Welcome to the first official post of Creative Practice!
Some cool things have happened in the week and a half since I published the introductory post. Nearly two hundred people signed up, which may sound like small potatoes, but it’s more than I was expecting right out of the gate. I flew to the desert for my first wedding anniversary (my mother was slightly scandalized when I told her the place where my husband and I had decided to celebrate our love is called “Death Valley”). I finished up edits on a reported essay about book promotion for a dream publication that’s been in the works for a while and will hopefully see its way into the world before long.
Sales on my essay collection have had an encouraging uptick, in part because of a few very generous recommendations from end-of-year lists and in part because the e-book is currently on sale for $1.99. (For more on the agony and ecstasy of book sales, check out my conversation with the wonderful Sari Botton for the new Memoir Monday interview series.)
As I continue to ease back into my, uh, writing habits (turns out I can’t say “creative practice” without feeling like I’m in a movie and saying the title of the movie while giving a big cheesy wink to camera), I’ve been thinking about the feelings I rely on to tell me the writing is going well. It hasn’t always been the same sensation across my writing life—it isn’t even the same sensation on any given day. But there’s one in particular that I’ve begun to write toward more deliberately in the last couple of years. (Most of what I’m about to say, by the way, is specific to personal nonfiction. If that’s not your genre, I hope you’ll stick around regardless.)
A lot of impulses can animate personal writing and propel it forward. Not all of them, I’ve learned the hard way, deserve to be trusted. In past, for example, I’ve often mistaken familiar for good. If an essay of mine looked, swam, and quacked like other personal essays that I had read and more or less enjoyed, I took that as a sign that it was fit to publish. (Confusing publishable on the 2016 internet with good was also a rookie error.) Because the work conformed to a recognizable shape even as I was writing it, I assumed it also met my personal criteria for quality and authenticity. Things were clicking into place, moving smoothly down the track. And they were—just not the track I wanted to be on.
This isn’t to say that imitation is always wrong. Determining what kind of writer you don’t want to be is part of discovering the one that you do (and the one that you are). Moreover, identifying the marks of a form and trying to hit them can be a useful way to learn a genre’s contours. But, in the cold light of the internet, I realized the story I wound up telling looked very different from what I thought it had while typing alone in the dark. It did all the things a duck did. But, alas, it was not a duck. Or—not a healthy duck, or not the kind of duck that I wanted it to be. No shade to ducks! I love to stand pond-side in the park and watch the terribly undignified way they dive for food by hoisting their whole ass in the air. Which is a great metaphor for writing—just not the kind of writing I’ve been interested in doing for some time.
What I needed, I realized, was to find a better barometer. Eventually, through practice and trial-and-error, I did. I found a sensation I can trust to tell me that the writing is going well, and authentically so. That feeling does not, of course, always come when called. But knowing that it’s out there gives me a destination. I even gave it a name. Allow me to introduce you to my very sophisticated craft term. I call it: “the oh-shit moment.”
Let me explain. In delving into the gunk of memory and personal narrative, I would occasionally put words to a feeling or pattern or truth that, up till that point, had been inaccessible to me. But when I hit on it, I suddenly illuminated some dark psychological corner, like flicking on the tiny exit lights running down the aisle of an airplane. A mini epiphany that cast a new, weird glow on some part of my psyche or narrative or argument that I hadn’t known about before.
At first, these discoveries started happening by accident. But later, I learned to pursue them with intention. Landing on one became a sign that the process was working. That I had touched, however briefly, on the emotional core of what it was that I was trying to say—and that, if I kept poking around, I’d get even deeper. When this moment happened, the emotional and physical cues were always the same. The simultaneous lift of discovery and the sinking feeling of dread. The feeling of: How did I not realize this before? Or: That makes so much more sense to me now; if only I’d know it sooner. Or, to put it more economically: “Oh, shit.”
The “oh-shit moment” has become an essential part of the way I think about craft. It’s the sense of the work’s terrain being suddenly, thrillingly illuminated in breadth and in depth. It’s a critical indicator that the writing is moving; that the act of coming to the page has already changed the way I think about the subject. Without this sense of movement, of change, I often find that prose (not just my own) can feel inert. I champion writing as a process of discovery, one that shows or even just suggests the progression of thought, rather than having already showed up with everything all figured out.
I would venture that every essay needs an oh-shit moment. Coming to the page is not like cleaning up a campsite. You’re there to really muck around and churn the ground up. You should leave the place differently than how you came in.
Some Other Stuff
As I mentioned above, the e-book of my essay collection is on sale for $1.99 for the rest of this month!
This weekend, I finished Erin Somers’s fantastic 2019 novel Stay Up with Hugo Best, about a writers-room assistant on a late-night show who spends a weekend with the celebrity host at his fancy Connecticut property. This one really knocked me sideways—I thought I had its cynicism and wisecracking all figured out and then was totally walloped when I realized how subtly it had been peeling back those layers to expose me to pure nostalgia and sentimentality and the ache of thwarted potential. Also, it’s really funny.
I also stress-read Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, which, holy shit, boys. I haven’t read many books where the momentum of page-turning is propelled by dread and just wanting to know that everything is going to turn out okay, and I can’t say it’s a genre I enjoy. But the sense of immediacy—all present-tense, short sharp chapters, vivid sensory detail—was powerful and well done.
Thank you for reading, and for bearing with me while this thing finds its shape. See you in two weeks or so. If you vibed with the post, I’d be grateful for your shares and subscriptions.
Yooo, thank you so much for saying how hard it can be to write in a new genre. Your essay collection felt so effortless in reading that I felt both inspired and discouraged by the possibilities of writing a hybrid of personal memoir and reported essay. It's good to remember that it can be hard for those making a profession of it too <3