Writing Lessons: Mary Mann

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In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Mary Mann, a student in Columbia University’s nonfiction MFA program. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_e_mann—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

MMANN headshotAs I completed the first semester of my nonfiction MFA program, my mom found and read an essay of mine about growing up as a preacher’s daughter, which had been published online. I had thought the essay was funny, but she thought it was sad. “I didn’t realize things had been so hard for you,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

I apologized, then got off the phone and cried. Somehow I hadn’t imagined this problem before. I was not prepared. It was like finding out that my greatest source of pleasure was pulling out people’s toenails. What I loved to do was painful to the people I loved.

With workshop deadlines looming, my sadness quickly merged with anxiety. Writing seemed impossible. Self-loathing wafted from my clothes and my hair and settled on my work, where it was—no surprise—highly unappealing.

Luckily, spring semester I had a class with an author who writes about friendship. I visited her office hours and asked her how she dealt with using real people as characters. She said she had to get the people in her life used to the idea, and her best strategy for doing that was involving them in the project, even letting them read drafts. Just having that agency was soothing for them.

“It’s difficult,” she said, “but important. You have to learn to be the writer you want to be and the person you want to be.”

Inspired, I steeled myself for an awkward conversation, then called my mom and blurted out a promise to show her drafts of any future family stories. “Oh, thanks,” she said. “But it’s not a big deal. I might have overreacted. It was a good essay.”

This response left me both relieved and perplexed. “But I thought…your heart was broken,” I said.

“Oh, you know,” she replied. “Being a mom is like that. It’s hard to think straight when I think I might have messed up—sometimes it’s even easier to try to forget about that stuff. But I read it again. It was kind of funny. I’m glad you were able to make it funny.”

When I got off the phone, I thought about “funny.” I also had tried to forget the hard stuff, and it was only when I sat down to write and remember that some of the more painful things morphed into jokes. I had taken a story of our family—a precious, painful thing—and shaped it in a certain way so that it was a little funny. Maybe that wasn’t terrible. Maybe, in this case, it was even sort of nice.

So in this specific instance, my betrayal problem was solved. But for every new piece of writing I will have to solve it again; I will have to keep solving it as long as I work. I will always be figuring out how to be the writer I want to be and the person I want to be at the same time.

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