I emailed my friend Allison a story I wanted to publish. The story was about my experience volunteering in a foreign country and how I discovered something I don’t like about myself – I’m entitled. It was embarrassing to admit, but I know that to write a story worth anyone’s time, you have to tell the truth, even and especially if the truth is ugly, which means you have to be willing to get vulnerable. I thought I had done that. I thought the story was pretty good.
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Allison emailed the story back. The subject line said, “Call me to discuss before you read edits.”
Oh no, she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.
I’ve been teaching memoir writing for almost 10 years and taking memoir classes for 20. Allison has actually been taking my class for as long as I’ve been teaching. Three years ago, we created a podcast we host together called Writing Class Radio, which is all about writing and editing. We’ve even developed a method for giving and receiving feedback. We’ve built careers around workshopping stories.
Edits are part of the game. I give tough edits. I take tough edits. At this point in my career, I don’t want an editor to waste my time with praise. I’m in this to get better.
We use track-changes, software for digitally editing stories, and the story I sent to Allison came back covered in cross-outs, deleted sentences, and invectives that showed up in red. Just three paragraphs down, Allison wrote, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to keep reading.”
A few paragraphs later I noticed she did keep reading because she wrote, “I love you, but any other reader is going to hate you right now.”
A paragraph later, Allison wrote, “Get VULNERABLE! Why do I care?” She didn’t write, “Shut the fuck up,” but that’s what I read.
Heavy breathing. Sweaty pits. Fast heartbeat. Fight-or-flight. At the end, she wrote, “You can NOT put this story out there.”
At this point in my career, I don’t want an editor to waste my time with praise. I’m in this to get better.
I don’t remember how I ended up playing strip poker with one of the hottest guys in my high school, but at 17, I remember feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.
We got down to one sock and underwear. The hot guy got a hard-on under his tighty-whities. I wanted to touch it. He motioned for me to follow him into another room. There was no mistaking what he wanted. I wanted it too. But I didn’t go.
That night I sat up in bed and wrote the hot guy a letter. I wrote that I really liked him; that he was the sexiest guy in our school.
I wrote the letter as if we had something between us, which we didn’t. I’d known him because we went to the same school, but this was the first time we’d been in the same room together, except for classes. I wouldn’t even have called us friends.
I wrote my guts out. I got vulnerable. I said the reason I didn’t follow him into the other room was because I had a yeast infection. It was the first time I’d ever gotten one, and I was embarrassed. I knew they were common, but I didn’t know if it would smell or be yucky. I wrote all that, including, “So I didn’t think I should fool around even though I wanted to.”
I’m pretty sure I wrote the letter hoping he’d give me another chance.
Before handing the letter off in the halls, I showed it to my friend Janet. Janet has become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, but even in high school, she knew this note was way too vulnerable. She wanted to drive straight to 7-Eleven for matches. She said, “Burn it! You can NOT let this get out there.”
I know I said I don’t want an editor to waste my time with praise, but I really do. Once, after a student’s story went through a brutal workshop, he skulked out of class. Outside he told me he expected the class to throw roses at his feet. He is an excellent writer, but when he said that, I thought he was the most arrogant ass alive. In retrospect, I see I’m exactly like him.
After all these years of writing and editing, I expect to get a story right the first draft, which by the time I send it to Allison is really the 20th draft.
I sent Allison another story about my fear of getting old. In the story, I wrote, “I love my period.” Allison deleted the line and wrote, “Who says that?”
I felt my face burn. Shame. And then, I went for a bike ride.
When I got back to my desk, I burst out laughing. Oh god, she’s right. That’s so stupid.
On a completely different story, Allison wrote, “I don’t like your metaphor, you sound like a crazy person.”
I usually ignore her when she says I sound like a crazy person because sometimes those lines turn out to be my best. This is the job of the writer: to accept the edits that feel right and ignore the edits that don’t. The problem is, Allison’s edits feel right most of the time. Still, when she says I sound like a crazy person, I’ve come to trust that I’m on to something good.
This is the job of the writer: to accept the edits that feel right and ignore the edits that don’t.
Her critique of my metaphor was harder to take. My whole story was built around the metaphor. She wrote, “If I were you, I’d start over and just say what you mean without trying to be so writerly.”
Writerly?! Allison was accusing me of being fake and trying too hard to sound smart. Fuck that. I’m not trying to sound smart, like when someone uses fancy words. Please! I didn’t once use the word ergo. Start over? Is she crazy?
I know sometimes my stories need to be scrapped altogether and sometimes, maybe, I do need to start over. Most of the time, though, my stories need to go through many drafts. And yeah, metaphors can sound writerly, but metaphors can also be the best, simplest way to tell a story. Here’s one: Stories, especially mine, are like children. They start off adorable and with so much promise. Then they go through an ugly teenage boy phase. They’re all greasy, and their noses look too big for their faces, and they have that fuzz on top of their lip that needs to be shaved. If you nurture them and shape them and direct them properly, they’ll grow into beautiful adults.
So I kept writing and latched onto this note: “Say something vulnerable or you sound like a dick.”
I knew Allison was right. Being vulnerable builds trust with the reader. We’re both fans of Joyce Maynard, who said, “Write like you’re an orphan;” and Ann Hood, who said, “Say the thing you think you cannot say;” and George Saunders, who said, “Stay open. Forever. So open it hurts. And then open up some more until the day you die. Amen.”
But Janet was right, too. After Janet saved me from sending that letter, I learned it’s possible to say too much too soon. Ultimately, it’s my job to decide when and where to be vulnerable because there’s a time and a place. Getting hard edits always makes me vulnerable. So I sit back, take a deep breath, and accept.
—Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Rumpus, the Huffington Post, FourTwoNine, Mutha Magazine, and AEON, and have aired on NPR and PBS. Andrea co-hosts the podcast Writing Class Radio (writingclassradio.com). She is just finishing a memoir in essays. Twitter: @andreaaskowitz.