What would Jo Ann Beard do?


Dear Writers,


I woke up this morning feeling a bit stressed about an upcoming grant proposal deadline. I need to clearly and creatively define my book idea. I need to justify the artistic merits of the project. One question asks why I have decided to work on this project now and how am I qualified to do so? Not only do I have to answer the proposal questions but I must submit ten pages of my work in progress. And yes, I see the irony, my life as a story arc. What is at stake? A lot of money that would allow me to produce a large body of work, not to mention recognition from a large arts council. There is a defined timeline, tension, a choice to be made...


So what am I struggling with?


The answer is simple - whether or not I want to put my life on the page or do I want to pad the book with other people's stories? 

My book idea is to explore two themes, home and intimacy, writing about characters (or myself) that are yearning for a place, that are in a place they must adapt to, the power of architecture and our physical homes, intimacy with unexpected people, and intimacy with our physical environment. But the overriding conclusion is that home and intimacy are interlaced.


This year I am focusing on writing CNF (creative nonfiction). Last year was all about the novel (I am in the final editing stages and curious to understand another form in depth). My current CNF crush is Jo Ann Beard. This woman is a brilliant writer. Her book Festival Nights is a collection of creative nonfiction pieces that essentially explore our deepest human fears. She writes about a woman whose dog is dying - the piece takes place over 24 hours. Beard writes thought and emotion flawlessly - she takes what we feel and puts it into words without losing anything in the translation. She writes about a woman who is dying of cancer and articulates the fears most humans would grapple with - trying to imagine not being in the world anymore and the world going on without you.

You know the question, if you could have lunch with any famous person, who would it be? Hands down, Jo Ann Beard. If you're reading this Jo Ann, call me!


It's not clear if Ms Beard is writing from personal experience or borrowing stories from characters in her life. There is the suggestion that she writes between genres of fiction, memoir, and CNF, blurring the lines. This brings me great comfort, that if necessary I can do what she does and slip into the cool waters of fiction when the heat of reality becomes too much. But I know she doesn't do it as a means of escape - I would guess that in her case the fiction serves to enhance to truth.


So dear writers, this is the question of the week. How comfortable are you being vulnerable on the page? Years ago, a writer friend told me that I write with the brakes on. I was trying to control the words to protect myself from being seen on the page. The result was characters who lacked vulnerability and power. I've managed to resolve this with my fictionalized characters but CNF demands a whole other level of vulnerability and exposure. This doesn't mean revealing family secrets, or bleeding on the page, it simply means being honest with your reader and nurturing the universality of the piece.


When clients ask me how to get past that paralyzing writer's block caused by worrying about the judgement of family or friends, I tell them to do one of two things:

- Write a draft for yourself, as if no one will ever see it. Just get the story down knowing you can make edits later.

- Write in second person. This perspective is incredibly liberating as it creates a distance between the narrator and the character. The narrator can either be first person addressing another character - You made me drink orange juice every morning. Or the narrator can be observing herself, You are going to the train station when you see a man from your past. You do that thing where you stop moving and crowds swarm around you.


It's a risk to submit 10 pages of writing in second person to a grant proposal but this is how I will proceed today. I can always rewrite it in first or third person. As I tell my clients - you need something on the page to work with otherwise you are a talker, not a writer.


Feel free to contact me if you need some guidance anywhere in your writing process!


Greeting from Vienna!


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