Sarah Einstein and Mot: The Memoir
November 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sarah Einstein’s much-anticipated Mot: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, was released in September 2015. Many of you may remember Sarah from her days as Managing Editor of Brevity (and, in fact, she is still with us on special projects.) Recently, one of Brevity’s Assistant Editors, Penny Guisinger, sat down with Sarah for a long-distance conversation about the book, an intimate examination of her friendship with a homeless veteran who often suffered frightening delusions.
PG: The book opens with a scene in which you are going to meet Mot at the KOA. Was this the first opening scene you wrote? What made you decide to open with this?
SE: Oh, gosh, no. Not by a long shot. Like most beginning writers, I started out with a whole lot of backstory. I began the piece with what is now the second chapter and worked chronologically for a long time. It wasn’t until I started getting things down—and workshopping the things I’d written—that I realized we needed to start there. And, quite probably, the writing did need to start at the very beginning, because I needed to work my way toward that opening scene. But there is no reason to make the reader do that work, too.
PG: Can you talk about the significance of the quotes that begin each chapter?
SE: People figure out the world in different ways; some through religious practice, some through work, some through living in community. I figure the world out by reading, and during the writing of this book, I had a lot to figure out. The authors I turned to, then, needed to somehow be present in the book itself, and the epigraphs are an attempt to do that.
PG: It’s interesting that the book is clearly your memoir, yet it’s named after another character in the story. Can you talk about that decision? Did you ever consider not naming it Mot?
SE: I tried, briefly, to find a different title for the book because I had also published an abbreviated version of the first several chapters under an essay of the same name. But I never found anything else that I thought framed the piece in the right way. This is a memoir in which the central character really isn’t the narrative character, and I wanted to make that clear to the reader from the start. Using his name for the title was the only way I found to do that.
PG: I think one of the most interesting things to know about any piece of creative nonfiction is this: what didn’t you include? Were there threads to the story that felt important at the time or during early drafts that had to be removed in service to the book?
SE: I’m a pretty minimalist writer, and for me the process was more about adding to the skeleton narrative that I developed early on rather than taking away threads that ended up not going anywhere. In early drafts, there was almost nothing about my life away from Mot, because it took me a while to understand that the reader needed to place my friendship with him within the larger context of my life at the time. I was resistant to this, because my fear was that too much of that could turn this book into exactly what I didn’t want for it to be: the story of a white middle-aged, middle class woman who finds truth through her friendship with “the other.” And that really isn’t the story at all. I wanted the reader to see Mot, not me.
PG: CNF writers are often in the position of telling other peoples’ stories as we tell our own. How did your ex-husband feel about your portrayal of him and/or of your marriage to him? Was there any fallout that you had to manage?
SE: I doubt very much that he has, or will, read the book. While we were still married, and I was working on early drafts, he told me to write what I needed to write and not to worry about what he thought about the work. And I’ve taken him at his word. But we are each now happily married to other people, and really not in one another’s lives any longer.
I did try, though, to be fair. To own my own failings and to explore how we both were lousy at being married to one another. Which doesn’t make either of us lousy people. Just people who mistook a single shared passion as an adequate foundation for a marriage, which it is not.
PG: At what point in your relationship with Mot did you know you would write a book about the experience?
SE: So, the writing of the book started out as a kind of intellectual sleight of hand. If you tell people, “I’m going to go visit my friend Mot in his homelessness in the American West,” they get alarmed and do their best to talk you out of it. If you add the phrase, “…because I’m going to write a book about him,” though, then suddenly everyone claps you on the back and says that’s a fascinating idea. So, I started saying I would write the book very early on.
But, of course, saying you’re going to write a book and actually writing one are very different things. I took copious notes from the start (because I don’t like to lie, and I said I was going to write a book, so I needed to take notes), but in truth I never thought I’d actually finish the manuscript, much less manage to get it published. Writing a book seemed like a very big thing to me then, bigger than I believed myself capable of at the time. And so I don’t think I knew I was going to write a book until I had finished the first polished draft of it. Up until then, I was pretty sure I was just faking it, first to have a way to explain my travels with Mot to other people, and then to manage the loneliness of his leaving.
PG: One of the things I love so much about the book was this narrator’s unfolding awareness that her efforts to “save” Mot are actually efforts to save herself. It’s a requirement of the memoirist to have that duality of brain – to be able to record in-the-moment experience while also analyzing it from afar. Did you have that awareness as the events of the book unfolded? Or was uncovering that realization part of the writing process?
SE: One of my biggest struggles with this work was trying to make myself known to the reader on the page, because in many ways, I’m not a very self-reflective person. It’s a genuine personal failing of mine. People would ask, “Why are you doing this?” and for the longest time I couldn’t think of an answer beyond, “Because it’s interesting to me.” At the time of living these experiences, that seemed like enough to me, and I didn’t try to puzzle out a why.
But every early reader—and I was lucky, my early readers were excellent writers and pioneers in the genre, including people like Kevin Oderman and Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore, so I knew enough to listen to them—kept insisting that I delve deeper. And it was only in later drafts, when I had some distance from the events, that I came to realize how much of my friendship with Mot was also about reclaiming parts of myself I’d lost to a lousy job, a failing marriage, and just the ennui of middle age. But, having said that, I also hope it doesn’t get lost that Mot was my friend because he was a generous, intelligent, entertaining person who cared for me as deeply as I cared for him, and that the point of the friendship was always and only the friendship itself. But I think that every significant relationship changes us in important ways, and in this case, I was lucky to have been changed for the better.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.