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Advice for writers

The Inside Scoop on an Outsider Scribe

sorrel guest post

A Guest Post by Blair Sorrel, author of A Schizoid at Smith

Outsider art is created by those who don’t fit it. Or those who choose not to. Being true to one’s spirit brings me to my writer’s dilemma – highfalutin words: love ’em or leave ’em? Scribblers, decide how much of your authentic self you wish to expose, how commercially viable you may or may not be, and what kind of legacy you wish to bestow upon the world.

While there are ebooks that link to the dictionary to expedite matters, the reader shouldn’t have to suffer for your art.

In my memoir, A Schizoid at Smith: How Overparenting Leads to Underachieving, I chose to impart the full monty of my schizoid personality disorder. The warts and all inclusion of the stilted speech flourishes. Yet no one would find this work unintelligible or even intimidating, for most the memoir is highly relatable and absorbing, even, if the reader has never heard of the condition before.

A number have commented on the book’s singularity and some (the eponymous college’s campus paper, The Sophian) suggested that my debut work reinvented the memoir form. Certain books simply don’t have a broad appeal. Author and book marketer Stephanie Chandler commented in a recent webinar that you may consider yourself blessed if you move three hundred. But that’s not cause to shred your manuscript or fling your arms in despair.

The conundrum of finding your muse is that the more you grapple, the more elusive the quest may become. Relax. It’s there. That elusive creature is waiting for you to commit it to pen and paper (an outdated analogy, I admit). You unleash your inner voice – your most candid, natural self – spontaneously when you are most excited relating an anecdote. The words flow effortlessly, simply, and unaffectedly. Your extemporaneous passion transmutes your prose and energizes the reader. You’ve uncapped the most distilled, engrossing version of yourself to impart to others. 

In spite of some predictable flak, Readers’ Favorite lauded my prose as “conversational…stream-of-consciousness” and “injected with humor and wit.” A far cry (literally) from those who denigrated it as too abstruse or with assessments too winceable to recount. 

When I wrote A Schizoid at Smith, I envisioned it as a clinician’s primer so they would be more accepting of the sophisticated language. We all just want to write, but we also want to sell our writing. And here comes the dirty work. 

If you want to make yourself more marketable, write for the reader. As contradictory as it may sound, I did exactly that, as I wanted the public to know what it’s like to be schizoid. A personality disorder is a problem and a pain, so the narrative became a fully immersive and, at times, markedly discomforting experience. Now I find myself suffering for my art. I feel a bit stung when a reviewer doesn’t accept the language as symptomatic and pans it with dismissive snark. I know, I know. Being so different, I should be used to it. And I’m not supposed to care, so go figure. Any writer, no matter the genre, needs a thicker skin, especially when pitching a reviewer like Kirkus.

Consider your topic. Mine was a full disclosure on a rare maladaptation or character disorder. Yours likely isn’t.

Though I wrote very little of length prior to this book, I was a prolific letter-writer, card-sender, and postcard-mailer. My recipients saw my itinerary while I was honing my craft. During my college years and at my most blocked, a blank page was daunting. Gorgeous embossed gift journals languished unopened, pining for prose. Now I don’t think about anything other than what I’m conveying before I fine-tune it for you.

Amy Tan also had an epistolary provenance, but she procrastinates like the rest of us and will busy herself with housework before getting down to business.

So just write and keep writing and your muse will get sculpted into an exquisite creation worth admiring, purchasing, gracing a fan’s bookshelf, and gladdening the hearts of all those who invested in it, recognizing and rewarding your talent.

And as with most matters in life, compare yourself with yourself only. Writing this work was a major achievement for me until someone sniffed, “Only one book?” A litany of heavy hitters were one-trick ponies. That sole tome may be all they had to say and that’s fine. Or being a late bloomer, a people pleaser (a non-schizoid category), or encumbrance stymying your progress. There’s no one-size-fits-all to the literary life or your output.

New York gallerist and the Outsider Art Fair owner, Andrew Edlin, defines outsiders as “making work that is an extension of who they are and what they’ve been through.” Most creators would self-categorize thusly but mavericks will give it a slightly offbeat spin. 

I believe writers become the amalgam of whatever they’ve read in their lifetime. And while I have found beauty in so many highly literate titans, like Michael Chabon in particular, I chafe perusing the Reddit posts comparing his formidable vocabulary to assimilating a “textbook.” Yet he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner among others. 

So who do you want to captivate with your words? Jim Morrison thought of himself as a poet first and a rock star second. When he read his verse at concerts, his fans screamed for “Light My Fire” instead. To quote his rival, Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” Yet he continued to go his own way. KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY (Greek for “follow your own Daimon or god”) is inscribed on the Lizard King’s grave.

A profile in courage? “You are so brave to tell an unvarnished life story. So real. … I’m not secure enough to be so honest. Your work may cause the reader, me, to scrutinize their own life. I think I prefer the ego-driven, invented shiny narrative. But that memoir is a bore,” my high school friend and fan extolled.

Airing my dirty laundry is risky but well worth the overall good it can do. Further, I don’t see a mental health condition as sullied, graying tighty-whiteys. A stain, a splotch that screams for an OxiClean clinic.

Since publication, I have had confessions from landsmen creeping out of the woodwork. A bipolar daughter. A schizophrenic sister. A kind of bonding with another author. I came of age during the popularity of Dr. Thomas Anthony Harris’ bestselling I’m OK – You’re OK. My little opus gave a carte blanche to admitting We’re All Not So OK and that’s OK. And if this memoir is all I ever achieve and helps a multitude, well, that’s mighty OK too.

About the Author

If there’s an afterlife, how ‘bout a better deal?

Blair Sorrel is an open book and a cautionary tale. In spite of her disability, she managed stints as Free Time’s “Dollarwise Dilettante” columnist, Together Dating Service’s matchmaker, and New York Blood Services’ apheresis recruiter.

Blair also worked as the founder of StreetZaps, a stray voltage clearinghouse that the National Electric Code showcased sporadically, Con Edison and the Electric Power and Research Institute respected, Channel 11/WPIX featured, and that former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman made an official public service. She was the first community representative that Con Edison ever invited to their annual Jodie S. Lane Stray Voltage Detection, Mitigation, and Prevention National Conference starting in 2008.

It is said there are born writers. Wet behind the ears left the womb with a greeting card in one diminutive paw and a ballpoint pen in the other, now the big baby strives to enlarge her readership. A scribbler with arrested development and decidedly anti-social, Blair would nonetheless give you the shirt off her back were she not so modest. Her Ladyship remains a true altruist and a lifelong animal lover.

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