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