Monday, December 28, 2015

The Top 20 Writing Posts of 2015

Here are the top 20 posts on the blog from 2015, based on reader traffic. Among them once again are fabulous guest bloggers and author interviews. I'm in their debt for offering excellent advice to other writers, and sharing personal stories of their writing lives. (The list doesn't include any of the popular, regularly appearing Friday Fridge Clean-Out posts, rich in writer resource links. Find them here.)

Thanks for reading!

Sandra Hurtes on How a Writer Stays Committed With No Promise of Success 

Laraine Herring on The Baby Story Monkey 


Anna Whiston-Donaldson on a Paperback Release after the Hardcover

Listen In: Storytellers Summit Presents 20+ Creative Conversations (including little ole me)  

Publication Venues Everywhere, How's a Writer to Choose? 

Guest Blogger Lisa Alber on Hope After (Traditional Publishing) Rejection 

Kate Walter on Finding the Narrative Arc for Your Memoir  

Vincent J. Fitzgerald on That Writing Thing I Always Wanted to Do  

Linda Sienkiewicz* on her Debut Novel and the Twisty Road That Got Her There  

The Mother's Day Essay I Didn't Write  

Adam Boretz on BookLife & PW Select Editor  

My Husband and I Didn't Have a "Meet-Cute" Moment. So of course, I wrote about it.  

Where Essays Begin: Sudden news, old friend, odd lyrics, far away 

Linda K Sienkiewicz* on Lessons from AWP on Book Promotion for Anxious Authors 

Lisa Lenzo on her short story collection, Strange Love 

Of Writing Goals, Hope, the Old Year, a New Year, and One Word  

Lucy Ferriss on Why She Had to Learn to Write Badly 

*Both of my friend Linda Sienkiewicz's 2015 guest posts are on the list, which means you probably want to be reading her blog too!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- December 11, 2015 Edition

> Check out what the Virginia Quarterly Review is doing to combine images and essay writing with #VQRtruestory on their Instagram feed.

> Speaking of Instagram, Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine offer five key tips on how authors can use the photo sharing app to build platform and audience.

> Terrific (7-minute) video at The Atlantic -- George Saunders: On Story. (Samples: Don't over-manage your material. Do: Only have a bit of an idea what the story is when you start. Bonus: When you pay attention to the sentence that bothers "your better nature rises up." Finally: "Revision is an act of love in progress.") I love this guy!

> The title of this post alone grabs me: "How to be more creative with help from neuroscience and Margaret Atwood." (via The Belonging Blog)

> Seattle (where else?) is the site of Amazon's first brick-and-mortar bookstore.

> Back online...ever wonder how online retailers make a profit when the price of a book is only pennies? The New York Times Magazine explains it all.

> Here's a round-up of links to posts about the NonFiction Now conference held back in October.

> Bragging corner: Compelling second-person essay, about interracial friendship
 over at Full Grown People by my frequent writing coaching client Patrice Gopo.

> Not new, but I really love this list post by Leslea Newman, at Bold Strokes Books Authors' Blog, on how to forge a long term life as a writer.

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons -- 1950sUnlimited

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ready, Set, SIX. I had my say in six. Your turn.

When you work at home a lot, you develop small strategies for mental breaks, often something that doesn't involve writing, typing, or even much thinking. Grabbing the (postal) mail. Tossing in a load of laundry. Marinating the chicken for dinner. Taking a walk.

But sometimes the break I need is just some other form of the thing I do all the time—a writing break that's also, in its own lovely, distracting way—a wee bit of writing.

Then I head to Six Word Memoirs, where anyone can post their own six words on just about anything, or if you're game, on their current topic, contest, or theme – baseball, work, mistakes…hundreds of others. I guess I'm there frequently enough that a couple of years ago, I was once the site's featured member of the week.

Last winter apparently (honestly, I forgot!), one Six Word theme was Advice. And I had some, which came via my mother. And now Mom's advice to me, in six simple words, has made its way onto the page. Page 75 to be exact. 

Larry Smith, the editor and brains behind Six Words, has compiled his latest collection of "Sixes," published yesterday, The Best Advice inSix Words: Writers Famous and Obscure on Love, Sex, Money, Friendship, Family,Work, and Much More (St. Martin's Press).

The lovely little book—by the way, a great size, shape, and price for holiday gifts (or okay, bathroom reading)—offers advice from 1000 (!) people, including folks like Harlan Coben, Mark Bitman, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Gilbert. Clearly they're part of the "Famous" and I'm the "Obscure." But hey, I do share the same page with Weird Al Yankovic and Brian Lehrer.

In the past, I've even made an assignment out of writing Sixes in my undergraduate and teen creative nonfiction classes, and adult writing workshops: a break that refreshes.

Want to give it a try?  Want to get the book free? Write your own six words on…Writing? Autumn? Early holiday retailing? On…well, anything. Anything at all.

Post a Six in comments below OR tweet a Six and be sure to tag me @LisaRomeo (and if you like, also tag @SixWords) OR if you're reading this on Facebook, put your six in a FB comment under my post, by midnight, Sunday, November 22. Then a random *winner* will get a freebie book from the lovely folks at Six Words.

Let the sixing begin…

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Unfinished: When it comes to personal stories, aren't they all?

A couple of years ago, I nodded in agreement with a slightly-older-than-me writer friend who declared that at this age we've earned the right to no longer care what anyone thinks of us based on the personal stories we tell or what we choose to write about in our essays and memoir.

What's the point of holding back? she said.

None, I agreed.

But really, I was still holding back plenty, an automatic behavior learned from Mom, Catholic school, judge-y friends and relatives, society's ideals of what it means to be a good wife, mother, person. While I'd written frankly about postpartum depression, marital rockiness, and all the ways I've failed to eat properly or be a supportive daughter to ailing parents, there was still a lot I was keeping from the page.

Then I had a rare slow week this past summer, with no pressing deadlines, no clients with unmet needs, no students to tend. That's when a submission call for an anthology caught my attention, and I challenged myself: to write exactly what I wanted to, without holding back, without worrying who might think what.

The anthology (now published) is titled Unfinished Chapters. The original call for essays listed many possible topics, including an unfinished relationship from the past. And boy, did I have one of those, dating from my late teens/early 20s that was not only unfinished, but unwise—and unlike me.

Could I tell it without explaining or trying to excuse my youthful, selfish choices, and without trying to make the other party seem more awful or less culpable? He shouldn't have, I shouldn't have: one of those relationships that taught me valuable but difficult lessons, amid a few sweet memories. Unfinished relationship? Yes, death will do that.

Almost reflexively, I began to write in the second person, which provided just the right amount of distance and intimacy, cover and bullhorn.

After writing and submitting that essay, and before I knew its fate, something clicked for me, and I wrote three other essay drafts that same week, also about situations I might not ordinarily have gotten around to. Two are under consideration at various venues, one needs more work. Meanwhile, I have my writer friend (who prefers to remain unnamed), and Unfinished Chapters to thank for that nudge.

My essay, "The Horsey Set," begins this way:

"You knew. You knew I was 19. You knew you were 32 and married and the father of two children. You knew I was attracted. I wonder if you knew my attraction (which I didn't even understand at the time) was fueled so much by your position (your celebrity almost) in that rarefied air we both breathed, in that world we both pranced through – you with ease, me with longing – that dazzling playground scented with horses and money and blue ribbons, with Hamptons houses and equestrian estates and show horses that cost more than my father's house. Did you know that?
            When you flirted with me in the horse show office, when you accidentally brushed against me in the stabling tent, when you waved at me from the rail, when you winked at me from under your hat brim on the sidelines of the polo field, did you know that I thought it was about me? Did you know every time I saw you across a field, across a barn aisle, across the table at a fundraiser, that I wondered if you were there because I was there and not because you were always there? That I didn't understand it was about you and what you could do, get away with, possess, mark?..."

Unfinished Chapters, edited by Christina Hamlett, is available now, in print (you remember print, right?), and now also via Kindle.

UPDATE: In January 2016, this essay was also published online at The Manifest Station.

I'd be happy to send one copy to a blog reader, chosen at random from comments—just leave one below by midnight on Sunday, November 15. (You must have a US postal address, and a way for me to track back to your email to let you know if you've been selected)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 30, 2015 Edition

> Can Terry Gross really have conducted some 13,000 interviews for NPR over 40 years? If that information alone gets you excited, then this New York Times profile about the "Fresh Air" host is for you.

> How (or why) to market yourself before you even have a book to sell? The Write Life explains.

> And some tips on Pinterest, Street Teams, and Blog Sharing.

> Fascinating--and visually beautiful piece--at The Morning News, about the intersection of fiction and painting, including narrative arcs, linked scenes, emotional response, and much more. 

> I'm so proud of the Fall issue of Compose Journal, and would love to share it with you. I'm the creative nonfiction editor there, so of course I'm partial to those six pieces, but there's also a slew of terrific fiction, poetry, and an interview with Sonja Livingston about Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses.

> The role of place in essay has been the central theme in many an anthology, including 
Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. One of the contributors, Emily VanKley, explores distance, place, geography, and their influence on the nonfiction writing process (over at Essay Daily).

> Some of the literary nonfiction world is at the NonfictioNow conference this weekend in Flagstaff. If, like me, you're not, follow some of the action on Twitter via #NFNow15 or @Nonfictionow.

> Punctuation nerds: you probably really want to know about the earliest use of the ellipsis, right? The Guardian to the rescue.

> Finally, answers to all your important writer life questions via Dear Advice Person Lady.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Guest Blogger Vincent J. Fitzgerald on: That Writing Thing I Always Wanted to Do

You may recognize the writing instructor mentioned in this guest post. But that's not why I asked Vin to contribute a post. At my MFA graduation, a faculty mentor said he enjoyed working with me as a student, and looked forward to the future, when we'd be colleagues. I'm beginning to understand what he meant. I asked Vin to write a post because he exemplifies many of the behaviors that keep would-be writers from writing, as well as the actions that move writers from one level to the next, the steps and leaps necessary to go from secret writer to writer whose work is published.

In his other professional life, Vincent J. Fitzgerald MSW, LSW, is a psychotherapist with the Nutley (NJ) Family Service Bureau. In addition to the pieces he mentions in his post, he has work forthcoming in Longridge Review and Missing Slate. He's a father of two, and is soon to be married.

Please welcome Vincent J. Fitzgerald.

I first aspired to write when I was 17 years old. At age 44, I still aspired, and employed all known excuses for not writing: I have nothing to say. I have no voice. Print is dead!

The real barriers were poverty of drive and of confidence. From the moment I first put on a baseball mitt in Little League, I was paralyzed by fear of failure. I often asked out of lineups, exiled myself to right field, the Siberia of Little League, and never swung my bat. The same fears have dogged me through life the way Javert hounds Valjean. In my adolescence, I watched horror movies and blasted Metallica as a soundtrack to defiance while my youngest brother filled marble tablets with tales of dragons and sorcerers. I sidestepped failure at passion’s expense, until I allowed my little brother to inspire me.

In my 20s and 30s, I journaled in spurts; which is to say I whined in ink about unrequited love. I lacked the ego structure to tolerate solitude, and when I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder, my therapist helped me pinpoint the malevolent mental free radicals.

Today, I write this as both client and therapist. Anxiety is the flu of the mental health world. The symptoms suck, but hope lives through treatment and insight. When I was 43, a layoff further frazzled me to the extent I sought therapy myself, and introduced the idea of writing as a therapy topic. My therapist responded with a fleeting suggestion I give it a shot. Six sessions of redundancy forced her to diagnose me with “Ass-not-in-chair syndrome.” (No such diagnosis exists in the DSM.)

“Writing is that thing you always talk about doing, but never do," she said. "Get your ass in a chair and write. It doesn’t matter what happens.”

I empower the clients I see as a psychotherapist toward self-actualization, often parenting them. My therapist parented me and made failure a safe place, hence opening a door. The only danger was relegating me to cursory journaling. I contemplated memoir to build on my undergraduate experience as an English major, when my classes were enriching, but I was bogged down by doubt and fretted about my inability to turn phrases like my classmates.

Doubt is stubborn, and my need for reassurance mandated I search for writing classes. Even if I had talent, it was no doubt raw and undeveloped, and I needed to have whatever skill I possessed sharpened by someone willing to shove me out of my comfort zone the same way my therapist did.

I live in Jersey City, home to its own art district, an established writers group, and a PATH train ride from New York City, yet I looked to the ‘burbs for a less overwhelming small town feel conducive to keeping my nerves soothed. I also wanted to go to a place where nobody knew my name. When I discovered The Writers Circle in nearby Summit, I registered prior to reading anything about the program. I sensed most of my initial writing would be a purge of painful memories and exploration into the roots of anxiety. There was much I needed to get out of my system, and I was aware from my own therapeutic practice that divulgence is the difference between sadness and depression.

The interior of the Mondo building where the class was (is still) held, is embellished with art and album covers. The immersion in creativity made me feel at home, but when confronted with classmates with whom that home would be shared, I almost absconded. Then my instructor walked in, and I was pulled to my chair. While gravitas poured from her professorial appearance, she established a quick pace, stuffed with ideas, examples and advice about craft. I couldn't help but jump in. She was tough but honest, and I decided, perhaps unfairly, that I would continue my pursuit if she spotted any talent, and quit if she did not. I am writing this blog post because the former happened.

Immersed in that no nonsense approach, and without being blandished into taking subsequent classes, I wrote and wrote, but still struggled. I welcomed assignments as a catalyst for ideas shelved for the future. Workshopping my assignments was far less threatening than I had imagined. Anxiety bullies us into believing things are worse than they are. I embraced the community of writers whose platitudes were indulging, but whose criticisms reminded me they were invested. I remember it in every group therapy session I conduct. Life is not always about content. Process has its place.

My instructor sometimes veered to cranky, but I love and need her, as children need and desire structure. I defy any reader to find the word that in my work, and I learned adverbs are anathema as strong verbs are writing’s lifeblood. A few weeks in I asked if I was wasting my time. She responded in writing I was not. The exclamation point at the end of her answer drove the point home. Writers don’t just throw exclamation points around.

Buoyed by The Writers Circle, I decided to take some risks. A blog noticed my tweets about horror films, and the editor encouraged me to submit a piece. When my essay, "How the Exorcist Possessed Me" was published, I shared the link on Twitter, and Exorcist director William Friedkin offered a favorable comment -- priceless validation from an artist I admire. Soon after, I was encouraged to submit to The Writer’s Circle Journal and "From Video Games to Baby Names"  was accepted after a competitive submission process.

From there, I answered a call for submissions to an essay anthology, Dads Behaving Dadly 2.  When I submitted my first piece, the editor’s response was positive, and he requested a second. Seeing my effort in a book convinced me: print was alive, and I am a writer. I even reached out to a nearby bookstore that offers a local author consignment program. I can’t explain the feeling of seeing my own writing on a bookstore shelf.

No endeavor humbles me like the writing process. The blend of joy and frustration is inherent, but ensures I write daily, wherever, whenever. Editors never let me get too comfortable, and my mentors remind me they too experience rejection. I revel not in their occasional struggle, but in the resolve shown by writers much further along in their careers than I am. Failure is both a safe place, and a breeding ground for growth.

Before my first pieces were published, even before I found that first writing class, I got ahead of myself and submitted to Hippocampus, the selective, online creative nonfiction journal. After an extensive period of waiting, my piece was rejected for publication. The editors at were not as impressed with me as I was, and my respect for craft shot skyward. Writing scoffs at hubris.

But rejection was a watershed moment. I was in the game, and embraced my struggling writer status. Being a struggling writer was more invigorating than being a never writer. Now, I adopt each new rejection as a growth opportunity, yet I always remember my first. It motivated me to persist, and taught me success can live in failure. Without it, I would not have received the honor of guest blogging for a former instructor turned friend and mentor whose guidance has helped me turn writing into that thing I do.

Note from Lisa: You can connect with Vin via Twitter.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 16, 2015 Edition

> A recent Backgrounder podcast features Anna Quindlen, novelist, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist (and incidentally, a strong influence on me).

> Some quick tips from Women on Writing to get through National Novel Writing Month.

> Writers must read, a lot. Of course. But how can we turn off the reading-as-a-writer stance, and just read for pleasure? At Literary Hub, Jessica Ferri (and a bunch of literary folks) have some suggestions.

> Lisa Rivero offers "8 Takeaways from the 2015 Publishing Institute."  

> In "Omission," a writing craft essay at The New Yorker last month, the inimitable John McPhee on knowing what to cut.

> I recently discovered Colette Sartor's blog, where she frequently shares writing craft advice, like this one on writing about loved ones. There's also a terrific writers resource page with links to many (many!) helpful articles by others.

> Medium is making some changes.

> At the Glimmer Train blog, enjoy (especially if you watch TV), David James Poissant's "How to Balance Writing, Family, Work, and Life: An Unhelpful Guide for the Perplexed." 

>Then, for a wee bit 'o more fun, try the Los Angeles Times' "How to Be a Writer" board game (think Candyland for lit types).

> Libba Bray will crack you up with her "letters" keeping friends updated on the success of her just-published book.

> And finally, considering my Friday Fridge Clean-Out heading and the rotating array of refrigerator photos -- how could I not mention the intriguing new book, Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again, by Tom Jackson. I'm going to read it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Prepping for a Conference, Me and My Inner Italian American

Today is a conference prep day. I've had a bunch of these in 2015, after a long drought. Some of the conference appearances have come about by way of my own initial effort, while others are group affairs: another writer with energy, an original idea, and me in her contact list, graciously invites me to join a panel proposal. (And yes, some proposals were rejected, but enough were accepted.)

Each time, during the brainstorming/application/panel proposal submission process—typically many months, sometimes a full year before the conference—it all seems like such a great idea. An interesting topic! Fabulous co-panelists! Inviting location! Promising meet-ups with far-flung colleagues! A break in the routine, sometimes a night or two away from home, restaurant meals! Occasionally, a fee! And yes, to be completely honest, a new CV line.

What I'm prepping for now is a reading and panel this Friday titled, "Death: Italian American Style," at the Italian American Studies Association national conference in Washington, D.C. I'll be reading excerpts from my memoir manuscript, which swirls around my father's death and includes some of the rituals associated with my Italian American family.

This time around, the credit for the unusual, terrific panel idea goes to writer Rita Ciresi, who is one of my fellow faculty members in the Bay Path University online MFA program. Joining Rita and I are writers JosephBathanti and Marisa Labozzetta.  

I was so energized when the proposal was accepted.

Then, here's what very often happens to me a few weeks before the event. Potential problems arise: sticky logistics (family and work), scheduling conflicts, travel inconveniences, budget considerations. I begin to question the whole enterprise—time, mental energy, cost, work that will pile up. I worry that whatever I need to do—make a presentation, give a talk, read my work, or participate in or lead a discussion—I will be just awful at it.

Whose great idea was it anyway?

Then, slowly, things begin to fall into place. Challenging logistics get solved, schedules tamed, costs brought into line with available budgets. Travel arrangements solidify, work gets done ahead or (artfully?) postponed. Next, I start the preparations, and that's often the best part of the experience, because I begin to realize: Hey, this IS a good idea after all.

I decide there's no going back, so why not have some fun with it?

Prep time. Today, I'm choosing the excerpt reading selections, practicing to be sure I'll stay within my allotted 15 minutes (of reading time, not fame!), and making a few notes that could help me answer anticipated questions. And doing one of the things I love best about any conference: going over the program slowly to find the other events I want to be sure to attend.

I must admit, the IASA conference would not normally be on my radar, but now that I'm headed that way, I'm so glad that Rita reached out to me for this. In addition to our panel, I'm eager to see the one titled, "Creative Writers on Italian-American Fathers" (Fred Misurella, Vittoria Repetto, Joey Nicoletti, Edvige Giunta, Joseph Ricapito) as well as "Italian-American Daughters and Dads: Love and Loss" (Karen DeLuca, Laura Mangione, B Amore).

Given that I've written about my father for more than eight years now, that I've been fortunate to see many of those nonfiction narratives and essays published, and that I'm just wrapping up a revision of the memoir manuscript (moving it from an essay collection to a more linear narrative)—these sessions seem custom planned just for me.

I'm now in the pre-honeymoon phase of conference-going: excited, curious, and ready (almost). I just need to pay a few bills, answer a dozen student emails...
(p.s. It may be a long shot, but if any blog readers will be there, please be sure to say hello!)

Top image: Flickr/Creative Commons - Julie Garcia

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why Am I (still, again) Writing About Postpartum Depression? Because 21 Years Later, It Lingers

Twenty-one years ago at this time, my first child was 10 months old, and I remember thinking, it's got to end soon…but it didn't: "It" being postpartum depression. 

I've written before about how PPD disrupted my early mothering, but today I have an essay at Brain, Child which addresses an aspect of PPD I've become significantly more interested in as my two sons have grown—the effects of PPD on a mother as time passes.

For me, and I suspect for many others, PPD didn't just disappear and leave no scars behind. 

Here's an excerpt:

"Because here’s the truth about what comes after severe PPD goes away: the deepest, darkest clouds may wash away in a few months, or a year, or in my case, about 22 months. Your therapist may wean you off the anti-depressants which saved your sanity (and probably your marriage). You may have more good mornings, and eventually only the kind of mornings when you wake up and you are no longer already crying. You may not any longer be overcome, hourly, with feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and fear. All this may happen, and you may begin to enjoy your child (or children), sink into your role as their mother, relish your little family—but. That will never feel like your right or your natural state, and you may, at any given stressful mothering moment, think you certainly are going to drift away, back down that hole. The truth about having survived severe PPD is that it is incipient. It lingers. There is a legacy. Its shadow, the fact of its presence in your history, never goes away.

And you are a different person for it. You are a different mother."

If you're a frequent visitor here, you know that I don't do much advocacy in the pieces I publish, but this one is important -- to me and maybe to a lot of other women. I believe it will resonate for many mothers who don’t feel comfortable talking about PPD's after-effects. I'd love to start a conversation about that, and I hope you'll pass the essay link along to anyone you know who may be affected by PPD. Wouldn't it be great if it also sparked some discussion among those who study maternal mental health?

As always, thanks for your support. 

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons - miyukiutada

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 2, 2015 Edition

> The New York Times reported last week that print book sales are up, e-book sales are down, as readers "return" to the physical book. Huh.

> A photographer got bored, and went in search of the best writers in his state to shoot (on film). Luckily, he lives in Maine, otherwise known as Writertown, USA.

> Here's a fascinating interview (at Jane Friedman's excellent blog) with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press, that ranges from traditional publishing to unusual ways authors and readers can connect, to...well, just about everything. (It's originally from 2014, but appeared then in the subscription-only web magazine Scratch; and it's all still--maybe more--relevant today.)

> If you like this kind of link round-up, check out Literary Links at the Masters Reviews blog.

> By now, it may be that every living personal essay writer (and reader and editor) saw, and possibly shuddered about this piece in Salon: "The First-Person Industrial Complex" which explores the price of revealing (sometimes squirm-worthy) private lives in public.

> There's a new interview at Literary Mama with my friend Candy Schulman, on the craft of essay writing. Candy's guest post here (from 2010!), explaining how the mind of a personal essay writer works, is still heavily trafficked.

> This week, Your Blog Connection featured yours truly, talking about how I try to make this blog helpful to other writers. 

> And if you want to add more online resources to your list, try this list of 120 "most helpful websites" for writers.

> Finally, at the Princeton Alumni Review, my boss at Montclair State University (where I sometimes teach a creative nonfiction course), offers a thoughtful and funny take on words that are frequently mistaken for one another, in "Diction Slips."

Have a great weekend!

Reminder - If you live in the New York City metro area, consider this Sunday's (10/4) first Manhattan show for This Is My Brave: 12 writers, poets, and singer-songwriters on the subject of living with mental illness. I've got a ticket giveaway going on at my post from earlier in the week with the founder. Click here (or scroll down one post) for details. Closes at 5:00 EASTERN time tonight, 10/2.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Interview with Jenn Marshall about This Is My Brave (and tickets to the NY show)

Among the many gifts I came away with from the Hippocamp15 Conference was new writer friends who, in addition to writing their own stories, are acting as creative conduits through which others can tell theirs. This included publishers, storytelling organizers, reading series curators, podcast hosts. That includes Jenn Marshall.

A Virginia resident, Jenn is the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization This Is My Brave, which presents artists performing original essays, poetry, and songs about living with, or loving something with, a mental illness. TIMB has put on shows in Washington DC (twice), Boston, and Iowa City. This past June they opened for the Mental Health Americas annual convention and presented at the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) annual conference in Chicago last week. On October 4, TIMB will present its first performance in New York City (ticket giveaway info below).

Q.  How do you describe the TIMB project to those who aren't familiar with it?

This Is My Brave is a monologue-based storytelling production created to end the stigma of people whose lives have been affected by mental illness.

Some background: I had been writing anonymously about my experience living with bipolar disorder for about a year and a half. I finally reached a moment where I was sick of hiding my illness. I felt like I was contributing to the stigma instead of helping to end it, as I had aspired to do when I first launched my blog,

A. piece I wroteabout being a mom living with bipolar disorder was published by a fairly well-known website, and my illness was no longer invisible. I had made it known. When I opened up about my true identity online, the exact opposite of what people had warned me might happen, happened. Friends and family called, emailed, texted. People I only knew in passing in my community stopped me to thank me for sharing my story. More people than I could count said, Me too. And I knew I was on to something.

Q. Then what?

A: Several months later, my creative partner Anne Marie Ames and I, launched our Kickstarter. Our vision to produce a theater show made up of regular people from the community who were ready to share their story of living with mental illness through poetry, music and essay, to end stigma. The support poured in. Our goal was to raise $6500 to cover the costs of producing the show in the DC-area, and within 31 days we had reached over $10,000 and were funded!

Our dream was taking off. We then put the call out for auditions and were blown away by the level of talent. The show was cast with 13 individuals and the debut show was a huge success. We sold out the nearly 400-seat theater and received rave reviews.

Many people asked us when wed do it again so that theyd have a chance to share their story.

We became a non-profit and held a show at our local high school that fall. In spring of 2015, This Is My Brave shows were created in Iowa City, Harrisburg, Boston, and we had a brand-new show in the DC-area. The more shows we put on, the more requests we get to come to new cities. Were thrilled at the response and know that others believe in the power of putting their story out there, too.

Q. Where does the name "This is My Brave" come from? What inspired it?

Around the time we were naming our show, the Sara Bareilles song "Brave" was hugely popular. Anne Marie and I were so touched by the lyrics, which talk about standing up for what you believe in, being brave because being silent wont change anything. This spoke to us on so many levels. Also, we were constantly told that we were brave for sharing our stories. The name This Is My Brave just fit.

Q.  I noticed this quote on your Mission page: One day we will live in a world where we wont have to call it brave when talking about mental illness. Well just call it talking. Can you elaborate?

Our Vision as an organization is to someday reach a point where people everywhere can feel safe and supported enough to talk about mental illness openly in everyday life. Weve reached that point with cancer, with autism, and with diabetes. With each story shared, stigma is dismantled even more. One day, the collective voices of stories brought to the light will have shattered stigma completely. Its what were working towards.

Q.  You're planning your first-ever show in New York City (ticket giveaway info below). Did you find that those who auditioned differed from those in other parts of the country?

A. No, not really. Every time we pop up in a new city, its interesting to see the types of presenters who step forward. Sure, New York City is home to an incredible pool of talented artists and musicians, but weve seen unbelievable talent emerge in every place weve put on shows. Reminds me of the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: If you build it, he will come.  Every time weve decided to put on a show in a new place, the talent we were searching for magically showed up.

Q. In the introduction video from your May 2015 event in Washington, DC, you call TIMB performance a "story sharing event". Can you talk a bit about how, as a writer, you came to understand the power of story and how story helps break down barriers and misconceptions?

A: When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was so ashamed and embarrassed that my brain didnt function normally, that I had to take medication to treat my condition, and that I had been hospitalized for a mental illness. It took me years to open up about my journey, and when I did, I experienced first-hand the power of story sharing.

Through my blog writing, I shared my pain and struggle, how I learned to overcome my mental health challenges. Over time I began receiving emails from people who had found my words and felt a connection because they too struggled with a mental illness and reading my story helped them find hope.
Read #BeBrave stories at TiMB blog

Those emails taught me that whenever were brave enough to bear our heartache, and were open and honest about our lives instead of constantly updating our highlight reel of perfect photos online, we can help change other peoples lives.

At our debut show in 2014, a young woman approached me with her husband after the show to tell me that she found my writing at her darkest moments and that reading my story saved her life.

I knew then and there that we had hit on something major. When we put our stories out there, and show our imperfections and talk about our struggles (we all have them!), it breaks down the misconceptions that, Oh, she must have it all together, her life seems perfect.

Story sharing is so powerful - lifesaving, even - because someone who is struggling, who may be on the verge of giving up on life, may find your story at exactly the right moment. And you might be the reason that person decides to keep going.

Q. Any plans to publish a book, record a CD, or make the stories available in another venue?

A. We hope to publish an anthology of the This Is My Brave show stories one day in the future, or maybe podcasts. For now, we are focused on producing new shows each year and expanding our reach with our live performances. Its truly touching when you can hear the stories from the audience and then connect with the cast in the lobby after the show. All of our shows are professionally videotaped so that we can share the individual performances on our YouTube channel.

Q.  What can show-goers expect to see and hear at the New York City show?
The New York City cast

A. So many incredible stories and such talent! Two vocal students from Hunter College will sing the Sara Bareilles song "Brave" to kick us off. Then to open, we have Comedian Christian Finnegan who has appeared on the Conan's, Craig Ferguson's, and Chappelle's TV shows. The cast is full of writers, both professional and amateur, who poured their hearts out in the essays, poetry and music they penned specifically for this show. It truly is a journey - you will laugh and you will cry. And we hope youll leave with a greater understanding of mental illness and how to support a loved one in their fight to overcome it.

Q.  Are there similarities/differences with other spoken word performances like The Moth, Story Slams, etc.?

A.  I guess the only major difference is that our show features a greater number of stories in one show since each presenter has a time limit of about 5 minutes. That allows us to feature about 12-14 stories, and enables us to showcase a variety of different mental health disorders.

Q.  Given the topic, are all the songs, essays, and poetry serious? Or is there humor involved too?

A. People might assume that stories of mental illness might all be serious, dark and sad. But these stories do have elements of humor! You know what they say, Laughter is the best medicine. I do think there is a lot of truth to that old quote. Were fortunate enough to have comedian Christian Finnegan opening our show with a short set to kick us off. And our cast has an awesome sense of humor as well, which will be evident through the stories they share.

Note from Lisa: The October 4 This is My Brave Manhattan event takes place in the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. Ticket purchase details are available here. Jenn would like to give one of this blog's readers two complimentary tickets to the show. To be included in the random drawing, do one (or more) of the following by Friday, Oct. 2 at 5:00 p.m.  11:45 p.m. EASTERN time: leave a comment here; Tweet a link to this post and tag me @LisaRomeo; mention TIMB and link to this post from your own blog and tweet that link, tagging me on Twitter; share this post on your Facebook wall or in a FB group and either tag me, or email me a screen shot. (Winner's tickets will be held at the will call window.)

You can keep up with TIMB on social media at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; and watch dozens of live performances on their YouTube channel. Plus, check out some very cool products that support the TIMB mission.
Colorful bracelets available at Bravegear