“I Hate My Book”: Notes from the Hippocamp Conference

Writers, last month, I got to hear Carmen Maria Machado, author of the short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties and the memoir In the Dream House, deliver the keynote at the Hippocamp Conference on Creative Nonfiction.

She called her talk “I Hate My Book,” and before you ask, yes. Yes, it absolutely lived up to its title.

I can’t send you back in time to sit with me in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to hear the whole thing, so instead, I’ll just share a few of my favorite highlights with you.

While writing In the Dream House, Machado kept a quote from Khalil Gibran on her desk that said, “If your heart is a volcano, how shall you expect flowers to bloom in your hands?”

Until, after a long day of reading about domestic abuse and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and writing about her own experiences with abuse and bigotry, she threw it out.

“Because he was wrong. The fact is people settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary, dense with nutrients from the ash. In this dangerous place, their fruit is sweeter, their crops taller, their flowers more radiant, their yield more bountiful. The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.”

On writing her second book:

“When you are writing your first book, it is so hard to think of what comes next. You spend your whole life saving up a book inside of you, and you write it, and if you’re lucky it gets published, … but then what? You have to then have, god help me, new ideas?! What kind of freaking scam is that?”

On why she hates her book In the Dream House:

“It’s gross to have a book like that inside of you, a knot of pain that’s constantly pulling your skeleton out of alignment.

“I resent the fact that I had to write it because it didn’t exist yet.

“I’m angry that it happened to me, and angry that I revisit these events during writing…and I’m mad that I had to become someone different to understand what happened to me, because to have remained the same would have been a certain death.”

On how talking to teenagers about ghosts pointed her in the right direction:

“I’d often wondered if my ex’s former house’s current tenants ever passed over a space where I’d been crying, and felt it, a cold spot, a twinge of inexplicable sadness.

“I thought about how the Gothic can be conducive to suppressed voices emerging, like in a haunted house. And how at its core the Gothic drama is fundamentally about voiceless things—the dead, the past, the marginalized—gaining voices that cannot be ignored.

This is the way that writing is haunted — the past aggressively asserts itself against the present, grappling for control.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Forgiving Ourselves

Recently, my former student Michael Sadowski spoke to my class about writing his beautiful memoir Men I’ve Never Been, and also about starting over.

After Michael’s book came out, he finished a novel, but his then-agent doesn’t handle novels. And so, he had to start all over again, researching literary agents, composing a query letter, reaching out, and waiting.

Even as a published author, Michael said, it wasn’t easy.

One of the most important things he learned after going through the process twice?

“Forgive yourself,” Michael said. “You learn how to do the query—how to do anything well—over time.”

The very next morning, one of the students who’d been in the class emailed me to say they’d made a mistake with their writing, and they were sure they’d ruined their chances of ever publishing their book. (They hadn’t.)

While many people are their own worst critics, sometimes I think writers take it to a whole other level. We accidentally send an email with a typo, and we convince ourselves we’re now on some secret blacklist of writers who can’t spell. We pitch a story to an editor who says it’s not their kind of thing, and we convince ourselves they’ll delete all future emails from us without reading. In our minds, every misstep is career-ending.

Not only is this kind of thinking unpleasant to live with, and just plain wrong, it can do real damage. Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, says that harsh self-talk can actually make it harder to recover from setbacks—including rejection. Writers looking to publish work need to be persistent and resilient, and our harsh inner critics make that harder.

Self-compassion, Boyes says,  makes us not only more adaptive, but more likely to engage with other writers, where we can find support. It’s an essential skill for writers, to replace the critic with more compassionate self-talk.

What does that sound like? According to Boyes, it’s softening the tone you use with yourself to make it kinder; it’s reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can.

“It’s recognizing that pain is a universal human experience,” she wrote recently. “And it’s taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions that neither suppresses or exaggerates them.”

It takes practice and repetition to tame the harsh inner critic. It’s worth the effort, though, not only because it helps you persist through adversity, and hopefully find a home for your work. Self-compassion can also make you a better writer.

“At a certain point,” said the novelist Angela Flournoy, “you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and … allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Possible Endings

Warning: This letter contains (many!) spoilers of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Have you ever had a story just humming along, when you realize your ending is like a horizon, constantly remaining just out of reach?

My crackpot hypothesis about that is it’s a sign. It’s time to start deciding how the story will end. Not the exact scene or sentence, but thematically, emotionally.

One way out is to just choose three or four possible themes and notes, and then rough them out, and see what happens.

Put another way, try Lord of the Rings-ing it.

If somehow you have not seen Peter Jackson’s 11-hour, three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, the final movie The Return of the King actually ends five—five! — times. Each with its own distinct mood.

Ending No. 1: The survivors of the Fellowship of the Ring reunite in a gauzy, sunlit room, overjoyed to find each other alive. Many stories about war or odysseys end this way, with companions reunited in victory. It’s an ending of elation, and triumph, and it infers (without showing) that the world will heal.

Apparently, inference wasn’t good enough, so onto…

Ending No 2:  Aragorn is crowned king before the Fellowship and a crowd that’s basically the United Nations for Middle Earth. Rose petals cascading around him, he talks of unity, reunites with his beloved, and kneels before the four Hobbits, prompting the entire crowd to do the same. This ending is victory and unity and honor, with a touch of romance.

But wait, there’s more!

Ending No. 3 follows the Hobbits home to the Shire, where they return to their favorite pub, and celebrate Sam-Wise’s wedding, and they realize, everything is restored, and nothing is. This ending gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing the Hobbits safely home, while also acknowledging war changes people.

Which leads us to …

Ending No 4: Four years (!) later, Frodo leaves Middle Earth, heading into the Undying Lands with the Elves, Gandalf, and his uncle Bilbo. “We set out to save the Shire,” he says, “and it has been saved — but not for me.” His Hobbit friends wave and sob as he and Gandalf sail off into a golden sunset. This takes the triumph and homecoming, and makes them bittersweet.

Still, Jackson was not done.

Sam-Wise returns to his wife and children after seeing Frodo off, gazes out at the Shire, and says, “Well, I’m back,” the last line of Tolkien’s novel.

Unless you’re Peter Jackson, you won’t get away writing a story with five endings. Unity and romance? Bittersweet homecoming? Joyful reunion? You will eventually have to choose.

But sometimes the best way to navigate your way to it is to map out several destinations, and point your sail toward the one that feels like home.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty