Live at the Red Ink Series:
on the Writer’s Quest for Authenticity
Mira Jacob, Jennifer Pastiloff, Deborah Landau, Grace Talusan, and Hannah Tinti in Conversation
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next conversation, “Secrets,” will take place on September 26th at 7 pm, and feature Kristen Arnett (Mostly Dead Things), Sion Dayson (As A River), Angie Cruz (Dominicana), Briallen Hopper (Hard to Love), and Elisabet Velasquez.
The following is an edited transcript from April’s panel at Books are Magic, “Authenticity,” which featured Mira Jacob (Good Talk), Jennifer Pastiloff (On Being Human), Deborah Landau (Soft Targets), Grace Talusan (The Body Papers), Hannah Tinti (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley), and moderator Michele Filgate.
Michele Filgate: According to Roy Peter Clark in an article for Poynter’s: “Good writers, it is said, want to ‘find’ their voice. And they want that voice to be ‘authentic,’ a word from the same root as ‘author’ and ‘authority.’ If the writer went on a quest to find a sacred object or special power, it might very well be called voice.” How do you find your authentic voice?
Grace Talusan: For me to find my voice, I have to be really quiet and have a lot of privacy. This means not thinking about a reader, not thinking about anybody or criticism or anything like that, but just getting really quiet and trying to talk to myself.
Mira Jacob: So, this last book I wrote I was really angry, like really angry, the kind of angry that makes it really hard to write and I would say my process was almost the opposite of yours in that I needed to be quiet, but I also just needed to be cool with how pissed I was going to be.
Hannah Tinti: The thing that I have to do is tell myself that no one is going to read it. The first writing class I ever took was with the author Blanche Boyd and the first thing she had us do, before talking about writing or sharing our writing, is have us all write something down that we had never told anyone. Then we went outside and burned that piece of paper.
Blanche taught us that it’s about the act of putting it down, and once it is down, it’s totally up to you what happens to that work. It made us focus on the act of writing and putting the importance there, and not thinking about anything beyond that. If I can get my brain into that place, that’s always where my voice is the strongest.
Deborah Landau: For me, the way I’d answer that question is to say that reading a lot of poems by other poets is how I’ve found my own way. And then because in poetry the music is so important—how it sounds, how it feels in the body, the rhythm, all of that—I read out loud as I write.
Jennifer Pastiloff: For me, it’s about telling the truth, so I can always feel when I’m trying to sound like someone else or sound a certain way, and especially because I sort of fall in this category where no one knows what to do with me. I feel like I write in a way that I’m just talking to someone, so often when people read me and meet me, they are like, you are exactly the same. Except poetry, but even that, I feel like I have to just sound like myself, and when I don’t, I know. My arm hairs stand up when I’m telling the truth.
MF: Grace, in The Body Papers you write: “I had never thought about how meaningful US citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astonished by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted into our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.” Later on in the same chapter, you say that even though you’ve lived in America since you were two, you started carrying your US passport with you everywhere soon after Trump was elected. I want to talk about this idea of authenticity being tied to documentation. How are the two related, and where do these ideas diverge?
GT: I didn’t know that I was undocumented until I was probably 15 or 16, so I went around feeling like a “true” American, until I walked past a window or a mirror and saw myself with my friends who were all white, and then sometimes I would think about, well maybe I’m different in some ways. But then when I found out that I was undocumented and we had to go through a process with INS, Immigration and Naturalization Service, I really felt my identity shift and change. I felt like I was a suspicious person and that I had to prove my right to be here.
Storytelling is about letting other people into the room and bringing other people along with you. And to do that, you have to give all the details.
So there was this way that my sense of self changed radically because of that documentation. And then once I received my blue US passport and my citizenship certificate, I felt really good. I felt safe. I felt I had the right to do things like cross borders and get medical attention and talk to the police–I know that undocumented folks have these rights, too, but I didn’t believe that I deserved them until I held that piece of paper. Then when Trump was elected, I started carrying my passport with me all the time, in my backpack when I was teaching. The old feeling came back; I felt really unsafe again. I feared that I could get taken away or that my citizenship could be revoked.
MF: Jen, in On Being Human you write “I am of the belief that it is one of the greatest privileges of our lives, this bearing witness to others, and when we wake up to that, we usually forget that we came in the room with armor on, we are too busy nodding me too at the person across from us. We are too consumed with listening that we forget about our own judgments or predeterminations.” You’re one of the best listeners I know. I’ve seen you in action in your workshops. How is the act of listening related to authenticity?
JP: Well, I am hard of hearing and I wear hearing aids but I still don’t hear very well with them, so I have to get up really close, like in your lap, basically, to read your lips. I had to let go of shame around how I listen and around the fact that I look at mouths and not eyes, and that I’ve had to learn other ways to listen. When you are just bearing witness and listening with no idea to fix someone or have an answer, but just listening, that is the most authentic you can be.
Not offering anything except your love and presence. But specifically for me because of my hearing loss, I’ve had to get really honest about my listening. Now I’ve gotten more comfortable with going, hey you know what, I read lips. And let go of all the shame around that. Shame is such a detriment to us, so the more we are able to let go of shame, the more we become our authentic selves.
MF: Mira, speaking of listening: in your incredible graphic memoir, Good Talk, you share a lot of conversations you’ve had with your son about race and identity—as well as your own experiences. At one point in the book, there’s a scene with some of your writer friends right before Trump was elected. You say: “This whole time, I’ve been all, ‘Yes, this is scary and weird, but don’t worry, the good people will see this for this ugliness it is. They will stand up for us and we’ll be okay.’ I mean, what does that even mean? Are there? Where are they, all these good Americans?” We all know how the election turned out. How did writing and drawing this memoir illuminate topics you’ve been thinking about for a long time?
MJ: I think there was always this sense for me that I didn’t belong and that’s okay, and my parents were immigrants here, and I think the country likes us. I think it’s okay to stay. I had a real benefit of the doubt in my head, always, for this idea of the good people of America. I just thought, we all don’t want it to be this way, we are all fighting against these horrible things that are happening. There was, in my mind, an us that was bigger and stronger and united. I’d had the privilege of believing that, to some extent.
I spent my whole life trying to protect myself by telling myself I was strong, by forcing myself not to feel anything.
Yes, my trust that had been steadily eroding since Ferguson had made mainstream news, but with the rise of Black Lives Matter, I thought, we’re going to change it now. And so, on the election night, though certainly I had a lot of friends who were like, “Oh, Trump is definitely winning,” I was not one of those people. When that happened, I remember the last little shred of, but there is an us just evaporated. I was like, they know and they don’t care. They are not coming to help us. So then what is left? What’s left is the rest of us. So I just started writing for the rest of us.
MF: Hannah, in an interview with Publishers Weekly on your recent novel, you said “I remember writing an early draft of the chapter set on Whidbey Island. Hawley’s making his escape on a boat and a whale suddenly rises out of the water. It surprised me, tripping over something that big, and I wondered if I should cut it. A whale felt way too cliché. But eventually, in editor mode, I found a way to subvert the cheesiness. I’m glad I trusted it was there for a reason and came up with a way for it to work, because other whales started popping up unexpectedly and became integral to the novel.” How can a writer “subvert the cheesiness” in their own work?
HT: As I’ve gotten older and have written more books, I’ve come to trust my subconscious mind in a way that I completely did not when I was starting out. I’ve learned to not be so worried about where something is going to lead, and to just allow the weirdness to come. I often tell my students to “keep the whale”—in other words, the thing that everyone is telling you to cut. There is a reason it’s there. So you should try to find a way to make it work rather than get rid of it.
MF: Brené Brown says: “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” But writing about difficult subjects can also lead to some of these things. So how do we create art that really matters but protect ourselves, at the same time? .
JP: I spent my whole life trying to protect myself by telling myself I was strong, by forcing myself not to feel anything, by being anorexic, you name it. So it’s the opposite for me. I don’t know. It comes back again to the idea of telling the truth. I feel like when I’m telling the truth I’m protecting myself. Also, and this is hard and I haven’t yet figured out how but I’m working on it, letting go of attachment to whatever. How the book is going to turn out, how the sentence is going to turn out, and letting go of what I think people will think of it. Interesting question because for now for me, it’s about not protecting myself. Trying to get as naked, that sounds cliché, but as vulnerable as I can.
DL: I don’t ever think about protecting myself when I’m writing. It’s really vulnerable, it’s coming from the deepest, most intimate, most agitated part of myself—and I guess the hope is that if you write from that place and put it into language it might reach someone else. And in that connection there is meaning. We don’t have anything to put out against the world but these books. I feel like that’s what I have to push back with.
HT: I think what we struggle the most with as artists is judging ourselves and comparing ourselves to others. Those are the two things that stop us from creating. And that’s the daily struggle, right? To try and find a way to quiet those voices. Whether you do it through anger or coming to terms with the past or being vulnerable, you just have to keep trying different ways to fight those battles.
MF: Authenticity can be performative: on social media, in art, in our daily lives. So how do you find a balance between true authenticity (naked, vulnerable) and the performance of authenticity?
MJ: A lot of this last project was what are we not talking about? What are we not saying? For me, that was, why don’t we ever talk about the racism between communities of color? Why do we only talk about white people when we talk about racism, what is that about? Why don’t we ever talk about how bisexuality works in any situation? Why do we never act like that is a real place to be, and why do we always assume that it’s taking away somebody else’s experiences to talk about these places?
What are these uneasy borders that we don’t know how to talk about, and then what happens if you stand in that place? What if you stand in the place where all the rightness sort of ends, and then there is that shadowy place right next to it which is the truth of your whole life? I always ask myself when I am writing: are you writing for vindication or clarity? And every time I felt like I was writing for vindication I just had to lose the whole chapter, just knock it off.
DL: I can’t speak to the social media thing at all; I don’t get it. But when it comes to writing poems, you know, you write from the rawest, most intimate, most personal place—but in the end the poem is a made thing, it’s really something outside of yourself that exists in language. And then it doesn’t really matter if the poem is factually true if it feels true. Even Anne Sexton, who was a “confessional” poet, said, “I lie a lot” when asked about her work. In the end the poem is separate from you.
JP: I post a lot on social media. Understatement. I tend to write as if I’m just talking to my trusted friend, just one person. The day I ever start performing I’ve got to stop because it doesn’t feel good. I lead these workshops with Lidia Yuknavitch called Writing & the Body. The body always tells the truth. I have an expression that I won’t use now because it’s not very nice. Oh, okay. My butthole clenches with anything that is too curated. It’s like when you are watching an actor and you feel them acting. It’s the same thing, right. So the body knows.
MF: Why is it that any form of art, writing, painting, films, can feel more authentic than real life sometimes? I think of something that Paul Harding, the Pulitzer Prize winner of Tinkers, told me, about the emotional truth being the most important thing.
HT: That question makes me think about something that often comes up in workshop. When people are writing a fictional story that’s close to their own experience, they often leave out significant details that are needed for the reader to enter the story. So the other workshoppers say, I just didn’t believe this. And the writer says, But it really happened! And yes. It happened. But you didn’t allow any of us to come with you.
Storytelling is about letting other people into the room and bringing other people along with you. And to do that, you have to give all the details; you have to tell everything that is going on. You have to make them feel like they are with your character, or the narrator if it’s non-fiction, every step of the way—so they can just be in the moment. That’s what it’s about; it’s about creating that experience.
JP: I have a theory. I do a lot of work with women who have lost children. I think with art, there is a remove sometimes and so when it’s with real life it’s a lot easier to protect ourselves, to distance ourselves. So with art there is a way a lot of times that we can allow ourselves to be more vulnerable, even though it’s unconscious, by going, oh well this is art. So we can allow it to affect us on a more profound level. I could be wrong but just from being in real life with a lot of really challenging, sad, hard situations, and also seeing it in art, I think we let ourselves feel sometimes more with art because it’s a little less scary.
GT: I’m having this strange experience now. My memoir has been out for a week and now my family has read it. They lived through these moments with me. My teenage nieces, who are in the book, read it. One of them came up to me recently and she said, “I went through these things with you or I’ve heard some of these stories already, but it feels like something different to read it in the book.” Another niece complained, “Now I know what you really think.” Writing about those moments of my life feels very different from the lived experiences. There’s a slowing down; a meaning-making. I’m hoping what I’m doing in the writing transcends real life.
MJ: One of my favorite nights in New York City was a million years ago: Christopher from The Sopranos had a bar and we used to go to that bar all the time, and this one night we were in that bar and James Gandolfini and the entire male cast walked in. Seriously. In clothes from the set. Just…walked in. Gandolfini was smoking a cigar, and no one in the whole bar knew what to do anymore. You know New York, nobody reacts to anyone that is famous, like, oh you are famous? I don’t care. But this time, the whole bar went quiet. And I’m scared to go to the bathroom; I realized everyone else was similarly scared. Why? Because someone is going to get whacked!
After a while, I was like, let’s go, let’s go, and we left, like all of us, the whole bar. And the craziest thing is, out of the bar there are all these French doors looking in, and everybody that had just been inside was watching them through the window. And I was like, of course! This is the only way to take in this moment, to really feel all of it—you need the glass between you and what’s happening. For me, I always feel like art is very similar in that way. The only way we are going to let ourselves really feel it is to make it art.