Events of the past few weeks have thrown into high relief the fact that we live in complex and frightening times. It makes me glad that we have a holiday set aside for nothing more than giving thanks. I am going to be with almost my entire family this Thanksgiving, and I am glad for the plane that will take me to them, glad for a warm coat to wear in the chilly East, glad for the food we will share, and even glad for the nasty fights that I know will erupt over the games we will play into the wee hours of the night. As I began to pack my bags for my trip, I thought about the particular delights and perils of being a writer on this holiday, and decided to share my thoughts for how to enjoy – and survive – the season.
1.) Don’t share your work with anyone dangerous. Your work is fragile and sometimes the people who love you the best are often the last people who you should show your work. You know the people I mean – the people who belittle you no matter what you write, the people who make you feel horrible about your progress with one snotty comment (“Are you still working on that book?”), the people who tell you that what you should really write about is this thing that happened to them once… If you have never done my Universe of Support exercise, you might want to do that now to make sure you know whom to avoid. And if there is not one person in your inner circle? That’s okay. Perhaps in the New Year, you can make it a goal to find someone who earns the right to that position.
Just so you know that I practice what I preach, here is a photo of my hairdresser, Lynn. She is my all-time favorite fiction beta reader because she is enthusiastic, engaged, critical, kind, and well-read. She’s the best! This is a photo I took on Tuesday when I had my hair cut. I didn’t have time to print out the brand-new never-been-read pages I wanted her to read, so I shoved my laptop at her, instead. She then spent half an hour – while she cut – talking about how I needed to amp up the sex in the scene she’d read. I think we were very entertaining to the other ladies in the salon!
I will not be sharing these fragile pages with my sister or my mother or my dad. Sorry, family!
2.) Be aware that you have an unfair advantage at word games. In my family, we play a lot of Scrabble -- a game that rewards a large vocabulary and the ability to pay close attention to a finite number of words, which is exactly what writers do all day. Our all-time favorite game is Catchphrase -- a fast-paced game that’s sort of like electronic word-based hot potato. It’s basically a game of storytelling. It rewards the ability to paint a vivid picture and call up critical moments from the past, which are skills that all writers, and memoir writers in particular, excel at. My advice is not to lord it over your friends and relatives who don’t happen to be wordsmiths. Gloating never turns out well because you might find yourself playing Hearts, where the ability to count cards matters, or Blokus, where special relations rule, and, well, if you’re anything like me, you don’t often win those games.
3.) Pay attention. When drama erupts – and you know it will – keep your antennae out. All the best and worst of human interaction is on display during the holidays and you have a front row seat. Sit back, take it all in, and odds are good you will find a time to use what you have observed in some capacity in your work.
If you happen to have an encounter that inspires you to capture someone’s story, check out the incredible new Story Corps app that helps you record, interview and upload it to the Story Corps archive, all on your phone. Jeffrey Fowler wrote a beautiful piece about his experience with this app in the Wall Street Journal this week.
4.) Take the time to read a good book. National Book Award Winners were just announced on Wednesday night. Grab an audio version for the car or the real deal for a plane, and be part of the national conversation about good books. After all, every good writer is also a good reader. In this fast-paced world, that’s easy to forget – or to let slide. Don’t do that. Pick a great book you’ve been meaning to read and lean into it during the holidays. My plan is to buy a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me at an independent bookstores somewhere on my travels. I have heard so much about it and am dying to read it for myself -- not just hear people talk about it.
5.) If you feel big emotion in the presence of your family, put that emotion on the page. All writing is about emotion. Emotion is the tool writers use to convey what we want to convey. This is true of all genres. So if you are feeling big emotion, practice putting it on the page. See what it looks like in its raw and unfiltered form – and compare that to how you normally write. Try to see where you tend to be stingy, and to feel what it is like to be generous with your emotion. Even if no one ever sees the words you wrote during this exercise, you will know what the experience of writing that way was like – and that's worth its weight in gold.
And if the big emotion threatens to make you upset, I can offer up my client Tracey Cleantis’ guide to Holiday Survival. Tracey is a psychotherapist andher suggestions are so wise and comforting.
Oh hey and while we’re talking about Tracey – a huge congratulations to her! Her book The Next Happy was just announced as a finalist for The Better Life Awards – a VERY BIG deal! How big? Tracey’s publisher is taking out ads in Publisher’s Weekly in celebration.
There are so very many things to give thanks for.
Enjoy the holiday!