[Editor’s note: Amy M. Miller was a finalist in the first HippoCamp conference scholarship contest, which included an essay prompt of ‘writing lessons learned.’ Hippocampus is publishing the winning and two runner-up essays in this, the previous, and next issue.]
Most of my literary influences didn’t sound a thing like me. Virginia Woolf compulsively detailed upper crust London; David Sedaris laughed about his dysfunctional family; Mary Karr conquered an abusive childhood; and Audre Lorde defied bigotry with a warrior pen. In contrast, I grew up Jewish, middle class, southern, and assimilated. I never experienced bigotry, nor suffered clinical depression. My neurotic tendencies earned a solid average in the DSMIV.
Then along came Marion Winik. I discovered Winik’s essay collection Telling in my twenties. At the time, I wrote short fiction, an occasional poem, and regularly scrawled in my bulging journals. Winik, a southern, ambivalent Jew like me, was a confessional essayist. These were the first personal narratives I had read that shared foibles, humiliations, and spit takes, begging readers to laugh along. For instance, in her essay “How Do I Look?” Winik ticks off the reasons for her terrible body image:
It was a long time ago. I was a tiny girl, no, I was never a tiny girl, I was a blobby girl, or, as I often thought to myself, just a blob . . . I was all wrong, I was not right, I was ashamed. Did I say a long time ago, I meant last week.”
Winik’s self-deprecating confessions are funny, poignant. She explains that the need to tell is driven by the promise of “at the very least, a bond between the teller and the tellee. At best, the big stuff: amnesty, redemption, grace.” As a seasoned writer, Winik shares her confessions as a means to relate and connect.
Reading Winik helped me stop ruminating alone; I started to share. At age thirty-seven, I published my first essay, a chronicle of a miscarriage. My second essay was published the following year in a women’s creative nonfiction magazine. But like Winik, I now lean more towards humorous self-disclosure because I can’t take myself — my problems, my children, my allergies, my life — seriously. With Winik I recognized a kindred literary spirit. Even when I wrote about more solemn matters — my mother’s battle with cancer, my loss of faith — I couldn’t help but make a joke at my own expense. I like to think it’s my inner Marion Winik.
In 2006, I attended a reading by Winik at the local Jewish Community Center. I was seven months pregnant and trying to keep my two-year-old daughter occupied when Winik walked over to me to chat, mother to mother. She towered over me with her mane of dark hair. I worried that my daughter might disrupt her, but she told me she was glad we had come. In true Marion Winik fashion, I felt the need to confess my abiding love of her first book of essays and as she listened, she inscribed the weathered copy of this same book: “Live to Tell. Tell to Live.”