Shaun Hunter's personal essays have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including Embedded on the Home Front: Where Military and Civilian Lives Converge (Heritage House, 2012). Soon, she'll be contacting literary presses about her memoir, Under the Skin. Shaun lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where there are only 100 frost-free days per year. But on one of her trips south, we met at the Welcome Table Press essay symposium in New York City in 2011, where Shaun was one of the first writers to flag me down at a conference just to tell me she read my blog. Right then, I invited her to contribute a guest post, whenever she was ready. She's ready.
Please welcome Shaun Hunter.
“You finish the book,” Janna Malamud Smith writes in An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery. “It is time to reenter the world… It is tempting to turn around.”
I perch on this new place in my writing life: toes millimeters from the latest cliff edge, tempted to turn around. My book-length manuscript, five-plus years in the making, is “finished.”
I have completed other manuscripts – a graduate school thesis, and five biography books written for an educational publisher. Finishing those projects, I felt depleted, yet rewarded: deadlines met; degree conferred; contracts fulfilled. On to the next thing.
Not this time. After making the last edits to Under the Skin, a memoir about mothering, maternal legacy, and malignant melanoma, I thought I would feel buoyant, fired-up for the next leg of the journey. But the view from the edge of the cliff – a murky expanse fraught with rejection and indifference – is terrifying.
“Going public with your art,” author and psychotherapist Janna Smith explains, “is adulthood writ large: There is excitement, satisfaction, praise; there is also criticism, disappointment, and embarrassment.”
A mixed bag. The full meal deal of being a grown-up. A few weeks shy of my 52nd birthday, I’ve been around the block. I can usually spot the bright-green shoots of my own illusions and prune them back. I have thickish skin. Why is the prospect of going public with my memoir so paralyzing?
Last summer, my twenty-year-old daughter went hang-gliding on a backpacking trip in Europe. I heard about her adventure on Twitter, hours after she flung herself into a Swiss valley. At the time, I was relieved she hadn’t alerted me to her plan in advance, and glad I found out after she’d landed safely, unscathed and exuberant.
I went paragliding today! It was by far the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.
After the news sunk in, I realized that this determined, self-aware daughter of mine had checked off yet another fear on her list toward becoming an adult.
According to Smith, when it comes to artists going public with their work, many finish but proceed no further.
What about me? Am I going to be content with letting a completed manuscript sit in a drawer, or am I going to do what it takes to get this 200-page memoir to market? I’ve toyed with the idea of giving up, “living as a civilian” as the poet Shawna LeMay calls it. Like LeMay, during this long Alberta winter I have considered “surrendering in the same way a person who has hypothermia wants to go to sleep in the deepening snow.”
Bury the manuscript in the drifts of paper in my office. Hole up and write only for my own pleasure, sheltered from the snow squalls of rejection. Suss out another line of work. I know in my bones that none of these options is viable.
For years, I have been inching toward going public: workshopping essays in classes and critique groups, and publishing a few; reading my work to strangers; and most recently, pasting my shining face on my first website that identifies me as a writer.
I know that ego is going to push me -- and my manuscript -- out the door. After a decade of trying to absorb Buddhist ideas about egolessness and impermanence after my cancer diagnosis, this is uncomfortable to admit. But Smith’s book about the psychological dimensions of art-making emboldens me: I want to be seen. I care about being heard. It’s not a fantasy about being famous, but the pressing human need to be recognized and valued. “Few desires,” Smith writes, “are as primal.”
Of course, a publishing contract would be sweet compensation for my years of labor on this book; I will settle for active, visible participation. In a society caught up with “showing and spending,” as Adam Gopnik writes in a recent New Yorker article, I want to be part of a community of artists “devoted to seeing and making.”
Janna Smith assures me I can learn how to navigate the gaping canyon between private and public. Cultivate your saleswoman self, she suggests. Clothe your emotions in Gore-Tex. Summon bravado.
Get in the game.
After my daughter’s trip, she showed me the picture she snapped in mid-glide: her feet in a pair of borrowed sneakers dangling a hundred meters above solid ground. I could feel the mountain air press against my face, hear the snap of the nylon wing above me, sense panic gusting through my gut. In that glimpse into my daughter’s adventure, I imagined what it would be like to soar.
I have finished my manuscript. It is time to reenter the world. I will resist the temptation to turn around. I will strap myself to a sturdy, wind-worthy sailing craft, and step off the cliff into my adult life.