Research and Memoir: Toggling Between Yourself and World, Part 2
May 4, 2023 § Leave a comment
By Jody Keisner
A Q&A WITH MINNA DUBIN, SOFIA ALI-KHAN, and ERICA BERRY
Here is the second half of my interview with Minna, Sofia and Erica where we dig deeper into how to use research in writing memoir. If you missed Part 1, the first half of our discussion, you can find it here.
JK: Can you provide another example of how research transformed a story, either about yourself or your broader subject?
MD: My interviews helped guide the book. One mom shared a revealing breakdown, how she and her husband went from an equal division of domestic labor pre-children to an unequal one. The mountain of labor that befalls mothers as they “inevitably” step into the role of primary parent became a big theme in the book. Another mom described taking care of two older family members in addition to her kids, so I added a section about the double unpaid labor shouldered by these “sandwich generation” moms. The moms’ stories showed me what perspectives needed highlighting.
SAK: Before I interviewed anyone, I looked at primary and secondary sources. One striking example of a primary source that humanized history was a letter provided by the Manassas Museum. It was written by Malinda Robinson, a formerly enslaved woman who had been sold away from the farm on which she’d been enslaved as a child. She wrote it in 1866, just after emancipation, trying to locate her siblings. That letter conveys the realities of family separation during slavery and the persistent devastation of racism in a way that I could never have done.Broadly, I had not anticipated that the color lines I was researching had resulted from regional or national movements. I started with twelve towns but ended up with a book that told hard truths about all of America.
EB: I was always upset by how wolves were humanized (“Wolves: Government-Funded Terrorists” read a Montana bumper-sticker) but research showed me the extent to which people get made into wolves, too (the Central Park Five as a “wolf pack”). These conflations are harmful to both human and non-human animals, and I realized I couldn’t write about the dominant western lineage of wolf stories without unspooling narratives around racism, sexism, and colonialism too. After a few scary experiences with strange men, I especially wanted to interrogate “Little Red Riding Hood,” because the evil of the wolf depends on the innocence of the girl. I felt I could not deconstruct the symbolic wolf without considering who he was supposed to be chasing. Scenes from my own life became moments to examine the intersectional constructions of girlhood.
JK: How do you balance research with personal storytelling?
MD: At first, I was focusing on one mom’s story per chapter, and I also had my own narrative in each chapter, but ultimately this structure felt forced. I ended up looking at each chapter and asking, “What do I want to say here?” Then I picked the pieces of the moms’ stories and my own that helped propel the chapter forward. I was being precious about all the stories (including my own) at the beginning. I needed my editors’ help to see that I had to use the personal stories to help the book, not use the book to help the stories.
SAK: Initially, the memoir framing was a bit of a device for me, a way to control the scope of my research and tie it together in a novel way. My editor pushed me to be more vulnerable and he was right. In the end, the memoir and histories illuminate each other.
EB: I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but at a certain point my agent suggested that my own intimate embodied experiences with fear were a useful lever of authority. To dismantle dominant narratives around predator and prey, I had to include moments when I felt like prey, and where I felt—or was read—as predator, as well as places where my perspective around fear or danger with my own body evolved.
JK: Smoothly transitioning from research and reportage into one’s narrative voice can be challenging. How do you negotiate this?
MD: The research piece was useful for zooming out from one mom’s narrative. I would tell the story of how one mom decided to leave her job to be with her kids more, then I’d use statistics to show just how many mothers (especially those married to men) are making this same “choice.” The research helped me prove that what feels like a personal decision is actually the designed result of a system that coerces mothers into providing the most unpaid labor possible for the society.
My memoir writing is naturally pretty “voicey.” My challenge with Mom Rage was to integrate the research while staying true to my voice. When the writing got weak and the transitions didn’t feel smooth, it was almost always because I wasn’t trusting my own authoritative voice and was relying too much on statistics, facts, and experts’ quotes.
SAK: It was a challenge for me to arrive at a smooth narrative voice. After I turned in the first full draft to my editor, I read the manuscript and realized I’d been using polemic to link the two narratives. I had to strip out all of that and leave room for the reader to make their own meaning. I also had to stop trying to make the narrative neat, to make the histories link directly to the memoir and vice-versa. Instead, I had to believe in the magic of how the two narratives meet, diverge, and play with one another.
EB: Wolfish also unspools the life of famous Oregon wolf OR-7, and I wanted to reveal the biological truth of his journey while also acknowledging that I could watch his path and learn about my own. I did not want to reduce him to metaphor, but to consider the symbolic or emotional resonances between our lives and create a “connective tissue” between his story and my own. I look to history, science, and literature to interrogate the space between our bodies, and to let the reader consider their own relationship with fear and wildness in the pages.
Jody Keisner is the author of Under My Bed and Other Essays. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essay “Runaway Mother” was a notable Best American Essay 2022. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Reach her @JodyKeisner.
Minna Dubin is the author of MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, forthcoming from Seal Press (September 2023). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Parents. Follow her @minnadubin.
Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America (RH 2022). Her work has appeared in the LA Times, TIME Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at sofiaalikhan.com and on Facebook.
Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear (Flatiron, 2023). Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Yale Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her @ericajberry or at www.ericaberry.com.
Tagged: Author Interviews, interviews, Q&A
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