Hot on the heels of Jon Paul Roberts winning the inaugural Spread the Word Life Writing Prize 2017 for his ‘memoir-in-essay’ ‘1955 – 2012’, he shares his inspirations, his top tips for fellow life writers, his memoir-in-essays project and much more…
Congratulations! How does it feel to have won the Life Writing Prize?
It feels really crazy. I don’t think it’ll settle in for some time still. At risk of outing myself as some oddball dream believer, I had two dreams the week I was expecting to hear back. In the first, I got an email that said I was on the long list and in the second I got an email about being on the short list, so as corny as it sounds I didn’t even dream I’d win. It really is mad. As it happens, I spend a lot of my time watching Oscar acceptance speeches on YouTube when I’m trying to avoid writing, so I know it can be quite annoying when someone keeps saying they truly didn’t expect it, but I actually didn’t. It’s so thrilling and such an honour to have won. I really am over the moon.
Can you tell us a little about your winning piece, ‘1955 – 2012’, how you came to write it, what the challenges were in writing it and why you chose to enter it into the Prize?
Originally, I was writing a piece about my childhood obsession with Mark Paul Gosselaar who played Zack on Saved by the Bell and that essay still exists in a different form. But when I showed it to some people they weren’t really ecstatic about it. If I’m honest with myself I wasn’t either. My dad was in the peripheries of that essay and the people that read it said they wanted more about him but I wasn’t sure. I’d been reluctant to write about him because I found it too difficult. It was like opening myself up to stuff I thought I’d dealt with. I always thought that eventually I would write about him.
But I’m a terrible procrastinator, and instead of working on that essay I thought I’d see what I could write about my dad. I wrote about ten to eleven different small vignettes, I guess you’d call them that, about him. They came pretty freely but I didn’t really think much about them. I was just writing out memories as I remembered them. They weren’t polished or structured in any way really.
I asked my friend, Sam, if he’d take a look at them and tell me if he thought there was anything there. He read them and gave them back with some notes and I remember reading what he’d written on the tube home. He said he was impressed with how honest I’d been in what I’d written. I wasn’t sure what he meant so I read through what I’d given him and found myself crying on the tube. I didn’t realise how much of myself, my dad, and our relationship I’d put into what I’d written when I had been I hadn’t been considering that anyone would ever read it. It was a kind of breakthrough moment.
So, I polished off those small pieces and began to consider the order. I took out one or two and added in some new ones. I worked on it for a month of so, changing the odd word or the order and stuff. I think I was trying to put it off showing it to anyone. Eventually I did, and the people that read it said they really liked it. Then, when I found out about the prize from a friend of mine, I thought I might enter it but I still wasn’t sure. I remember actually saying I wasn’t sure if I would submit anything or not and my friend, Nina, was like ‘Shut up. Of course you’re going to submit something. It’s a life writing prize and you’re a life writer.’ And then it was decided! So, I sent it in.
Tell us about your writing; how long have you been writing for and why do you write?
I came to writing in a kind of roundabout way. As a kid I wanted to be everything ever. I think my career aspirations changed daily. As a teenager I thought I maybe wanted to be an actor but as I got older I saw there weren’t really great parts for gay men. So, I looked into writing screenplays and tried to write a few of them. I went to LJMU and did my degree in Creative Writing as a way of getting better at writing scripts and that’s where I think I really began to call myself a writer. Liverpool was such an important place for me, in terms of harnessing my creativity and figuring out what I wanted to say. I worked on some screenplays there but I also found short stories and that lead me to creative non-fiction and life writing. When I told my tutor, Sarah, about my new love for memoir and non-fiction and she recommended Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s such a beautiful work of memoir. It inspired me to really commit to writing my own and since then it’s been pretty non-stop. I’ve just thrown myself into reading and writing essays because I find them so fascinating.
Whenever I think of why I write, I think of the great Joan Didion’s essay where she says: ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’ I think that’s the best way I could put it… in Didion’s words because she’s far more eloquent than me.
Do you have any tips for budding life writers out there?
I feel like me giving advice would be bit like the blind leading the blind. I suppose the one thing I’d say, and that I’ve learned recently, is to be honest. It might sound kind of silly but I think it’s easier said than done. I feel like a reader can always tell when you’re holding back or not fully committing to what you’re writing about. I think if you’re going to write about something you have to go all in. Don’t hold anything back, let it all out, and that’s when I think you have the best results. That’s the kind of honesty I’m talking about. That would probably be my advice.
Are you working on anything at the minute?
I’m working on a multitude of things right now. I’m one of those people that likes to be busy and have all the plates spinning at once. My main focus though is what I call my ‘memoir-in-essays’ that I’ve been working on for the past year or so. 1955-2012 is part of that. Right now, it’s tentatively called Blue Roses, after The Glass Menagerie, and I think it’s about my influences. It’s about who and what made me the person I am today. So I’m writing about my parents, my Grandma (who is the strongest woman I know), the men I’ve fallen for, the places I’ve travelled to, and the various anxieties I have. Basically, when it’s finished, which will be soon hopefully, it’ll be a pretty comprehensive view of why I am who I am. I’m trying to be as honest as I can so it’s been a bit emotionally exhausting. Mining through your life and reliving things can be both cathartic and damaging I think. I have to put myself in that emotional state again, to write about it in the best way I can, and that isn’t always easy to come back from. That being said, as I’m writing the book and it’s getting closer to being finished I feel kind of liberated. As if all these things are being released and I can move on and grow up.
I’m also in the very early stages of writing a web series. I’m planning it and starting to write the first drafts of the scripts at the minute. It’s a modern day romantic comedy between two men. I have always loved romantic comedies, but gay men rarely get to fall in love in them. They work with Drew Barrymore at the magazine or make sassy remarks to Julia Roberts, they don’t really get to have any romance. They don’t get meet-cutes or grand gestures or anything like that. So I wanted to write something that would fight against that and would show gay men as romantic heroes, but also as messy and complicated individuals not just stereotypes. I think I’ve set myself quite a challenge, but I’m positive about the overall idea. There are people like Andrew Haigh, with things like Weekend or Looking, which are both brilliant. But I grew up on When Harry Met Sally and movies like that so I have always wanted to see two men in that kind of romantic situation.
I’ve got some great people working with me on it. My friend Tammy, who I met at university, is producing it and she’s looking into funding and everything like that. We’re working as a team to get it as good as it can be. It’s still early days but the working title is Singledom and we’re hoping it’ll premiere, online, during the summer of 2018.
I’ve also just embarked on a blog project to do with queer culture. I realised about a month ago that I hadn’t really read or seen much by queer artists. So I decided to seek out prose, poetry, film, TV, and music by queer people and to write about them. So far I’ve looked at people like Édouard Louis (whose novel The End of Eddy is so brilliant) and Richard Scott (who I love) and a few others. I’m so fascinated by pop culture and I find it interesting that there aren’t many queer voices in that space. I think that needs to change. So my goal is to highlight those voices, learn about queer history, figure out where we’re at, and look at where we’re going. Hopefully, maybe, a few people will find it as interesting as I do.
What are your goals as a writer?
Honestly, I just want to connect with people. I write about things that are painful or uncomfortable, or embarrassing, in the hopes that one that they might be useful to someone. I think, as well, writing for me has been so cathartic. For a long time, I was an incredibly private person, and I guess I still am, but when I write that all falls away. I remember, just after my dad died, a doctor recommended that I write my thoughts down as a way of processing them. I’ve always been very much in my own head and writing helps me get out of that. And, in an ideal world, those thoughts and feelings I put into my writing will help someone else one day. I think that’s my main goal as a writer, to connect.
Who are you writing inspirations?
My inspirations are a bit scattered. I find them in books, TV, film; everywhere really. I guess, in terms of writing, Nora Ephron will always be my number one. I’m so, wholeheartedly in love with her. Heartburn is one of my all-time favourites. It’s so funny and honest. Her essays are incredible too. She has this brilliant way of relating to a reader and she can really hone in on the particulars that make us who we are. She showed me how to take something serious, or life changing, or sad, and turn it into something positive. Every time I’m stuck with my writing I return to her books. In the same respect, Michelle Tea’s How To Grow Up had a big influence on me as I’ve been writing; it’s so beautiful and wise. I read it a year or two after my dad died and it really pulled me out of the hole I’d put myself in. It’s such an important book to me.
I find music incredibly influential. I listen to Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King almost exclusively when I write. They’re the soundtrack to my writing experience and I think they bleed into it. Their rawness and honesty is very inspiring. They have this intense power to place you in a feeling and keep you there for the duration of a song.
Then there’s Joan Didion, Mindy Kaling, Sharon Olds, Dorothy Parker, Kathleen Collins, Miranda July, Carrie Fisher, Ann Patchett, Sharon Horgan, Sloane Crosley, and I could go on and on. Women have been so prominent in my life. I was surrounded by strong women growing up, and many of my friends are women, and I think that has an effect on how I see things and what I connect with.
Jon Paul Roberts won the inaugural Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in 2017. He is an essayist, journalist, and screenwriter from Chester. He worked as an editor for a Liverpudlian literary magazine In The Red, as well as contributing to various sites and local publications within Liverpool. He has run events including launch parties, open mic nights for writers, and other readings. In his essays he hopes to find the line between his experiences and the forces that influenced him, whether that be film, television, family, or friends. He aims to find silver linings in darker moments by writing about them because, as his hero, Nora Ephron, said, everything is copy. @JonPaul13
You can read his winning piece ‘1955 – 2012’ in the Life Writing Prize Showcase.