they’re not.

07BOOKMAHINJP-master180Seriously, that’s just from this morning. It is busy up in my little pea brain.  Does it help to know it?  Yeah, I guess.  Self-awareness is the first step to bringing honesty to the page.  But it’s also much bigger than that, and that’s one of the places I’m struggling in my work.  It’s like, I understand these neuroses I have, I understand why I do these things I do, I understand where the impulse comes from, but that’s not enough. I have to look at the ugliness, the deeper truth behind my motivations.  It’s like descending on a rope into a dark cave.  (I’m paraphrasing Stephen Elliott there, with the cave and the truth and the motivation behind it.)  And this ties in with the real meaning behind finishing, too.  How do you know what you don’t know?  Sometimes I figure it out on the page.  Really, it’s a wonder I ever sit down to write at all.

Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?

SHANNA: Short answer:  I don’t.  Aspirational answer:  I’m never able to block it out, but sometimes I can just let it wash over me and flow into the drain.

I just wrote about this the other day.  I had a little piece on the PEN blog [read it now…great insights: click here] that got picked up by Brevity Magazine and got a fair bit of attention. People were reposting and commenting all over the place. Friends and strangers said a lot of nice things, and one person said something shitty.  I should also mention that what he said was true.  When people say shitty, untrue things it’s a lot less painful.  I spent the next two days obsessing on the one shitty thing instead of the dozens of lovely things.  I’m like Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after she eats the gum, all swollen and purple and still chomping away, while cooler heads are yelling, “Jesus, dude, just spit it out.”  Learning how to spit it out quickly is one of my major life lessons.  Working on it.

Shanna recently started playing the ukulele, which is going about as well as you would expect for someone with no musical inclination whatsoever.Visit the PEN blog often to read more of Shanna’s work as she completes the process of completing her memoir.

[Thanks, Shanna!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Margaret Dilloway

 It’s all about trusting your subconscious to tell you the right thing, the thing that you need.
—Margaret Dilloway


Margaret Dilloway is the award-winning author of SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS and HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, all published by Putnam Books. The e-Book companion to SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, THE TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA, will publish in fall 2015.

Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? 

Margaret: I think we get stuck when we start telling ourselves, “No.” I used to study improv, and the first thing they teach you is to always say, “Yes, and.” You’re not allowed to say no. So if your scene partner says, “We’re flying to Jupiter,” you don’t say, “No, we’re flying to Mars,” you say, “Yes, and we’re taking our guinea pigs with us.” You say yes, and then you build on the yes. [love!>] It’s all about trusting your subconscious to tell you the right thing, the thing that you need.

In writing, if you sit there second-guessing all your ideas, pretty soon you’re blocked. If you write with responsiveness– the “yes, and–” you’re open to whatever crazy ideas your subconscious gives you. You just let it all come out. I also liken it to when you were a little kid, playing “let’s pretend.” Remember how easy that was? You never put the kibosh on your ideas back then! Besides, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect– that’s what editing is for.


Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens?

Margaret: I’ve never had NOTHING happen. I try to write a little bit– even if it’s awful and it gets cut later. Most of the time, you end up with something you can use.

But sometimes you need to let an idea percolate for a bit before it’s ready to come out. Let your subconscious solve your problem by taking a break. I go for a walk or go do a chore or perform some other work task. Daydreaming is part of the process.

Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?Margaret turning

Margaret: It’s hard. While I’m writing I might be thinking, “Hmmm, I shouldn’t use this curse word or my MIL will be mad at me,” or, “I wonder if the book clubs will like it better if I include the octopus?” or whatever. You have these little things poking at you.

You have to remind yourself to write in service of the story. If you try to please other people, it will end up pleasing nobody– it turns into a big mishmash. Writing a novel is not done by committee.

Meredith:  A kind of corollary to the above question: 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)?

Margaret: I try not to compare myself to other writers. I just write like me. I’ve always had this particular style–friends who read my high school writing tell me that I “sound” the same now, except I’m more refined. You know, that’s really all we have as writers– the way we tell the story, because every story’s already been told, right? I’m not the first person to say that.

That being said, other writers do influence my work. There are certain writers who inspire you to do better and get you excited. After I read ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, I thought, I’m going to try to make my descriptions as beautiful as Doerr’s!  I didn’t try to copy him, but I did try to step up my game.

Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?

Margaret: I generally know when a book needs to end– not too long after the climax. If I reread it and get bored, then I know it needs cutting.

When I’m done, I’m always a little sad, and relieved. And panicky and excited, because I know it’s time to start a new project.

Margaret Dilloway lives in San Diego with her family. She has a degree in studio art from Scripps College. She enjoys building dollhouses but does not enjoy owning them.


stuck/unstuck: internal conflict and writing: Lidia Yuknavitch

In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?

*This was the question I had the opportunity to ask some of the contributors to The anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience sometime back. Here is the first, from author Lidia Yuknavitch, whose memoir The Chronology of Water, was the winner of a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. 

by Lidia Yuknavitch

This question has haunted me since the moment I read it.  Then again, writing The Chronology of Water was always a haunting…or better yet, a crucible I had to move through both artistically and emotionally.  Possibly physically.

In order to write THROUGH the story, I had to relive it. And in my case that meant reliving these specific things:

  • the death of my daughter
  • the abuse I suffered from my father
  • the self destructions I inflicted on my self
  • the longing for a mother drowned by alcoholism

It took me nearly two years to write The Chronology of Water.  I had no idea what would happen to me while writing it.  In fact if someone had told me what would happen, I might have run away.  I didn’t sleep.  I drank too much.  I ate a great many medications.  I had nightmares of epic proportions.  I experienced auditory and visual hallucinations.  My moods were their own country.  My rage was nearly uncontainable. My sorrow nearly killed me.

And yet, every word I managed to bring forth from my insides and relocate to the outside, onto the great white expanse of the page, brought me closer to the possibility of a self that might, MIGHT, be able to swim back to the surface after diving down to the bottom. With something meaningful in her hands.

I found what all artists found.  I found that the process of writing, the deep process, the turn yourself inside out experientially but also in terms of form, could give me a self and a life back.

More specifically, for me personally, I’d lived my whole life sort of believing that my primary wound was the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father.  Psychologically and sexually.  All of my rage and acting out through my twenties and thirties was based on a kind of premise — a rage I invented based on a father story — a rage I carried out on the bodies of others in relationships and life experiences.

What I learned from writing into the deeper layers of my own story is that there was a wound underneath that one that was what was in my way.  A wound about motherhood — about my mother and about the death of  my daughter the day she was born — that had I not written this book, I might never have found.

There is a scene in the book and in my life where my father drowns in the ocean, and I, his daughter, lifelong swimmer, pull him out and resuscitate him.  Turns out that was the second most important resuscitation I performed in my lifetime.

You could say that writing The Chronology of Water was the more important resuscitation.  The resuscitation of a self.

Thank you to Gina Frangello for all your help in coordinating. You are truly a writer’s writer, and editor, and friend.

Personal process and the art of the essay

People often ask if I teach essay writing. The answer is: sort of. I’m better one-on-one and in small in-person groups (a holdover from being a therapist, perhaps?) and, so, consult accordingly.

I was recently asked 5 questions about essay writing (see below) for a class. These questions and answers will hopefully get you thinking about your own work.

Tell me about the first essay you sold.

Me[redith]: The first essay I sold was more of an essay/advice piece, and it was to Bride’s.  My father had passed away before my wedding and I wanted to write something that shared both my personal story but that included information that might also help someone else in a similar situation.

Can you tell me a little bit about your process? How do you go about writing an essay?

Me[redith]:  Sometimes it turns out that there is a specific topic I want to write about, and so I just write and write and write until I have a vague idea of where it’s going beyond the “idea.” I do this because, as a writer and a reader, I’m most interested in connections that “make themselves” rather than me trying to seek them out. Once those connections present themselves, and I have enough of them, the “writing” becomes more about shaping and editing and refining.

Where/how do you find ideas?

Me[redith]:  I don’t go looking because I’ve found that the approach of looking and seeking doesn’t work for me. Having said that, while I don’t go looking, per se, I’m receptive to my environment and also to what’s going on internally. From there, I am always writing down sentences on scraps of paper or typing them into my phone. I’m also lucky to have three separate writing partners who I trust and with whom I feel safe so when we write together, and ideas come, I can let them flow onto the page.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of essay writing? How do you overcome those challenges?

Me[redith]:  The most challenging part is when there is a gap between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page. This often becomes evident when I’ve let someone read the piece and they “want” it to be something it is not ever going to be. I’ve learned to realize this is likely because the piece is not done yet. This brings me back to that gap, the one between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page.

What advice do you have for aspiring essayists?

Me[redith]:  Concern yourself with the quality of what you publish rather than the quantity. That also goes for where you publish – quality first.


The 5-Question [Publicist] Interview: Claire McKinney

Claire McKinney PR, is a publicity firm that works with traditional, hybrid, and self-published authors in marketing, branding, and publicizing their books. Claire specializes in campaigns for books, authors, educational programs, websites, art, film, and other intellectual properties. The agency also has a blog on which they share knowledge and experiences with authors who are interested in book marketing and promotion.

Meredith: Is there a different way that the media-shy author/writer can view promoting his or her book when the constant “putting it out there” feels out of line with their inner calling/sense of self?

Claire: If you are a novelist in this position, the best thing to do is rely on the internet and social media outlets.  You will have to at least write to bloggers to see if they will review your book, but you don’t have to constantly be on Twitter and Facebook. It would be a good idea to also have a website for the book as a destination for when reviews of your book are posted.  Ask family and friends to read your book and post reviews on Amazon, that will help with your profile there.  You can also set up an author page on Amazon and Goodreads.  For a non-fiction author, you probably need to have an interest in putting yourself out there because in your case, your expertise and credentials are going to help get the book noticed.

Meredith: I’m hearing less outward chatter about “platform building” than I did five years ago. Does that mean it’s really gone? What does it mean?

Claire: I think the reason you are hearing less chatter is because it’s become a part of the promotion process as a whole.  Everything people are doing these days online and in other places is helping to build a platform.  Individuals and their works have to be recognized “brands” out in the world or at least to their target audiences.  So, no the “platform” is here to stay and actually “branding” may be what’s replaced the term.

Meredith: Is bad publicity really good publicity? (As in the adage, there is no such thing as bad publicity)?

Claire: It depends a bit on the kind of publicity you receiving.  Negative book reviews are never good, but a public argument or controversy about your subject or a tangential topic can be good for raising awareness about you, the book, and your ideas in general.

Meredith: With so many people using various communication methods (YouTube, Constant Contact, websites, texts, Facebook) what can authors do to set themselves apart? And when should the process begin? 

Claire: I think the way to set yourself apart as an author is to decide what it is YOU are sharing with the world with your work no matter the genre.  Are you trying to help people? Enlighten? Entertain?  Then consider what you feel comfortable doing.  You might like writing in 140 character blocks or love to be on camera or writing personal essays, speaking in front of an audience, etc.  Pick your media forms and then either feed them content or approach them from a place of integrity–with the work and with yourself.  People can tell the difference between someone who is faking it and someone who is real.

As to when the process should start?  As soon as you are finished with the book if not before.  It depends a bit on which media you choose but no matter what, starting to build yourself and your “brand” will help to set you apart.

Meredith: Has self-promotion interfered with real promotion of books by overexposing a person or a work to the extent that people are sick of receiving word? I think this is a question on the minds of a lot of writers.

Claire: I think again, if you consider your promotion as a way of sharing ideas, you will be perceived less as a salesperson. Keep you and the book a bit separate at first so that the awareness of the subject and/or story can build out from what you’ve started.  Don’t start marketing the book specifically, until about four months ahead of publication.  Also, if you have a contact list that you are going to enlist to help you get the word out, divide those names into groups: People who will want to know you have a book coming; People who may be interested in the book; People who can help you get media attention; Colleagues/Professionals.  The first group will want to know right away; the second and third closer to the book’s publication; and the final may only want to receive a note about the book when it’s finished or even a signed copy with a personal note tucked inside.

[Thank you, Claire!]

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