The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Jamie Schaffner on Being Lost

This week, 2011 Emerging Voices Alum Jamie Schaffner reminisces about struggling to find her place in the fellowship. Jamie explains how she found her literary footing with the help of authors Janet Fitch, Bernard Cooper, Dinah Lenney, and vocal coach Dave Thomas.

“From the application to the Final Reading, the Emerging Voices Fellowship wasn’t easy. As a perfectionist with floundering confidence, I did what I always do with the unknown and difficult—gave it everything I had. This, I reasoned, was the only way I wouldn’t get distraught and lost and, in short, be stranded proverbially naked in front of esteemed authors, other fellows, my mentor, and the PEN Center USA staff.  

Every week, I read every sentence in every book selected for the Author Evenings and prepared questions, so that on Mondays I’d be articulate. At the PEN Center USA office, sitting elbow-to-elbow with other fellows at a table chock-full of salami, cheeses, and crackers, we engaged with remarkable authors. I was not articulate. Before our vocal coaching, I read my excerpt out loud incessantly and set a stopwatch to ensure I wouldn’t exceed five minutes. I exceeded five minutes. The master classes, we were told, would be run like the Iowa Workshop. Meaning: don’t speak, don’t explain. Instead, just listen to the critiques. I spoke; I explained.

I was distraught. I was lost. I was naked.

Still, I soaked up the array of writing knowledge, tools, and inspiration. During our evening with Bernard Cooper, he asked about hurdles we had with our work, and, from our brief responses, he offered dead-on advice. “Sometimes you just trip on your end. You’re writing and you realize that’s it,” Cooper said to me. Afterward, I stopped chasing my novel’s ending. Months later, after writing a scene, among the endless scenes in Get the Girl, I reread what I’d written and it hit me—that was the end. Another evening, Janet Fitch inscribed my copy of Painted Black with a nod to a symbol I’d used in my own work. Encouraged, I watched for other symbols that I might deploy in my novel. When I felt claustrophobic writing in first person, I took Dinah Lenney’s suggestion and switched to second. I gained distance, as she’d said, and was able to see what the scene was about, then returned to first person. During the Hammer reading, I did what Dave Thomas, our vocal coach, said to do: nothing. Leave a gap, a silence, at the end of a crucial moment. I stopped reading, gripped the podium, unnerved, and counted to three. The audience grew quiet, waiting on my next word, as Thomas said they would.

For eight months, I read a book a week, attended an Emerging Voices workshop or event at least two times a week, wrote new pages, edited existing scenes and commented on colleagues’ writing. All the while, I was certain the day would come when I wouldn’t get nervous during an Author Evening. Or, before our next public reading, I wouldn’t have to recite my piece out loud while lying curled in the fetal position until leaving for the venue. Or, when the thick manila envelope with my mentor’s comments arrived, I wouldn’t put off opening it.

That day never came.

It’s been three years since I became an Emerging Voices Fellow and still, I’m distraught. I’m lost. I’m naked. I’m writing.”

Jamie Schaffner was born in Los Angeles, raised in Portland, Oregon and has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UC Santa Barbara. She was a 2011 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, a UCLA James Kirkwood Award Finalist and her work appears in the anthology Best Lesbian Romance (Cleis Press, 2011). She is a member of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, and is completing her debut novel Get the Girl. Jamie lives in Los Angeles with her wife and their cats—Lucy, Ethel and Buffy.

Join Jamie at the Meet & Greet on July 20 at 5pm at Skylight Bookstore when current and former Emerging Voices Fellows and mentors answer your questions about the fellowship. For more information, click here.