“What would happen if you consider the specific, personal details you’re crafting in writing as a part of a whole pattern in the world?”
I explore going from the intimate to the broad, the personal to the political, and how to reach out to the world with your writing with the help of six writers and editors.
This episode is brought to you by the Writerly Love Community.
- Julián Esteban Torres López
- The Nasiona
- Carleigh Baker
- The /tƐmz/
- Aaron Schneider
- The Massachusetts Review
- “Tornado” by Mimi Lipson (published in The Massachusetts Review)
- The Threepenny Review
In this episode of Write, Publish, and Shine I will walk you through how and why to turn your writing outward, with the help of six other writers and editors. We’re talking about going from the intimate to the broad, the personal to the political, and how to reach out to the world with your writing.
What would happen if you consider the specific, personal details you’re crafting into fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, as a fractal—a part of a whole pattern that exists in macro format in the world?
Maybe you’re writing about a meal you had with your family and meanwhile what you write relates to social ideas around food and security, to global issues like poverty, hunger, to nations or universes beyond that dinner table.
Maybe you’re writing about a death that impacted you personally and that death ripples through and touches on big topics of body autonomy or of legislation and political elements related to the way the person died.
I think a lot of us, especially writers who listen to this podcast or writers who have worked with me, start out writing about the self. We start out in the microcosm of that meal, tasting each bite prepared, or feeling the skin shivers of the person bereft from loss.
And, of course, this is necessary. I believe this so hard. I know a lot of the writers I love in our community come to writing as a place to finally be seen and heard. The self is political in itself when it’s writing that lifts the silences imposed on us.
Oh, I get to write my version of what happened? I get to show the importance and significance of things I care about? When we came to writing that was the promise, that was the thing that had us mentally screaming inside, Sign me up!
I, myself, wrote a whole book of poems like this! I called it Galaxy and the inherent irony was really the galaxy revolved around small, specific relationships with my family, with the little microcosm of life that was my own.
I see writing about the self as an important step in our writing, giving voice to the micro, daily, our quotidian worlds.
Even in reaching out this way we are saying something to the world. It’s usually a question, like, do you know what mean? So, yes, in that way it is about reaching out to the world.
And, I know the history of intimate writing about the self and relationships, often gendered as women’s writing, and belittled for this. Writing about home life, family, was (still is) maligned as unimportant and not worthy of high art. There can still be a prejudice in the writing establishment and the word “personal” can be thrown about to mean, not important. This gets my danders up because it is so dismissive and another way to marginalize minority genders. It is a way of saying that anything inside the home isn’t serious writing.
I spoke to a former colleague at Room magazine about this who really helped me bring the bias against personal stories into focus.
Sierra Skye Gemma is a writer, journalist, and the winner of a National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer.
She had an experience where a contest judge put out in the contest guidelines that he didn’t want to get submissions of “personal stories.”
Sierra Skye Gemma
Oh, boy, that was eye-opening because I just never thought that there was sexism in CNF. It just didn’t occur to me that it was segregated and that there was women’s creative nonfiction and men’s creative nonfiction. And when I read that interview I realized it was like that. It made me think more about how men’s creative nonfiction is usually investigative journalism, or literary journalism, or biography, history-based creative nonfiction and then women’s nonfiction is usually memoir, personal essays, regularly. To me there wasn’t really a different. To me, a very intimate piece of memoir that could in no way be fact checked was just as valid as a piece of investigative journalism.
I wholeheartedly agree with Sierra that writing intimately about ourselves or intimately in general, domestic writing as it was called pejoratively when I took English Lit classes, is an entirely valid way to write. And if that’s something you’re happy with doing in your writing, keep on keeping on with that, dear writer.
Though, I will say that in truth, no memoir, if you’re writing it to be read, us just about you. And I’m not just saying the personal is political because of course it is—but when you’re writing to be read you’re always reaching out in some way to the world.
I turn to Julián Esteban Torres López, the co-founder of the social justice storytelling organization The Nasiona, where he also hosts and produces The Nasiona Podcast, to break this down further.
Julián Esteban Torres Lopez
I mean, you assume that memoir is about you. But, it really isn’t unless you don’t care about sharing it with the world. So when you sit down to write with, whatever, with tea or on one side and pencil sharpened or, you know, a battery charge, whatever way you write; there is only one important person in your life, and that’s the stranger at that point. So you have to ask yourself “why”. Why should your readers read your work? What’s in it for them? What value are you adding? Why should they be invested in your story, and then give you their time? What makes you stand out from the other hundreds of submissions?
Now, I sometimes work with writers who don’t explore the bigger picture, or beyond the self, because they feel they don’t have permission or perhaps even pigeonholed into the personal, intimate writing sphere. And I think that if you’re feeling stuck at all in that microcosm, and I’ll speak for myself here, too, where I’m working to explore beyond myself and to connect to bigger ideas of the world in my writing, I think there is something to the idea that we start by giving voice to who we are and how we feel about the roles assigned to us, the experiences we had, giving our lives significance, AND then also finding the greater meaning and significance of the microcosms we write about. We can bring into focus the macro meaning of our micro writing.
Her book drew from a lot of her own bad decisions, exploring family ties and the end of a marriage among other inward-looking topics. But her writing is turning more outward these days. Here’s Carleigh talking more about this:
Yeah, fortunately, I’ve pulled my stuff together in the last few years, but all that conflict in my past is going to make for great stories, is made for some, I guess, already, and more to come.
So one thing that’s definitely changed since bad endings is that I’ve dealt with a lot of the painful stuff I wrote about in the book. There’s a lot of navel gazing in that book because I needed to heal some things before I could turn my gaze outwards.
I sure am grateful that folks enjoyed reading it because I keep the readers in mind. But a lot of those stories I wrote for me these days, I’d say I’m a lot more concerned with what’s going on in the world and how I can contribute. Educating people about the environment, issues of indigenous representation. It will tell my own story. My book will tell my own story, but it engages with political and social issues a lot more than Bad Endings did.
And I’m glad for that. You can only gaze at your own navel for so long. And and if that’s what you need to feel, great. But I’m really looking forward to turning my gaze outwards.
I totally agree with Carleigh when she says if that’s what you need, great, but also if you’ve been doing it for a while it’s a relief to look away from the navel.
It’s also big, and audacious. It means we’re saying not only can I be seen and heard in my writing, but my writing has a bigger connection and I’m part of something, a community, a cause, a scientific fact, a population, a culture, something outside of me.
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So, at this point, if you’re saying, okay, Rachel! I’m convinced. I’d like to experiment with turning my writing more outward. I am ready to place my story into a bigger picture of what the story means. I’m ready to be seen and heard and also take a stand about my place in the world. How do I do this?
Writing in a way that looks outward and sees the part and the whole first requires thinking about your connections to political and social happenings.
Let’s listen to Emily Wojcik, who has worked in nonprofit publishing for more than a decade, first with Paris Press in Ashfield, MA, and now the Massachusetts Review.
The Massachusetts Review a publication that is very interested in writing with that outward gaze. And she provides a really concrete story about how a work of writing starts about a family then finds its way into, through direct connection, a much bigger story about social and political events.
I think I’ve read really wonderful memoirs. But we as a magazine, we don’t really publish personal memoir that doesn’t in some way engage the broader world. What I mean by that is, for example, in our current issue, our Summer 2019 issue, we have this really amazing essay by a woman named Mimi Lipson.
And it’s it starts off being about her brother and her brother was bipolar and would often when he was in a terrible place, he would take himself hiking for days at a time all by himself out in the woods. And in the course of one of these hikes, which is triggered by the fact that he’s having trouble with his neighbors upstairs, he lives in a house that his mother is the landlord of, a building that his mother is the landlord of.
And the neighbors upstairs are giving him a lot of grief and trouble and causing a lot of noise. So he takes himself off and in the course of this hike, a freak tornado goes through and he gets felled by a tree and ultimately rescued and all of that. But in the course of this, it starts off being about family trouble and mental illness.
And then you begin to learn through the course of the essay that the neighbors upstairs are the Tsarnaev brothers from the Boston Marathon bombing and that this author’s mother was their landlord in Boston.
And it becomes this kind of really intricately woven meditation on mental illness and family, but also the idea of do we really know our neighbors and what are the effects of these people on both good and bad on the greater world and the ways we interact with people. And it becomes this really big essay and a really economical space. And that’s the sort of nonfiction that we tend to look for. My boss puts it, we’re more interested in the world than the self.
And when we get memoir, it’s often really well written.
But, it’s so specific and so small. The charming and adorable story about a man learning to cook dinner for his family because his wife got a job, and that sort of thing where it doesn’t feel like it’s saying much beyond the family. And that’s hard for us to figure out how that’s going to work for our type of reader who’s looking for a broader, more international, more politically engaged form of nonfiction.
What headlines does your writing relate to and how can you make that connection?
Of course, we might not all have a big, significant, tragic GIANT news story living next store. But we certainly all have connections to social and political life, things that are bigger than us from tragic to sublime.
In many ways all it takes is that layer of reflecting on our times.
Here is Wendy Lesser, an American critic, writer, and the founding editor of the arts journal The Threepenny Review, on the function of literature in society…
Well you know Ezra Pound called that news that stays news. Now Ezra Pound was a maniac and a fascist, but, on the other, hand he was right about a lot of things. And I do think that’s true. That literature stays current when everything that’s just current events drops away. And I do think that literature tells you things about the world that can stick with you and shape your sense of history in a way that regular old nonfiction accounts often can’t. I mean most of what I know about 19th century England, everything I know about 19th century Portugal, and at least half of what I know about 19th century Russia, comes from novels. I have a sense of those worlds from reading the great works of literature that came out of them. I’m not saying that literature is separate from life. Literature is part of life as T.S. Eliot said at one point. But I think that some kind of transmutation has gone on having to do with the fact that it was sifted through an individual perspective; the author’s individual perspective. Even if we don’t know anything about him, like Homer or Shakespeare, you know those are like anonymous people in a way to us. But something has been sifted through their perspective and then has come out the other side in a way that is no longer personal. It transcends the personal even though it’s gone through the person.
When you’re considering the headlines your writing relates to and how can you make that connection, it’s still very much about you and your point of view.
Listen to Aaron Schneider, who teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University and founded The /tƐmz/ Review, talk about the nuance and introspection required…
I think that people should think about that positionality in terms of the way it pushes you in directions of really fascinating subject matter that we don’t hear about very much. I think when people are doing political writing, a lot of the political writing we get is very much focused on one side of that. You think of this, you’re dealing with an unpleasant situation, a difficult situation, the kind of thing that people address in political writing, you end up with an equation that really simplistically has kind of victims on one side and perpetrators on the other. It is almost unheard of for us to get work that, not almost entirely unheard of, but it’s really rare to get work by someone who looks at the one side of that equation, which is the side of the perpetrators, and asks questions about where that comes from, interrogates their own complicity, et cetera. So I guess this is sort of a long winded way of me saying that if it comes to political writing, one of the things that I personally would like to see more of, and I think it would be really refreshing to see more of in the submission pile, is the kind of writing that takes a long, hard look at where the writer themself is coming from and their relationship to the issue they’re trying to address, because that’s rare, I think.
When it comes to taking at a long hard-look at our selves in relation to an issue, in some ways we’re coming at this the other way around. Meaning we are already writing about the inner experience, from a firm point of view, then we’re pulling that out into the world. The challenge here will be to keep that level of introspection even as we bring news, politics into the writing.
Turning your writing outward takes:
- Considering headlines your writing relates to and how can you make that connection;
- Recognizing that your point of view is still paramount.
- Bringing more nuance to topics, so not falling into good/bad binary thinking;
Does that seem like something you’d like to try if you’re not already? If so, over to you, luminous writer!
Go big with your writing!
Take a story or poem that is intimate and about very personal things then connect it to the news, transcend the personal!
Find the micros in your work that relate to macros, then write as much about the world as about yourself. Find specific details are in your fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry that fit into a whole pattern that exists in macro format as well in the world.
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, write, publish, and shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every-other week and filled with support for your writing practice.
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Thank you for listening—I encourage you to keep connecting and reaching out by writing luminously!
My guest spoke to me from… The unceded territories of the Le-KWUNG-en people on what is colonially known as southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Tsawwassen, and Musqueam Nations, in so-called Greater Vancouver
Lands colonially known as London, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Attawandaron, and the Wendat peoples.
Lands colonially known as Berkeley, California, the territory of Xučyun (Huichin), the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo Ohlone, the successors of the historic and sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people.
And I am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Tarabin Bedouin.