Last April, I presented to 60 booksellers the story of how I became a writer. It was the first time I'd shared in public the truth of how I came to write fiction, and where my story ideas (mostly) come from. Doing so shot me pretty far out of my comfort zone. Jupiter-far. Historically, when asked the inspiration for my first published novel, May Day, I tell a version of the truth, usually slanting toward funny:
entertain myself. (true/not true)
But not last spring. Last spring I revealed the truth with only a thin microphone stand to hide behind. I'd been writing about it for a while, but that's a different animal; I can write about anything. But to say it out loud, into a microphone, in front of a breakfast crowd of strangers? Oof.
Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
I like that. I like the idea of not hiding our brushstrokes in life. Back in the 90s, I worked at an import store on the West Bank of Minneapolis. My coworker, Aeon, put it like this, "When I was a kid and would trip in front of people, I'd get so embarrassed, like I'd been a four-legged creature putting on airs and had just gotten found out for the fraud I was. Now when I fall down, I laugh and get back up. Life's more fun that way."
Those words have stuck with me for 20 years.
So, last April, I stood in front of 60 booksellers, my voice shaking, and told them how my husband's 9/11 suicide is what truly made me a novelist. His unexpected death left ripped-up memories, a churning brain, terror, questions, shame, and more questions, and they didn't all fit into my head and so I poured them into a book. A mystery, specifically, which is to say a book centered around a question that at the end gets answered. And it healed me, or came close to it. I haven't stopped writing since.
All 60 booksellers grew super quiet when I shared my raw truth. Some heads started nodding. A lot of eyes connected with mine, some of them so full of love that I teared up a little myself, some curious, others—clearly and beautifully—wondering what stories of their own it would be okay to tell. That talk was one more step on a path that led to my June TEDx Talk, and (I hope) continues outward and upward after that. Because I really do believe that when we show our brushstrokes, when we laugh and get back up no matter how dramatically we've just fallen, life gets easier.