Women and the Global Imagination: To Unravel the Knot

by Amanda Miska

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Amanda Miska explores the challenges of being a writer that come from both outside and inside ourself. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

To Unravel the Knot

I can’t write this essay. I don’t think I am smart enough to write this essay. I believe I am somewhat clever and have excellent grammar skills. I am creative and, at times, funny.  But I have not read enough books or taken enough courses or been mentored or encouraged by enough literary greats, professors, or parents to believe that I can make sense out of this jumble of thoughts knotted in my head.  I grasp at loose threads, but the knot gets tighter.

One of my closest friends, when I complained about my difficulties with writing this essay, continued to tell me, “You are so capable. You are brilliant.”  Like a pair of beautiful mantras I felt like I should chant while standing in front of a full-length mirror.

But these things about ourselves are harder to believe. Because if we do believe them, then that means we have to do the work and expect to succeed.

I often expect to fail. I think my friend speaks in hyperbole and is just trying to make me feel better. I don’t feel capable. I most definitely don’t feel brilliant.

I am primarily a writer of fiction, and one writer of non-fiction told me, after rejecting two non-fiction pieces of mine, that I should stick to first-person fiction because that’s what I was good at. If you know me at all, you know that I saw those words as a challenge (but first, I cried. A lot).

All of this to say: as a writer, and as a woman, I am constantly second guessing myself. I am constantly coming up for excuses for why not to do something instead of why not? Why shouldn’t I be able to do that? I compare myself to other writers and thinkers, and I feel I don’t measure up.

I read a lot of articles written by women that make me go, “Yes, this!” when they articulate something I’ve felt or thought about for years. The only problem is that I could never articulate it myself.

But I’m still going to try. Because I may be capable. I may even be brilliant (on occasion, there are tiny glimpses, like flashbulbs in a crowd).

When people find out I’m a writer (I’m still hesitant about calling myself one in mixed company), the inevitable question comes up, “What do you write about?” (Cringe.)  I typically say, “Relationships,” my voice lilting up at the end like a question.

In the past, other writers have told me that I’m really good at writing “relationship stories,” and while I trust the good intentions of these compliments, I feel like there is an element of condescension too. I hate the phrase relationship stories. It might be synonymous with “Domestic Fiction” (only if it’s literary enough) or “Women’s Fiction” (the ambiguous catch-all). But it feels…lesser. A type of genre fiction, like sci-fi or horror or Westerns.

One of my graduate school professors bestowed the creative wisdom to write what haunts us.  That had never been a problem for me—I can’t seem to write very well about anything else.  However, I’d always written fiction because the things that haunted me often seemed too dark or strange or embarrassing or upsetting to write about in non-fiction.  I expected to be judged. I expected to be disowned. I expected people would become suspicious of me or stop trusting me. I expected to be unliked. Or unloved.

I often write about romantic relationships, though sometimes familial ones. These are the things that fascinate/obsess/haunt me. The bruises I continue to press.  I see my life as a series of connections and disconnects with people: bringers of inspiration and bringers of desperation, takers of energy and takers of insecurity, soulmates and spirit crushers. I fictionalize these life experiences in hopes that I’m able to make readers feel what I felt, or to understand myself and my actions better. Fiction gives me this distance.  And no one knows which parts are me and which parts are my character. It feels like a safe space for exploration, as well as creation (or re-creation).

I chastise myself often for this—it feels like cheating. I tell myself I have no imagination, that I’m boring, that I keep writing the same thing over and over again, and I’m the only one who cares.

The same wise professor told me, in a one-on-one meeting after workshop, that the strength in my work lies in its emotional chronology. And I loved that. I felt known.  I felt like my work was understood. I am an emotional person, highly empathic and sensitive. I see these things as my strengths, and finally, someone else did too, and saw how they carried over into my work. In workshops, I would often get the scathing comment from my classmates (or professors) that, “Nothing really happens” in my stories. But she could see what was happening on the page the way that I did. (Maybe the pronoun, she, is important here, though I’d like to believe it’s not, that good writing is good writing is good writing.)

But when I do write stories about relationships, my main focus is typically a female protagonist, and the narrative arc (or emotional arc) belongs to her, whatever is happening (or not happening) in the story. There’s a subtlety to stories about a woman in relationship with herself.

Several times I’ve received personal rejections for my stories commending the writing but calling them too sentimental for the editor’s taste.  I don’t think I’m infallible. The truth is: I struggle with endings. It’s not the subject of the criticism that bothers me. It’s the adjective. The word sentimental.

I think it means I’m too soft. Too cheesy, too commercial, or too obvious. That my story is trite, or worse: happy. I should put it to bed or seriously revise it, I tell myself.

I find happy endings—or maybe I really mean hopeful endings—quite difficult to write.  Destruction and darkness are easier in some ways because they are what most of us are used to seeing.  The very stuff that gave us the desire to write. The stuff that gave us no other choice. And I can appreciate that a lot of writers still struggle with making sense of those things, still struggle to find hope in the hopeless place that is our world.

But I’m naturally a bit of an idealist/optimist.  The things I want for my characters–love, passion, family, artistic fulfillment, answers to the Big Questions–are the same things I want for myself. But like my characters, there are often roadblocks on the way to getting them, the most treacherous being my own insecurities about whether I am good or worthy enough or whether anyone cares what I have to say or will like the way I have to say it.

So I worry. I wrestle. I wonder. I whine.

And yet I continue: to be haunted, to feel, to fail, to find the words, to unravel the knot.

Amanda Miska is Editor-in-Chief of Split Lip Magazine. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in Whiskey Paper, CHEAP POP, jmww, The Collapsar, Storychord, Five Quarterly, Cactus Heart, Lockjaw Magazine, Pea River Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Cartridge Lit, Atticus Review and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the Northern part of Virginia.