The word “maverick” has garnered quite a bit of attention lately, overused by our recent election cycle to the point where, like your grandmother’s sterling silver platter, it has lost its sheen and perhaps some of its value.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines maverick as “an unorthodox or independent-minded person.” True mavericks are nonconformists regardless of popular opinion or conventions: This definition describes author and community educator Sherry Quan Lee to a T. In her new book, “How to Write a Suicide Note: Serial Essays That Saved a Woman’s Life,” Lee challenges and enlightens readers with the fearless, rule-breaking lyric prose of a literary maverick. In speaking with Lee, it quickly became clear that this boldness permeates her approach to life, as well.
From prose to poetry
In her introduction, Lee wrote, “It has taken me six years to write [‘How to Write a Suicide Note’] because I don’t follow any how-to-write rules, I follow my heart, my head, and my gut.” Indeed, over the course of writing this book, Lee’s approach shifted, and being the intuitive writer that she is, she listened to her instincts.
“For years I kept writing two-, three-page essays, some in the form of letters. That’s when the idea of suicide notes surfaced,” Lee said. A close friend and early reader suggested the title, which Lee described as a “milestone in the process.” Later, that same friend advised her to open up the book’s form from prose to poetry, and, Lee said, “that’s all I needed to hear. It took a week. I transformed all my ‘notes’ into poetry and was able to finalize the manuscript.”
Three books in one
“How to Write a Suicide Note” is, in a sense, three books in one. Through intensely personal moments, it tells the story of Lee herself, the daughter of a Chinese father and black mother who was brought up to “pass” as white, and how she negotiates the various aspects of her life which inform her identity. The book also acts as a lyric testimony to how, through writing, one can kill off the parts of herself that hold her back and in doing so save her life, figuratively and literally. Finally, it works as an unconventional instruction manual for how to write beyond the guidelines of typical books on writing.
“I believe there are writing rules,” Lee explained, “how to write, when to write, where to write, what to write, etc., that stop many of us from writing. Writing students are often astounded when they hear me say there are no rules. It gives them a sense of freedom that lets them write from the center of who they are.” This challenge to writers to take risks and work from their center is evident in poems like “How to Revise a Rough Draft.” This piece re-imagines the instructive nature of its title by centering its didacticism squarely in the speaker’s experience.
“I could have been buried in someone else’s story/Lived someone else’s life/Dummied down, never looked up.” The speaker goes on to declare, “I can count them. Women and men and houses and jobs/and friends/See them disappear/I spew them out like Devil Woman. Mad Woman. Mean Woman.” Both speaker and writer are asking readers to revise their own lives. Yet, the poem dares to instruct by example, through the considered life of its author.
The writing life
Lee knows firsthand the power of writing. Her work has enabled her to discover who she is, to reconnect with her spiritual core. “To speak, even through writing,” she said, “is to breathe, to have breath, to exhale.” For Lee, writing is a fully embodied life process. Through her work as a teacher, mentor, and writing program administrator, she is able to share this knowledge with other writers. Lee brings her community resources to her position as Program Associate for the Split Rock Arts Program, The University of Minnesota’s unique summer series of creative writing, visual art and design workshops, and Online Mentoring for Writers program. And, as a community educator for classes such as “Stories That Save Lives” at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, she is able to inspire others.
“Writing has not only saved my life, it has given me life,” Lee explained.
“How to Write a Suicide Note” bravely illustrates this fact, as well as Sherry Quan Lee’s fierce determination to interrogate conventional narratives and boundaries, and invites other writers to follow her example.