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Writing the Story of Your Life with Erica Jong

There are few moments in your life where you meet someone so epic they have left a mark on history.  This week I was in the presence of someone like that: Erica Jong.  Oh, you may of heard of her!  She wrote the feminist classic Fear of Flying among many, many other novels and books of poetry.  Well, taking her class is something I will never forget.

Writing is something that I’ve become more and more interested in since blogging here at the Ranch.  I’ve met so many amazing writers and editors here including Sam Barry, Leslie Levine, Joelle Delbourgo and Larry Grobel.  They have been so inspiring to me in ways they don’t even know.  Now to meet and learn from Erica Jong?  Well, I consider that priceless.  The golden tidbits I learned from her class:

  • Getting your reader to identify with your character is key.
  • Create your own style of writing.
  • You never understand an era unless you know how they  ate, how they went to the bathroom, what they wore, what the streets looked like; the details of everyday life.
  • Let it be revealed instead of telling your readers what to feel.
  • Don’t edit in the beginning, you may never finish.
  • Get the critic off your shoulder.

Listening to her stories about writing was just comforting in a way.  To know that someone could be considered one of the most well known authors in the world and still the process of writing is the same; the constant reworking, the doubts and fears, how it can get lonely.  Honestly, I could have sat there and listened to her talk all day.

Then, on the second day of class something happened…

I had written something early that morning so I could read it during the second class.  It was supposed to be about a moment that was a turning point in my life.  I really didn’t know what to write about because I felt like there hasn’t been just one moment that changed my life.  It’s been a gradual awareness.  The night before I had no idea what I wanted to write and then I woke up thinking about at about 5 in the morning and it just came out.

When I got to class I listened to many other people read.  Some sounded like professionals while others didn’t (however, who am I to judge?), but everything I heard was interesting.  Everyone gave critiques, comments and listened to what Erica had to say.  I really wanted to read mine, but the more I thought about it, the more nervous I got.  I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous.  My whole body seemed to be tensing up, my throat went dry, my heart was beating like crazy and I was sweating… well, a lot.

I did finally raise my hand and ask how she got the courage to read to so eloquently in front of a room of people she didn’t know and to be honest I can’t really remember what she said (it’s amazing how nervousness can take over, isn’t it?)  Then she asked if I would write something to read the next day. When I replied that I wouldn’t be here, she asked if I wanted to read right now?  I started laughing and reluctantly said okay.  But then as soon as I started reading the first sentence I could hear my voice wavering, by the second sentence I was on the verge of tears and by the third something had kicked in and turned on the water faucets and it seemed there was nothing I could do to turn it off.  It was like a combination of all my insecurities from when I was younger came flooding back.  The fact that what I was about to read  to a room of full of strangers, not to mention a famous author about extremely personal things… well, something in me lost control and I couldn’t get it back.  I said through the tears, ” I can’t read it.  I can’t.”  I was beyond embarrassed.  Of course everyone was so sweet, but I just couldn’t stop crying.  I cried the last 10 minutes of class.  Other people started crying because I was crying.  People told me I was brave, however, there were many other people in class that could get through their readings.  I didn’t feel brave.  Truthfully, I sorta felt like a loser.  However, what was special was the fact that others in the class came up to me, opened up with me about their fears as well.  I wasn’t alone even if I was the girl that couldn’t stop crying.  I can’t tell you how sweet they all were and I had a sudden appreciation for the human spirit.

During class, Erica said that writing will reveal things about yourself that you didn’t know and sometimes it’s better than therapy.  Well, it’s obvious to me now that there was something that needed to get out.  Maybe I couldn’t read to a room full people the personal stuff I wrote, but these emotions had to find their way out somehow and instead of through my words, it was through my tears.

Erica spoke with me after class and apologized for making me read when I wasn’t ready, but there was absolutely nothing to apologize for.  I wanted to read it so badly, to share it and I still do.  What it showed me is that I have to face my fears about my writing.  I like to write, that’s not the problem.  I even like to share what I write, but not face to face.  It’s more me having a mask to hide behind.  You know, when you write an article or on a blog, you don’t have to face your readers dead on.  You don’t see their reaction and even more importantly, they don’t see yours.  But if I want to write, at some point I’m going to have to read it, out loud and in front of an audience, whether it’s personal or not.  Bottom line?  I have to get over my fear of sharing and more importantly my fear of critique and rejection.  So that class with Erica and all of my classmates I can bet, will be something that not only will I never forget, but will shape what kind of writer I will be in the future.

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