By Karen Hemmerle, Contributing Editor
Amanda McCracken combines her passion for athletics, communication, travel, and connecting with people in her writing. She blends her linguistic graduate studies and over 10 years of teaching international students with more than a decade of experience coaching runners and triathletes and 20 years of competing herself. She has been writing stories since she was 8 years old.
Her freelance writing has appeared in New York Times, Glamour, Cowboys and Indians, Running Times, Triathlete Magazine, Women's Running, among others.
Amanda is currently working on her book, Streaking on Sunday Morning, a series of short essays that speak from the heart and mind of a single woman in her mid-30’s. Her introspective, honest and self-dissecting essays explore the reasoning behind her choice to remain a virgin, a Proustian look at what embodied memories mean for travel and romantic relationships, the freedom and shame that vulnerability elicits, the addiction to chasing “the story”, and the obstacles in escaping a self-imposed "single woman" identity.
In addition to freelance writing, Amanda is a full-time ESL instructor for undergraduate and graduate students.
Boulder Writers' Workshop: How did you choose to write about virginity and sexuality?
Amanda McCracken: Seven years ago I started writing about my own choices surrounding sex as a way to sort out thoughts and piece together stories that had played a role in making the choices I've made. The essay certainly shifted over the years from defending my choices to questioning them. I decided since it was a voice the general public doesn't hear from often I should clean it up, trim the fat, and try to publish it.
BWW: Has the response to your essays been all positive, or are there negative comments from people who just don’t get it?
AM: Overall the responses have been negative or advice offering from the general public. When you publish an essay with a rhetorical question as the title, apparently readers think you are seeking advice. From friends and family, it has been overwhelmingly supportive, even from those friends or family who don't "get it".
BWW: How do you deal with both positive and negative responses?
AM: I chose to only read about 6 of the comments in the online NYT article. I filed away emails I got and read them when I felt ready. I reminded myself that these essays were just a snapshot of who I am at my core at this moment in my life. I sent thank yous to those who have been supportive and used some of the negative/questioning responses as fodder for more writing. It didn't really dawn on me that people would gravitate towards certain words and base their entire opinion on two or three words that I may or may not have carefully selected. There were many "vulnerability hangovers" or emotional releases (fear and shame related) between the NYT article being published and after going on the Katie Couric show. I'm grateful to be able to feel and express those emotions even if it means crying my way through a grocery list because of some random trigger. They've been necessary and cathartic breakdowns.
BWW: Is it difficult to write about yourself and let the world see inside of you? Did it feel like you were taking a risk?
AM: It didn't feel uncomfortable at all - until I saw it in print. One of my biggest concerns was not people saying, "You did XYZ?!" but rather, "Who cares about what you did or did not do?!" It's much easier for me to tell the complete truth than come up with fictional stories. I told my mom that writing the essay was like having a conversation on the plane with a complete stranger on an 8 hour plane ride to Paris. Her response was, "That's because you tell everyone everything!" While that is a bit of an exaggeration, I do get a high from exchanging super honest gritty life stories with strangers. My main concern was hurting other people in the process of publishing the stories. I combed through the essays to make sure the other folks' identities were secure. I am very very lucky that I had the support of my family in publishing this even though I know they had reservations for fear of my physical and emotional safety.
BWW: Please tell us about the collection of essays you are writing. How did you choose the topics you are writing about and what’s your approach?
AM: I chose what I know best that others aren't writing a ton about: a woman in her mid-30's seeking a committed and loving relationship in which to have sex. My approach is to ask myself questions and then to dive in and try to sort it all out. It's great therapy.
BWW: How can other women find the strength to write their stories? Why is it important that they speak up?
AM: I think women and men need to write their stories for themselves first and foremost. Their natural voice will appear and the story will be much more palpable. I've had several folks tell me since reading my essays that they have been inspired to write their own "coming out" stories, particularly my gay male friend. It's important that people believe their stories are worth being shared because there are plenty of people in the world who feel relieved to know there are others out there like them.
BWW: Why did you choose the essay format over memoir or fiction formats for your writing? Is it important for some topics to step away from an unemotional journalistic approach and take a more personal approach?
AM: I don't really think I chose an essay format; it's just what appeared when I started writing. I did some research on virginity in the world to include in the essay as part of my own curiosity on the matter, but most of that was cut.
BWW: When did you know you were a writer and that it wasn’t just a hobby?
AM: I've known I was a writer since I was 8 years old but I still struggle to have that be the first word out of my mouth when someone asks the awful question, "What do you do?" Although, for a new year's resolution this year I decided that I would make sure I identified myself as a writer whenever anyone asks that question. In athletics I always believed that the body achieves what the mind believes. It seems to apply here. The language we use shapes how we think about ourselves and in turn how we perform.
BWW: What has been your track in journalism and how did you make the jump to writing personal essays? How do you switch back and forth between the two genres?
AM: I was an English major at a small liberal arts school in college. I had always known I wanted to write, but it wasn't until 2007 that I started writing articles on running and triathlon for a coaching company where I was coaching. Then I decided, "Shoot, I should be getting paid for this!" and started learning how to pitch stories by going to writing conferences and picking writer friends' brains.
BWW: Do you have a writing process? How do you keep going when you get stuck?
AM: I have a posterboard with post-it notes of different ideas, quotes and random observations. When I get stuck, I grab a note and try to write from there. I ask for and save questions people ask me. I'm more motivated to answer real questions from people I know than ones I create.
BWW: You have a passion for athletics. How has that help to you as a writer?
AM: It helped because what I first started writing about was something I was passionate about. My first article published in a national magazine (Triathlete) was titled, "More than just numbers" and discussed how one defines success in the sport of triathlon. It was told through both my athlete voice and my coaching voice. Having that particular personal piece published gave me great hope for the future.
BWW: What is your best advice for other writers?
AM: Get a coach. We all need a coach for different aspects of our lives. I have "coaches" for my athletics, teaching, spirituality, health and relationships. Lori has been that for me in my writing! My second piece of advice would be to believe that your story is worth telling.
BWW: What’s next for you?
AM: This question brings me back to all the anxiety I felt senior year in college, as if there's some great expectation to do more and better. I took the summer off teaching at CU (for the first time ever) to write more for the book of essays I intend to publish. I also hope to use this extra time to come up with more story angles to pitch so I have more assignments. I do better when I have a deadline and a framework within which to work.
BWW: Amanda, thank you for sharing your story with us.
Karen Hemmerle is an essayist and produced screenwriter, and is currently writing a nonfiction book, Goodbye to the Fat Girl. Read the blog about her book at http://goodbyetothefatgirl.wordpress.com or follow her on Facebook.