Exploring the art of prose


Author: Elissa Lash

Author’s Note

Twelve was a terrible age. I think we can all agree on that.

Bodies, feelings, friendships change suddenly—we are mean to ourselves, to each other, to our parents—it’s as if all the children of the land have been put under a powerful spell as they travel through their twelfth year.

When I’m walking, washing dishes, lying awake at 3 a.m., ideas and memories appear, little scraps that don’t match up. They are colorful and textural patches—red silk, powder blue gingham, linen the color of wheat, tiny bears wearing green hats on a cream-colored background. These fragments take up space in my head until I figure out what to make out of them.

This essay started in my body. Years ago, there was a friend in theatre school who told me I ate “like a bird.” He called me out on an eating disorder I thought I’d kept hidden. I remember the moment of being exposed, the shame and the pride. Strange to be immersed in this memory while living in a perimenopausal female body that feels as if it’s made of wet clay.

This essay started as I observed that my then twelve-year-old daughter was being watched with a carnivorous lust by grown men, sometimes in sidelong glances, sometimes with overt commentary.

This essay started as a short story about a bird I’d been given that died and then haunted my dreams. And a sense memory of the spirit of that bird entering my body in an acting class.

This essay started as I read the brilliant book, Happily, by Sabrina Orah Mark, marveling at how she used fairy tales to frame and explore her daily experiences as a mother, a daughter, a writer, a wife, a woman. My favorite fairy tale as a child was “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a strange and not widely known story of princesses sneaking out to dance, disobeying their father’s rules.

I started writing this piece in longhand. I gave myself permission to keep writing and not try to make it any good, and not try to make it make sense. This is how I must always begin, otherwise I’ll give up before I’ve started.

“There’s a lot here,” said a writer friend on reading an early draft. She thought this piece might be two, three, or even four pieces.

I deeply trust the advice of the wise women in my writing group, but a sadness flickered in my belly as I thought of chopping the stories apart.

“I just know it all goes together,” I said. “I don’t know how, but it does.”

I love a braided essay, even when the braid is lumpy and uneven. There is a permission, a rhythmic structure, a container to hold all the ideas.

Lists are a technique I use in my life, and also in my writing. Lists help the Ferris wheel in my head slow down enough to safely load and unload passengers. Lists are pleasing.

Some days life and writing feel like the same thing. Some days they feel like an egg with a double yolk. Extra, golden, connected.

Another writer friend suggested numbering the sections; she wondered, could there be twelve? I continued in my usual dance of reading and editing, reading and editing, staying open to feedback even when it made me uncomfortable. These are the tried and tested tools that allow my stories to become untangled, separated into strands, then plaited like Rapunzel’s magical braid—a ladder worthy of a witch.

I submitted the essay to CRAFT, thinking, This is a long shot. Then I continued to edit and revise. I’d make it better by trimming, expanding, shifting, and sculpting. When I found out that the essay had made the shortlist of finalists for CRAFT’s contest, I was happy and also panicked. That submission had been many drafts ago. Whatever I gave the editors was probably a mess.

Upon hearing that the essay was one of three winners, first there was shock and elation, and then the certainty that the old draft was not the best draft. The fear that it was not good enough.

I reread the originally submitted essay, touching and feeling the twelve strands.

So be it, I thought.

I can love this draft just as I can love my body even though I still see imperfections. Through the lens of other writers, I embrace “Twelve” anew.

There comes a time to let the words fly free.


ELISSA LASH has published pieces in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Silver Rose Magazine, Tangled Locks Journal, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Money I Get for My Body,” will be published in Bimbo Feminist Anthology, forthcoming from Purple Ink Press. Elissa has studied writing with Nick Flynn, Margo Steines, Beth Kanter, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Sabrina Orah Mark. Currently, she’s completing work on a memoir about her years as a sex worker. She founded and was executive director of the theatre company Double Helix and is a founding member of TBD Improv. She lives and works in Massachusetts with her partner and two teenagers. Find Elissa on Instagram @elissa_lash_writer.