A Barrelhouse Interview with BETH JUNOT
In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, writer Michelle Junot, author of the memoir "Notes from My Phone," provides the answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published piece was a cheery personal essay titled “Obituaries.”
The segmented essay starts with my first memory in life, the funeral of my grandfather. From there, the essay starts to pile bodies on top the reader, presenting memory after memory of the moment I learned of someone’s death. As I get older, my reactions to the news become somewhat odder, highlighting my struggle to make sense of the world around me.
(Or at least, I should say, that was the goal.)
Who published it? Are they still around?
“Obituaries” was published by Welter, University of Baltimore’s Literary Journal. Welter is still around, rocking the worlds of first-time student-editors and designers.
Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.
I was 22 and in my first year of graduate school (feeling like I was in way over my head) when “Obituaries” was published. While it’s true that I’ve been a writer since I could press a black crayon to a freshly painted, white wall (to the horror of my parents), this essay was one of the first pieces I ever wrote with any concept of craft.
This was my first submission and acceptance, so I don’t have a glamourous or inspiring rejection story for this particular essay. (Don’t be jealous though, because this created a naïve “if I submit, they will accept” attitude that ultimately led to a confusing “what is happening” season shortly thereafter.)
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
Again, I was so naïve going into grad school that I really didn’t have enough time to put all my hopes into being “accepted and published” when I submitted this essay. I was told to submit something—I only had two, maybe three pieces I considered readable—and I submitted. I hadn’t yet considered the world of rejection; I just wanted to write.
Still, when I found out the piece would be published, I had a brief moment of pride: I am a real writer! I’m doing this! Other people think it’s okay that I call myself a writer!
That moment, however, was followed by horror. I realized almost immediately that I hadn’t changed a single name in the essay—and I named a lot of people. They hadn’t asked me to write about them and most didn’t know I wrote...what was my responsibility in that?
Every young memoirist faces this moment of course, so this wasn’t unique panic. It sticks out because this was my moment of realization: I am a real writer. I am doing this. Do other people—the people I love—really think it’s okay that I call myself a writer?
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I reread “Obituaries” this week and was a bit taken back. I’d actually forgotten some of the details of the death notifications—where I was, who I was with, my first thoughts. It’s as if the act of writing and publishing the essay gave my memory permission to forget.
Reading it this week, I was brought back to the heartache of those moments, to a younger version of me. My simple way of trying to understand the world is even reflected in a simple fact-telling writing style I’ve largely left behind. I’d of course love to edit the dialogue, play with the pacing, and craft the arc a bit more, but the loss of innocence and struggle with death written plainly on the page makes my heart hurt. If only for that reason, I still consider this a success.
This was my first vulnerable piece, and that’s the only reason I write memoir: to invite the reader into something real. I might not have been an exceptionally skilled writer at 21, but this essay tells me I was a writer nonetheless.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I would advise my younger self to try to be both less arrogant and less self-conscious as a writer (and as a person). Both errs lead to an unhealthy obsession with rejection. You can’t write anything worth reading if you’re constantly worried about failing.
When I was a dancer, I struggled with a “stage presence.” I’m introverted and shy, and I hate being on any level of display—a perfect candidate for performance and memoir! My teacher told me to pretend I was my favorite dancer. “Who do you really admire? How do you think you would dance if you were her?” I pictured a peer of mine—a beautiful girl with a dazzling smile and skill that put the rest of us to shame. If I was her, I’d have nothing to fear. If I was her, I could dance knowing people were awed by me. If I was her, I could enjoy dancing on stage and never think twice about missing a step. I’d own the stage.
For four to six minutes at a time, I was able to dance pretending that I was already all the things I longed to be. It allowed me to stop focusing, just for a few minutes, on all the ways I wasn’t enough. It let me get out of my own way. Writing is like that, too.
Want to be a better writer? Pretend you’re already a better writer. A much better writer. A writer who takes risks. A writer with an agent or a book deal or whatever it is you think makes a better writer.
Write like that writer would, at least for four to six minutes at a time.
Michelle Junot is the author Notes From My Phone* a self-portrait in her twenties, and of and the floor was always lava, a collection of essays exploring childhood and memory. Her writing has been published in BmoreArt, Welter, Industry Night, The Avenue, Reject, and Baltimore STYLE.