By Jen Conley
My world crashed. Between 2008 and 2010, the following things happened in my life: my mom died suddenly, my grandma died suddenly, I became the executor of my grandmother’s estate, and I got divorced.
This was a sad, difficult, grueling time and I thought my heart would never heal.
I stopped writing of course. My focus was my son and my teaching job and my mind. I couldn’t lose track of any of these three because losing one would mean catastrophe for the others. I was also too on edge to deal with any rejection or criticism, something a writer needs to deal with. I wrote the leader of my writing group in NYC, Karen Heuler, and told her I needed to drop out for a while. I felt like I was giving up, not toughing it out, but she wrote me back and told me it was okay to take a break. She said that my mind was processing and not to worry.
“It will come back.”
Her words gave me the strength to let myself off the hook, to deal with my grief, to give myself some room to breathe.
But I was too angry to breathe. Which is something people don’t realize grief does to you—it makes you angry. Sure, the sadness can be profound, but the anger was what surprised me. I was angry that my mother and my grandmother had died within a two-year period, angry that I was getting divorced with a child, that I was depressed and exhausted and could barely sleep. And I was angry at the small stuff. Angry when my local supermarket didn’t have my granola bars. Angry because I couldn’t focus on reading a book. And because the only television show my mind could handle was House Hunters.
I didn’t know what my future looked like. I wasn’t sure I was handling my grandmother’s estate properly. I didn’t have my mom to hang out with and eat coffee cake and drink tea and talk, like we used to—and I was angry about being angry at her for dying.
My friends and sister were great, but they all lived out of state. My dad was supportive but he had just lost his wife of 40 years. So at one point during my grief and anger, being a true old school New Jersey girl, I hauled off and kicked a hole in my bedroom wall. Kicked a hole in my wall! What a cliche. And then I was angry because my foot hurt so badly I was worried I’d broke it–I didn’t–and then I was angry because I had a hole in my wall and no idea how to fix it. How do you fix a hole in the wall?
Eventually, the gods were kind and I met Jay, who is now my fiancé. He noticed the wall and mentioned it to me.
“I was angry,” I said.
A few weeks later, I went to the gym or food shopping or something. When I returned home, Jay was up in my bedroom, patching up the hole. I don’t know how he did it but he managed to make all evidence of my anger-induced meltdown disappear. He even found the paint can stashed away in the closet and painted the patch a pretty periwinkle (a la Friends because parts of my house still resemble a Friends episode).
That gesture did something to my heart and my mind. I don’t want to get heavy handed about metaphors and deep meanings, but every so often, something in life is a metaphor, or a version of it. It was 2011 and time to move on, or at least start to. At this point I was doing okay. I was paying my bills. I still had my job. My son was doing well in school. My former husband and I were co-parenting and getting along. I missed my mother and grandmother terribly, but I began to accept that they were both really gone. I opened my dusty laptop–yes, it really was dusty—and attempted to write again.
I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, since I discovered Judy Blume (she really is my first and probably my strongest influence, and I say that proudly and without irony). I wrote through school and college but stopped in my twenties—life gets in the way sometimes. After my son was born in 2001, I sat down and wrote—and finished—a short story, something I hadn’t done in about ten years. It was a literary story and although I’d always written horror and crime when I was younger, now, after reading a heavy dose of literary stories from the best publications, I thought I should write Literary. I sent it out and it got accepted and published. Then I wrote more literary stuff and sent it out, but it was rejection city.
Year after year after year.
I joined a writing group in New York City, but I still felt that because I hadn’t gone to school for writing, I needed more help. So off I went to a writing conference. It’s true these conferences are excellent places for workshops. You’re being taught by the best of the best and that goes a long way. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend attending one of them. But truthfully, in my experience, I just never seemed to gel at these things, never got comfortable. And they were draining my savings account.
Not to mention that writing conferences can be excruciatingly intimidating, especially when you’re just getting serious about your own writing. They can be filled with very important people, famous writers, up and coming writers who went to the top writing schools, people who get published in the best Literary magazines. And there you are with a few dozen other people sitting on the side, drinking the wine, wondering if it was worth the money to do all this—because most of these conferences are seriously expensive. And I’m not even including airfare. Because, if you’re like me, you start wondering what you could’ve done with all the money you spent. What about those super cool Frye boots you just saw on Zappos? And lord knows you need to get rid of the carpet in the upstairs of your house and put in wood floors. Heck, some of these conferences/airfare combinations can be so expensive, you could buy two pairs of Frye boots and put in wood floors for the same amount. Well, maybe fake wood floors.
But I kept writing, spitting out story after story on my dusty laptop, and the stories weren’t Literary anymore. They were gritty stories, angry stories–crime stories. It appeared I’d found my gig, discovered a way to release all that darkness instead of kicking another hole in the wall.
Those stories went on to be published in Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, and others. I couldn’t write enough. One of my stories was shortlisted for BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES and I was over the moon. It was called “Finn’s Missing Sister,” published by Steve Weddle in Needle: A Magazine of Noir.
In 2012 I decided to jump back into the writing conference circuit but this time I found a much more affordable conference called Bouchercon. And it was being held in Cleveland, an easy and cheap flight from New Jersey. Although I signed up late and had to get a room in a hotel where the conference wasn’t being held, I still met a bunch of people I’d only known online. Everyone was super friendly and down to earth. One of my favorite things about crime fiction writers and Bouchercon itself is that there is a lack of heavy pretention. So you can bring jokes. That people get. Crime writers have a dark, twisted, dry sense gallows humor that is right up my alley. The writers come from all sorts of backgrounds. I met writers with MFAs and writers who hadn’t been to college. The people who ran the conference were extremely friendly and helpful. And I loved how it was also a big reader conference too. It felt like another one of my metaphors—a reminder that whole point of writing is to find the people who love what you have to say. Because that’s who you do if for. Sure you do it for yourself, but it’s more fun when a reader loves it too.
Not to sound too gushy, but Bouchercon has become one of the highlights of my year.
I’ve been to Albany, Raleigh, New Orleans and now Toronto. I’ve met so many writers and no one understands writing like other writers and it’s just fantastic to meet up with them again. I even met Eric Campbell, publisher of Down & Out Books at the Raleigh conference. He went on to publish my first book, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF PINE BARRENS, which is nominated for an Anthony Award this year. I hope to win but, truly, I’m just excited to be nominated. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t regret going to those expensive conferences I attended. I met some great people and I learned so much about the craft of writing from the workshops. And if I was ever asked to go back to those conferences—for free—I would in a heartbeat. But I do love Bouchercon.
Recently I read a review of one of my stories where someone said my writing feels like a memoir. I’ll be honest, at first I was miffed but then I realized that he was right. I do write from my memory. Not that my stories are true, but there’s always a piece of my life, my view of the world in them, even something I might’ve experienced tucked away in them. Jay even once said, “You’re writing is you.” I’m good with that. That’s my style.
And these days I’m so happy that I worry that I might not be able to write the dark stuff. Yet it still comes to me. And it really does warm my heart that my book has been recognized for an award like the Anthony, especially when most of the stories came out of a time period in my life that was so frightening and dark.
I still don’t have those Frye boots or the wood floors in my house, but it’s okay. I’m not broke every year, and I still get to have a great time.
But I’m game if anyone wants to set up a Go Fund Me page for my boots and wood floors.
Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Protectors, Pulp Modern, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. She lives in New Jersey.
To learn more about Conley’s debut collection of short stories, click on the cover below: