By Spencer Lee and Jeff Bernstein
When it comes to writing and surfing, Mark Lukach likes to go way out there, beyond most people’s comfort zone, to a place of profound depth. His fearlessness and willingness to expose his most vulnerable moments has landed his essays in top publications like The New York Times and Pacific Standard Magazine and garnered him a book deal (a memoir which will be published by Harper Wave in 2017). Mark has also written articles and interviews for The Atlantic, Wired, The Awl, among others.
Lucky for us, Mark will be teaching a one-night personal essay class in San Francisco on Sept. 29 and a five-week personal essay class starting October 13. This class has helped 76 students publish and get paid for their work in publications such as Self, Marie Claire, LA Times, Salon, Spirit Magazine, and New York Magazine. Let Mark help you be published student number 77!
In the meantime, we were fortunate enough to get an exclusive interview with Mark, who took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his work, creative process, and some hard-fought lessons he’s learned over the years.
1. How did you break into the writing world?
My big break came when I submitted an essay to the Modern Love column of the New York Times, and Dan Jones accepted it. I was in the early stages of working on a memoir about my wife Giulia’s bipolar disorder and the role that I played as her caregiver. A friend recommended that I pitch an essay to Modern Love, and we both fully expected rejection. I had a half dozen other places in mind that I would pitch it to after I got the rejection letter.
But then, Dan emailed, he said he was interested, and the essay was published on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, 2011. That changed everything. As another writer friend of mine puts it, there aren’t too many words that are as powerful as “The New York Times.”
2. When and how did you decide that you needed to tell your stories to a audience physical audience as opposed to just keeping it on the page?
Each night during my wife’s first hospitalization, and her lengthy suicidal depression that followed, I wrote sprawling, multi-hour-long emails to my parents. Her meds knocked her out early, and so by 7pm I was alone on the couch each night, with nothing to do but try and make sense of what the hell was unfolding around me. Writing these emails helped to make a sense of things; if I could explain the day to my parents, then I could explain it to myself.
The writing was undeniably therapeutic, but I also felt an itch to share my ideas with others. Of the many feelings I had to contend with, the loneliness was the worst one. I felt like no one else on earth was going through what I was experiencing, even though that was obviously not true. However, I couldn’t find any books to read that might help explain my situation to myself. There were a few books about parents caring for kids with mental illnesses, but the dynamic between parent and child is much different than that between spouse and spouse. So when Giulia got better, I decided to write, mostly to her, so that she understood my experience. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to share it with more people than just Giulia, because I believed in the potential to help those who might be in similar situations–not necessarily with the mechanics of their situation, but at least to alleviate the loneliness.
As for writing and public speaking, I’ve always enjoyed audio and spoken format. I’ve been a podcast addict for almost a decade, well before podcasts were even remotely “cool” like they are now. I had long dreamed of sharing a story on The Moth, and so after the success of the Modern Love story, I figured I’d pitch to them as well, and it worked out. That led to speaking at a TEDx conference, and I’ve also spoken at fundraisers for mental health organizations.
3. Was it uncomfortable at first to reveal personal information in your writing and storytelling? How do you balance the needs of the story with privacy of the people in your life that you write about?
The real question of discomfort should be for my wife, Giulia. I share a lot of details about myself, but the really personal information is about her, and her unraveling sanity. This is something we’ve talked about a lot, and continue to talk about. There are certainly moments where she wishes that all of this information wasn’t public…that when you google search her name, or my name, it doesn’t trigger pages of links to stories about psychosis and suicide.
Credit: Swell Lines Magazine
However, those moments of self-consciousness are brief, and are secondary to the moments when she feels proud to be an outspoken advocate for mental health. As I alluded to earlier, one of the compounding tragedies of mental illness is that the stigma attached to it can force people to suffer alone, which feels to me like unnecessary salt in the wounds. Giulia was helped in her own personal recovery by people who had the courage to share their story with her, and I know that she has helped others by sharing her own, and allowing me to share it as well.
But I also remember us taking a deep breath when we heard that the New York Times was actually going to publish an intensely personal story about us. It felt like we were standing at the edge of a chilly lake in the mountain, and even though we wanted to jump in and swim, we knew it would be a bit of a shock. And it certainly was a shock. Neither of us anticipated the reaction that our story has gotten. I haven’t published anything about it in about 9 months, and I still get several emails a week from readers who found it, and connected to it.
4. How can students take things that are very specific to their own lives and turn them into stories that are relatable to a wide audience and have broad appeal?
This is the ultimate question of the art form, and I want to channel an editor I’ve worked with. Whenever I was writing a story, he’d ask me “what’s it about?” And I’d give a quick plot synposis, and he’d interrupt and say, “no, what it really about?” As in, what is the deep, primordial wisdom that your story is about? If you can tap into that and explain it in a way that is evocative, then you’re going to reach a lot of people.
I write about being married to a spouse with a mental illness. She’s been hospitalized three times, and in each instance, our life has been completely derailed. There are certainly a lot of people who can relate to the specifics of this story. But I know that our story isn’t really about mental health. It’s about commitment, sacrifice, and patience. These are ideas that everyone can relate to. And I don’t think writers should get too hung up on being “new” when it comes to underlying wisdom. The deeper, older, and more ancient, the more people it will resonate with. Focus the newness in how you invite them into an exploration of the old truth that you want to share.
5. You’ve also written articles and interviews for magazines like The Atlantic and Wired. Do you find that it’s easier to write about those topics? Do they present their own challenges?
Of course, there are pro’s and con’s. To me, the best writing I do is when it’s an authentic expression of my heart and soul. As such, I find that my personal writing tends to be my strongest because it doesn’t get more authentic than that.
However, personal writing is an exhausting endeavor. I find that it’s hard to write for more than a few hours at a time, because I otherwise drown in the intensity of all of these old emotions rising back to the surface. Writing about outside topics allows a certain degree of distance that can make it much less of a draining experience.
6. What are some of the differences in writing a personal essay and crafting a story meant to be performed live?
One of the best editors I’ve ever worked with encouraged me to read everything that I write aloud, and that if it didn’t sound correct, then it wasn’t correct. I love that advice, and think that it appropriately blurs the lines between writing and performed essays.
This being said, the stuff I write about tends to be heavy, and a bit of a downer. Audiences show up hoping to be entertained, and not just beaten down into the ground. When it’s a long essay, or even a book-length work, you have more time to develop the darker emotions and let them linger. But for an audience, I think that touches of humor and light are all the more important, because they give the audience a chance to breath and relax for a minute without losing your momentum.
7. What separates a good personal essay from a great one? Where do you think newer writers go astray when tackling this medium?
This is a difficult question, and the best I can do is parrot the many helpful editors who have help to craft my own essay writing. I think that the best essays are narrowly about a single moment, or idea, or emotion. Personal essay writers can sometimes feel the urge to cram everything–all the details, all the feelings, all the anecdotes–into a single essay, which can make them messy and overwhelming for readers. Readers don’t need to understand everything when they read your essay, which is hard for a writer to let go of. The first draft of my memoir was a total drag–so detail oriented, overly meticulous, way too many asides that I thought were important but were just asides. It took me a few years away from the writing project to go back and work on it again, and realize that I had lost the important essence amidst a lot of distracting chatter. I think that personal essays, while obviously much more brief than a full memoir, can often fall into that same trap.
8. What can students expect to learn in your class?
Students will learn the importance of being authentic and vulnerable. There is so much phony crap out there that is meant to have a short shelf-life. Yes, we all need distracting entertainment, but if you’re going to tell your life’s story, you don’t want it to be interpreted as a meaningless distraction. So first and foremost, we’ll focus on the importance of authenticity.
In addition to this, we’ll talk about the importance of mentors and coaches. I think we all harbor the hope that we are the untapped great writer of our generations, and that we don’t need much editing, but that’s not true for a lot of us. I had to put my ego aside and learn to trust the editors who have helped me along the way, which I think is essential for growth.
Beyond these two mindsets, both of which revolve around ego, we’re going to talk a lot about the best way to structure a personal story: how to hook an audience without giving away too much, and gain their trust right off the bat. You’re writing about yourself, but you’re not writing just for yourself. We’ll cover the relationship with audience a fair amount as well.
As for the rest, I don’t want to give away too much, but other than a promise to try my best to help you craft a personal essay that you are proud of and are fired up to share with others.
9. You’re also an avid surfer. Where do you surf and does how you approach to surfing have anything in common with your creative process?
It’s funny you mention surfing: after our son was born three years ago, we moved away from our house in the Outer Sunset, which was only a few blocks from the beach, to the hot, hilly town of Martinez, in the East Bay. As such, my surf time has plummeted. I used to surf all the time when we lived in the Outer Sunset. However, I’ve taken on a new hobby, which I consider equally for my writing, which is trail running, and I’ve fallen head-over-heels for it.
In both pursuits–trailing running and surfing–I’m pushing myself physically, to give my brain a bit of a rest from the strain I put it under in working on personal writing. I’m also out in nature, and tapping into the benefits of adrenaline and endorphins. But even though I’m away from my desk, I’m often very much wrapped up in my writing. Since I can’t type any notes while I’m paddling for a wave or lumbering up a steep hill, my thinking is more ethereal, less structured, less judgmental, and more creative. I come up with a lot of great ideas while I’m in the water or on the trails, but I also come up with a lot of bad ideas. The main point is that I’m coming up with ideas, and I know that I’ll be able to sort them all out later when I’m back at my computer.
10. You’re currently working on a memoir “Where the road meets the sun.” What can you tell us about this project? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced going from personal essay to a long-form piece?
After the New York Times printed my Modern Love story, I hooked up with an agent and we tried to get a book deal. It didn’t work out. Re-reading the draft a few years later, I understood why. The book was lost in details. Then, a few years later, Pacific Standard published a longer essay that developed new themes around caregiving, and that piece had some nice viral success…which led to finding another agent, and this time a successful book deal. I’m set to turn in my rough draft of my manuscript in September of 2016 to my publisher Harper Wave, and they are anticipating a publication in the spring of 2017. I’m incredibly excited.
The biggest challenge that I’ve noticed in going from essay writing to book-length writing is the importance of having a roadmap. I just kind of improvised with my first draft, without any real sense of a plan. There was so much to say, and I figured that if I said it all, it would somehow make sense. I was dead wrong. In an essay, the challenge is to keep it narrow so that it packs as potent of a punch as you can. But with a longer piece, you need to know when to push on the gas pedal hard, when to coast, and when to pump the brakes, so that you create a pacing that works for your reader. While this is important in a 1,500 word piece as well, it’s much, much, much harder to pull off for a 70,000 word book.
Thanks Mark! You can learn even more from Mark by taking his one day personal essay class on Sept. 29 or his five-week personal essay class starting October 13.