By Marco Moreno Flores and Jeff Bernstein
Jaimal Yogis’ first book, a best-selling coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha, was praised by The Times of London, Publishers Weekly, and selected as one of E!’s Best Summer Reads. It has been translated into numerous languages. A feature documentary film based on the book will premier in 2016.
Jaimal’s second book, The Fear Project, was widely praised, translated in numerous languages, and is currently being used in a number of high schools as a way of teaching neuroscience and psychology.
Currently, Jaimal is in development for his first feature screenplay and working on a new non-fiction novel for Harper Collins.
Jaimal took a moment out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about the craft of memoir writing and his writing career. Learn more from Jaimal in his upcoming 4-week Memoir Bootcamp class starting Sunday, Jan. 31 at Writing Pad San Francisco.
1. If I want to write a memoir, how should I start figuring out what kind of story to tell? How do I know if there is a market or audience for the stories I have to tell?
There definitely are people out there who have amazing stories – someone who’s a war hero, for example – or someone who rose up from poverty and became a billionaire, and that’s an interesting story for sure, but people are also interested in the everyday and the mundane. Each time you break through a little fear inside yourself, or an insecurity, or you have an insight about what you should be doing in your relationships, those are heroic battles inside yourself. And those heroic battles are often more interesting than the gun battle in Fallujah, if they’re written honestly, with compassion and humor.
Never say I’m just a schoolteacher or I’m just a divorced parent or everyone has written a book about having a stroke or getting laid off or whatever. Everything has been done, but your creativity is like your thumbprint. No one has it except for you, and your story will add to humanity’s collective wisdom.
In Saltwater Buddha, I had some luck in that I’d written an article about surfing: how it was a contemplative practice for me, not just a sport.
The article buzzed around the internet, and I got some feedback on the persona I put forth in the article. I was already thinking about writing a book about it, and a publisher called me because I said in my bio in the magazine that I wanted to write a book about Zen and surfing. Zen was already a big part of my life – I lived in a Buddhist monastery, and I had been surfing. But there we 18 other things that were big parts of my life, but I decided that I had this book deal and I was going to follow wherever Zen and surfing and ocean and meditation crossed paths, that this was the story I would follow.
Think of your persona in a memoir as a container or a bottle. In each piece, you “bottle” yourself in a certain way. As long as you’re telling the bottled version of yourself as honestly as you can, you can always bottle it differently the next time. Your readers will let you do that.
3. Tell me some more about the magazine article you wrote. How did that essay grow into your memoir?
The article I wrote was only 1000 words. I took one idea, and that was the idea that our true nature – one’s Buddha nature – is like the ocean, and all of our thoughts and ideas and identities are like passing waves. There’s an idea in popular meditation that the purpose is to get past the waves, to get to the placid lake. But when you study Zen, the masters keep coming back to the idea that the rough seas and the storms are part of your nature too, and the enlightened mind recognizes that there will always be changes in your temperament. It’s all water – it’s all the same stuff.
I experience this every time I surf. I have this macro experience, through surfing, of something that is often made into a metaphor in Zen. The essay was very short. Once I saw that this simple personal experience was attractive to readers, I decided that I wanted to show readers what this learning process was like for me.
4. When I think of a story of enlightenment, I think of Hesse’s Siddhartha. Did you have a specific model in mind when you wrote your memoir?
Yes, definitely. I did think of Siddhartha when I was writing Saltwater Buddha. It was the one book I took with me when I ran away from home in high school, so I went back to that book that struck a chord with the masses but also retells the Buddha story in novel format. That was an ancient epic, sort of like Homer’s Odyssey, so I wondered how I could tell that story in novel format. You have to be very careful who you decide to take as your leader as you’re writing. I first took Anne Lamott.
This is a woman who wrote great novels, and then murder mysteries, and eventually became an alchoholic. Then when she quit drinking, joined joined a gospel church, and now writes about her own spirituality. But it’s a quirky liberal Christian spirituality, and she’s hilarious. She does something totally unique, and I thought that this is more or less what I want to capture. She is an easy writer to pigeonhole: woman quits drinking and finds Jesus. Then you read the story and it’s not that at all: she’s just herself. This is a voice I can follow, the writing is great – it’s simply and funny. And I continue to use her as a guide.
Then I went and found surf writers, like Daniel Duane, who is here in San Francisco and wrote Caught Inside, and Stephen Kotler, who wrote West of Jesus – their books were doing well at the time. They didn’t have quite the voice I was trying to capture, but they wrote great books. They captured the feeling of surfing. I combined what I learned from their books with Anne Lamott and Siddhartha, and I tried to make they guiding lights. I didn’t want the models to take over my book.
5. So with your new memoir, are your going through this process all over again, finding a new version of yourself? New inspirations? What’s that like?
With Saltwater Buddha, I went through the process of finding a container for myself that was honest and real. I had what I thought was horrible fortune at the time, which is that I tried to write a novel and couldn’t finish it. I was frustrated, and I said that I wanted to live off my writing and I needed to write a book that I could get an advance for. I wanted a package that would sell – and that was the fear project: a project about neuroscience and psychology. In writing that, even though I liked the book, I felt that I didn’t find quite the right container for myself. Even when I published it, the voice didn’t feel quite right.
It was a good experience, because when I got started with my third book, I was able to look at both of my previous books and ask myself what I did in Saltwater Buddha that allowed me to find that authentic persona. I realized that it came from looking at myself in the third person and realizing that I’m a bumbling fool. I’ve made a hundred mistakes and yet if I were talking to someone who had made all the mistakes I had made I would want to give them a chance – I wouldn’t think of that person as a total idiot that I shouldn’t listen to. Saltwater Buddha was more honest – in that book I was spiritually vulnerable, psychologically vulnerable, so I said okay, I’m going to do that in this third book because it felt right.
But it is ten years later now. Hopefully my voice is more mature, but it still has to get to this essence, this compassionate vulnerability, to allow myself to bleed onto the page and say hey, this is okay, this is true – and if, on my death bed, I can say that whether or now by my book made any money, I told my truth, which means more than making money and telling a half truth. Those two things – the idea of seeing myself in the third person and this question of whether on my death bed I can still say that I wrote an honest book – push me to keep it real in this next book. And I think I’ve done that. Hopefully my publisher will agree.
6. How did you come to writing? Was this something that came later to you, or did you write as a teenager when you were surfing? Did you keep a journal? How did you evolve as a writer?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. Reading and writing came naturally to me as a kid – I wrote stories about animals and stuff – and my teachers would say I had no trouble writing a lot, but I didn’t see myself as a writer. I did like Kerouac and the other Beats in high school. But I was interested in everything and wasn’t especially interested in writing. My sister was studying English and was the poet in the family. I was in a Buddhist monastery before college, thinking I was going to be a monk.
Then I went to college thinking I was going to be a marine biologist before deciding to major in religion – and when I got out of college I wondered what I was going to do with all of this experience. Get a Ph.D? Go back to being a monk? I started a journalism program at Columbia, which was a dual master’s program in religion and journalism. I thought I would be able to travel and do cool stuff – like Sebastian Junger out in the jungle, with a little Indiana Jones mixed in. I was 25, and I was insecure about my writing. I thought everyone at the school was going to be a better writer than me. It turned out that I was just fine. I could put one word after another just like everyone else, and that was when I realized that I was good at structuring stories. I wasn’t as good as some others at the investigative research part of journalism, but once I had the material I could write a good story. That was when the lightbulb went off.
I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and I realized that being a writer was a way of seeing the world. You can be interested in everything, like I’ve always been. I didn’t think I would write books until I was older – I thought I would be in the magazine journalism world for a long time. But then I wrote that piece about surfing and meditation. I almost didn’t write it, because it felt too vulnerable, like I was giving away too much. My career changed direction as a result.
7. Do you have a standard creative process that you use to approach each project? Is there some process that’s classically you, that you use to approach any project at all – article or memoir?
I think in terms of movie scenes. I will always go and close my eyes and picture the movie. This helps me find my central scenes. I want to hang everything around a moment, and I see the characters and the lights and the director. I want emotion to lead, and film is the genre that cracks at your heart. I find the scenes, and then I dangle the characters off of them. This is what makes a good magazine piece. I also am really good at taking breaks. I write and write, and then I need to find something to do – running or surfing or meditation, something nonverbal – that gives me space from my writing. If I don’t get this space, I feel like I’m in a bad relationship. I start fighting with my pages. I’ve also been doing some screenwriting, and I follow this process for these projects too.
8. On that note, are you working on a documentary as well?
Jamail: Yeah. Right when Saltwater Buddha came out, a pair of national geographic divers said they wanted to make a film about it and I sort of rolled my eyes. But I was excited and over the course of five years we pieced together some funding and went to Hawaii and New York, and all these other places where the book takes place, and we did this sort of retelling of the book as a doc. It’s done now, we’re submitting it to a couple of film festivals. It’s been an interesting ride and a good way to learn about grassroots film making—and fun to see your words live in a different way. It’s going to be out sometime in the next year.
9. So, how do you even go about starting to adapt the memoir to a film or a documentary?
This process was so unique, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Saltwater Buddha is the kind of book that if it was going to be a film, should have been a feature film. But we didn’t have money for if that so what could we do? We thought: We don’t want to make surf porn, because I’m not that great of a surfer. What if we capture the essential spirit of the book and retell some of the stories? And that’s what we did.
To be honest, it was frustrating having to do that because we didn’t have a script, we were just winging it. A lot of the editing came after we shot about two terabytes of footage and had all these interviews with different people and with me, and then realized, somehow this has to get whittled down. In the end we were happy, but it would have been better if we had written a script and then shot that script.
It was a good lesson. I was going along with these film makers who had done it before. I mean, a good way to make a doc is just shoot the heck out of it and then see what you have. Anyway, we’re happy with the way it came out, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It took 6 years, but it’s been fun. It’s nice to say we finished a film, because so many people never do.
10. So what’s coming up for you next, for your third memoir?
I’m turning it in and then we’ll go through the editing process. I have a really great editor, Cary Brunell, at Harper. That’s another thing about pitching that is like matching. She’s an editor who works on amazing books, but she’s also a water person, so we connect on both the soul level and on the narrative level. There are people out there who will match with you—you don’t believe it, but they’re out there. I can’t believe I found her.
So to bring that in, I’m working on another doc with a filmmaker based on a story I did in Afar magazine, about the first female Muslim surf star in Bangladesh. She rose from the most severe poverty you can imagine, to being one of the best surfers in the country. Her struggle is incredible and we’ve shot the whole doc. This was one where we really did have to shoot it all, just terabytes of footage, and now they’re editing it. I’m a producer, overseeing it a bit.
Thanks Jamail! That was very inspiring. If you want to learn how to write a stellar memoir like Jamail has, sign up for his 4 week memoir class starting Jan. 31, and you could have your memoir in Oprah’s book club in no time.
by Chelsea Fernando and Marco Moreno Flores
Christopher Noxon is one of those rare artists who has done it all. He’s a writer, journalist and illustrator. He published a well-regarded novel Plus One and nonfiction book Rejuvenile which received praise from Ira Glass. His essays and articles have appeared in the most prestigious outlets including The New Yorker, Details, New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and Salon. We caught up with polymath himself in DTLA. The result: an interview with essayist and illustrator Christopher Noxon to enlight and delight.
Christopher is bringing the art of Illustrated Journaling to the Pad, an inspirational new medium that uses words and pictures to document your world and develop your creative life. He used this technique to write his new novel Plus One. In his one-day Illustrated Journaling workshop on Saturday, October 3 in LA, he will step you through fun writing/doodling exercises and share the work of illustrated journalists like Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane. By the end of the class, you will have started your first journal and have several entries to boot! Also, he is teaching a five week humorous personal essay class where he will help you find the funny in your life’s most harrowing moments. This class has helped 77 students sell essays. You should be next. It starts this Wed. 9/30 and is almost sold out!
Christopher talked with us about what exactly makes a good story, how to turn sad into funny, and what storytelling means to him.
1. Aside from the obvious, what do you think makes for a good humorous personal essay? From your perspective, how does it differ structurally from a traditional personal essay? What drew you to this type of writing?
Humor is an attitude — it’s an instinct more than an objective. Trying to be “humorous” is like trying to be “cool” — the effort often kills the thing you’re trying to achieve. THAT SAID, there are obviously things you can do to cultivate the funny. The big one is to relax. Too often people approach the capital-E Essay as a Thing I Shall Now Proclaim. Step off the soap box. Cultivate self-deprecation. Humiliation, embarrassment, shame — these are hilarious emotions! (At least they are when they’re *yours*). There’s a reason why people love hearing your most embarrassing moment. Spill it, baby. We all want to laugh with you. Also, believable dialogue, careful use of detail and a masterly use of the language — those are really important too.
2. You’ve done hard news and investigative journalism, such as your feature for Playboy about living as a patient with recovering addicts, or your report for The New York Times Magazine about Mel Gibson’s ties to an ultraconservative Catholic splinter group. However, you also write fun culture pieces, such as a story you wrote for the New York Times that inspired your nonfiction book Rejuvenile. How do you shift between styles? Is there a common thread in your voice that is shared by both types of writing?
I’m pretty ADD when it comes to writing. I’ve done daily journalism, theater reviews, long narrative nonfiction, comic sociology, screenwriting, and semi-autobiographical fiction. Most recently I’m trying to write and draw a graphic memoir. I honestly don’t give a lot of conscious thought to changing styles. Each new thing has really been about the topic and story I want to tell (or someone offering to pay me to write something). I sometimes think I’d be better off if I stuck to one style for a while and got really good at it, but then a new story comes along and it leads me down a new road…
3. You and the protagonist of your novel Plus One are both men whose wives are successful television writers; your essays have also talked about marriage and parenthood. What are some of the challenges of using real-life material in your writing and have you found any hard and fast principles to navigate what can often be a slippery slope when trying to write the best story and yet preserving our personal relationships?
I’m not one of those writers who Writes My Truth, Bystanders Be Damned. I believe in the essayist’s Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. On the other hand, I recognize that most great writing grows out of tricky, juicy, deeply personal material. So, how do I strike the balance? In general, I write what I hope is a fearless first draft, getting down all the potentially damaging stuff and letting it all hang out. As Stephen King says, I write my first draft with the door closed. Then I edit with the door open, thinking of all the other eyes that will be on the story.
If I’ve written something explicitly about another person (like, say, my wife), I’ll share that piece with them before showing it to anyone and give them an opportunity to respond. With my book Plus One, which dealt with a marriage that looks a lot like my own, I gave my wife the chance to cut anything she found intrusive or private or whatever — no questions asked, if she wanted a line out, it was out. Happily, she had no edits. She did worry that even though nothing in the book literally happened as described, readers would assume that the book was all true. In the end, however, she came to appreciate that I took true-life elements and used them to make fiction, much like she adapted the memoir “Orange is the New Black” into the fictional TV series.
4. How do you, a busy husband and father, find time in your day to write? What does your daily writing practice look like? Do you have a special place that you write and do you have any special rituals that help you get into a productive head-space?
With three school-age kids and a wife who often works long hours, I’m a between-dropoff-and-pickup writer, starting at 8:30 and finishing before 2 for bus pickup. I write all over LA, in coffee shops and restaurants and libraries – anywhere but home (where I’m often interrupted by dogs, deliveries or the telephone). I love the ornate Mediterranean reading rooms at the Pasadena Central Library and the sunny modern stacks at the West Hollywood Library and have even written sitting on park benches and in my car while waiting for pickup at school.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, journalists and essayists in particular?
Keep plugging away. It really is a lot like exercise — you’ve got to keep up a regular practice to get the benefits. It helps to have a group of fellow writers to share your work with. Join or form a writers group where you give each other deadlines. Read voraciously. Get to know a particular magazine or newspaper or website where you want to contribute top-to-bottom, then pitch them like crazy. Stay off the Internet while writing — download the Internet-blocking software Freedom. Take my class!
I tried keeping a journal for years, lugging around little pocket-sized Moleskines and big sketchbooks, usually filling the first few pages with to-do lists and gripes before ditching it on my bedside. Then I happened to pick up a 5.5″ x 8.25″ hardbound, landscape-oriented journal with heavyweight drawing paper. It changed everything.
Always a doodler, I started drawing obsessively. I filled the book with sketches, bits of dialogue, travel tips, recipes, dreams, phone numbers — anything and everything. I rediscovered the power of writing first drafts in longhand — you get better, more intimate and powerful stuff when you’re writing in ink on paper, without the safety net-corrective function of the “delete” button. In fact, most of my novel “Plus One” grew out of stuff I’d written in my journal (including the illustrations!). I soon learned about the practice of Illustrated Journaling (everything is now A Thing). Now when I go out I take my wallet, keys, phone and journal.
7. What is the relationship between your fiction and non-fiction work? Does one inform the other?
I wasn’t one of those writers who dreamed of someday writing the Great American Novel. I just knew the particular story I wanted to tell — about male househusbands and female breadwinners — was a novel I’d want to read. So rather naively, I said hey, I’ll do that. I figured, how different can it be? Answer: entirely. I may as well have been a cobbler for all the necessary skills I had to write a novel. Of course, to write anything long and lasting you need to first of all keep your butt in the chair and ignore the Internet and your children and the insistent never-ending desire to right now at this very moment get up and eat a cookie. Everything else about the process was new.
The big difference, one that took way too long to recognize but which landed like lightening when I finally did, was the importance of emotion. I had initially outlined my novel as a series of events – this thing happens, which leads to this thing happening, which eventually leads to a big climax. Only after a few months of churning out surface-y, mostly lifeless prose did I realize that the fiction I love most isn’t built around plot. What happens in the story matters, but what gives it life and energy and propulsion is how people feel.
It wasn’t enough for me to outline a series of what TV writers call story beats – I had to dig deeply into how my characters felt and allow those emotions to drive what they did and how they behaved. I had to replace storybeats with what I now –embarrassingly – call emobeats. In the end, the process of writing fiction called on more of me – my head, heart, guts – than anything I’d done before. Writing a novel is part meditation, part performance, part puzzle. Now that I’ve written one I’m just as excited and intimidated by the form as ever.
8. What can students expect to learn in your Humorous Personal Essay and Creative Journaling classes at Writing Pad?
I’ll talk about story ideas and structure and the mechanics of rewriting and editing. We’ll do some fun exercises together. If you’re in the journaling class, we’ll draw and doodle. I’m told there will be snacks. So there’s that. All in all, we’ll have a great time and get your creative energies flowing…
Thank you so much of taking time out to talk with us, Christopher!
Don’t forget to sign up for his one-day Illustrated Journaling Workshop on Saturday, October 3 in San Francisco and his 5 week humorous essay course on Wed., Sept. 30, where by the end of class, you’ll have a kick-ass essay that is ready to be submitted for publication and a plan of where to submit it. And check out his his latest book Plus One which has received great reviews in everything from the New York Times Sunday Book Review to Elle and the Hollywood Reporter.
Arree Chung is an award-winning writer, illustrator and overall cool guy. After a tour of duty at Pixar, he broke out on his own and now has an award-winning series, Ninja! that received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, has been named one of Amazon’s best books for 2014 and one of NPR’s best children’s books of 2014. He also has book deals for four more picture books! He also founded Live in a Story, a company that transforms walls with wall decals and canvas prints from picture books.
Lucky for us, he will be teaching some picture book classes at Writing Pad. In his one day workshop, you will do hands on creative exercises and leave with the seeds of your first children’s picture book. By the end of his five-week class, you will have completed a draft of a stellar children’s book and even have the chance to test it out on a small audience of kids at a reading at Writing Pad!
We were fortunate enough to get an exclusive interview with Arree, where he discusses how he got started as an author, where he gets his ideas, and some tips for picture book authors who want to get published. Find his book here: Ninja!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Who are you reading at the moment?
I grew up in the Bay Area, I studied Economics at UC Davis and developed my artistic skills at Art Center. For hobbies, I love sports, theater, movies and of course, books!
I just finished This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It’s beautiful.
2. How did you know you wanted to write children’s books? Do they have their own pros and cons as opposed to writing for adults?
I never thought about writing children’s books until I went to art school in my mid twenties. I had a keen interest in picture books because I love storytelling and picture making. When I took Steven Turk’s Picture book class, I fell in love with the genre.
As for pros and cons, I think they are just really different. When writing for kids, you need to tap into that inner child and write age appropriate material without being condescending. You have a different set of tools and challenges. You can use pictures to tell your story but also need to keep in mind a shorter word count. In those ways, making stories for children can be different but the overall principles of good storytelling are the same.
At Pixar, I saw first hand how great stories were made. The crew at Pixar work relentlessly on story. They keep at it and make many drafts of the story. Seeing the creative process at Pixar first hand helped me understand the importance of process. I also observed their design process when it came to the visuals. Again, everything was crafted around the story.
4. Where/how do you find your inspiration for books like Ninja!?
The idea for Ninja was found in an old sketchbook from Art School. I had scribbled, “Brian isn’t a kid, he’s a Ninja.” Many years later, I found that small idea and made it into Ninja! Who would have ever thought that little idea would be my first book!
I get ideas all of the time- usually when I’m traveling or in the early morning but you never really know when your muse is going to visit. That’s why I always keep paper and pens nearby. Hanging out with kids is another great way to come up ideas for stories.
5. Do you find that it simplifies the process to be the writer and illustrator?
Absolutely! I find it’s a more fluid process. Sometimes I start with pictures and sometimes I write just words but usually I work with the words and pictures together. You don’t need to be a great artist however to make a dummy. Working on a dummy will help you think about how to tell your story visually. Don’t worry if you can’t draw well. In the class, I’ll show you how to make a dummy even if you have limited drawing ability.
Read lots. Work on improving your craft consistently.
When I first started making picture books an editor advised me to visit the bookstore each week and read 10 books. It was great advice and I made it a weekly practice for years. I saw what was selling in the marketplace and noticed how the writing was crafted. To improve, I started transcribing the manuscripts, noting where the page turns were. This was a huge breakthrough for my understanding of how picture books are made.
7. What are the most common mistakes made by newbie children’s book writers?
The most common mistake I see is preachy storytelling. Newbies often want their book to have a moral or to “help kids” in some manner but it ends up making for a preachy story. Nobody really likes to be preached to. Rather, people love stories that they can relate to or stories that capture their imaginations.
A few other common mistakes are bad page turns and lengthy word counts.
8. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process. Do you find the story first and then develop the characters or is it the opposite. Do you have a special you go to write? What is it like?
My creative process is pretty fluid in the beginning. It’s all about getting the idea down on paper. It can be doodles or words. It’s usually both on loose pieces of paper that I organize into folders.
From there, I work on getting my ideas into a dummy. Working in a dummy format as early as possible is important because you’ll start to work with the limitations of the book format. You’ll consider trim size, page turns and layout of pictures and words. For this stage, I use Genius Scan (mobile app) to make pdfs quickly and InDesign to layout my own dummies.
9. What are students going to learn in your picture book class?
Students will learn my process for making a picture book dummy. They’ll learn some useful exercises in coming up with an idea as well as practical techniques in making a dummy. Most importantly, they’ll learn how to revise and work quickly so they can further develop their stories.
10. What tools do you use in developing your imagery?
At first it’s just pen, paper, scissors and tape. That’s all you need to make a dummy and to develop your ideas. After you have your story locked in, I use art materials such as gauche, watercolor and color pencils to visually develop the art style for the story. In the later stages of making the book, I use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to design and refine the artwork.
11. How do you channel your inner kid?
I try to approach the world with the same curiosity and excitement that kids do. Be open to possibilities and wonder. Asking the question, “what if” to yourself is a great way to tap into that inner kid. And nothing beats hanging out and playing with kids.
Thanks, Arree. That was fascinating. Don’t miss your chance to study with Arree! His one day workshop and five-week picture book class start soon and are almost full.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jill Vice is a woman on a simple mission — to push her limits as a performer and hone her ability to faithfully channel characters as different from her as possible, a skill she honed in her Best of the SF Fringe solo show “Tipped & Tipsy” that is currently touring the U.S. and Canada to sold out audiences and garnering rave reviews. “Tipped & Tipsy” has been called “The most hilarious solo slo-mo bar brawl ever seen” by the San Francisco Chronicle. The Bay Guardian says, “Without set or costume changes, Vice proves a protean physical performer, seamlessly inhabiting the oddball outcasts. . . With strong writing and acting at its core, Tipsy breezes by, leaving a superlative buzz,” and the Huffington Post says, “Jill Vice takes on the physical and vocal characteristics of her clientele at Happy’s Bar in an impressive array of body language and vocal talent. Vice’s performance is robust, her material well written, and her characters quite memorable.”
Jill’s secret to success as a performer is her broad training. While she began her career studying performance art at the San Francisco Art Institute with Tony Labat, she moved on to Clowning at the Circus Center Theater before moving to A.C.T. where she cut her teeth in classical performance. Lucky for us, Jill will be teaching a One-Person Show class at Writing Pad San Francisco this October.
Jill was kind enough to take some time out of her busy tour schedule to answer some questions (from Victoria, BC, no less):
1. What inspired you to become an actress and how did you make the transition to a career in performance?
I have always been an artist, but up until I left for college at the San Francisco Art Institute, I only did 2D art; collages, paintings, drawings primarily. When I was in art school, I started seeing a therapist (depression sometimes comes with the territory of being an artist). He would always say the same thing to me as he sat across from me listening to my stories. “Jill, put down the paint brush. You are a performer. You are meant for the stage.” After a couple of years resisting, I began taking acting classes.
2. How did you first get into solo performance? Can you tell us about your first solo show?
I got sick of auditioning for the roles that fit “my look.” I didn’t just want to play the edgy white girl. I wanted to play gritty, ugly people. I wanted to play men and the underdogs of society. And that meant I’d just have to write and cast myself. So I did.
My first show was about my experience in high school when I talked my little sister into shoplifting with me and we went to jail. I told it as a film noir. I was hooked.
3. How do you prepare for a role? Do you research the role or have a special method for understanding the character you are portraying?
My preparation for each role is as unique as the role itself. I often start from the outside in. What do they look like? How do they carry themselves? What are they most proud of? How do they walk? What Hollywood actor would I cast in the role? How do they talk? Oftentimes, finding the voice can really carry my imagination into a character’s being.
4. You have extensive training in various forms of performance, such as clown, mime, and film. Where do you get your ideas for your shows, and how do you decide what genre you want them to be?
My shows come directly from my life experience. I personally can only write about things I know intimately. That being said, my work is fiction. As I’m writing it, I don’t know what’s going to happen next until it happens. My current show, “Tipped & Tipsy” takes place in a local bar with a group of male regulars and the bar owner. After bartending for 15 years, I had a lot of experience to draw from.
I am a huge fan of genre. I tend to approach my work cinematically. I think in camera angles and “special effects” and I use “mime” to bring my audience on board with me. Oftentimes after a show, an audience member will tell me they loved the backflip I did or the costume for one of my characters. I use no props or costumes and I am not an acrobat. It was their imagination. That is the magic of theater.
5. Your award-winning solo show, “Tipped & Tipsy,” chronicles your experience working as a bartender. What is your personal writing process like, and how does it change when you collaborate with other writers and directors?
While my medium of choice is solo, I would argue that in my case (& countless others) the word “solo” only applies to how many people ultimately end up on stage and not to how many people it took to get there. While my solo work is technically written by me, it is a very collaborative process. I need accountability when I write, so I work with a small team. I will do some writing and then bring it to them for feedback and back and forth until it is “done.”
There is a musicality to all of my work. My pieces have a lot of sound cues that really carry them. Just as good music has peaks and valleys, timing is hugely important in theater. It keeps your audience awake on their journey. Touring with the band was a lot of fun. It taught me one of the most important lessons of my performing career. Fake it till you make it.
7. What advice would you give to actors who are just starting out?
VOLUME! If nothing else, just speak louder. You’ll be amazed at how far it can carry you.
8. What can students look forward to learning in your solo show class?
Solo Performance is a medium that has no limits. Students will learn to drop into the moment of their stories, the difference between the writer’s work and the performer’s work, embodying characters, and connecting with the audience.
Thanks, Jill. That was fascinating!
Don’t miss your chance to study with Jill!! By the end of class, you’ll finish a draft or partial draft of your solo show and perform a piece of it in a theater. Sign up for her one-person show class before it’s full!