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authenticity

Fat by Eline Van Wieren

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My stories for Wide Open Writing so far, seem to all start with either coming home or finding a piece of mail on the doormat. Today’s story starts with both. Coming home and finding mail on the doormat. And for some reason, that makes me feel like a cheater. Like I don’t have the imagination to think of something more interesting to start with and so I’ll just go for what I know. But here we are. I come home and I find a package on the doormat.

I take the package in to our living area, where three of my roommates are. One of them is cutting vegetables for dinner at the kitchen table, another is sitting on the other side of the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. The third is laying on the couch, reading a book and listening to music. Coming home to this is something that has become so familiar to me, that I feel like I don’t need to describe anymore details to you.

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The package contains two things. A book and a small cardboard box. The book is written by a woman who I’ve never met in real life. But we follow each other on Instagram and we shared two long phone calls. Short excerpts from those phone calls ended up in the book that I’m now holding in my hands. The title of the book: Knap voor een dik meisje. (Which translates to: Pretty for a fat girl.)

In the cardboard box: a necklace made of gold string and a white ceramic plate. On the ceramic plate, in bold golden letters, is the word: ‘fat’. (In Dutch: dik.)

I laugh and blurt out, ‘Look how cool this is!’

I put on the necklace and show it to my roommates.

‘Fuck yeah,’ says the one cutting the vegetables and puts both of his middle fingers up in the air.

It is now the morning after opening the package. I just had a shower, after which I put on a plain black t-shirt on which the white ceramic and gold letters of the necklace proudly stand out. Fat.

It is also about an hour after I finished reading the book. My body is alive with recognition. This book has put to words some of the thoughts I didn’t even think were worth putting on a piece of paper. And now that they are here, that I can hold them in my hands, something has softly dropped within me. Something, I realize, that I’ve been holding up for quite a while now.

I think of a quote of which the last sentence every once in a while finds its way back in to my mind. Even though I can never really grasp its meaning. It goes like this:

“I explained to Warren the difference between male and female monsters. ‘Female monsters take things as personal as they really are. They study facts. Even if rejection makes them feel like the girl who’s not invited to the party, they have to understand the reason why.’

…Every question once it’s formulated, is a paradigm, contains its own internal truth. We have to stop diverting ourselves with false questions. And I told Warren: I aim to be a female monster too.”

-       From: I love Dick, by Chris Kraus

 I aim to be a female monster too. This sentence has something to do with the thing that just softly dropped within me. It has something to do with the idea of a universal truth. A truth that I am prone to believe does not exist. We all live under different circumstances, with different bodies and different memories. Different things ahead of us.

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It is easy to forget that under all those different circumstances, we long for the same things. Something that is maybe summarized easiest as: wanting to be seen. And the programmed thought that always follows after that undying desire to be visible: I must show less of myself in order to be seen as a complete human being. How weird is that?

How weird is it that I am a writer and that time and time again, I find ways around asking the questions that are most obvious to me? Because I tell myself they are too obvious. Because I’m scared that if I ask them, I will find that everyone but me already knows the answers. Because no one will understand what I’m talking about. Because, because, because.

Reading ‘Knap voor een dik meisje’ has been a fucking grounding experience for me and in my eyes Tatjana, its author, is a true female monster. We need these monsters. We need to come home, once again finding a package on the doormat. Opening it. Carefully looking at its contents. Going out into the world, wearing our necklaces. Writing about it.  

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Praise/criticism

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We’re in Isla Holbox, Mexico right now with new groups of writers who are exploring, creating, discovering and encountering. Each of our retreats includes a series of prompts, often in question form, designed to get our minds going, to dig deeper and to tap into that river of authenticity that takes us to an open place. We try to write in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, in a limited period of time. to eliminate the inner editor and just get some words down on paper. In Tuscany 2016, one of the presented questions was ‘What’s my story of praise and criticism?’ Below is my response.

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It’s the thing that goes on, the thing I can’t control in other people’s heads and barely in my own, the one that tells me, Good Lord, Woman, haven’t you learned how to pack a suitcase yet? The wonderment at somehow convincing myself that squeezing all of the air out of a space would make it easier to carry, when, in fact, it’s like that thing they say about the Earth, how if you squeezed all of the air out of everything then the planet would be the size of a soccer ball but still weigh the same. And sometimes that’s what I carry. But these things are no longer the driver, but simply the screaming kids in the back seat. I long to be elegant, to never clatter my silverware or trip over my own feet, and if there are lessons to be learned from these distractions, I don’t know, but that’s all they are, distractions. Because age is good for something, and that’s knowing that most things are silly and that there are no somedays. That all you really have is to be here now, and some years are more prone to remind you that it’s time to use the good china and the pretty linen and to wear that dress. You learn that you can’t avoid the dark, and in fact, it’s long past time to seek it out. You learn that sometimes pain is least painful when you crawl inside it, become it, to find the smallest origin of it and expand inside of it until it bursts. To look under the bed and say, hello, monster, come out and play. You begin to see the beauty in the whole, to understand that painters seek the right kind of light not for the light itself but for the play of light and dark. You begin to dust off that heavy trunk in the corner that carries the carefully folded and preserved statements and lessons passed along for the sake of safety or good intention or not such good intention, the collection of proclamations, yellowed and frayed but very carefully kept, the ways you still convince yourself you’re not enough just as you are. You begin to unfold them and see them as silliness, too. Maybe you actually find something in there that can be spun into silk. You invite the shadow on the other side of the mirror to laugh with you, and maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t but you see it for what it is. You cry for the ones who won’t be convinced but then you let it go. You see the falseness and have no patience for it and maybe now that you’ve unfolded some parchment from the trunk and it’s not so heavy anymore, you start to let your impatience show a little more. You stop hiding your crazy. You start seeing through the veil, you start seeing more clearly what is real, what is life, what is love.

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The gods you pray to/by Eline van Wieren

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A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend of mine who I hadn’t spoken to in a while asking if I wanted to become her pen-friend. I find staying in contact with people who aren’t standing right in front of me incredibly difficult, but I love writing letters to whomever and whatever. So I said yes.

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Her first letter arrived in a grey envelope, sealed with a little red heart sticker. In it she wrote about the monastery she’d been to for a weekend to talk about the meaning of mercifulness and what it means to be a good person. How someone asked: If you had to describe God in one word, what would it be? And how she answered: calmness.

I felt so privileged to be reading these words so carefully written down on paper. I felt like I was let in on a secret, something very real, but contained in a different universe. And when she wrote that she realized that instead of praying to God Calmness, she often prayed to God Productivity, I felt it resonate in my entire body.

When I finished reading, I thought about how I’d started taking ballet lessons when I was three years old and fell in love with dancing immediately. I loved the music and how my body flowed along with it, how I got to be different characters from one of the 101 Dalmatians to a witch and even a seahorse. In dancing, I didn’t have to think, because my body would just know.

By the time I was fourteen, I danced twenty-five hours a week. And what I loved about it started to shift. At fourteen, I thought the greatest thing about doing ballet was the control it let me exercise over my body. I was forcing my feet into impossible shapes and it looked beautiful. I was the one who decided what emotion my face displayed and whatever was happening on the inside was nobody’s business.

In the second letter, again sealed with a little red heart sticker, the friend asked how many different versions of me exist. I wrote back: I am an abundance of Elines and that’s something I have mixed feelings about. Like with ballet movements, I’d like to have control over who I am in which situation. Most of my prayers are to God Certainty.

I also wrote her that my favorite Eline only seems to come out in cases of emergency. I only one hundred percent know what to say to someone, when they’re hysterically crying in my arms, weeping the shoulders of my sweater wet. When their emotions are happening so close to my own body that there is nothing else for me to do other than stop and acknowledge what is happening in front of me.

Following my gut, bones or other body parts that could offer any kind of guidance didn’t and most of the time still doesn’t come naturally for me. I like to blame the dancing. But like praying, dancing is just a vehicle. And it’s not the words and movements I carefully formulate but the ones that seem to arise out of nowhere that let the unimportant things crumble and make space for me to be.

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"Purgery"

The author’s many books, which she’s keeping.

The author’s many books, which she’s keeping.

In middle class America, we have too much stuff, and a helpful Japanese organizer has given us permission to get rid of it. Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has transmuted into a popular Netflix program in which we get to watch other people get rid of their stuff. Now, thrift stores are getting buried under mountains of our discards.

It feels good to let go. I’ve been a pack rat most of my life, even packing stuff away in a storage unit when I left California to move back in with my parents so I could finish grad school. When I went back for the stuff in 2015, planning to put most of it in a rummage sale and use the proceeds for a volunteer trip to South Africa, this is what I wrote for the Volunteer Forever blog:

It was easier than I thought to let go of most of the things I had packed away. And that made it both easier and more difficult emotionally. …But it was more difficult in the way of getting a sense of how much energy and time and money I invested in hanging on to and accumulating things that didn’t matter.

How much time, energy and money do we put into “stuff” when we could be investing it elsewhere? How many things are useful, and how many things are meant to create a sense of self? Does our “stuff” hinder us or help us? (And can it help someone else?)

Like everyone, I had a lot of hopes and dreams about who I would be and what my life would look like. I surrounded myself with things that I thought fit in that vision, interests I wanted to be associated with, talents I wanted to acquire, strengths I wanted to possess. But opening box after box of unread books, unused items and clothing that wasn’t right for me felt like opening boxes of desire, envy and insecurity.

Still, I brought home a small Penske truck’s worth of goods and, for a short time, it ended up in another storage unit in Wisconsin. Now that I’m in my new small house, I’ve been going through another round of “let’s make it fit,” and it’s been a powerful exercise in learning how much I don’t need, and in what aspects of my life have more space to breathe when dead energy is moved out.

The author, at left, about age 7.

The author, at left, about age 7.

The frequent and fevered question people have is “Do you regret giving anything away?” That fear is a reason why we hold on to stuff in the first place: I might need it later. I might want it later. But the answers can be revealing and powerful: The only thing I ever was sorry to have given up was a pair of tap shoes. And here’s the thing: They were easily replaced—with better, more comfortable, tappier shoes. And more importantly, the loss of those shoes brought me far more wealth: A renewed interest in dance lessons. New kinds of dance. New friendships. Fancy, bright costumes. The thrill of getting on the stage again. And, possibly the most impactful—an important exploration of why I gave up dancing in the first place. Which also gave me important fodder for my writing life.

Purgery: I used this title as wordplay, a twist on the act of purging. But a “purgery” is also a real thing, the place in a sugarhouse in which molasses is drained off maple sugar. A way to the final product, the sweet stuff.

It works in writing, too. Having once or twice dumped a hefty portion of my worldly goods, it’s seemed easier to highlight and delete unwanted or unnecessary lines of text. Working as an editor and reporter honed my sense of what belongs, but releasing “stuff” has maybe added a stronger sense of what has the most impact. Or at least a sense of that whatever you get rid of won’t be noticed or missed.

Still, when I’m editing a novel and taking out big chunks of text, I put them in a file I call a “Holding Pond,” a just-in-case-I-want-it-later file, my own literary junk drawer, so I don’t get distracted by my fear of the lost words. But like real junk drawers, I hardly ever go back and look for what I threw in there. Once in a while, I realize something might fit better in a sequel or a prequel, and I create a special new file for the section of text, giving it the honor and space it deserves.

Keeping things that matter is OK—nobody has to purge everything. Even the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who have shared their joy in letting go through their book “Everything That Remains,” say it’s about keeping the things that make you truly happy, curating the most meaningful possessions. In Marie Kondo terms, it’s about what sparks joy.

Like most writers I have a number of works in progress, and I cultivate the ones that I think have potential, letting them simmer and bubble up when the time is right. Recently, I discovered that a long-dormant and partially finished project really belonged integrated into another work-in-progress, a melding of a present-and-future story that became my speculative fiction novella, “The Fledgling.” In February, the manuscript was shortlisted by Brain Mill Press for its novella contest.

With more clarity around each piece, I was able to recognize their strength and power as a congruent narrative and gain momentum on a new and exciting project. And that sparks a hell of a lot of joy.

The author, center, about age 15.

The author, center, about age 15.

Q&A with author Melissa Gorzelanczyk

Green Bay, Wisconsin author Melissa Gorzelanczyk’s young adult novel Arrows was published in 2016 by Penguin Random House after capturing the attention of an agent on Twitter during a #PitMad session. Since then, the multi-talented Melissa has continued to pursue her love for a good story, great writing, and authentic living.

Q: What about the YA genre is attractive to you as a writer?

 Mainly I'm attracted to stories. I take them however they come -- YA, adult, non-fiction, poetry and short stories. 

 Q: You recently began the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program -- what was behind your decision to pursue a writing program at this time?

A couple of things -- I want to be a better writer and I want the credential of an MFA. I envision a future with atmospheric writing retreats at my dream cabin in the woods where I can teach and share my love of stories, and maybe my love of yoga, too. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me. 

Q. What are some aspects of writing that are of particular interest or focus to you right now (i.e. senses, etc.)?

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Photo: Stephan Anderson-Story

 1. Working with images, i.e. creating a movie in the reader's mind. I start every scene with a (laughably drawn) sketch of the characters and setting to help transport myself there. 2. Manipulating tension, including working with close details. 3. Playing with language. 4. Living an artful life.

Q. Tell us more about the idea of playing with language.

My revision process involves printing a scene, reading it aloud, and revising it to strengthen the image, energy, tension, pattern and insight. This eventually brings revision down to the word level and feels like play. It's time-consuming, but more and more I'm convinced that writing is revision. To go deeper into the subjects listed here, read "The Practice of Creative Writing" by Heather Sellers. I've found it to be an invaluable resource.  

Q. What does it mean to you to live an artful life?

To me an artful life is an intentional life. I need to keep reminding myself that no, I don't want to be dumb on my phone, wasting time, staring at it while I walk or when I'd rather be creating. To be a functioning artist requires extreme self-care. I need to nourish all parts of my life to live artfully. Body. Mind. Spirit.

Q.The publishing industry seems in constant flux: What advice would you share with writers who are finishing their projects and looking for an avenue to get published?

I often recommend that writers to make their work the focus, because in my opinion, good books find homes. That said, you have to take action once your book is finished, and make yourself vulnerable to rejection. Again, I recommend learning methods for extreme self-care. To be in publishing is to be rejected, by agents, editors and sometimes readers. Not everyone will love your work. If you can find a way to be okay with that, you'll be much happier to stay in publishing. 

Here's a great post on being a creative that encompasses both art and business. Andrew Kleon delineates publishing from writing, talks about how authors should set themselves up to run their own show, and encourages us to always be a fan. 

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Melissa Gorzelanczyk is a writer who loves owls, coffee, lavender, waves, yoga and the moon. She is pursuing an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her young adult novel Arrows is out now from Delacorte Press. She lives with her husband in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Find her on Instagram @MelissaGorzela or on her website, www.MelissaGorzelanczyk.com.

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