On Monday, I got an email from my client Tracey Yokas. This was the subject line: “Oh my god---I'm kind of weepy right now...” What followed were the words of the acceptance letter of Tracey’s first-ever published piece of writing – a personal essay that is being run right now on ipinion.com. I had the privilege of helping Tracey edit this piece, which she began in response to a great exercise in my friend Samantha Dunn’s class at UCLA.
While the news of first publication is certainly worthy of confetti and champagne, this blog post is about something else entirely – something that is far bigger in my mind and far more powerful. It is about what bravery looks like in a writer. It’s about the moment when you go from being someone who kind of sort of wants to write to someone who is committed to the intense courage and generosity it takes to say what you really feel and believe.
I knew that Tracey’s plan was to publish this piece anonymously. It’s a highly personal piece that is deeply revealing about both Tracey and her teenage daughter – and revealing in ways that can provoke very strong reactions. I never doubted her decision to withhold her name – it’s not my place to question that decision, and I figured Tracey had excellent reasons. When I saw the editor’s promise that he would ensure anonymity, however, something in me became very sad. Here was the chance for Tracey to claim her voice and her power, to enjoy the fruits of her labor, and she was letting it pass her by.
So I wrote Tracey back. I don’t think I would have sent this email to someone I didn’t know well. But Tracey and I have been working one on one for many, many months on a book that is revealing in about a thousand ways. I feel as though I have earned her trust. Here is what I wrote:
ONE thought I just HAVE to float -- why not put your name on the piece? It would give it so much more power. I assume you are doing it to protect Olivia? Have you talked to her about it? I just want to make sure you are not making an assumption about her reaction. If it is indeed to protect her, then yes -- of course you have to do it. But if it's because you're afraid of the reaction to what YOU did and to YOU? That's a different story -- and one I would argue with. We love writers because they say the things the rest of us won't dare to say....
Long story short, Tracey had not spoken to her daughter about her piece or her decision. She had that difficult conversation, and also spoke to her husband, and at the end of the day, she made the decision to put her name on the piece.
I’m just so deeply proud of her – for writing something real, for facing her fears head on, and for standing up for her right to tell her story. I asked her if she would answer a few questions about what happened so we could learn from her experience.
Jennie: You just made a massively brave and big decision to put your name on a piece of very raw writing -- but you didn't start out in that place. Can you talk about why you DIDN'T originally want to? What were you afraid of?
Tracey: The moment I decided to tackle this piece was the same moment I decided that if I even finished it, I would never attach my name to it. I wasn’t fearful of the reactions I might receive since it was my decision to write the piece in the first place, but since it is as much about my teenage daughter as it is me, I was very concerned that members of the public at large and members of our family might judge her. I was concerned someone might attempt to contact her directly and criticize her for the decisions she (we) made. Sex, birth control, morning after pills, abortion, “family planning”—these are topics that most of the people I know really don’t want to talk about, although, after last night’s debate, we need to talk about them more than ever. I didn’t want anyone outside of our nuclear family sharing an opinion with her that might hurt her feelings or impact her self-esteem. She’s one of the strongest people I know and has survived more than some people twice or three times her age, but hurtful words still hurt.
Jennie: What made you change your mind?
Tracey: Several things. First, you encouraged me to examine clearly the reason I was withholding my name. I did, and the bottom line was that I didn’t and never want fear to be the overriding factor for why I make any decision in my life. Neither my husband nor my daughter had even read the piece when I submitted it and when it was accepted at iPinion Syndicate. I figured the least I owed them was the chance to have a say in the matter, especially my daughter. I was prepared to accept her decision either way. My husband, well, if he had balked at the idea I probably would have argued with him, but not with my daughter! Also, this is my first ever piece accepted and posted someplace other than on my own website. I’m stoked! I worked hard on it and I’m very proud of it and of how we handled the situation. I really wanted to claim it as mine.
Jennie: How did you approach your husband and daughter? Did you plan it out or just do it? How did you expect them to react?
Tracey: I wish I could say I had a plan, that I was that prepared. No such luck. I approached my daughter first since her opinion was paramount to me. This just happened on Monday. We were getting ready to go out and grab some lunch and run a few errands. I told her that I had something I needed her to read and that I wanted to discuss it. “Is it long?” she asked! That was her only concern. I handed it to her and sat down across from her to watch her read it so I could gauge her reactions. She didn’t know any of the details I revealed about myself in the piece. It was fun to watch her eyebrows go up and down as she read it. Later that day, the identical scenario played out with my husband, minus the eyebrows. He already knew the story.
I expected my daughter to appreciate the piece, she likes to write too, and understands the value of creativity as it relates to healing, but I had no idea how she’d feel about it going out into the world at large. I expected my husband to have questions about the logistics of it. He did, and I wanted him to be prepared in case he gets contacted with questions and concerns by any members of our very large family.
Jennie: What WAS their reaction?
Tracey: My husband was supportive and happy for me. He knows I’ve been trying to improve my writing craft for a while and was thrilled that something finally came through for me in this way. He also assured me that he’d have a few choice words if any family members took me or our daughter to task for how we handled the situation. This made me feel safe, to know he will have my back if needed. My daughter, well. Wow. She read the final page and got teary-eyed. She looked at me with an I can’t believe this-look and I got worried. I told her that it was fine, I was fine, she was fine—I totally went into mom-mode. I stood up to hug her and she gave me a huge hug in return. She said she felt so sad about what I’d gone through. She was worried about me! I told her not to worry. I told her why I wanted her to read it and about my concerns. She said, “If we go down, we’ll go down together, Mom. I love you.” That one sentence about made my year. I think sharing the piece with her has made our mother-daughter bond even closer, an outcome I never would have experienced had I not let her read it. (Then I assured her no one was going to take us down. She needn’t worry about that.)
[Jennie’s aside here – I cried when I read this. Actual tears. Wow.]
Jennie: When you told the editor it was a GO on your name, what did he say? Because he was originally FINE with it being anonymous, wasn't he?
Tracey: He was fine with it being anonymous. He invited me, based on this piece, to write and submit additional pieces that he said preferably would have my name attached. When I wrote him and said that they could include my name after all, well, that was just fine too. It didn’t seem like a big deal to him either way, which I appreciated.
Jennie: And how did you feel? You know I am always talking about the necessity for being honest and authentic and generous and real with your emotions -- but it's one thing for me to sit here and say that. It's another for you to go and DO it. So how REALLY did it feel?
Tracey: The actual writing of the piece was hard, from the perspective of writing. Writing is just hard. You and I have had this conversation several times, just about every time I complain about how hard it is! It was not so hard, in the privacy of my own home, to be willing to dig deep. I did have a few moments, however, remembering back to that time that I wondered why the hell I couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie, that part of my past was unpleasant. I was scared and alone. I didn’t particularly enjoy reliving those moments, but I felt passionate about the subject matter. Life is hard, mothering is hard, living is hard, but I don’t want it to be hard for us to talk about these things, especially between mothers and daughters. I don’t want us to feel shame that we’ll be judged or criticized or that we did something wrong or bad. I want anyone struggling through a hard time who feels alone to know that they are not alone. We’re in this together, and we’re doing the best we can, period. But the REAL hard part has only been since iPinion published the piece. I’ve been kind of nauseous ever since. I hope that goes away soon. As much as I’d like to say it doesn’t matter, I want my work to be validated as much as the next writer.
Jennie: What has been the reaction so far of friends and family? Any stranger reactions yet?
Tracey: Thus far, every single reaction, strangers included, has been positive and supportive. I saw one I might consider in the middle. I am beyond touched and humbled. I’ve gotten wonderful support for my mothering style, for my ability to be there for my daughter. I have to be honest, this was a huge shock. As someone who struggles sometimes with feelings of inadequacy related to my mothering (and my writing), reading the positive comments has actually been hard for me. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I am so grateful. They’ve shown me I have more work to do, receiving support and compassion is imperative if we want to be able to give it. Part of my intention for the piece was to show just how far we mothers go for our kids, but I wasn’t seeking an atta’ boy for it. I wanted to remind readers that the worst thing might actually be the best thing—but it might take decades to realize it. This echoes the message of my book big time.
Jennie: Do you have a plan for negative reactions?
Tracey: I have no plan (again), but that’s a great suggestion. I will think about it and come up with one. I think a negative comment says more in the long run about the person who writes it than the piece, so I probably wouldn’t try to change or delete it. To each his own. This attitude of letting go has been a huge learning curve for me as it relates to my writing life and to my life in general. Negative comments would be one more hairpin turn on the road, one more great reminder not to hold on to what I can’t control. And to not give power to negativity. Part of the creative process is learning how to let go of comparisons, negative comments would, I think, force me to do just that.
Jennie: This is your first published piece! Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the piece? You've been working on it awhile.
Tracey: It is my first! I started the piece during a personal essay class with Sam Dunn through UCLA Extension. The assignment was to write a confession. This situation came right into my mind. I’d only thus far written about it in my journal, so I took a stab at a first draft during class and got some great constructive feedback. I wrote a second draft, including many of the suggestions from class and then sent it to you. Two more passes, which included changes in the structure, and it was done! Phew.
Jennie: How did you connect with the editor who published the piece?
Tracey: The amazing writer, Amy Ferris, shared a piece on Facebook about male anorexia. Since part of my memoir is about my daughter’s struggle with major depression and an eating disorder, I try to read every piece I see on-line related to the topic. The piece was fantastic, so I took a minute to write two or three brief sentences to the author thanking him for his candor and to tell him how great I thought it was. I shared that I understood what he’d gone through since we’d gone through it too. Immediately, he liked my comment and wrote me back thanking me, which is always nice. I try to do the same when people take the time and make the effort to write comments on my blog pieces—it’s as much work as the writing! Anyway, I guess he searched my name and found my website. The money I spent on it seems to have paid off. He sent me a private message to tell me he liked my site and wanted to discuss sharing it. I happened to have just finished the final touches on this piece and offered to send it over. He wrote me back right away to say yes!
Also, I have to add, I took Dan Blank’s Get Read course, the one I learned about on the phone call you hosted several months ago. The number one concept I took away from that class was to concentrate on social media by making individual and meaningful connections to like-minded people and to let go of thinking about the masses. The connection makes the meaning. This is something I believe in my personal life, but had never considered in my on-line life. I took the advice to heart and have now “met” several people who I feel deeply blessed to know. I can count on them to read and share my work, to understand my point of view. I hope they know they can count on me back. I am very lucky to have the time right now to be proactive in this regard, and spend time every day working on it.
Jennie: You are writing essays and blogs in support of a book you are writing. Do you want to share where you are in the process and -- this is a test -- do you want to take a crack at answering the question, "What is your book is about?"
Tracey: Oh gosh. Well, I am still in the process of trying to finish my first draft. I hit a snag a few months back when faced with writing what I imagined to be a pivotal scene in the book. I say imagined because until I write it there is no way to know! Anyway, over-thinking the situation, another bad habit I have, halted my progress almost entirely. You suggested I take a break from writing my book, which I initially bristled at, but which I think turned out to be the perfect suggestion. I took a break from the pace of having deadlines twice a month, a pace of writing I had never before had to maintain, and turned my attention to my blog. Interestingly, I think writing the blog pieces has really helped me start to find my voice on the page, though I can’t tell you why, and based on recent events, focusing on the blog over this time seems to be working in my favor. Also, having the opportunity to write pieces and to finish them has been a huge boost to my confidence and my energy level. I’m really excited to get back to my book, which I am doing right now, by tackling that pivotal scene. Plus, you threatened to fire me which completely freaked me out.
[Jennie’s aside here – This is true. I made this threat and I meant it. I actually made it to two different clients this month. I can’t help writers who aren’t highly motivated and committed. You’re either all in -- or you’re onto something else. I mean, yes, of course, there are vacations and the flu and extenuating circumstances that may keep you from writing. But garden variety cold feet? Everyday procrastination? Not on my watch! You know that tough love thing I talk about on my website? It’s not just a pretty catch phrase!]
As to what my book is about. I haven’t written my elevator pitch yet, it’s on my to-do list, but there was a moment during our journey when I had to accept that the outcome of my daughter’s illness was beyond my control. I had to put her life back in her hands, and take control of my own. That moment, when I let go of her and embraced myself was the moment we both started to heal. She’s happier and healthier now than she’s ever been and so am I. I can’t wait to share that and other lessons I learned along the way.
Jennie: Well, Tracey, you just wrote it! Add in a little information about your daughter’s age when this all began (13), the actual illness (severe depression, an eating disorder, a tendency towards self mutilation) and you’ve pretty much got it.
For any writers who are holding back in their work, hedging their bets, being stingy with their emotions? This post is a reminder to all of us about the power we wield when we go all the way.