Sheree Winslow was the recipient of the 2018 Eliza So Fellowship for Montana Indigenous Writers. The fellowship, in partnership with The Writer’s Block and Plympton, gave Sheree a month in Las Vegas to work on her manuscript-in-progress. What follows are some of her reflections on that time and space.
The ghosts of Vegas past began showing up on my second day in residency. There was the thirty-year-old me who drank a tequila shot faster than all my colleagues and was proclaimed the winner after my boss held a drinking contest at dinner under the painted blue skies of the Venetian. Or the apparition from four years later, on a night in Mandalay Bay when I took my clients to a fancy steak dinner, entertained employees in the House of Blues Foundation Room, then worked on a contract until the early morning hours, finally, deciding I had to quit my job to regain some sense of sanity.
At Aria, there are glimmers of me staying up until 5 a.m. with friends from childhood as we celebrated our fortieth birthdays insisting we could still party like we were twenty. Occasionally, the men haunted me, too. I visited the city with each of my serious romantic partners—all addicts of one form or another, all emotionally unavailable, all accompanied by an exhausted version of past-me trying to be good enough to save them and not understanding I needed to save myself. My addiction to food traveled with me, as well, although it was usually present in the form of restriction and control when in the presence of others. Overeating was saved for times when I was alone at home but my shame and insecurity remained present always.
Conventions, trade shows, company meetings, and client meetings. A bachelorette celebration, a wedding, and weekend getaways. When I arrived as the Eliza So Fellow for my residency in Las Vegas, I made a list of all my past trips to the city. I consulted my memory, family, friends, former associates, itineraries, photos, and social media posts—a process of life investigation familiar to most memoirists. Because of my first career in sales and marketing, and the close proximity to my home in Southern California, I had previously been to Vegas twenty-nine times, maybe more but not less.
However, this trip had the kind of ironic twist that drew me to nonfiction writing in the first place. The residency in a city famed for excess and binging, buffets and exhibitionism, was part of a fellowship I received to complete Feeding Myself, a memoir about my relationship with my body and recovery from food addiction. The way I live today impacted the way I experienced Vegas differently during residency. In turn, my experience of sober Vegas helped me through the process of restructuring, editing, and continuing to finalize my manuscript.
I really don’t like using the word “sober.” It has a gloomy connotation, maybe because it’s only one letter away from “somber.” Or maybe, I don’t like it because it’s synonymous with “dry” which is synonymous with brittle and dehydrated. Whatever word is used, the general idea is that I no longer soothe my brain with dopamine generated by overeating, restrictive dieting, or eating specific foods that cause an obsessive craving.
I also abstain from alcohol or other behaviors that could turn into an addiction. Instead, each morning I set a plan for eating for the day and take time to prioritize what matters most. I focus my thinking around what I can affect that day while also quieting thoughts of things I cannot change or worries about the future. Following this morning ritual for physical, mental, and spiritual health has impacted how I approach my writing.
On my first morning in residency, I asked myself what mattered most—what one part of manuscript evaluation and completion did I need to tackle first? I decided to revisit the foundation—my themes and chapter structure. When I began writing the memoir, I was telling a story about how dissatisfaction with my body led me into an unhealthy, even dangerous, relationship with a man I met in Paris. But the more I wrote, the more I connected dots between my behavior and outcomes, ultimately facing my eating disorder. I didn’t begin after recovery; instead, I wrote for several years and then sought help because of what the process of writing taught me about myself.
After a period of sobriety, I was ready to finish but my ending had changed. I also saw some of my actions differently. In situations where I had once seen myself as a victim, I was finally able to recognize my role in creating problems for myself. Finishing my manuscript wasn’t as simple as writing the last few chapters. I needed to return to the beginning, clearly redefine the three acts to my story, connect through lines, and tighten the organization of each chapter. I re-read some of my favorite addiction memoirs and consulted Paula Munier’s Plot Perfect. For several days, I worked on a scene list, outline, and mind maps around central ideas. I made a ven diagram showing where problems with co-dependency overlapped with food addiction. I noted repetition with an eye for cutting anything unnecessary. I was reminded how much of a writer’s work is actually problem-solving.
After several days, I had finalized a unique selling proposition and created a one-page visual outline showing three distinct book sections supported by clearly defined chapters. I also had a formal editing plan. But, I needed a break. I needed an artist’s date. Taken from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, an “artist’s date” is a chance to fill our creative well with sensory stimuli or experiences in order to return to our art with fresh, broadened perspective. For my excursion, I chose window shopping at The Grand Canal Shoppes, a luxury mall within The Venetian.
The lavish Venice-inspired property located on the Las Vegas strip provides a great example of adherence to theme. Cobblestone under feet, sight and sound of canals with gondolas and gondoliers, and bright lighting to replicate daylight on the piazza each transport the senses to a different place. As I strolled through shops for bathing products and clothing, shoes and novelty gifts, I found a Bob Ross lunchbox emblazoned with the words, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents,” and a vending machine selling “Emergency Shoes.” A souvenir store sold magnets that looked like the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” neon sign near jewelers, rare edition booksellers, and designer fashion boutiques. Then, I wandered into a store called Sugarboo & Co. Among the home goods for sale, I spotted a framed Rumi poetry wall hanging.
You have no idea how hard I’ve looked for a gift to bring You. Nothing seemed right. What’s the point of bringing gold to the gold mine, or water to the ocean. Everything I came up with was like taking spices to the Orient. It’s no good giving my heart and my soul because you already have these. So I’ve brought you a mirror. Look at yourself and remember me.
The juxtaposition of a mystic poet’s words with the opulence of The Venetian caught me off guard, concurrently showing me how something stands out when it doesn’t align with the theme, but also exposing the delight in that kind of artistic friction.
Renewed by my outing, I began editing my manuscript the next day, starting at the beginning and moving forward page by page. I spent two days writing new scenes that I then removed, deciding they belonged in their own story. Some chapters only took a few hours while others took days. Eventually, I came to an impasse with two chapters that I was merging into one, unable to decide whether or not to remove several scenes. I was ready for my next artist’s date.
This time I redeemed a series of free offers for a room and show at the MGM Grand. I attended “Ka,” where athletic entertainers performed tricks on an oversized rotating stage, a feature unique to this particular Cirque du Soleil production. At times, the gargantuan platform overshadowed the artists, becoming the focal point instead of the background for showcasing their talents.
The next day, before returning to work, I decided to practice making food decisions by eating at the buffet. Before I got in line, I paused to remind myself of which foods to avoid. Then, I purchased the express lunch option. The hostess gave me a take-out container to fill. I walked through the entire buffet to see what foods were available, then made choices in accordance with the nutrition guidelines I follow. When I returned to my room, I ate half of what I took and saved the rest for dinner.
While editing, I thought about both the show and buffet. If in our writing we struggle to cut appropriately, we can inadvertently eclipse the story we want to tell. Additionally, feeding a reader too many scenes may cause intellectual indigestion. Making the tough choices about what to include and what to leave out, allows us to serve enough to satisfy the story while leaving the reader wanting more. The Vegas experiences informed my work.
At the end of the month-long residency, I returned home with a finalized structure and mostly revised manuscript. Initially, I was disappointed that I hadn’t completely finished. After all, my goal was to finalize the book and begin reaching out to agents by month’s end. But then I thought about all that had transpired since I began my memoir years ago. Writing led me to the solution for a problem that had plagued me my entire life. If I had tried to finish according to the deadline I originally set, I would have missed important lessons for both myself and future readers.
Instead, I found myself on a different path that led me again to Las Vegas, a city that is ever evolving, both in its continual building and rebuilding and through the eyes of its changing visitors. For many years, Vegas was a city that greeted me with the opportunity to escape with its temptations, libations, and dance club gyrations. But this time, Vegas provided a place to remain, a play to stay in the difficult spaces, a place to work through sticky problems. This time I didn’t leave Las Vegas exhausted but emerged ready to continue, ready to keep fighting, ready to keep writing.
Information about Submittable’s 2019 Eliza So Fellowship will be available soon!