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Good Writers Dancing Badly, or, What the Muse Taught Me About Rejection, Perseverance, and Finding My Tribe

The day before the Muse and the Marketplace conference, I received a rejection notice for the Memoir Incubator, and the news threw me into a tailspin.

“I don’t understand,” I said out loud as I read the email on my phone, alone in my company’s break room. “I’m a good writer,” I continued, shaking my head. “I don’t get it.”

But the thing was, I did get it. As a writer, my world was full of rejection. On my Submittable profile, the gray “declined” boxes sorely outnumbered the green “accepted” boxes. I’d received rejections from MFA programs, literary journals, anthologies, fellowships, contests, and now, for the second time, the Memoir Incubator. For some reason, this rejection stung worse than the others.

I knew the selection process was subjective. All writers face rejection, I often reminded myself. No writer is immune. Sometimes repeating those statements helped, but in this case it didn’t. I began to wonder if writing was a waste of time. I thought about all the classes and workshops I had taken over the past three years, and wondered if my instructors and classmates had been humoring me when they said they liked my work. Maybe no one had the heart to tell me that I was a terrible writer. What scared me most of all was that maybe the community of writers I had come to know through GrubStreet weren’t my people at all.

I recounted this to my friend Lauren, as I sat on her couch, in the throes of a full-blown pity party. I was staying at her apartment for the weekend to make the commute to the Muse a little easier. But at that moment, I considered not going. “I’m a fraud,” I told my friend. “A complete hack. My whole life is a lie.”

“Oh, Tar… you know that’s not true,” Lauren said as I covered my face with my hands. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?” I peeked at her through the crack between my fingers. She had a gift of seeing straight through my bullshit.

“Maybe,” I said into my hands. I knew she was right. She usually was. Lauren suggested we get some sleep; it was late, and we had to head to the Park Plaza first thing. I lay on the air mattress in the spare room and listened to the city traffic two stories below, exhausted, but unable to sleep, wondering if I should ditch the conference and spend the weekend learning a new skill. I dozed off sometime later, annoyed, after coming to the sad conclusion that I’m not very good at anything else.

In the morning, I set off to the conference alone. Lauren and I would meet up later. As I walked to the T, I did my best to steady my breathing and not pick at my cuticles. The anxiety I felt was the same variety I got before going anywhere with crowds: concerts, movie theaters, work meetings, family reunions. I remember feeling this way in school until I got my bearings. I felt this way before my first workshop at GrubStreet. I was so nervous I thought I might throw up. Three years later, the fifth floor of 162 Boylston Street felt like home.

At the hotel, I checked into the conference and scoped out the scene. It wasn’t as crowded as I thought it’d be. In the grand ballroom, I found an empty table and sat down. No sooner had I pulled out my laptop was I approached by a woman clutching her conference folder, a cloth tote bag slung over her shoulder. She looked to be around my age, mid-thirties. Did I mind if she sat with me?

“Not at all,” I said as I waved at the seven empty chairs. We talked about writing, our families, and other conferences we’d attended. It was her first Muse as well. I surprised myself with how easy it was to talk because I usually choke around strangers. I panic and sweat and stumble over my words, terrified that I’m not interesting enough, preparing for rejection. A few minutes before the keynote began, a woman who turned out to be a literary agent joined us. She told us about her career in New York and we told her about our work, and in these moments I thought, this is why I came here. This is what the Muse is for.

I never saw these two women again at the conference, but I wish they knew how connecting with them soothed my anxiety and gave me a burst of confidence that propelled me through the day.

The connections continued throughout the weekend. I met up with former classmates and instructors in the hallways, in conference rooms, on the streets of Boston. I struck up conversations with the people sitting nearby before panels began. I talked about writing as if I knew what I was talking about. I attended panels with writers I admired and wished I knew personally: Annie Hartnett inspired me with her advice on how to write like a badass and embrace rejection. Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s lecture on structure brought me to the brink of tears when she explained the three-act model and I had a moment of clarity regarding my own project.

And then there was the moment I met one of my favorite memoirists, Lidia Yuknavich, who signed my filthy, tea-stained, dog-eared copy of The Chronology of Water—a book I was so grateful for, and one I learned had been rejected for publication some absurd number of times. “Sorry this book is so gross,” I said, holding it gingerly so the cover wouldn’t fall off. “I spilled tea all over it.” I wanted to tell her how much her writing moved me, but couldn’t find the words.

She laughed. “Did you see me spill water down my front just now? I’m a mess.” Lidia opened the book, signed it, and placed it gently back into my hands. “No need to be embarrassed,” she said. “I love it.”

At a panel later that afternoon, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich and Mike Scalise talked about how they almost gave up on their books. There had been so much rejection—dozens and dozens of rejections between them. But they kept plugging along and eventually they succeeded. It was then I began to feel better about rejection—that maybe I was on the right track after all. If nothing else, I was certainly in good company.

On Saturday night, I had time to kill before heading over to the ICON nightclub for the Grub Turns 20 party. I walked into the Lit Lounge, but turned on my heels about 10 seconds later when I felt my chest tighten. “Nope,” I said out loud to no one in particular. Went to a lounge in the Park Plaza lobby, aptly called “The Library”: a wood-paneled room decorated with leather armchairs, a couple oversized hourglasses, and several chessboards. And books, of course. Lots of books, and though I had the urge to pluck one off the shelf, I didn’t. I settled at a table in the middle of the room, opened my laptop, and dove into my writing. I spotted three other lanyard-wearing Muse attendees, also flying solo in The Library. I imagined they were introverts like me, enjoying their time alone, recharging their batteries.

Later that evening, I walked to ICON. I ordered a drink and waited to see a friendly face. That night I saw many. Former classmates, instructors, and familiar staff members filled the club. We mingled and drank, listened to accomplished writers read their juvenilia, and we raised our champagne-filled glasses in a toast to GrubStreet.

And then there was dancing, and that was the point I almost called it a night. As much as I wanted to be a person who didn’t give a shit about what people thought, I did care. I had no rhythm, so my dancing pretty much consisted of flailing limbs and head-bopping. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people I respected so much.

I stood at the edge of the crowd, too afraid to work my way in. I found my bag, looped it over my shoulder, still trying to find a reason to stay. As I headed toward the exit, I heard my name called. I turned to see Dorian, one of my favorite GrubStreet instructors, standing near the bar. I shuffled over to him and we talked for a few minutes before I admitted how anxious I felt. “This really isn’t my scene,” I said, shouting over the music. “Dance clubs are my worst nightmare.”

Dorian leaned in and said he understood. “I think that’s probably true for most of us.” It was exactly what I needed to hear, and in that moment I knew I belonged to this group: awkward, anxious, introverted, self-conscious me. If I learned anything at the Muse, it was that most writers felt this way at least some of the time, and there was comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone.

I ordered another vodka soda, put down my bag and slipped into the crowd. I danced late into the night, laughing, belting out the hits of the 90s, brushing elbows and shoulders with my fellow writers. None of us were particularly good dancers, but no one seemed to care. At one point, I bumped into Tom Perrotta (or more specifically, I flailed into him) and in a brief moment of excitement and confidence, I had the urge to grab his hands and blurt, “I LOVE THE LEFTOVERS!” Thankfully I didn’t.

It was close to midnight when I stopped to take a breather, and from the sideline I looked over the crowd of my GrubStreet people under the flashing lights. My writing family. My community. So many talented voices tearing up the dance floor. I felt hopeful and proud and inspired and so, so thankful to be part of this tribe, and that despite my recent rejections (or maybe because of them), I finally felt like I belonged.

I smiled and worked my way back into the crowd.

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Hiding out in the Library
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Me and Lauren at the Grub Turns 20 party

 

 

Last Days at the Hemingway House

Yesterday, I went into Onset Village for a tarot card reading. For someone who’s a little skeptical of psychics and the mystic, I sure spend a lot of time and money finding out what they have to say.* My hope is that someone will finally get it right. The closest I’ve come is when Maeve, Mom, Dad, and I saw Maureen Hancock at one of her smaller venues. She walked by our row, stopped, looked at the four of us and said, “Does the name ‘Francis’ mean anything to you?” Tippy’s middle name was Francis, as well as Dad’s father, AND it was the middle name of Maeve’s fiance, Dustin, who had recently passed away from cancer. Dustin was the reason Maeve was there. She needed to know he was OK. Maureen got so much right– right down to my brother’s nickname. “Timmy?” she had said, and then, “No, that’s not it… Tippy? Tippy. Did you call him Tippy?”

I nearly shit myself.

Maureen is the reason I return time after time, to connect with people who have died (and list continues to grow), even though logic tells me mediums aren’t real. There’s no way to contact the dead. But I want to believe.

While reading the guestbook at the Hemingway House, I discovered there was a tarot card reader nearby, and the past guest wrote that it was a great experience. Ebb and Flow is located a short walk from the Hemingway house, and the the spa lobby was bright and welcoming and full of new-agey merchandise. I met with a woman named Chris who led me to a small room with two large armchairs and a small round table to separate us.

I won’t go into too much detail about the hour-long reading, but I will say Chris got a lot right. She knew I was a writer working on a nonfiction book. She said self-help, but I told her it was memoir. “Your book will be a success,” she said. “It will inspire many people.” And I laughed, thinking about the mess of Word documents and folders, and page after page of writing that wasn’t particularly good.

“No,” Chris said when I doubted her, “keep writing. Your book will be wildly successful. One day you’ll come back here and tell me I was right.”

I still think she was just saying that to be nice, but I have to admit, it was encouraging.

One of the cards that stuck out to me was this one **:

Six of Cups

When I asked for more of an explanation of this card, Chris said it represented being stuck in the past. “It could also mean you’ve reconnected with a person, maybe a friend who you haven’t seen in a long time, and that person isn’t the same anymore. Does that make sense?”

I nodded. “I’ve been reconnecting with a younger version of myself while writing,” I told her. “It’s like writing about a person I don’t know anymore.” This is what has made the writing so difficult lately. Nineteen-year-old Tara was a very different person than thirty-six-year-old Tara. I still have trouble tapping into that part of me, and often times I don’t like what I see.

Before I finish writing about this experience, I must also add that Chris knew my brother’s name. She asked who Timothy was. I asked if he was young or old, and she said he was a teenager. “That’s my brother,” I said. “That’s Tippy.”

“He’s always with you, you know,” Chris said. “He helps you write.”

I smiled. Chris continued. “He said it was a mistake to get into the car. He says he’s sorry.”

“Well, what can you do, right?” I said.

We wrapped up the reading after that. Chris gave me a hug and wished me luck. I left the reading feeling pretty great

When I got home, I reconnected with Lauren. We poured some wine, ordered a pizza and submitted work to literary journals. This was Lauren’s first submission anywhere, and when she sent her story out into the world, we clinked glasses and hoped for the best.

Today, I sit at the kitchen table writing this post. We’re leaving in an hour or so, and I still haven’t fully packed, so I’m going to wrap this up.

Kathy, the woman who rented the house to us, had asked we leave a book behind with a note. Ideally the book would be one that the writer has published, but that doesn’t apply to either Lauren or me yet. We left books that are meaningful to each of us:

I didn’t post a picture of what Lauren wrote in BAE because she’ll share that on her website/Instagram, but I will tell you that her inscription was lovely.

I hope to keep up the blogging even though I’m about to return to real life. Probably won’t be quite as often, but who knows? Thanks for reading.

 

* This is a link to The Bridge, the literary journal Lauren and I worked on in college. An essay I wrote about my visit to a spirit medium is on page 31.

** All the images of tarot cards were lifted from the internet. The ones pictured are from the same deck Chris used, which is called Crystal Visions by Jennifer Galasso.

 

Writing Retreat: Day 4

First thing this morning, Lauren read part of Jonathan Franzen’s introduction in this year’s Best American Essays anthology aloud to me. “This is something you need to hear,” she said as she sat on my bed. She read the last three paragraphs which included this gem of a line: “The writer has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.” Franzen wrote about the risks nonfiction writers have to take, and sometimes these risks include embarrassing themselves or revealing something shameful. In many cases, these risks yield powerful essays and memoirs.

This was the motivation I needed this morning. I spent another full day writing, and I feel that I’m making headway on a chapter that has been particularly challenging. Is it good writing? Probably not, but that’s what revision’s for, right? I clocked in nearly 2000 words again today, so I built a fire and poured some wine.

I only have a few more days here at the Hemingway House, and I want to make them count. Tomorrow my mother’s driving down to take us to lunch, and then I’m heading up to GrubStreet for class. Speaking of GrubStreet, I applied to the Memoir Incubator at the last-minute (literally– I sent the application at 11:59PM). I had resolved not to apply because I’m still butt-hurt after not being accepted last year. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but at 11:40 I scrambled to complete the application. I’m not getting my hopes up, and honestly, the paying the tuition out-of-pocket isn’t feasible at the moment, so even if I was accepted, I’m not sure I’d be able to enroll. But we’ll see what happens.Maybe I’ll get a scholarship or win the lottery or something.

And I think I’m going to end this post here. No, wait, just kidding; I’ll leave you with these pictures taken today:

 

Four are from my phone, one was lifted from Lauren’s Instagram feed.

Look how fun we are.

Writing Retreat: Day 3

I wrote so much today, and here I am, writing a little more. Writing nonfiction is great. SO FUN. My writing process consists of writing embarrassing stories about myself and trying to connect them with some semblance of a narrative thread. I have thoughts like I should share my shame with the world and make it a chapter in my book. Then I spend the better part of a day back in the year 2000, delving into material I’d rather forget.

I’m full of great ideas.

Honestly though, I just have to push through this generative stage. Once this book is out of my head and on paper, things will be easier. I’m just going to keep telling myself that.

So what else happened today? I didn’t change out of my pajamas, even after doing Zumba off a DVD Lauren brought. A man named Herman taught us how to Merengue, which I did, but very badly (all the while Herman’s winking and telling me how amazing I look, to which I pant, “YOU’RE A GODDAMN LIAR, HERMAN.”) Lauren did OK, but she used to take dance classes.

We might go to a yoga class some morning this week, which again, I’m pretty bad at (and yeah, I know, yoga isn’t about doing the poses correctly, but believe me when I tell you it isn’t my strong suit). Last time I went to a yoga class was this past September on another writing retreat. We went to Concord, MA because of its literary roots. It was a good retreat– we got so much accomplished, and we stayed in the cutest Airbnb owned by a lady with a baby Maine coon cat named Henry David. Anyway, one day we decided to check out a yoga class in downtown Concord. There was nothing wrong with the class– the class was great: ambient lighting, Buddha statues, images of lotus flowers, the smell of lavender, mixed with sweat and wood floors. The problem was me: I was the idiot who forgot to bring water, and somewhere in the transition between downward-facing dog and plank pose when I began to feel dizzy and nauseous and I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I stood up, and all I could see was a houndstooth pattern, which I now compare to color bars on an old TV set when the cable went out. When I didn’t pass out, I folded into child’s pose and marinated in my own sweat for probably half an hour or so.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is if Lauren and I go to yoga this week, I will bring plenty of water.

In other news, the big nor’easter was a nonissue down here in Onset. It rained a lot and washed the salt streaks off my black hatchback. We lost power for a hot minute, but that was pretty much all the excitement at the Hemingway House today.  Yesterday, Lauren and I ventured out to Home Depot to buy firewood in case we lost power and had to live like New England pilgrims for a few hours. It didn’t come to that, but I have to say I’m glad we picked up firewood because the fireplace is huge, and writing by the fire helped me focus somehow.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of Lauren looking writerly. I’d post one of myself, but I’m a mess. Maybe tomorrow.

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Writing Retreat: Day 1 at The Hemingway House

Back in January, my friend Lauren suggested we go on a writing retreat. There was a woman she knew of who rented her Cape Cod beach house during the off-season, specifically to writers looking to get away and work on their projects. We filled out our applications, and a couple months later, here we are, two writers together in a beautiful house, bracing for a nor’easter, and writing, writing, writing.

Lauren and I write nonfiction: she focuses on essays about family, friends, and being 20-something female; I’m working on a memoir about the sudden death of my teenage brother and the grief that followed. We’ve been friends for over ten years now, and to me, she’s the perfect writing partner. In fact, she’s part of the reason I started writing again after a lengthy hiatus. After college, I slipped into a post-grad slump and abandoned my writing. Her confidence in me helped pull me back up.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a soft white armchair in a nook of Lauren’s bedroom. She sits on the bed, draped in a blanket, revising her latest essay about her own post-grad slump. It’s like parallel play, I think, remembering the child psychology class I took in college, which is when toddlers play near, but not with, each other. They’re interested in what the other is doing, but will not interfere. Writing can be such a lonely, solitary, and sometimes emotionally draining process, but having each other keeps us sane.

I’m writing this post for two reasons: I’m avoiding inflicting more emotional pain on myself as I recreate a particularly shameful moment of my life, and two, I decided that I need to start blogging, and now– as I’m actually doing something writerly–  seems like as good a time as any. I’m not sure what I want this blog to be yet, and sometimes I feel that I have nothing to say about my normal day to day life.

But this is a start.