Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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"Playing in the Shadows" (Essay published in Mabel Magazine)

"Roller derby has taught me to be in my body without shame and to use it as a powerful force. I've learned that "athlete" and "artist" are not antithetical terms. I’ve learned to be brave and to take pride in bruises. I've learned how to fall down and how to get back up (every damn time). I've learned to recognize my limitations, and to push against them with determination instead of desperation.

"But mostly, I've learned the power of practice and play—on the track as a skater, on the page as a writer, and in my everyday life."

(excerpt from my essay "Playing in the Shadows," Mabel Magazine No. 2 "Own It")

I'm so pleased to have an essay in the latest issue of Mabel Magazine, a lovely print publication that is all about "making a living and creating a life." The theme for the second issue is "Owning It." My essay "Playing in the Shadows" explores how learning to own my identity as a roller derby player has helped me to stay committed to my work as a writer and creative entrepreneur.

Thank you to Stefanie Renée and Liz Kalloch, the co-founders and co-creators of Mabel, for including me in this issue. And a special thank you to Tabitha Bowman for the great photos she took for the article.

This issue features work by musician Jonatha Brooke, writer and teacher Laurie Wagner, artist Jennette Nielsen, and many more colorful, creative, and courageous women. You can order a copy of Mabel Magazine here.

(If you're interested in reading my other roller derby essays, check out my ongoing series, Roller Derby Makes Me Brave.) 


Can You Hear Your Creative Fear?

I stopped hearing my creative fear.

I don't mean that I've stopped listening to it or being manipulated by it.

I mean that I stopped being aware of its existence and power.

I've been suspended in a fear-coma without even knowing it.

This week, I woke up.

I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pittsburgh on Monday. At the start of the evening, she announced that she'd be talking about creativity and courage, which, honestly, wasn't a topic I thought I really needed to hear about. Don't get me wrong: I was excited to hear Gilbert speak and interested in the topic in a general way, but I didn't feel as though I needed a pep talk about being brave in my creative work.

Who's afraid of writing and has two thumbs?
Not this girl!

Gilbert talked about how our fears constantly shout at us, trying to keep us from doing things that might result in us getting hurt or being disappointed. Fear keeps us from creating by threatening us with impending humiliation. Fear makes us perfectionists. But, Gilbert reminded us, "done is better than perfect."

I have many issues surrounding my writing, issues that keep me from being as prolific as I'd like to be, but I don't identify "fear" as one of them. My problem is more one of motivation or clarity or project management or lack of tenacity. I put things off. I sit on ideas (for essays, for books, for entrepreneurial projects) for months -- even years -- at a time. I cringingly admit that without an external deadline, I have problems with procrastination and lack of follow-through. On the other hand, I'm also known to do quality, timely work for my clients or when I have a specific writing assignment. So what's the disconnect? What lurks beneath these issues that I have when it comes to self-directed creative work?

After Gilbert's talk, I had a niggling sense that maybe it's actually just plain old dumb fear.

I say "dumb" fear, meaning stupid fear, but now I'm thinking that the other definition of "dumb" might be more appropriate. Dumb: lacking the power of speech.

I'm having an epiphany over here.

Let me back up and tell you how Gilbert deals with the fear that shows up for her at the beginning of each new creative venture.

She said that each new project is like a road trip for her, and that she has two constant companions on such trips: Fear and Creativity. They all pile into a minivan, but before they start out, she has a conversation with Fear that goes something like this:

Hi, Fear. Welcome. I know you're going to be joining Creativity and me on this trip because you always do. And I know you believe that you have a very important job to do: to scream things at me such as "No! Don't do that! Watch out! Be careful!" And may I say that you do your job superbly! But I have a job to do, too, which is to stay focused and to work. Creativity will be doing her job, as well, which is to stay interested and excited about things. So we'll all be on this trip doing our jobs. And you, Fear, don't get to have a say in where we go or how we get there. You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. You don't get to touch the radio, you don't get to choose the snacks, and you sure as hell don't get to drive.

I thought about this and wondered: Is Fear shouting at me all the time?

I listened, but I didn't hear anything. And the silence was troubling.

Somewhere along the way, my Fear has stopped yelling. It's stopped yelling because it doesn't have to yell anymore to keep me in line. It's gone quiet because it has done such an effective job of screaming in the past that now all it has to do is sit in the backseat of the minivan and hum softly. It can even stay completely silent and simply raise an eyebrow at me when I glance in the rearview mirror.

My Fear has done its job so well that I no longer even notice it. Or if I do notice it, I identify it as something else: laziness, confusion, lack of skill, fatigue, boredom, procrastination, anything but Fear itself.

What a sneaky bastard!

As of this moment, I'm demanding that Fear show up as itself from now on. No more masquerading as something else. Fear thinks too highly of itself. Fear believes that it has special knowledge and insight. Fear believes it can drive around me and Creativity. Not so fast there, Fear! You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. And you sure as hell don't get to silently, stealthily put us on autopilot.

I'm giving Fear back its voice.

If Fear wants to have an opinion, it's going to have to state its case clearly. I don't really want Fear's blathering to cause a racket in my head, but I can't allow it to be a silent dictator anymore. If Fear is forced to speak up, at least I'll be able to recognize it for what it is and deal with it directly.

I am beginning to see my perceived issues (laziness, confusion, bad time management) for what they really are: Fear of not creating something perfect. Those perceived issues feel like personal failings, like character flaws. But Fear feels like an external force working upon me. This is radical: Maybe I don't have to fix a slew of personal shortcomings in order to be more prolific and productive. Maybe I just have to hand Fear a bottle of Coke and bag of Cheddar Combos and tell it to let me know when it needs a bathroom break at the nearest rest stop.

And make sure you speak up so I can hear you this time, Fear.

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"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.


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 motivation 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 realization that there is no "there" there.

You can't get there from here because 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?

I can't cure your writer's doubt for you, but I can show you ways to move through it to the other side.

I offer mentoring, coaching, feedback, and editing services for beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers.

If you'd like some support for your writing life and creative work,I'd love to talk with you about scheduling a single writing mentoring session or customizing an ongoing writing apprenticeship for you. Interested in learning more? Please get in touch with me.


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."