Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

Scott Nadelson

Author’s Note

Scott Nadelson

Author of The Next Scott Nadelson

On Bravery and Writing

Posted by Scott Nadelson on 21 Sep 2016

| Comments (179 so far)

I told them not to read it. “This one isn’t for you,” I said. But of course they did anyway. The book came out in March, and they came to visit in May. As I drove to the airport and waited for their plane to touch down, unease gave way to dread. And the moment I spotted them walking past the security checkpoint, I could see it in their expressions.

“You read it,” I said.

“I learned some things,” my father answered.

And my mother, tearfully, asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

All my life I’ve kept things from my parents. Any time a teacher sent a note home about my misbehaving in school, I flushed it down the toilet. When I got arrested for smoking pot during college, rather than ask them to help pay for a lawyer, I got a job as a telemarketer, hoarded cash, and lived on ramen for a semester. And when, in 2004, my fiancée and I split up a month before our wedding, I told them only that we’d realized we weren’t a good match, that the decision was better for everyone. I didn’t tell them that she’d left me for someone else, or that the someone else happened to perform as a drag king, or that the shock and bewilderment had left me depressed and nearly suicidal, or that I’d spent two drunken years facing all the ugliest truths about myself in order to reckon with my identity.

Instead, I wrote about those things and published a memoir.

“You’re so brave,” people told me after The Next Scott Nadelson came out, revealing two years’ worth of humiliation to the handful of people who read my books. In reply I’d smile and thank them and say that writing and publishing the book had been a difficult process, but that it had been worth it; it had taught me so many things about myself, and even if many of those things were painful to admit, I was better off for having done so. Honesty is purifying, I said.

But that was mostly bullshit. Writing and publishing a book about that period of my life hadn’t been all that difficult, not compared to living it. In fact, while writing the book I’d often found myself cackling out loud at the hapless, heartbroken fool stumbling from one disaster to another. Thank god I’m not him anymore, I’d think, and record another humiliating episode.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t find writing easy. I sweat over my sentences, scrap most of them, replace them with new ones, and scrap most of those, too. I question the worth of every word I type, fret over rejection and bad reviews, and for weeks on end convince myself I’ll never write anything decent again. With every new story or essay, I spend a ridiculous amount of time agonizing and despairing and talking myself into going on. Even this blog post I’ve already abandoned and restarted three times, making myself continue only because I owe it to my loyal publisher, who’s lost untold amounts of money on me since publishing my first book a dozen years ago.

In other words, I’m like just about every other writer I know, with more bad writing days than good ones, and plenty of complaints. Still, writing isn’t nearly as challenging as being a good friend or a good spouse or a good son. It doesn’t even come close, I’ve learned since my daughter was born six years ago, to being as difficult as parenting. And of course there’s a whole lot less at stake.

What I’m trying to say is this: being brave on paper is far easier than being brave in actual life. All those hours sitting alone in a dark room, clicking away on sentences that exposed the truths I’d never had the courage to speak out loud, were hours I avoided navigating the dangerous world of human interaction that consistently flummoxes me and fills me with shame.

After asking himself how long it’s been since expressing love to a brother, the speaker in my favorite Philip Levine poem says, “You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean … no, just because you don’t know what work is.”

Yes, I worked hard on that book, as I’m working hard on this blog post. But was it harder work than speaking honestly to my parents about what was happening in my life?

Writing, on its own, isn’t bravery. But it doesn’t have to be avoidance behavior, either, or so at least I’m telling myself now. Maybe, instead, it’s preparatory work, practice for living. It allows me to try out a version of myself I can’t quite manage in ordinary life. It lets me play-act the truth-teller who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, who welcomes intimacy and connection as his lifeblood. It helps me to invent a Scott Nadelson who doesn’t exist outside of this dark room with clicking computer keys, one who can don a costume of courage and take pride in stripping away delusion in favor of honesty. And then maybe the next Scott Nadelson, the one who will walk out of this room into sunlight, the one who will drive across town to teach a class, the one who will pick up his daughter from school and spend the evening with his spouse and talk to his parents on the phone, the one who needs the courage to speak truthfully about who he is and what he thinks and feels, maybe one day he’ll be ready to work for it.

Sometimes, as I stumble from one disaster to the next, I think I love this Scott Nadelson even more than the next one.  This is all so true of memoir-making—I can relate! Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the after-memoir.

Ariel Gore from Oakland, California on 21 Sep 2016

Thanks for your post, Scott.  I can fully identify with revealing things on the page before you reveal them to loved ones.  And, for me, it’s because the page is actually a safe place to come to understand what I think, what I feel, who I am and what I believe without the influx of opinion and the worry of disappointing family and friends. It’s easier (not easy mind you!) to explore all that emotional flotsam when one is alone in a room. Shame thrives in the dark. Writing is the first necessary step to let a crack of light come inside.

Natalie Serber from Portland on 21 Sep 2016

Lovely, lovely. Thank you, Scott (and Rhonda!)

Roberta Dyer from All over! Today in Barcelona. on 21 Sep 2016

I’d like to think that you’re also making maps for others who’ve lost their way or had similar frustrations/setbacks/disappointments, Scott, that IS a service more valuable than a Sunday sermon, and I hate to say it but if you’re telling a kind of truth and it makes your parents uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right.

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, NE on 21 Sep 2016

“Writing, on its own, isn’t bravery. ” So very true. Thank you for that.

Kerry Cohen from Oregon on 21 Sep 2016

I sometimes wonder if all writers choose to write mainly because of crippling—but not always obvious—social anxiety. Scott, you’ve named what is so true for many of us, that we feel like cowards much of the time.

Cai Emmons from Eugene, OR on 21 Sep 2016

I’ll be mulling over this excerpt all day:
“Writing, on its own, isn’t bravery. But it doesn’t have to be avoidance behavior, either, or so at least I’m telling myself now. Maybe, instead, it’s preparatory work, practice for living. It allows me to try out a version of myself I can’t quite manage in ordinary life.”

Thank you for sharing this, Scott!

Amy Botula from Portland OR on 21 Sep 2016

Beautifully said Scott. I always tell my students that writing equals risk and that you can’t wait for your parent to die in order to write the truth. And here you are, risking for all of us in the trenches. You’re now on my hero list along with the always-brave Poe Ballantine. Thanks for writing this.

Jessica Morrell from Portland, Oregon on 21 Sep 2016

I wonder about this ‘movement’, called bravery, at times, and dangerous at other times. I don’t identify writing with those words. Writing something about my own life has been the easiest to do. I don’t have an explanation for that, only that this is the way it goes for me. Oh yeah, I remember when I had this idea about how I could turn into a Negro (because that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up), and wrote about it and even told in a storytelling event. Or when I seduced a man when I was young, how children are sexual beings - with fantasies and activities that go along with being sexual beings. My parents are both dead. Cancel one problem (or two).  I wished my father had lived to see my writing in the NYTimes. That would have been nice.  But bravery? Nah. Mainly I hide out. I write, I submit, I hide out and write more. Yeah, my essays about my life would have made my parents cringe. I wrote something recently that will be in an anthology next month that my father would have made my father weep. Family secrets seeping out of the closets. There were things I wanted to write that led to legal threats from the ex-wife of my now ex-husband. And Ariel Gore, who has already responded above, had to reign me in at the Attic. I waited long enough so that I know I’m glad I didn’t get to write what I thought I wanted to write. I’m happy I no longer care about it. Just as well. I was in no shape to write those things at the time.

Writing isn’t bravery - it’s introducing yourself to the world that needs encouraging, esp. when you hide out a lot.  And mainly, it’s hard work. And sometimes sad work. And sometimes unfulfilled desire. And waking each day to face yourself.

I wonder how I will feel when that snippet about my father is published next month. Probably sad and angry, but that will pass. How will I explain it to my friends? I don’t have to explain myself anymore. Here I am. This is what I write. Love it, like it, hate it, I don’t mind. Just read it.

Thank you for your blog entry, Scott.

Evelyn Sharenov from Portland, Oregon on 21 Sep 2016

“It lets me play-act the truth-teller who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, who welcomes intimacy and connection as his lifeblood.” Yet this is a vulnerable and genius thing to write, Scott, about writing itself and the story of the story, the artful framing of memory and character. Thank you for this. Beautiful.

Jenny Forrester from Portland on 21 Sep 2016

Thank you all for these comments—they make me feel so brave for admitting what a coward I am… I really do believe writing matters, and that if you’re going to make anything worthwhile you have to be as vulnerable as possible in the process. But I’m also trying to recognize the trap of substituting vulnerability on the page for vulnerability in life. I want—or at least I should want—the writing to keep me honest, not to give me a screen of “bravery” to hide behind.

Scott Nadelson from Salem, OR on 21 Sep 2016

I, too, feel like a coward for writing the “brave” things I write. Thanks for expressing it so well, Scott. I love your sentiment that writing is good practice for living but lately it just feels like practice for the next piece of writing. After all, I keep living my messy life and needing to write about it. I’ll be curious to see what you write next.

Monica Wesolowska from Berkeley on 21 Sep 2016

I agree, writing of one’s life is a dreamy mosey, refreshing glacial dip—or a bloodless scrape compared to living trials and errors (perhaps even epiphanies) again. I’m making stories for goodness’ sake, not trying to re-invent the entire cosmos, not trying to be smart or make a name in capital letters. I may be lazier than the rest of you. But my “truer” (memoir) pieces are just more severe than the made-up ones. Less embroidered with fun names, surprising side excursions and dead ends that aren’t so dead as occur in fiction. Wait, those occur in either one and are revealed right-in-this-real-minute. The bottom line for me is that writing memoir is something I surrender to in order to get a better read on what I suspect is remembered, I most likely once felt.  Maybe something will rise to the surface and do a nice dance. If someone else finds a morsel in all the personal morass, what a nice added benefit. If intimates are shocked they didn’t get to know my story very well. Now they do. We’ll manage. The rest is just storytelling, and that is the work writers need and love to do.

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