What is the name of the piece that you have in Grabbed?
“The Opposite of Monsters”
What was the inspiration for your piece? What compelled you to write it?
My piece comes from an experience I had while backpacking in Africa. It’s an experience that I wanted to explore more—to put it in context for myself—and all I needed was a prompt, which this anthology gave me.
What compelled you to submit your work for this anthology? Was it a difficult decision?
I did question whether or not I wanted to submit this work for public consumption. When people hear that I backpacked in Africa, many of them ask an iteration of the following curiosity: Were you safe? Did anything happen to you? I hate that. I hate that because I had a world of experiences that were positive, where I saw the best in humanity, where I grew and learned. But often people want to hear about the bad, the problems—the stories that will affirm their understanding that Africa is a dangerous place to be. So the reluctance to be included in this anthology came from a fear that my story would either affirm negative stereotypes that people hold or that it would fall into some trope of “white girl goes to Africa.”
Why did you choose this particular form or genre for this piece?
Nonfiction prose is my comfort zone. Poetry tends to intimidate me.
Can you speak to the evolution of writing your piece? How long did it take you to write this piece, including revision?
I think I submitted a first draft of the piece to the series editors in August 2018. The draft was about 1,700 words, and I wrote it quickly, in perhaps five or six hours sitting in front of the computer. Of course I’d written much of it before I sat down to the computer. If possible, I like to have a prompt percolate for a while before I get to writing it. So as I’m going about my day—brushing my teeth, taking a shower, riding the subway, eating lunch—I’m thinking about it, writing in my head. And I’d given a lot of thought to this story anyhow, since it happened in 2006. The editors liked my initial draft but asked me to shorten it. So that took time, just as long if not longer than writing it. I asked a friend to read it and make suggestions for what I could cut. That was extremely helpful. From draft to publication, it took over two years. In writing, patience is a great virtue.
As a writer, do you feel obliged to share difficult experiences? Why?
I guess it depends on what I’ve concluded from a difficult experience. I don’t feel the need to write about a difficult experience if it was just plain difficult. If my conclusion was “that sucked big time,” or if catharsis is all I’m going for, a story is probably best to keep to myself, in my journal, or with a confidante. But if I’ve learned something from the experience and feel like all my work to understand what happened and grow from it would be helpful to someone else, then sharing it with others in writing seems like a good thing to do. Or if the difficult thing that happened to me is because of a person who’s still in a position to threaten others, that could be another strong reason to share your story.
What would you say to another writer who has been uncomfortable or silent about their experience? How can they begin to share their experiences?
I would say don’t put any pressure on yourself to share your experience in writing for public consumption. There’s no expiration date on your story. If there are details that you’re worried about forgetting, download your memories onto a computer file, put a date on your notes, and retrieve them if and when you decide you’d like to share.
In my experience, it can also be brutal trying to place a story in a publication. Once, when I was looking to submit a personal essay, I read one editor’s submission guidelines. She wrote, “Here are some other done-to-death tropes that I never want to see again, with a few rare exceptions if you can really turn them upside down and make them new again.” Amongst others, she included: “How a cancer diagnosis changed everything, parenting a sick child, death of a parent, the story of your abortion.” To potentially hear from an editor that the worst thing you’ve ever experienced could be, in her eyes, a trope, is a risk of this craft. Though my topic wasn’t on her list, I didn’t submit my idea to that publication, because I decided my skin wasn’t thick enough yet. I needed more time for my wound to heal.
I’d encourage writers to do the hard, painful, constructive work of processing your experience—get a little distance, get therapy, discover lessons—before putting yourself out there to readers you don’t know. But then again, as I’m writing this, I’m cringing. I’m asking myself: “Why did you give a flying f*** what that editor thought? Why did you let that influence whether or not you shared your story?” So maybe don’t take my advice here. But do be in a place where rejection of or criticism on your story won’t be unmanageable.
How can a publication such as Grabbed help to empower or heal readers?
You can know there are a lot of ways to endure, survive, and triumph over awful things that have happened to you.
Laura Lee Huttenbach, an Atlanta native and a graduate of the University of Virginia, has written for numerous publications and is the author of two books. The Boy is Gone is the oral history of a Kenyan independence leader whom she met while backpacking in Africa. Running with Raven is the story of Robert “Raven” Kraft, a South Beach legend who has run eight miles every day for the past 45 years and inspired more than 3,000 followers to lace up their running shoes and join him. Laura Lee lives in New York City with her husband and young son. To learn more about her work, visit www.LLHuttenbach.com.