By Kassi Underwood
Last summer, fifteen of us huddled around a long table, confessing the supposedly awful things we’d done. As the leader of this personal-essay writing workshop, I had asked that we go around sharing our most humiliating experiences. I don’t like to tell other people’s stories without their express permission, but I will say everyone recounted their stories so well that I didn’t find any of them particularly humiliating.
This was the New York Writers Coalition’s 7th Annual Write-a-Thon. I had shown up to lead the workshop, not to work on my own writing, and I felt like I’d cut into a marathon with a bicycle and a bullhorn, yelling rah-rah. But I had been, for a while, on a solo write-a-thon at my desk, in a pair of sweatpants, downing oceans of Diet Coke and chewing my fingernails to stumps. I was a maniac, sometimes clocking in for twenty-four hours. The deadline for my M.F.A. thesis, a story that used to feel humiliating, forced me to work especially long hours, but I’m still prone to deadline-triggered benders.
On a good day of writing my thesis, I embraced “the process,” even though I failed to write at the level of my taste. On a bad day, I wrote a few sentences and stared in horror at the screen. Not only was the content embarrassing; the quality was abhorrent. I sought refuge in YouTube videos, like the one where the feral lion is reunited with his two trainers.
Some shared their work aloud. As far as I could tell, nobody sank into a bog of despair.
The official Write-a-Thon was a welcome sojourn into the natural world and a pair of jeans that allowed me to quote my teachers. It was Susan Shapiro who said, “Write your most humiliating story.” Richard Locke said, “In every essay, every paragraph, and every sentence, you must change.” Samuel Freedman said, “Be liberated by failure.”
Drawing on their tried-and-true erudition, I led the workshop through the craft of a personal essay, moving through character and dialogue, climax and the all-important reflection. Reflection is another word for wisdom. Wisdom is another word for examining the wreckage of one’s experience, analyzing it, re-analyzing, suggesting a hypothesis that actually matters to other people, analyzing again, and then polishing this fine gem on paper. We had about five minutes to get there.
In other words, we had a deadline, enforced by the stopwatch on my phone. A deadline limits the time you can spend flailing in front of a blank document and berating yourself for not writing better. A deadline forces you to yield something—anything. At the very least, you’ll get a rough draft out of your system. At which point you can request or set a new deadline, promising the work will get better as it’s given more time.
I asked the workshop to jot down some wisdom that came from their humiliating experience. Everyone started scrawling in their notebooks. Some shared their work aloud. As far as I could tell, nobody sank into a bog of despair. Facing a blank page isn’t so crushing when we do it together. At our long table, we could each be a writer among writers, practicing the art of communal humility. And these writers were so wise. All fifteen of them, from published novelists to veteran e-mailers, expressed an insight I had never heard before. Write-a-Thoners do this together: They make humiliation their bitch.
After the workshop, I went home to resume my personal write-a-thon, but now I imagined the world’s writers in the windows of their offices. I was writing alone, but I was among them.
The NYWC’s 8th annual Write-a-Thon will be held Saturday, September 21 at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library, 20 West 44th Street, in Manhattan.
Kassi Underwood is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic online, The New York Daily News, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Columbia University, hosts The Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series, and is working on a memoir.