Monday, October 20, 2014

My Super Star - Chelsey Drysdale on Shawna Kenney

Shawna Kenney (left) and Chelsey Drysdale (me!) in San Francisco before our Book Lovers reading in Oakland

My 2013 New Year’s resolution was to start writing again. I’d taken a number of online classes before, but I hadn’t written a word in two years; my latest workshop had deflated me. There I felt judged on my character rather than my work. I was labeled based on one essay about one incident. The responses drove me into hiding.

I’m not good enough. This is as far as I’m going to get, I thought.

But when I’m not writing, my soul suffers.

So, after a two-year ego-healing break, I decided to try again. This time I wasn’t going to hide behind the Internet. I wanted face-to-face interaction with other writers.
I found Shawna Kenney’s UCLA Extension “Writing the Personal Essay” course online. When I read her bio, I thought, “She’s my kind of people.” It wasn’t the success of her memoir I was a Teenage Dominatrix or the “award-winning” accolade in her title; nor was it the numerous literary journal publishing credits that reeled me in (although, that didn't hurt). It was the way she presented her approach to teaching. I knew she was going to be positive, practical, and nurturing.

I wasn’t wrong. In her ten-week class I handed out the same essay that incited the negativity that caused me to quit writing in the first place. I wasn’t giving up on it. It’s a story of forbidden sex, desperation, and death. It is not a flattering portrait of me, but it’s true and doesn’t represent all that I am. I knew it was a story I needed to tell.

Handing out 20 hard copies, I was terrified. My hands shook. But Shawna had already created a safe space for her students to be themselves and put forth their best work without judgment. I had hope.

At this point, I still didn’t call myself a “writer,” just “someone who writes.” My first in-person workshop changed that. Shawna and my fellow writing students spent an hour discussing the merits of my work, providing constructive observations that would help me make the piece better. I have since revised the essay multiple times and am in the process of sending it out for publication.

After my first time in the hot seat at UCLA, I was eager to submit more material.

I learned to love and eagerly anticipate Shawna’s feedback. She wrote, “You have such a natural writing voice,” and, “You make yourself vulnerable on the page.” She called my first workshop essay “a post-modern romantic tragedy.”

Words like “publish this!” and “I could see something like this in The Believer!” sustained me when I read her feedback. She asked the right questions: “What does this narrator want more than anything?” and she never questioned my ability to succeed in the future: “I look forward to reading another adventure in dating written in this voice!”

After previous writing classes, I’d have the best intentions, but then I’d stop writing when I wasn’t held accountable because of a debilitating fear of failure. I’m still afraid, but I move through the fear as a result of the bravery I see in Shawna.

In 2013 and 2014, I continued to “ride the Shawna train,” I joked, and took three more eight-week workshops, as well as an online writing prompt class. In fall 2013, I submitted an essay for an anthology Shawna then published with Seal Press, Book Lovers. I was accepted. I never would have written the essay if she hadn’t asked me, “Are you going to submit something for my book?” It was a particularly difficult essay to write, and the first one I published in print.

Because of Shawna’s insights and guidance, I now call myself a writer without wincing. I tell strangers I meet, “I wrote a collection of essays,” because I did. It was an arduous task I always thought unattainable; now I have 105,000 new words because she gave me the freedom to write them. She propped me up and pushed me forward.

She also arranged for public readings. I’ve now read in public six times—a seventh next month—four times to promote my story in her anthology. I was afraid for people to read my work before I met her. Now I love to hear people’s reactions live when I’m in front of a microphone. I have a newfound confidence I couldn’t have imagined two years ago.

As a writer pre-Shawna, I was paralyzed by perfectionism. My editing background made it impossible for me to get words on a page without trying to fix them right away, always worried about the finished product. I now follow her example and write everything down as-is because I know I can fix it later.

I’m “doing the work,” she says. When I’m writing, I hear her liberating words: “It’s just a draft.” Plus, I’m no longer afraid to edit as I go when I feel compelled because that’s my process, not the wrong one.

Her can-do, carefree attitude is matched by her intelligence and her own ability to craft. “There’s a reason she’s the teacher,” one of my classmate’s—and now good friend—said after reading Shawna’s anthology introduction.

Shawna published a piece in xoJane’s “Unpopular Opinion,” an essay she called “very unpopular” on Twitter. It was well written. Of the hundreds of comments posted under the piece, many were downright cruel. Instead of discouraging me from publishing, this only gave me more resolve.

I’ll never please everyone, I thought. If Shawna can have the courage to take this verbal backlash, so can I.

She calls us her “supah stahhhs” and her “lovelies.” At the end of a long weekend in San Francisco, after two terrific readings and Q & As, we hugged on the street and cried, and she said I was “the female Davy Rothbart.” I’ll take it.

I know now that if I don’t ever publish the book I’ve been writing in my head for 41 years—the same one I’m now painstakingly editing on paper—it will be because I choose not to, not because I can’t. Because of Shawna, I’m tackling my passion with “all [my] Chelsey vigor.” She’s my super star, my lovely, my editor, and friend. Today I thank her on the page.

Note: Here’s Shawna’s latest published essay about her time as a building manager in Hollywood for your reading pleasure:

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