Leaning Out: Part Two

January 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

Part two of the interview with frequent Brevity contributor Jill Talbot, conducted by Emily Pifer. (Part One can be read here):

Pifer: There are lines in the memoir like this particular one from the essay “Begin” that trace the space between the end of something and all of the ways in which that something may never truly be over: “The next morning, she pulled out of the driveway hoping that leaving a story meant it would end.” I wonder how you navigated toward the end of the memoir, knowing there must be a last essay and a last page, but perhaps not knowing if the last page would mark an end. How do you end a story that for so long feels without end, without a way out?

Talbot: The epilogue was in place long before I finished writing. That epilogue’s idea, that “this is not the whole story,” gave me space to not have to claim an ending, because if I make it clear to the reader that so much has been unwritten, left out, then I’m not thinking in terms of “ending” a story as much as alerting the reader of its continuation.  “Kitchen Table” was the final essay when I submitted the manuscript to my editor, who suggested I write another essay and in particular, one that closed with Indie and I on the road.  What a perfect final image—the two of us in movement, on our way to the next city, the next state, the next home. So I set out to get us across that border, and I also brought her into the story, because it’s the first time in the memoir that recounts me telling her a story of Kenny, inviting her into the narrative that she only knows as a story, the man she only knows by the name of “Kenny.” That moment of crossing the border is intended as a metaphor for the way in which we live—moving forward in space and time but always being pulled back by what we’ve left behind and what we carry with us.

31Tp6LSl5wL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Way We Weren’t feels incredibly intimate, present. It wasn’t until several days of separation from the work that I began imagining what your writing process may have been. It seems that with a story that spans so much time and so much distance, there must have been much material to work with (and without). How do you go about deciding what ultimately goes on the page and what stays inside the head, or heart?

Let me preface my answer with some background about me:  I have this problem in my life of being too intimate and present. I always have—I’m ready to talk honestly with people the minute I meet them.  I’ll give you an example—I was invited to a happy hour with a group of women about a month ago, and during the evening we spent sipping pints, I divulged too much to women I had only met when I sat down to join them at their regular happy hour table. I could see it in their faces, the way they averted their eyes to their beers—I was being too honest, sharing too much, too fast.  I haven’t been invited back.

So the idea that I have the ability to measure what to hold back and what to let loose on the page sounds suspicious given my tendencies, but I’ll tell you this: I feel when I’m writing something—a memory, a conversation, a moment—that it’s not for the page.  It’s too close, too private. I feel it in my chest, and I know to move away from it. I also ask myself how it serves the memoir or the individual essay.  Take Kenny’s letter to the court—I didn’t want to go back to that letter—dig it out of the box and re-read it and type it verbatim.  But the memoir needed it, would, I knew, rely on it.

The idea of material I have to work without is so central, and I’m glad you pointed to that, because all memoirists are, in some way, working without material, all those unknowns. To me, that’s the most compelling aspect of memoir—so much of us depends on what we’ll never know.

Your writing in The Way We Weren’t maintains a sense of urgency, and even at times, desperation. I’m curious about your sense of urgency (and even desperation) during the writing process for this work. How were you able to maintain consistent urgency within the many essays that make up the memoir?

Urgency is a word my students are very familiar with because I’m always asking for it from them.  If you don’t feel the urgency to write it, I tell them, your reader won’t feel the urgency to read it.  This memoir was written over a period of five years, essay by essay, so examining each one in isolation allowed me to burrow down as deep as I could into the memory. When I write, I do that, I go as far down into the emotion I was feeling at the time to the point of pushing it further, exaggerating it, even.  I take each aspect of my persona or action (or inaction) and turn the volume way, way up.  But sometimes I don’t have to turn that volume up—what happened to me and how I responded to it was, so many times, urgent and desperate.

metaThe Way We Weren’t feels in conversation with much of the work (and your work) in Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Thinking about the F. Scott Fitzgerald adage, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say,” how do you think metawriting acts as a tool for the writer to say what he or she cannot say otherwise? 

Working on Metawritings directly influenced and inspired The Way We Weren’t, because I worked on that anthology from 2010-2012, gathering new essays and stories from writers and interviewing each one via e-mail, which is also when I began writing the earliest essays of TWWW (though I didn’t have a memoir in mind then). I was in a meta-mode for two years, and I couldn’t see beyond that modality.  In fact, the original title was The Way We Weren’t: A Fictional Metamemoir.

Meta-moves in writing have to enhance the writing and serve a purpose within the context of the form and the content of the work.  I’ll be honest, when I see meta-moves in workshop, that’s usually the first thing I suggest be cut because the writer has used it only because she’s in graduate school and immersed in writing, so it’s an extension of the writer, not the essay or memoir. I’m emphasizing, as I do in my prologue, that writing allows us to return and to remember but that when we write, we’re all fictionalizing to some extent, so if that’s one of the main premises of the memoir, then I have to point to the act of writing within it.  My editor cut a good deal of the meta-moments because they interrupted the story, and I recognize that he was right. If the metawriting is part of the seams of the work, they enhance and clarify, but if they interrupt or toss a reader out of the moment, it’s not necessary.

Some of those moments of metawriting allow me to be honest with the reader, to admit that when I write, I get to return, “to wander rooms like pages.” As I write in the prologue: “But in her writing, she is with him again, avoiding an ending that came and went years ago.”

With the combination of your previous work, The Way We Weren’t, and the essays you are continually and constantly publishing, you’ve carved out a space for yourself in the literary sphere—especially the creative nonfiction one.  Not to mention, that space you’ve created feels welcoming to other writers who are doing work that feels inspired or somehow aligned with yours. What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in creative nonfiction right now—whether it’s related to your work or otherwise?

The pushing of boundaries excites me—particularly represented in all the anthologies published within the last few years such as BJ Hollars’s Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations To the Fringes of Nonfiction, Margot Singer and Nicole Walker’s Bending Genre, Sean Prentiss and Joe Wilkins’s The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, and even one that just came out—Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov’s Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres.  I’m also seeing more journals invite submissions of hybrid or indeterminate work, and there’s even this notion of “post-genre,” incited by a recent special feature in Ghost Proposal called “Hybrid Forms and the Post-Genre Approach.”  All of that makes me giddy—as a reader and a writer.


Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren’t were named Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015 respectively, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as BrevityDIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, and The Pinch. This year, she will be one of five writers featured at University of San Francisco’s 2016 Emerging Writers Festival.

Emily Pifer is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming, where she’s working on a collection of pop-culturally aware essays.



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