If Melissa Johnson were to get a tattoo, it’d have a dart and the Rilke quote, “Live into the question.” Playing darts with a friend in San Francisco one time, Melissa realized that the harder she tried to hit the bullseye, the worse she got at doing it. “But that, I think, is my job as a writer,” she says, “not to get fixated on whether I’m hitting a bull’s eye or hitting a wall, but to keep living in the throw.”
Once a college basketball star at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University, Johnson is very active creatively: she makes documentaries and branded content, is a creative consultant and writing coach, and has written scripted pieces and essays, including a great one for Narratively, about writing herself into a real-life rom-com. Johnson, who shot up to 6’4” in the eighth grade, was also shortlisted for an Oscar in 2016 for Love in the Time of March Madness, a short film she wrote and co-directed with Robertino Zambrano. In the film, she recounts the various outrageous things people have said about her height and its implications on her life.
As we approach the deadline for our 2022 Narratively Spring Memoir Prize, we’re spending May and June chatting with some of our all-time favorite Narratively memoirists about how they do what they do. Narratively sat down with Melissa to talk about artistic vulnerability, her approach to memoir, and the best advice she can give young writers (get health insurance!).
A lot of your work is very vulnerable and discusses topics that are very personal. How did you begin to feel comfortable sharing that side of yourself when creating your work?
I am a big fan of Brené Brown, and she says something like, “The only real power we have in our lives is the ability to be vulnerable.” So insofar as you’re willing to be vulnerable, you will have the power to make an impact. I’ve had to really work on this, vulnerability does not come naturally or easily to me. Especially from the culture of playing sports, where it’s all about having a game face and being very stoic and badass and not showing any weakness. But vulnerability is not weakness. And I think readers are so smart, I think they know when you’re faking vulnerability, they know when you’re faking authenticity, and they see right through that. So I’ve learned that unless it’s really touching me as I’m writing, unless I’m really feeling it, there’s like zero chance in hell that a reader is ever gonna feel it.
Initially, when [I wrote an essay for Salon] about being tall, I would walk around New York City with a little notebook in my purse. And it was empowering because people would say pretty rude things to me very consistently, but once I wrote it down, it was mine to do with what I want in the story. It helped me feel like I don’t need to clap back to someone on the subway, I could just take the story and see how it’s gonna go and exert my influence in a way that’s going to feel better and probably more productive.
Is Love in the Time of March Madness emblematic of everything that you’re talking about? Because a lot of the themes I’ve seen in your work have some of the same themes that are in that film. How did that come together?
I had been taking little notes in my notepad forever. And then I had this assignment for a class I was taking, and working in New York working full time, but working on my art, you know, nights, weekends, all that, and I took a class at The New School where the first assignment was to write a humiliation essay. It’s really leaning into how vulnerable you are going to be on the page, it motivated me. I’ve sort of sensed that I wanted to take this story for myself, and rework all these things people have said to me, and I had all these great anecdotes — and when I say great, I mean, like, they’re super mean, very inappropriate, pretty funny, and it sort of sucks to live, but it’s really fun to write.
So initially, it was an essay for Salon and the night before this essay was supposed to go up, [the editor said], “You know, really excited for you, really well done. But just so you know, [you should] gird your emotional loins because our readers are very mean and you’re gonna get trolled.” And then the most remarkable thing happened: almost every comment was super kind and supportive. It was so encouraging; it was such a great reward for being vulnerable. I’ve known since that you don’t always get rewarded for being vulnerable.
In a lot of your writing, you mention how you really like winning, and when someone begins a career in the arts, it can be just a bunch of rejections. How did you move past this desire to always win?
I had to unlearn a lot when I left Harvard, and don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for many things about that experience, but it’s a very specific paradigm, both in terms of the culture of the institution and life as a student athlete. I began to mistrust that model towards the end of my collegiate career. I noticed that I was taking less and less pleasure from a win, and losing felt devastating. [And I realized] that model was fucked up.
You’re completely right: why would someone who loves winning go into a field where there’s constant rejection, even for the greatest luminaries? I think it’s made me look at [success] unconsciously and understand that perfectionism is the enemy, it will drown you.
People who love to win love it because it feels like they’re in control. And none of us are in control. To be a writer, or to be an artist, I think you have to start focusing on your responsibility, which is to focus on the work, to tap into vulnerability, to practice the sound of your own voice and, great intention and trying to do good in the world, just write your heart out.
What advice do you have for aspiring creatives who want to do what you’re doing?
You have to get comfortable with vulnerability and exercising that muscle on the page. Find at least one reader that you can share work with who can give you honest feedback — even if it’s hard for you — in a kind way. I have stopped trying to write for everybody; it will not work out for you. George Saunders put it a different way: it’s developing that internal compass so you know when you’ve hit that emotional pay dirt, you know that you’re saying the true hard thing. Maybe it makes you a little bit nervous to write, maybe it’s not phrased in the perfect words. But the emotional truth is there. Don’t worry about sounding smart. Practice sharing your heart, practice being vulnerable, practice saying the thing that most people won’t say, because that’s what people really care about.
I always tell young people, young artists, to not be afraid of falling on your face. Fail left, right, and center—that’s how you grow! Try to get some health insurance, make sure you’ve got a roof over your head and some food—then go have your wild adventures.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Still intrigued? Check out Melissa’s Academy Award shortlisted film below!