Issue 23: Writing through shame
4 min read

Issue 23: Writing through shame

I usually send this newsletter out on Wednesdays but I’m sending it a day late to share my essay that just went up on Electric Literature this morning! It’s about my mom, Chinese food, and how Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart helped me cope with anticipatory grief. It’s the most difficult and emotional thing I’ve written to date and I’m nervous and excited for you all to read it.

I’ve been thinking about the topic of my mom’s health and our relationship for the past few years, but I’ve struggled to figure out how to write about it. Reading Zauner’s book gave me a way to explore the feelings that were holding me back: guilt, shame, and regret. It reminded me of a 2015 episode of Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond’s advice podcast, where Almond says:

When something shameful has happened to me, [...] that’s instantly a hot spot. I absolutely know that the path to truth is going to run through shame.

Anything he guards or hides is an indicator of where he needs to head in his writing. He even sees bad writing as attempts to cover up the real story, a sign that it’s something you’re not ready to tell. I listened to that episode well before I started writing or sharing my work with a broader audience, but the quote has stuck with me. In fact, it’s been a useful guide—to write into shame.

I’ve written essays about eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and now grief. Almond observes that “most people spend huge amounts of their emotional resources hiding the things they feel ashamed of.” Writing into—and through—shame is a way of confronting the ugly, difficult thoughts that take up those emotional resources. It’s an attempt to wrench back some of the control into my own hands.

Any form of writing is a profound act of vulnerability. But the fact that it’s a kind of controlled vulnerability is freeing: you can decide how much to share and how to shape the narrative. It’s definitely a strange impulse to plumb your deepest darkest secrets for the sake of writing. However, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to write nonfiction or write about a specific experience. Instead, shame can be a map. It can help you form the questions that you ask in your work.

This isn’t to say that you should unnecessarily air your trauma, especially if you haven’t fully processed it yourself or gotten the necessary emotional distance. But as Almond says, when you’re ready and able to tell your story, it’s an opportunity to feel “unburdened and welcomed.”  It’s also a chance to write the piece you would’ve wanted to read and felt comforted by in your time of need. Even if you’re writing for others, you must always first write for yourself.

What are your “hot spots”?  What would it mean for you to follow the path to truth, knowing that it will run through shame?

The internet jokes about the “mortifying ordeal of being known” or “being perceived.” Yes, both are terrifying. But what is good writing if not a risk?

The Ever Given ship stuck in the Suez Canal being dug out by a small excavator. The excavator is labeled "the urge to write about your life and experiences." The ship is labeled "the mortifying ordeal of being known."

Creative resources

  • Catapult launched an excellent new channel, Don’t Write Alone, dedicated to writing resources like author interviews, craft essays, prompts, and writing/job/residency opportunities.
  • Writer Hannah Bae is covering submission fees for Black writers to Pigeon Pages’ fiction contest which will be judged by C Pam Zhang.
  • A fantastic conversation between Cathy Park Hong and Chanel Miller on making art out of grief: “I am so haunted by that untouched depth. Does it just disappear with them, or can we, as younger people, seek to preserve not just their stories, but the stories of our elders? I think there is a feeling of urgency to do that, confusion about how to do that, sadness if we’re not able to do that.”
  • Electric Literature editor-in-chief Jess Zimmerman and contributing editor Jennifer Baker discuss how to pitch Electric Literature and things to know when proposing nonfiction work to publications. Costs $10 but is extremely worth it if you’re new to freelance writing!

Recent reads & other media

I’ve been on a romance novel kick lately with Julia Quinn’s sixth Bridgerton book, When He Was Wicked, and Sarah MacLean’s excellent Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake. A friend recommended MacLean’s book to me and it’s now one of my favorite regency romances. I also read A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas, which is the fourth book in her extremely propulsive fantasy romance series, A Court of Thorns and Roses.

In workplace comedies, I watched Office Space for the first time and finished Superstore’s last season (and am now rewatching it from the beginning). Bless the Superstore writers for making Jonah a dedicated fan of The Americans.

Nomadland was a subtly devastating depiction of the consequences of the Great Recession on older Americans who are unable to retire, yet takes care to distinguish between being “houseless” and being “homeless.” While I was blown away by Frances McDormand’s performance, I was surprised that the film didn’t delve more into gig work and exploitation. I enjoyed Alison Willmore's profile on Chloé Zhao which explores the director’s career and how she works with nonprofessional actors.

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

What I want to be is mentally stable. A dog ordering at the drive-thru. Simple advice for overthinkers. Nothing ever expires in an immigrant household. POV: you ate an oversalted chip from Chipotle. There was a pole this whole time?!

A Pirates of the Caribbean screenshot with Will and Jack sparring, representing the conflicting desires to blabber about projects in progress vs. keep them mysterious until they're finished