Amanda Fletcher doesn’t hold back. From her nonfiction to her direct, no-nonsense attitude to the way she talks about her life. She’s a 2012 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow who now works with PEN as program manager, cultivating new writers and voices, and shaping the authors that will ultimately be on our shelves someday.
But she’s also honest—a woman who will crack herself open and bleed words onto a page. Her work is a peek into her private world of pain, addiction, loss, and self-destruction that’s somehow tender and visceral all at once. But finding that voice didn’t happen overnight. Fletcher’s writing journey has run in tandem with her journey of self-love and recovery, a path that has led her to Halo, a memoir that’s almost twenty years in the making. We’re extremely honored to include an excerpt of it in this year’s issue.
We had the privilege to sit down with Amanda (virtually, of course) and chat with her about that journey—the act of writing a life down on paper, then choosing what to keep and what to lose, where craft intersects with career, and what life looks like now in the midst of a pandemic.
Exposition Review: This is a conversation we’ve been looking forward to having—to just sit and chat about nonfiction and craft and your journey to doing what you do best as a storyteller. When did you discover that telling stories really resonated with you?
Amanda Fletcher: I was a storyteller from a young age. I started as a poet, writing limericks in the third grade, and lucky for me, my mom kept all of that stuff.
I come from a blue-collar family who believed that writing [as a career] was not a thing. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to be in advertising, and he said, “That’s so competitive. You’ll never make it. Get a real job.” So, I stopped taking English, creative writing, and art classes.
I ended up getting a degree in kinesiology and becoming a personal trainer While life was progressing, I always knew I wanted to be a writer in the back of my head. When I had enough mental space to take my first creative writing class, it was Creative Writing 101 with Sandra Desjardins at Scottsdale Community College in 2005.
ER: What were some entry points that directed you specifically into nonfiction and your memoir, Halo?
AF: Well, first of all with my family of origin—the well is so deep—why would I not talk about these people? David Ulin once said at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, “Every story is about our families,” and that is so true. I just happen to have had so much fodder.
I broke my neck in 2002, and whenever I would tell anyone about it, they would say, “Oh my God, you have to write this story.”
I took that first creative writing class in 2005, and we did an exercise based off of a Joyce Carol Oates essay. It was one where we were shifting points of view, and it was this lesson in deconstruction. There was a section for events and a section for characters. [Our professor] wanted us to write something in that same style, and that was how I started my book. It was an easy way to order the story: this is the time, this is the place, the setting, the characters. It was an easy way in.
It’s been almost a twenty-year process. I’m still working on copy edits now, but I’m at a place where once this is done that I’m comfortable showing it to agents.
In 2007, I moved to Santa Monica and started taking classes at [UCLA Extension Writers’ Program]. I remember being in a class and one of the other students kept saying, “Sam Dunn says this; Sam Dunn says that; and you should be doing this because of Sam Dunn.”
And I thought, “Who the fuck is this Sam Dunn dude and why are we talking about him?”
Well, Samantha Dunn is not a dude. I ended up taking a weekend workshop with her, and the night before I went into it, my friend gets hit by a car on his bicycle and ends up in the hospital with a shattered femur and damage to his spinal cord. It was really triggering to see him in the hospital in a neck brace, so I missed the first day of the workshop.
I came into Sam’s class probably halfway through the Sunday session because I thought, “I paid for this. I need to take this.” That started the path that I’m on now. Being in Sam’s class led to a private workshop, which led to her suggesting that I try to go to Skidmore for the Summer Writers Institute, and then that I apply for the PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. She was the one who told me that I had to keep going because I was doing something special. And every writer needs to hear that, right? It makes you continue.
ER: How did your writing journey run in tandem with your emotional journey to all of those events?
AF: When I started writing this in 2005, I was in a relationship and still using drugs and drinking. I was a disaster of a human being. I had no idea what I was doing, and people in my creative writing workshops kept saying, “How does [this character] change? What does she want?” I couldn’t answer either of those because I didn’t know. I had to change.
[After getting a DUI in 2007], I started going to AA meetings, and I realized how small my story actually was and wondering what right I had to tell it. We have this saying in AA that “You’re the piece of shit that the world revolves around.” So you have this crazy low self-esteem, but you’re the center of the universe, and as a writer of nonfiction, you do need to be the center of the universe because you are the protagonist. But that’s a kind of narrow story. Until you can see that you are the center of this very small thing and everyone else is the center of their own small things and we’re all just orbiting around each other, you can’t write—you’re not going to write a good story because you don’t have an understanding of human nature.
[Since 2005] I got married. I got divorced. I moved from Arizona to California. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I got sober. I became a part of this literary community where people need you and you need them. Not out of obligation, but a sense of privilege. Especially when you have pushed people away your whole life —that’s instrumental. All of those things I had to go through in order to write a story that I was proud of.
ER: It’s a craft to look back and select the moments that you know are striking and relatable and real and you expound upon, but at the same time they have to work together in some way.
AF: I have read a lot of recovery memoir—a lot of good recovery memoir and terrible recovery memoir. Just because all of this fucked-up shit happened to you doesn’t mean you can write. I realized that I had to be careful of that, because I had all of these really terrific plot points, but what did they all mean? How were they going to cohese? What do you choose to include and what do you leave out?
ER: As you were writing Halo, what helped you make those really important choices?
AF: I don’t think you can really ask yourself that until you get it down. Especially at the beginning—don’t worry so much what it looks like, just worry about getting it down. That was really helpful for me. The best advice I ever got came from Samantha Dunn: “You write it all.” You write it all, then you figure out what the themes are through the writing of it all. Then see what you can lose, because it doesn’t thematically go along.
At the beginning, I was just writing scenes, things that stuck in my memory or things that impacted me. And then after, I considered, “Well, how does this push the narrative? What is this story really about? What does this girl really want, and why are we including these elements or these characters?” I took huge breaks — I didn’t write for months at a time. But Victoria Chang, an Emerging Voices mentor who was essential in setting up the partnership between the Antioch MFA with the Emerging Voices Fellowship Program, would always say, “Writing isn’t just about writing.” Even if you’re not in front of your computer, every experience feeds the writing.
ER: There is a line from your piece “Off the Rails” that was particularly pertinent: “I became me again.” It’s almost this act of stepping outside yourself, and then slowly coming back, and doing that over and over again. Can you expand on that a little bit? Like what it means to you to “leave yourself and come back” as a literary device and how it informs you?
AF: There is an immediacy to writing the scenes when you’re in it still and that can be dangerous. When I was so close to the experience, I thought, “You have to write it now, or else it’ll be gone.” The book that I used as the perfect example for that is Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight. Jerry wrote [Permanent Midnight] while it was very fresh. There wasn’t a huge distance between the addiction and that story.
There are segments of the book that I started writing while I was still using. There’s a pinnacle scene that’s closer to the end that I stayed up all night before class writing. I broke into a secret stash of cocaine and that’s how I got through it.
But when I got sober, suddenly I hated the person I was writing about. I had zero compassion for this person who was a narcissist and mean. I hated that person, but also hated myself.
So, it’s twofold, right? I hated that person, and I realized that I’m not that person anymore, but … that is me.
I had to figure out how to be compassionate for this woman, whose mom had killed herself. There are three more suicides in my family, two murders, paranoid schizophrenia on top of bipolar disorder … I’m sure my mom was depressed, you know? A lot of trauma … childhood sexual abuse, just so many things. that [my sponsor would ask me],“If you heard that story from someone else, you would have so much compassion for that person, so why do you not have it for yourself?” And I just said, “I don’t know.”
I had to make her a character: She was a she. That helped sometimes. While constantly having that loop in my head of: “If this was someone else telling you a story, you would have compassion for them.”
ER: Can you talk about therapy and what that’s done for you as a person and writer? How did you start to accept therapy as part of your life?
AF: I’m an addict. I’ve had an eating disorder. I was a smoker, drugs, alcohol, shopping whatever—I just did the thing. In 2007, I ended up getting a DUI and spending the night in jail. I was still so drunk that when they took my mugshot and the guy said, “Smile,” I did.
When I told my dad and my brothers, it was a rite of passage. Like, “Oh, Amanda’s been to jail now, you’re part of the family.” Everyone in my family has been in jail or prison. So it scared me straight to some extent.
But I didn’t want to stop drinking. I was court-appointed to go to AA meetings, I lost my license for six months, and I was like, “OK, I’m gonna go—but alcohol is not my problem, it’s food.” I went into treatment for my eating disorder. Which, whatever, it takes what it takes.
I went into outpatient treatment. Being in treatment means you’re in group therapy. It was the first time [I got close to] women from all walks of life, all types of problems. We had anorexics and bulimics and binge eaters, and everybody had overlapping addictions.
That’s when I realized that trauma feels the same for everyone, but that the cause of that trauma can be anything. That broke me open.
ER: Memoir takes a type of bravery and courage that sometimes can have a pressure that once it’s done, you’ve healed. Does that affect your relationship to what you want to reveal?
AF: I’ve been told that once the book is done and on the shelf, that part of your life is also on the shelf. Which also contributes to a dragging of the heels, and understanding that no one’s waiting for your story. There’s 12 million other books out there. It’s a commodification that feels really uncomfortable.
[With that said], even if I didn’t love myself at this time, I love these characters. I love the people that I’m writing about. I’m not friends with them anymore, and I get to visit them. I get to be with my mom. In my family, we don’t dwell on the past. But in this case, I needed to. If you’re ruminating on those things [from the past] from a different place in your life with perspective and compassion, you get this greater understanding not just of yourself, but of your family and the world at large.
ER: What was one surprise that came from writing your story?
AF:: I came to love my stepdad in a way I never had. We never had a relationship, and I was able to write the scenes with him with love, whereas when I started writing this in 2005 I wasn’t able to. When I started writing there were clear heroes and villains.
Now, that is not the case. Getting sober allowed me to make amends to him. To be able to go to him and say, “I’m sorry I left you, I left everyone.” And to authentically mean that.
ER: And using that same compassion for yourself.
AF: Totally! If I’ve learned anything in sobriety, it’s that we’re all doing the best we can. And sometimes that best looks really terrible.
ER: We definitely want to talk with you about the work that you’ve done with PEN Emerging Voices. What led you to ultimately becoming the Emerging Voices Fellowship manager?
AF: In 2010, I applied to Emerging Voices and I was twelve-and-a-half minutes late for my twenty-minute interview. I could tell as soon as I walked in the room that I was not getting it. I kept writing; I kept taking classes. The next year, I applied again with a completely different segment of the story.
Then in September 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37. It was a reckoning where you’re confronted with your own mortality. I remember saying, “Well if I have cancer, then I’ll work on my book.”
I went to my EV interview in October, a week before I had a double mastectomy and would start chemo. The biggest concern was, “Are you going to be able to do this?” Because the fellowship would start in January, and I was going to be doing [chemotherapy] until May. I said, “I don’t have a job. My husband supports me. If I do this, this and chemo are going to be all I have.”
So I was an EV Fellow in 2012. I look super rad in all the photos because I’m bald, but it looks like it’s a choice. Jillian Lauren was my mentor, and I had just read her memoir Some Girls. It sounds cliché to say Emerging Voices saved me, but it probably did.
I stayed in the fold once I graduated from the fellowship. I was available for them all the time, asking, “Do you need me to supervise a workshop? Do you need me to check people in? Do you need me to volunteer for the fundraising gala?” Whatever they needed, I gave.
When the job opened up [first as program coordinator and then manager], it felt like the next logical steps.
ER: How would you describe your relationship with the EV Fellows and the program today?
AF: These writers are my folx (thanks to 2019 EV Dare Williams for introducing me to that word). I would not be the writer I am without Emerging Voices, without reading people’s work, without talking to them, without being available to them. I hope it is a mutually beneficial relationship!
I finished this book because we started doing National Novel Writing Month in November of 2018, where Emerging Voices alumni were meeting in the PEN office on Wednesday nights to write together as a group, and that’s how I started writing again on a regular basis. 2011 EV Jamie Schaffner and I are still accountability buddies, checking in (almost) daily.
ER: What are some tips you have on how you’ve stayed sane through the shelter-in-place and quarantines?
AF: Be kind to yourself. Realize that everybody’s having a hard time focusing. This is not a regular work-from-home scenario; everyone’s afraid of the world ending and rightly so.
Reach out. Do the phone calls. Do the check-ins. The people who you would normally email, maybe call them. And if you feel like you have to, give them a heads-up that you’re going to call because then people aren’t like, “Why are you calling me?”
Don’t “should” yourself. Times like these, your creative side is what suffers, because you’re tapped out. If it’s true that we all operate up to our maximum capacity, when you add some other crazy element, that changes your maximum capacity. Try an hour in the morning of your own creative stuff, but also if that doesn’t happen, it’s OK. We don’t have to fix everything right now. [If you do want to write], be task-oriented. Setting a timer is essential, especially if you have concentration issues. Start with 20 minutes, and in that 20 minutes you are focused on one task. You aren’t doing anything else.
Have fun with it. Do you have blue eyeshadow? Wear the blue eyeshadow! What amuses you? What’s fun for you? Do that thing. That’s how we get through. It can’t all be doom and gloom. With creative nonfiction, my topics are all dark, but there’s also humor. That’s life. Funny shit happens. Yeah, my mom committed suicide, and maybe I am generally a dark person, but funny shit still happens—in my book and in my life, there is joy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Read “Off The Rails” here.