Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Monday
Oct132014

"What Is Your Emergency?" Essay Published by New World Writing

I'm pleased to share that my essay "What Is Your Emergency?" has been published by New World Writing as part of a special issue selected and edited by Pia Ehrhardt, author of Famous Fathers.

Here's the essay's opening:

We both saw it coming. How could we not? It's a straight shot from the top of the hill through several intersections to the bottom. The driver must have seen us. Surely she was slowing down. You can't miss a big-ass Buick in the middle of the road unless you're just drunk enough to fail the sobriety test the police will give you....  {keep reading}

The whole essay is short (just over 1,000 words), which I tell you in a blatant attempt to entice you to click over and read it.

Saturday
Oct042014

Dealing with Writer's Doubt (and the If-Then Loop)

There's something just as bad as Writer's Block. In fact, I think it's probably what leads to a lot of cases of being blocked. It's insidious and pervasive, and if you're a writer, you probably know it well. I'm talking about Writer's Doubt.

Let's say that the writing has been hard lately. Say that the doubts about your ability have been boisterous. Say that you've considered giving up this pipe dream of being a writer and buckling down into a more practical field, maybe nursing or dog walking. Say that you feel like a fraud, an imposter, a wannabe.

Say you're stuck in an If-Then Loop:

If I could just take more writing classes....

If I could just get an advanced degree....

If I could just get this story published....

If I could just finish my manuscript....

If I could just get an agent....

If I could just get a publisher....

If I could just get a great review....

If I could just get more publicity....

If I could just figure out what I'm going to write next....

The problem with this If-Then Loop is that the "then" is an empty promise. If this, then what?

We think that if we do or have or achieve something on the list, then writerly fulfillment or fame is just around the corner. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

I've had several conversations lately with various writer friends and clients at various stages of their writing careers. We've talked about facing Writer's Doubt and the ways those doubts chip away at our motiviation and self-assurance. The fascinating thing is that I'm hearing the same kinds things from writers across the experience spectrum, from relative beginners to published authors.

So many of us, no matter where we are on this spectrum, keep thinking that the writing will get easier, or that the rewards will somehow increase if we can just close the gap between if and then, between here and there.

But we're all coming up for air a bit bedraggled with the realiztion that there is no "there" there.

You can't get there from here becuase there is nowhere to get to. 

Here's the best advice I have for both myself and others right now:

I hope you'll work through or just leave behind those doubts you've been feeling. I say "leave behind," as though I know how to do that myself. Let's be honest: Doubt is part of the creative process. Hell, it's part of life, I suppose.

We doubt and worry about the things we care about. Maybe those don't ever really go away, even after we've been practicing our craft for a long time, even after we've seen our own progress and celebrated some successes. But I think we can learn to acknowledge that the doubts are there and then keep on truckin'.

I think that being a writer (or any kind of creator) means that we're always chasing a moving target. The target is somewhere across that gap between our creative taste and our creative abilities that Ira Glass talks about.

As we practice writing, we do narrow the gap, but then the target (which is called how-good-we-want-to-be) moves, so that we never close the gap for long. This can be a source of great frustration, or it can become a source of comfort for us. Maybe we can find a way to use it to stay enthusiastic and in love with our craft. Maybe we can use it to quiet the voices of Writer's Doubt.

Here's the thing: If the gap never really closes, then we're never really failing.

We're just always on the creative journey. We're doing our work, we're diving deeper, taking creative chances, putting in the time to learn and bloom. We keep following the star or ember or distant shimmer that we're always chasing, and we writing it down as best we can in that moment. We keep doing it, we keep doing it, we keep doing it. Doubts and all.

So, you ask: If this, then what?

I don't know. But if not this, then what else?

Wednesday
Sep102014

Relearning What's Possible (Roller Derby Makes Me Brave #9)

credit: www.photosbytabi.com

It's been nearly a year since I wrote an installment in the Roller Derby Makes Me Brave series. (You can read and comment on the original blog posts here, or you can read the saga straight through here.) Last fall I prepared an onstage story about roller derby to share at the Soulsisters Conference in Portland, Oregon. I wish I had a video of me telling that story, but alas, I didn't think to record it. Instead, I present a written version of it here.

** ** **

When I saw my first roller derby bout, I had no idea what was happening.

This was in the spring of 2010, and the movie "Whip It" had come out the year before. I hadn't seen the movie yet, but it had put the concept of roller derby in the periphery of my consciousness. The sport seemed funky and interesting, so when I discovered that there was a derby league in Pittsburgh, about an hour from my house, I decided to check it out.

Derby isn't the easiest sport to follow the first time you see it. Teams play offense and defense at the same time, and things move fast. So I had no idea what was going on during that bout, but I was fascinated. Here were these grown women on old school roller skates, wearing all sorts of protective gear – helmets, mouthguards, knee and elbow pads, wristguards – all skating around in a pack, shouting at each other and knocking each other down. It was crazy. The women had skater names such as Hurricane Heather and S'not Rocket Science. There were women of all shapes and sizes: tall and willowy, short and curvy. Women who were built like brick houses or more like pixies. Women with athletic bodies and others with bellies and booties that resembled my own well-rounded assets. But all of them were so confident, so fierce, so athletic.

I was so quiet while taking all of this that my husband turned to me at one point and asked, "Are you bored?"

"No," I said.

I paused for a moment and then said, very quietly, "I'm going to do this some day."

As soon as I heard those words leave my mouth, they felt equal parts impossible and undeniable. Impossible because I hadn't roller skated in 20 years. I was out of shape, had never played a sport, hated to sweat, and was supremely uncomfortable doing physical activity in front of people. Just the idea of going to the gym had been known to give me panic attacks. I didn't even like to go to the local walking track. But I couldn't deny that I'd said it – and that I'd meant it.

So when I tell you that I had no idea what was going on during that first bout, I mean it in several ways.

Consciously, I was trying to wrap my head around the rules of the game. But on a deeper level, my whole concept of who I was and what was possible was being dismantled and rearranged.

Fast forward two years to the spring of 2012. By this time, I'd seen the movie "Whip It" (which is, in hindsight, not the most accurate depiction of the sport), and had attended just one more bout. I did briefly consider trying to join that league in Pittsburgh, but they practiced and played more than hour from my house, and I wasn't willing to commit to that kind of commute just yet. Besides, I was 36 years old, out of shape, had weak ankles, and, let's face it: Who was I kidding? I wasn't the roller derby type.

But then I saw a flyer at my local coffee shop, announcing that roller derby was coming to my neck of the woods. A new league was forming a few towns over from me, and they were recruiting skaters of all skill levels – including my particular level of no skill whatsoever.

I tore off one of the flyer's little strips with contact info. I emailed for details. And then I waited two more months before getting on skates. All during those two months, I kept telling people that I was going to try roller derby. I kept saying it until I finally realized that I either had to stop saying it or ante up and do it.

First I tried skating on my own in a pair of rental skates and with no protective gear. This landed me a bruised or broken tailbone. After letting that heal for a few weeks, I was finally ready to attend my first official practice. It was the day after April Fool's Day, which struck me as fitting. This whole idea of me playing roller derby seemed like a weird practical joke I was playing on myself. Everyone else had trouble believing it, too. In fact, when I told my own mother, a supportive and kind woman, that I was going to a roller derby practice, she asked, "To watch?"

I said, "No, I'm going to try to play."

And my mother – my sweet, kind, and supportive mother – laughed.

"Oh, okay!" she said. "Right!"

She truly thought I was joking. And here's the thing: I wasn't even offended. I knew how absurd it sounded coming from me. I laughed, too.

But I went to that first practice. And then I went to another and another. I surprised myself and kept going. I went when I was scared (which was most of the time), when I was tired, when I was convinced people would laugh at me behind my back. I learned how to be in my body. I learned how to skate. I learned how to sweat. I learned how to fall down and how to get back up again. The first time I skated in a practice bout I had no idea what was going on. But over the past two years I've learned the rules of the game. I've learned how to pretend that I'm fierce and confident, even when I'm terrified. I've learned the magic of practice. I've learned what's possible.

Fast forward another two years to 2014: I put on my old school roller skates, my helmet, my knee-pads. I put on my team shirt with my derby name on the back (Punchberry Jam) and I skate around in a pack. I shout to my teammates. I use my body (and my booty) to block opposing skaters. I knock people down. I fall, and I get back up again.

Now, when I tell people that I play roller derby, many of them laugh and say that I can't believe it. I just smile and say "Neither can I."

Friday
Aug292014

"True Names" Essay Named Finalist for Prime Number Magazine Contest

I am thrilled to have been a finalist for Prime Number Magazine's Creative Nonfiction contest for my essay "True Names." Eight finalists were chosen from 56 entries, with the three winners being chosen by author Ned Stuckey-French. (I'm happy to say that my friend and grad school colleague Laurie Easter won third prize.)

I'm still looking for a home (read: publication) for my essay, so I can't share the whole thing here, but I thought I'd give you glimpse of it. (Such a tease, I know.)

This essay is part of my manuscript-in-progress, a collection of linked essays called For All We Learned, The Sea, which explores landscape, belief, and the longing for home and belonging in all its many forms.

Here's the beginning of "True Names":

Etch-a-Sketch, Baja, Echo. The tour guide on the whale watching boat knows these humpbacks by name. She recognizes them by their tail markings, the designs they were born with and the wounds they've sustained since then. She announces each whale as it levers its broad tail out of the water like the dark wings of an enormous seagull. To my eyes, this display is an anonymous flash of rubbery black and white on the sun-dazzled water, but our guide assures us that unique patterns decorate each one, the whale tail equivalent of human fingerprints.

My husband and I are on a whale watching tour boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 115 feet long, the Hurricane II is billed as “the largest and fastest Massachusetts whale watching vessel north of Boston.” From that description I assume this is a boat of substantial size, but I don't know much about such things. For all of my trips to the seashore and my love of the coast, this is the first time I've left land for open water. Taking this tour was the one thing that James insisted we do on our vacation. His eagerness surprised me, he who cannot swim and generally avoids being in water above his knees. But the idea of whales had caught his fancy, and now they've caught mine.
    
"Look for a fluorescent green glow in the water," the guide says as the whales come closer. This is the telltale sign that a whale glides near the surface, the white patches of its skin reflecting back the otherwise invisible green of microscopic phytoplankton. I stare into the water alongside the boat, skeptical that I'll be able to differentiate between normal ocean-green and this special whale-green. But then the water looks like a neon lamp has lit it up from below, and sure enough, I spy a pectoral fin beneath the glow. This first sighting fills me with hope; I may not be able to name the whales, but I can spot them.

** ** **

I hope you'll be able read the whole essay somewhere in the near future!

Tuesday
Aug262014

Lunch and Heartbreak

Hi.

Remember when blogging first became a craze and everyone was doing it and everyone was reading everyone else and there was no Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which cheese/shoe/fictional character you were? There was only your "feed reader" with dozens (or hundreds) of blogs that you tried to check every week. And we were all writing (and reading) about each others' lunch and heartbreak.

I say "everyone," but blogging was still new enough that it wasn't the pervasive thing it is now, and to be a "blogger" was still an interesting or odd or embarrassing or empowering label. Remember that? 

It's not that I'm not feeling particularly nostalgic about those times, I was just thinking about how blogging used to feel both more intense (higher quantities) and less intense (lower stakes). Nowadays, for me, at least, blogging often feels too cumbersome and heavy. I'm a creative writer, so I want the stories I tell here to be good. I'm a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, so I want the posts to be engaging and useful. There's a lot of pressure to write something interesting and sharable. Showing up just to say "hi" and tell you what I had for lunch or what's breaking my heart these days doesn't seem like enough.

But sometimes, lunch and heartbreak are what's on my mind. Sometimes, I don't want to blog so I can tell you a great story or teach you something. Sometimes I just want to say: "Hi. For lunch today I had last night's leftovers: gluten-free pasta with homemade roasted tomato sauce; grilled chicken topped with basil, prosciutto, and provolone; and sauteed kale, because I do love kale, which has nothing to do with its hipster popularity, I just like it."

And I want to say: "Hi. My heart has been breaking lately from all the usual suspects big and small: war, racism, death, lost friendships, people's lack of clean water, disease, economics, misunderstandings. Sometimes I have to sit outside and stare at the green trees to remember that I'm mostly fine and that I need to stop sweating the small stuff all the damn time because it's draining and pointless to sweat the small stuff when the big stuff is also chipping away at your joy. Does it really matter if my neighbors shake their heads at the weeds-as-tall-as-me that are growing in the front of my house? Should I really be fretting over how much I didn't accomplish today? Does it do me any good to feel anxious most of the time because apparently I've developed a sort of anxious auto-pilot that constantly runs in the background? The answer to all of these questions is 'No.' There's enough true heartbreak to go around without all of these little ones piling up in the corners of our psyches."

I'm not saying that blogging was better before. I'm not even pining for the days of lunch and heartbreak posts. I just wanted to say "hi," and to remind myself that not all online interactions have to be well-crafted essays or meaningful sales pitches or pithy status updates.

Sometimes, you just want to connect. Sometimes, you just want to say: I ate this. I'm worried about this. I'll be okay, and I hope you will be, too.