Authenticity

Faces gathered in my computer screen from writing rooms across the world. An “accountability check-in” — poets, memoirists, academics, novelists, and essayists, all sharing their day’s writing goals (along with the local weather report during this latest polar vortex) before getting to work.

One writer, after describing her distant view of snow gathering on the Cascade Mountains, explained how her previous day’s work had pleased her; she had “found her way into the magic,” a road not so well marked, and her goal for that day was to find it again.

All heads bobbed up and down in our squares. I have known the absence of that magic. Last summer I felt stymied in my draft memoir. My paragraphs sounded like blah blah blah bullet points. I had forgotten how to sound like myself. Would I find my way again?

Enter our cross-country RV odyssey, a chance to get some distance from the writing project by focusing on getting my family virus-free across the Rockies in a 27-foot house. I did not look at my manuscript once. Instead, I took photos and wrote blog posts, unearthing the seemingly miss-able moments that together add up to life. The new settings after months of sameness, the lack of pressure, and my self-imposed daily deadlines, unexpectedly led me back to the voice I had been missing. Hello there, me! Long time, no see. It was such a relief to find that road again.

There’s a connection between finding that authentic voice in one’s writing and in one’s being. Both can get hidden under obligations and distractions, lost behind the wreckage of mistakes and missed turns.

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity,” said Coco Chanel. Maybe that explains why the word “authenticity” sizzled in my ears during that writing group check-in. The past year has held some of the hardest times of my life. I have needed to know more than ever who I am, and where I stand. For people like me, accustomed to pleasing, compromising, and getting along, authenticity means finding the terra firma from which you do not waver. Owning your truth. Recognizing and resisting the swirling external forces that try to sway or dissuade you. Holding fast to your authenticity — i.e. reality, honesty, faithfulness, trustworthiness, truth — no matter how it threatens those who hold fast to a misguided mirage.

It takes practice, and thankfully practice comes in many forms. Meditation, which starts with putting your feet on the ground to feel a connection to the earth. Or yoga. My teacher, Nicole, watches us through zoom and cues us to take the position of Warrior I and gently reminds us, “your back foot will want to pull away. Press down, and feel the mat press against your whole foot, grounding so you can reach your arms strong and high.”

Authenticity breeds authenticity. Finding it in myself will not guarantee its appearance in my writing, but it helps me recognize when it appears, and when something lesser is trying to butt in. And I know where to look for help: in breaks from the ordinary, in nature, in reading the voices of my favorite writers who sound only like themselves — Anne Lamott, say, or Aimee Bender. Like these authors do for my writing, we can do for each other in living: “When you show up authentic, you create the space for others to do the same.” (Anonymous)

May you honor your authenticity, and surround yourself with others — at a safe distance, virtually, or on the page — who bring it out in you.

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P.S. Book recommendation: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley

I learn more about human nature from a good novel than almost any self-help tome, and in searching for a book on authenticity, I came across a New York Times bestselling novel I can’t wait to read: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. What happens when six strangers decide to tell their truths in anonymous journal entries written in a single green notebook? Something that looks like happiness. It is a “feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits” (Washington Post), and a “warm, charming tale about the rewards of revealing oneself, warts and all” (People). Warmth, charm, and lifted spirits sounds right to me.

(I link to Bookshop.org, which supports indie booksellers and gives readers a discount, but you can also find this title wherever books are sold. wink wink.)

Writer’s Life: Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff Author Photo credit Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

Pam Jenoff is the author of ten novels, her latest — THE ORPHAN’S TALE — launched last month to much acclaim. I met Pam at the Jewish Book Conference in 2015, and she impressed me as warm, intelligent, funny, and humble. She is also a Penn Law grad and mother of young children. I’m pretty sure her motto (see below) has something to do with her prolific output. I’m pleased to introduce you to Pam Jenoff:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

I’ve had occasion lately to think a lot about the inherent tension between being a writer and being a mom. As a mother, I want to always be present in the moment. But my writer side secretly wants to sneak off and be with my characters. Essentially it is about the precious commodity of time, and I think the answer is to be wholly present for whichever aspect of life I am spending time on at that moment.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

I have written in mountaintop retreats and castles. I have also written in my doctor’s office and in my car, and can tell you whether the coffee shops within a five mile radius of my house open at 6:00 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, because I’m there with my nose pressed against the glass wanting to get inside and write. Usually my office is my favorite place because I just love to be in my daily routine, doing my thing. I also do very well writing in hotels on book tour. But you can’t be too fussy about it.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Every Damn Day. It’s all about moving the manuscript forward, even an inch at a time.

Who inspires you?

So many people! Great writers and great athletes. My kids. Right now, my mom, who has waged an epic health battle this year and is a total warrior for our family.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

My big three causes have always been hunger, homelessness and at-risk youth. Right now, I’m passionate about book fair scholarships – making sure that children who cannot afford a book at a school book fair are able to choose one, instead of watching others get a book while they do without. My kids go to a very diverse public school and I’m really focused on including students from low-income families in all aspects of school life.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I am reading constantly. There are so many good books coming out this year: thrillers from Mary Kubica and Heather Gudenkauf, historical fiction from Janet Benton and Jillian Cantor, summer novels by Jamie Brenner and Jane Green, [read her Writer’s Life interview here – LND] just to name a few!

For book tour info, and to buy this book and her others, visit www.PamJenoff.com

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“A gripping story about the power of friendship to save and redeem even in the darkest of circumstances, The Orphan’s Tale sheds light on one of the most colorful and inspiring stories of heroism in Nazi Germany. This is a book not to be missed.”

 – Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife

Writer’s Life: Holly Brown

If you are among the people who this week may be craving a little extra reality-escape, I’m here to suggest: Read BOOKS! To that end, allow me to introduce you to family therapist and author Holly Brown, and her new psychological thriller, THIS IS NOT OVER.holly-brown-ap1

 

  1. What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

In high school, I wanted to be the next S.E. Hinton (no, I’m not dating myself at all here.) S.E. Hinton wrote “The Outsiders,” “That Was Then…This is Now,” and other fantastic books that were all the rage when I was a teenager. She was a teenager herself when she was published, which made her my idol. So when I was about fifteen, I finished writing my first novel. My family lived in Philadelphia, and there was one literary agent that we found in the Yellow Pages. My father drove me to the agent’s office so I could deliver my manuscript personally. Now, barring the fact that this is not at all how submitting to agents works and that I was summarily rejected and that I didn’t get published for many more years, what I love about the story is that my parents never doubted that talent and drive could make things happen. They never doubted that MY talent and drive could make things happen. So I carry that confidence and determination into my writing, and my life. And I want to bring it to my daughter’s life, too.

  1. Where do you write? What do you love about it?

This is the least sexy answer ever, but I love to write from my bed. It’s just so cozy. Sometimes I have the TV on, which is something you would never encourage your kids to do at a time of concentration, but it’s kind of like having a party going on nearby. For some reason, that works for me. And I think it’s important that every writer just finds a system that works for them and embraces it, fully.

  1. If you had a motto, what would it be?

Stay curious. It’s critical to me as a writer, and as a therapist, and as a human being. It’s dangerous to feel like you know everything. And it’s boring.

  1. Who inspires you?

Sue Johnson, who developed emotionally focused therapy. It’s informed by attachment theory, which says that the emotional bonds we have with our loved ones are vital, starting with our parents. But it doesn’t stop there, and even if you didn’t get what you needed as a child, you can still get it later in life; you just have to work a little harder. Sue Johnson helps couples learn to love well, to become emotionally secure and able to truly depend on one another, and her teachings have made me a much better therapist.

  1. What charity or community service are you passionate about?

I feel passionately about an informed electorate, and about the necessity for independent investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is on the decline at a time when we need it most in order to keep elected officials and corporations accountable. ProPublica is an amazing non-profit dedicated to finding, researching, and telling stories that advance the public interest. They’re funded almost entirely through donations: https://www.propublica.org/ 


For more about Holly:

Website: HollyBrownBooks.com       Facebook: Facebook.com/HollyBrownAuthor

Blog: Bonding Time   Buy the Book: http://bit.ly/TINOHB

 


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P.S. If you are lucky enough to be in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area on Tuesday, January 17, at 7pm, you can meet Holly for her launch party at Books Inc. Alameda (a hop, skip and jump from the Oakland Airport), one of my favorite bookstores.

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My Son’s Advice to Keep Going

The writing deadline I gave myself seemed expansive back in January: complete the first draft of a novel by year’s end. But as we creep up on Halloween, that draft remains listless and sprawling, even though the idea, hatched years earlier, still inspires me. There’s something there, I still believe, and I’ve got 10 weeks to get myself to some sort of ending.

I put mediocre words on paper in service of a first draft deadline, knowing even as I write them that they’ll have to be jettisoned. That my own writing sometimes puts me in the mood for a nap cannot be a good sign. Where is the magic? Where is the emotional truth? The keen observation? The aha insight?

Into these doldrums comes Emmett, twelve years old, and the personal narrative he has just completed, his first writing assignment in middle school. He chose to write about the Vermont ropes course.

The fresh Vermont air smelled like what the Earth should smell like, pine cones and wild fruits. The air was also infected by the smell of multiple people sweating. I saw a tree swaying inches below the platform I was on. The area was a forest and everything was green, except for the ropes. I suddenly realized my climbing gloves were coming apart. I knew I had to finish as quickly as possible.

I reached the third net with sweat falling off me and hitting the ground far below. I struggled to keep my grip as I crossed the net. Through my tearing gloves I could see how white my knuckles were. I was wondering what was more white, my knuckles or Dracula’s face, when I heard a cheer from my brother. He had finished the holed wall. He was on the easiest of obstacles: a rope with a ring that you had to swing on. I reached the end of the third net. I didn’t think I could go any further. “Don’t quit! Don’t quit!” I hissed at myself.

He reminds me why I love writing: you can lead someone to feel something deeply. You can place someone not only in a particular space and time, give them the touch of wind and cool air on their skin, the smell of soil and trees, the blisters budding on palms, but you can also lead them to an emotional place, can make them see themselves in someone else’s experience, can recognize their common humanity. I love writing because it is a treasure hunt, searching for a nugget of what I am hiding from myself.

I shake out my body, stretch my arms and legs and get back to it. I search for treasures, trying to trust that if I don’t find them on this go ’round, I’ll be closer to them the next revision. “Don’t quit! Don’t quit” I hiss in unison with my boy.

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This stock photo must stand in for our real experience. Because where would YOU have put your camera???