by Jackie Hedeman
I do my best work white-knuckled at steering wheel. I do my best work in midair, skydiving and trusting that my parachute will open at the appointed time. There is an element of risk to my best writing, even when the resulting work does not appear particularly risky. I need rules of the road, even as I perform rolling stops. I need rules of the road, even though I never thought to write them down until today.
- "First, you must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about." I stole this one from Plato. First know the truth is rule number one because it’s impossible. Not even if you write nonfiction, as I do, and your most frequent subject is yourself, as mine is, can this rule ever be anything more than aspiration. And yet, because of this rule, I am getting better at spotting the truth before my essay spots it for me. More than once, a published essay has revealed more than I was ready to reveal. The revelation works on paper, but it leaves me with a lurching seasickness, a feeling of being caught half naked, I would rather avoid. A shorter version of this rule might be “know thyself,” only I haven’t made up my mind whether to know myself would be easier or harder than to know the truth of myself. They both sound like the terrifying work of a lifetime of writing.
- Be kind. When I was younger, I thought I self-censored my writing out of fear that my grandparents would read and disapprove. (My grandparents were convenient scapegoats; I self-censored because I was afraid of what anyone might think about anything I did.) Now, the only self-censorship I can reasonably allow myself is the censorship of kindness. This is not an un-selfish approach to writing. I want to be liked as much as the next Midwesterner. I want to hold myself and others to account, but I don’t want to waste time on the irredeemable. I don’t know whether this is fine. I do know that kindness should be capacious. As a writer, I struggle to find my way to the outer limits of this rule. As a reader, I have loved and admired the work of writers who write like the Last Judgement, who call out and call down wrath. There can be kindness in those essays, too, but it is a tougher kindness. Kindness in those essays can be found in the way the author takes the reader by the hand, walking them by horrors, maybe, but guiding them to safety.
- Lead with what you want to read. For far too long, I downplayed the fact that the central feature of my reading habits was a measureable level of queerness. I would likewise edit queerness down in my own writing, both fiction and nonfiction. The nonfiction editing amounted to shoving a chair under a closet door handle. The fiction editing resulted in bone-dry stories written to emulate this or that straight, male, midcentury writer. Even before I knew enough about publishing to know words like platform or marketability, I read novel after novel by Sarah Waters and stared at the wall. “This is allowed?” Jackie, it’s allowed.
- Cite your sources. Somewhere in the world, my former rhetorical-composition students just shivered. Fear not, I mean this in a slightly different sense. I mean: give credit where credit is due. Shout out writing you love, especially if it has shaped your own writing. Acknowledge the people and forces outside yourself that make you who you are. (In the summer of 2015, out of nowhere, sometimes it seemed as though the only thing I had going for me was the band One Direction. You better believe I wrote about that.) Richness and depth and breadth of reference is something that always excites me when I’m reading. It makes me feel as though I have front row seats to an author’s influences. I’m standing with them in front of their wall of suspects, following connective strings, marveling at the effort.
- Make friends with ambiguity. My tendency to narrativize my life even as I am living it sets me up for both success and failure as a nonfiction writer. I recognize that I fight the urge to tidy up. I might imagine a recovery from anxiety. I might even experience recovery for a time. I might begin to frame an essay about recovery. I might be tempted to throw that essay out the window when my lungs tighten up again. I might manage to stop myself from doing so by bearing in mind what I tell my creative writing students. Resist the temptation to edit out the hiccups. Every reversal you suffer is a potential reversal of audience expectation. I am vast. I contain so much fucking weird shit that doesn’t add up.
- Write scared, edit fearless. Or reverse that or something. What I mean to say is that writing nonfiction can be terrifying. I am the kind of person who would rather publish an essay for a million strangers to read than talk over the hard core of an essay with anyone I care about. Given this tendency, I often need to shut an essay away, lock it in that famous writer drawer until I can look at it with more than one eye open. For other writers, this process moves more quickly. For me, when I can look the essay in its guileless, vulnerable face, that’s when I know I can return, dispassionate, and lead it downstairs, outside, through the crosswalk, and into the sunshine.
Jackie Hedeman is a tea drinker and a Midwesterner. She holds a BA from Princeton University and an MFA from The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2017, Autostraddle, Entropy, The Offing, 1966, and elsewhere. The podcasts with Cade Leebron at The Cold Take. Find her on Twitter @JackieHedeman