October 20, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Laura Davis
In the final weeks before the launch of my first book in nineteen years, I’m excited, exhausted, obsessed, and optimistic—when I’m not feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. As I get closer to my launch, I’m more emotional, on edge. It’s getting harder to remain grounded in all that’s good and steady in my life.
Yesterday, I started listening to one of many writing podcasts I subscribe to. The latest episode was about deconstructing a book launch. Oh, I thought, that’s perfect for me. I can learn from the mistakes and successes of this author. So, as I folded clothes and organized the mess of papers scattered across my bed, I hit play.
The name of the podcast doesn’t matter, nor does the name of the author. She was talking about what went well and what didn’t in her pandemic book launch. In the first five minutes, it became clear that this woman had many things I didn’t: the backing of a big publisher, a huge marketing campaign and budget, lots of personal connections to the literati, publishers, broadcasters, podcasters, and famous writers. She’d clearly called in her chits and gotten lots of people to promote her book in circles vastly bigger and more influential than mine.
A ball of dread sparked in my belly. I knew enough about self-care to turn off the podcast, but it was too late. I’d already been sucked into a sticky web of anxiety. All the hard work I’d done for my launch, everything I’d set up looked paltry and insignificant by comparison. I was sure that the opportunities that I could only dream about were falling into the other author’s lap. Terry Gross, sure! Tim Ferris, of course. Reese Witherspoon’s book club—absolutely! The green-eyed monster firmly attached herself to me. “Why don’t I have…?” “Why can’t I be…?” “My book will never…” I spent the afternoon doom-scrolling in my mind, playing out worst case scenarios. The Burning Light of Two Stars would be published and instantly drop into the pit of obscurity. The capstone of my writing career would never be read. It wouldn’t touch people. It wouldn’t reach readers. I’d never recoup the tens of thousands of dollars I’d invested in this launch.
That’s when I remembered what my upbeat and brilliant book marketing coach, Sue Campbell from Pages and Platforms, told us once in a mindset call, “When you compare, you despair.”
So, I called it a day, packed my swim bag, and headed to my haven, the Simpkins Family Swim Center. Five minutes from my house, this state-of-the-art public pool is where I go for exercise, solace, meditation, and to still my churning mind.
I swiped my admission card, peeled off my clothes, donned my cap, goggles and fins, and slid into the cool depth. As soon as I hit the water, my whole body relaxed. As I went through my workout—kicking, pulling, breathing every third breath, then every fifth, then every seventh, sprinting, followed by a cool-down—I glanced underwater at the swimmers to my right and left.
I’m always struck by the egalitarian nature of the pool. There are babies, toddlers, school children, swim team members, the water aerobics ladies (who remind me fondly of my mother), old people, able-bodied people, people with disabilities, bodies that are obese, thin, shapely, flabby, and everywhere in between. Sometimes, the swimmer to my left zips along, doing flip turns and a fast freestyle, lapping me regularly, while the swimmer to my right is so slow, I’m doing three laps to his one. I think about this every time I swim—there is always someone faster than me and always someone slower.
The other swimmers only exist in my peripheral vision for a moment. Then I slip back into my own deep-water groove, savoring the way the light filters through the water, relishing the sensation of my whole body moving weightlessly, the pleasure of counting laps. I focus on being in my own lane, relishing the vitality and strength in my body.
And that’s how it is with my book launch. I’m in my own lane. I’ve made a plan. I’m executing that plan, swimming toward an uncertain future—as we all are, in ways far vaster and most significant than the launch of my new book.
Jealousy poisons and cuts both ways. While I’m busy coveting what another author has, another writer is wishing they had my privilege, platform, and publishing history. There will always be an author with more. Each time I hunger for someone else’s success, it poisons me. It makes me doubt myself and my own trajectory. To compare is to despair. All I can do is keep swimming with strength, purpose, and passion in my lane.
Laura Davis is the author of The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story, the story of her loving yet tumultuous relationship with her mother, and six other nonfiction books, including The Courage to Heal, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Her groundbreaking books have been translated into 11 languages and sold two million copies. In addition to writing books that inspire and change people’s lives, the work of Laura’s heart is to teach. For more than twenty years, she’s helped people find their voices, tell their stories, and hone their craft. Laura loves creating supportive, intimate writing communities online, in person, and internationally. You can learn about Laura’s workshops, read the first five chapters of her new memoir, and receive a free ebook: Writing Through Courage: A 30-Day Practice at www.lauradavis.net.
October 4, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Sonya Huber
“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.
In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.
I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.
It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.
I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.
Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.
July 30, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Susan Barr-Toman
Four years ago, I attended an author event for Martha Cooley’s Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. At the time I was stuck. I was a novelist, who couldn’t make stuff up anymore. Years before I’d studied fiction in grad school and had workshopped with Cooley. Back then, I was adamant about being a fiction writer, who did not rely on autobiographical material to create, having no interest in writing about my life.
At the reading, Cooley spoke how she’d lost eight friends in a decade. Her elderly mother had been in ill health back in the States, while she was in Italy working on translations with her husband Antonio Romani and trying to make progress on a novel. But her loss would not be ignored, and she began journaling. Her novel languished in the corner as essays came forth demanding her attention.
I caught up with Cooley afterwards and told her I found myself in a similar situation – my novel writing having halted and only essays arriving. She told me to write what was coming for me now. The novel will wait, she assured me. “Write those essays!”
I remember the novelist Elizabeth McCracken coming to give a talk at Temple University in 2008. For the first time she had written a memoir. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is about her two pregnancies: the first stillborn and a year later a healthy child. She said she never thought she’d write nonfiction, but then she didn’t have anything to write about. Until she did.
I remember thinking, I hope I never have anything to write about.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. In 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2015.
For each of us it seemed our grief demanded its due. If I ignored my loss and failed to listen in order to force myself to work on fiction, I would dig myself deep into a writer’s block. To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page. For the time being, my husband was my muse. Nonfiction was my medium.
I followed Cooley’s advice and stopped beating myself up about the novels. Of course, a part of me knew this is what had to happen, but I needed to hear it from someone else. A former professor’s permission helped me to accept my move to nonfiction. But even after that, I assumed I was meant to write a book length memoir about my life with my husband, about his illness and death. Still, those essays kept coming.
Finally, I realized that I had been putting my story down all along, and that it wouldn’t be a memoir, but a collection of essays. Flash essays to be precise. They operate as the perfect vehicle for my experience of grief. They come upon me unexpectedly and hit quick and deep with a lasting ache.
I recognized that my life and my experiences would shape what I created. Limiting my idea of who I was as a writer limited my writing. Once again, I learned the lesson that letting go of what I thought my life would be and who I thought I should be opened me to more creativity, more possibilities.
I printed out a stack of essays to consider for the collection and prepared to go on my first writer’s retreat. In the back of my mind, I wondered if making a collection would allow me to return to writing fiction.
As I packed for the retreat, I logged on to a Zoom author event at the Center for Fiction for Martha Cooley’s new novel Buy Me Love. I folded laundry and listened. Cooley admitted that she’d been working on the novel for over fifteen years. She hadn’t been working on it the whole time, she said; she’d taken time off to do translations with her husband and to write an essay collection – Guesswork.
I found myself smiling. Cooley was right. She’d written what was coming to her and had let the novel that languished in the corner wait. Perhaps she’d been working on it in the back of her mind all the while, but she had finished it. It could be done. Her novel had waited. Maybe mine will too. I’m open to the possibilities.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her flash essays have appeared most recently in Longleaf Review, JMWW and Zone 3. She teaches Mindful Writing workshops through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com.
July 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Margarita Gokun Silver
I wasn’t always committed to writing, for two main reasons: (1) Soviet teachers and (2) Soviet parents.
I’ll start with the teachers, because when we were growing up we weren’t allowed ever to question the teachers. I’m just making up for lost time.
Most Soviet teachers fell into two camps—flustered or scary. Our Russian language and literature teacher was scary. She usually walked into the classroom with her neck askew like a hawk, her large wire glasses perched on her pointy nose, and her stare steely as if she was practicing to be Stalin. Most of the time she didn’t teach us anything, so we copied forewords and called them essays. I’m not proud of this but, also, I never got caught so I guess that’s something to be proud of? Not that it was easy to catch plagiarism then—Google’s Sergey Brin wasn’t born yet and there were plenty of forewords to go around from all the editions of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky littering our neighborhood libraries. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Brin invented Google. Maybe his mother or grandmother was a Russian literature teacher.
Then one day my luck ran out. No, I didn’t get caught for plagiarizing. But I got caught for something equally as scandalous (apparently!):
ME [with a smirk and the attitude of a 16-year-old who knows everything]: I don’t really care about Russian literature. I’m going into the technical field. I won’t need it.
MY FRIEND [nodding in agreement]: Lucky you.
I got a 2 (an F equivalent) for my next essay. And another 2 for the essay after that. And after that. When I brought home my third disgrace, my mother decided to take matters into her own hands. She marched to our school, a box of chocolates in her bag, and asked the teacher why her daughter, who until then had been bringing 4s (a B equivalent) for those plagiarized essays (to be clear, my mother didn’t mention they were plagiarized), was now only getting 2s. The box of chocolates was a bribe; you didn’t go anywhere in the Soviet Union without a bribe. The value of your bribe depended on your economic level, with a box of chocolates reserved for the Soviet middle class intelligenzia. (Foreign soap was also a thing, as were bottles of Armenian cognac.)
The teacher explained, eyes owl-wide and shaking her head, that she overheard me trashing Russian literature. Sacrilegious, she meant to communicate. (Note to the legal team: I’m pretty sure that teacher is no more, but if she is, please don’t tell her I named my dog Pushkin.) My mother wrung her hands, added a pleading look at her box of chocolates, and negotiated a truce. That’s how I found my name being called the moment the teacher walked into the classroom the next day.
ME [standing up]: Yes?
THE ENTIRE CLASS (including the boy I had a terrible crush on) [staring with that mix of curiosity, pity, and fear—the same exact kind of stare my great-uncle got when they took him to the gulag]
TEACHER [walking to her desk, gold earrings swinging in her ears]: Why did Tolstoy have Anna Karenina kill herself at the end?
ME [praying that boy cannot see red because I’m turning the color of cooked beet all the way from my ears to my cheeks to my neck]: …
I’m not going to recount the answer, mostly because I can’t remember what I said, but also because it was some Soviet propaganda bullshit I’d gleaned from a foreword the night before. My mother had told me I’d be called on to answer a question and I spent the hours I usually spent staring at the phone willing that boy to ring me memorizing forewords. Because I had a good memory, I passed. The teacher began grading all of my essays at a 3 level, which is like a C but with a lot of parental heartbreak. My mother wondered if the box of chocolates was past its prime because those 3s were accompanied by a Baikal Lake of red-ink comments that pointed out my ineptitude in all things written. I never again said anything about Russian literature aloud. And I wrote off all possibilities of me writing ever again.
Here I should point out that it wasn’t really up to me to write it off. Even if I were the Evgeny Kissin of literature, even if I knew then that I wanted to become a writer, and even if that teacher hadn’t killed any desire I may have had to put words on paper, I wouldn’t have gone into writing. I also wouldn’t have gone into performing. Or into art. Or into any kind of career that didn’t involve a math entrance exam, a study of thermodynamics, or an encounter with cadavers at a Moscow morgue. Which is to say I had a choice that limited me to becoming either an oil and gas engineer or a doctor.
I was not banned from studying something else. Not technically, anyway. Conceivably, I could have told my parents that I wanted to become an actress (I did do a mean interpretation of blue-haired Malvina, Buratino’s girlfriend, in school) or the nation’s next Isaak Babel or a sculptor of Lenin busts (I was very good at sketching statues and because Lenin’s was basically everywhere, I perfected that almost to the level of plagiarizing forewords). Even more conceivably, they would have looked at me and laughed. Not because they didn’t believe in me, but because engineers didn’t give birth to artists in the Soviet Union. And artists didn’t give birth to engineers. I mean, there were six engineers in my family, one doctor, and zero artists of any kind. As a Soviet child, you followed in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents: those were the rules. And we didn’t make the rules. If you were related to physics geniuses and math whizzes, you couldn’t go on sculpting Lenin, even if you were better at that than at math.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and NPR, among others. This essay is excerpted from her recent essay collection I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales). She tweets @MGokunSilver.
July 14, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Anne Liu Kellor
- Did I emphasize enough how much I felt like a failure leaving China, leaving jobs, leaving my boyfriend, leaving my studies of Chinese, not accomplishing anything tangible, except to realize how weak I was? No. But on some level, that became the point of my book: not a triumph in accomplishment, but a triumph in being able to realize my own essence and needs.
- Heart Radical was always a memoir, but for years I thought it had to be more informative, investigative, researched, male, “smart.” It wasn’t enough just to write about my own heart’s travails. I needed to look outward, educate the world about modern China, be an ‘expert’ on something else besides my inner world.
- I used to fantasize about getting a video camera and trekking off alone into the Tibetan countryside. Filming and documenting some remote place. That would be brave! That would be admirable and interesting to others! Instead, over time, I just grew more focused on myself and my life with my boyfriend. I saw this as failure back then. But now I understand why I needed to go in that direction. That doesn’t mean I still don’t criticize myself for being too self-absorbed. I still ask myself all the time how I can widen my circles of inclusion and action; how I can witness both myself and others, ever more.
- I never learned how to say “spiritual path” in Chinese. And I still struggle to explain what I mean by that in English. Figuring this out too, was a part of the point of the book.
- I didn’t include how I used to say things to my boyfriend like, Shangdi hui bangzhu ni: God will help you. I was more comfortable using the word God then than I am now (even though I still am okay with the word, in the right contexts). That is one benefit of growing up without religion—I’m not overly allergic or attached to one version of a concept. Because, yes, God is a concept. Just as it’s an experience, an unspeakable knowing, a truth beyond words.
- China is about the least spiritual place I know, I wrote once, something I implied but never directly stated in my book.
- I also used to use the word karma a lot more, as in, I wonder what karma we still have to play out together. It’s not that I don’t believe in karma or fate anymore; I just am more okay with my ambivalence with not naming things as such. Not getting caught up with grand questions of “my life’s destiny.” Just letting the moment, heart-song, unfold. Just letting Intuition, call it God, call it Buddha-nature, guide me forward to the next right choice. Just trying to stay aligned with that same essential desire I had then as I have now: to give with my life, to be more generous and compassionate, even when—or especially when—that means forgiving my own limitations.
- I chose to leave my parents out as much as possible, in part because my mom once point-blank told me not to write about her. But… how do you write a coming-of-age memoir about returning to your mother’s birthplace without writing, at least a little, about your parents? So I did, a little. I tried to be honest and empathetic, yet brief. I’m still scared they will latch on to the few “negative” things I say, and not see how much I am simply trying to understand how I seek what I seek, in part because of how I was raised. How we all are wounded, in our own particular ways, however mild or extreme the wound may appear. And how we pass that down to future generations if we never speak of or address the wounding. I didn’t know I was writing to address core wounds when I first set out; I was too young to see it that way. But of course, the deeper I went into my edits over the years, the more obvious it became that I could not leave out my parents, as much as I tried. For everything is connected.
- Traveling alone in another country where you arrive knowing no one puts you at the mercy of others’ kindness. As such, I saw chance encounters back then as fate. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have met X. But if this is so, isn’t it also true that fate is always happening? We just tend to notice it less when we are living our sedentary lives. We think nothing is happening or nothing is going our way, when in fact, everything is happening; gifts or messengers are always appearing, if we are paying attention.
- So you want to be a writer still, I wrote in 2002 near the end of my three years in China. Believe, sister, BELIEVE. Even if it takes you twenty years to publish your book, I might have added too, and laughed at what would have sounded then like hyperbole.
Anne Liu Kellor is a mixed-race Chinese American writer, editor, and teacher based in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, Fourth Genre, Witness, New England Review, The Normal School, Literary Mama, and many more. Anne earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is the recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, Seventh Wave, Jack Straw Writers Program, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. She teaches writing workshops across the Pacific Northwest and loves to support women writers in finding their voice and community. Praised by Cheryl Strayed as “insightful, riveting, and beautifully written,” Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Longing is her first book. To pre-order or learn more, please visit: anneliukellor.com
June 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Krista Varela Posell
Before the pandemic, I hadn’t published anything in three years. I don’t even think I even finished writing a single essay that entire time. I had not one but two book manuscripts that had stalled out. Major life events kept me from writing regularly: my mother’s dementia diagnosis, the death of my first dog, and a significant transition in my marriage. I kept telling myself, “you are just living the life you’ll write about later”—though that did little to assuage the guilt I felt thinking I should be more disciplined if I wanted to call myself a writer.
When California’s shelter in place orders went into effect last March, I decided to use the shakeup in my routine as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing practice. For inspiration, I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a frequently recommended book on craft and one that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year after I found it on clearance in a bookstore.
I committed to reading a chapter a day, which amounted to just a few pages, to get myself to think about writing. Looking at the table of contents—65 chapters including the introduction—I thought, I won’t even finish this before life goes back to normal. It seemed like a productive and pleasurable way to pass the time. As of this writing, 423 days since I started working from home, I could have read the book several times over.
I established a morning ritual: sitting at my desk to read, then writing down a line or two that captured my eye. I followed up with journaling, trying to capture the strangeness of daily life in an unprecedented time. “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical,” Goldberg writes. “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”
And so, I did my best to record the details, filling almost an entire notebook in six months. Many pages served as to-do lists. I became obsessed with keeping straight the basic tasks I had to accomplish to get through the day: “Put out the trash bins. Repot the plants. Weed the backyard. Hang up the laundry. Return book to the library.” Writing down any task became the first step in being able to complete it. If it wasn’t on the page (short of eating and bathing) it wouldn’t get done, disappearing in my brain amongst the riptide of constant anxiety.
As the pandemic pressed on and it became evident that we would still be living in this reality far longer after I finished Writing Down the Bones, my motivation for reading evaporated. The book was meant to serve as a time marker, a source of optimism. But one of the rewards for finishing it—going back to “regular” life— was no longer there. Even something as small and manageable as a single chapter felt too overwhelming.
After taking a break for a few weeks, the chapter I returned to began, “When you are not writing, you are a writer too,” as though Natalie Goldberg knew that was exactly what I needed to hear to get going again. These words reinforced what I wanted to believe during those years I hadn’t been writing but wasn’t comfortable enough to embrace until now.
I’ve tried to do my future self a favor to document as much as possible when I have the energy for it. In between my lists, I’ve kept other notes, unfiltered raw thoughts of what I don’t want to forget about this past year, mostly frenetic musings on loneliness and angst:
June 5th: “It’s hard to know what to even write. Black people are dying.”
August 20th: “I can’t feel excited about turning 30 when I’m feeling so anxious about just surviving.”
December 22nd: “I’m still feeling an all-encompassing restlessness that makes it so hard to get through the day. I’ve never felt so much animosity toward just having to exist.”
Having to be gentle with myself for all the complicated feelings arising during the most stressful time in recent history, I’ve let go of the idea of a daily practice, of sitting down at the same time and space to write every day, for good. Even Goldberg acknowledges the importance of cutting yourself some slack, of making sure you don’t become too rigid in your routine: “Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly towards it.”
And yet, for the sporadic fluctuations to my process, I had more victories in 2020 than I had in the three years prior combined. All that journaling eventually began rendering itself into actual essays, some that I managed to publish throughout the year. I also started a blog and got my first paid byline. Writing finally feels like it has a regular place in my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in grad school. And by regular, I mean one that doesn’t feel so tenuous if I can’t manage to do the thing for a week or two.
I still don’t write every day, but the biggest difference is, I no longer feel guilty about it. We are living in a pandemic, after all. I spent years wringing my hands over whether to call myself a writer, feeling like it’s a title I don’t deserve. Now, it’s an identity I comfortably inhabit, one that is pliable and forgiving of the circumstances of life. When I’m not sure where to start, I simply write down the knowns, the truths of what I’m experiencing: “It’s your life, begin from it.”
I haven’t finished reading Writing Down the Bones yet either. Instead of rushing toward the end to move on to something else, I’ve chosen to savor it like a decadent dessert I come back to when I need a little pick-me-up. Over thirty years later, it feels as though Goldberg is still speaking directly to our present: “In the middle of the world, make one positive step,” she writes, “In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
Krista Varela Posell (she/they) is a queer Latina writer living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Bold Italic, GO Mag, Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Krista earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is co-creator of the community blog Poly in Place.
May 24, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Lilly Dancyger
Most of the people I interviewed while doing research for my memoir, I spent a few hours with. Usually one long conversation, sometimes a few follow-up questions over the phone or email. But with my mother I just kept digging, and kept finding new depths. We spent dozens of hours, stretched over years, talking about her relationship with my father, their shared heroin addiction and the shadow it cast over my childhood, their breakup, and his death. Each conversation felt like she’d finally borne her soul to me, but I always found more bubbling up later: more details, more truth, more pain, more ugliness.
If I had asked my mother for all of these details—what she and my father fought about, when they were using and when they were clean, all the reasons they split up—in a purely mother-daughter context, there’s no way it would have been a calm, productive conversation. It would have been too raw for both of us, my wronged daughter-self lashing out at her flawed mother-self. She would have gotten defensive, which would have made me push harder, until we weren’t digging toward a truth together but just screaming our own grievances.
We’d never agreed on what our life together had looked like; what she was like as a mother, what I was like as a daughter, who was more at fault for so much friction. We’d never even really acknowledge that there was friction, that there was any blame to place. We’d just moved on from the explosive teenage years—when we only spoke to each other in angry screams and passive aggressive jabs—without ever exploring the damage.
But now this wasn’t about me and her directly. Now it was about the story, and I could ask her in my detached reporter voice, “What was that like?” even if underneath, what I meant was “How could you let this happen?” The structure of interviewing in service of storytelling kept us focused, pushing calmly ahead. I was collecting these moments of our lives, even the ugly ones, to build something out of them. Not demanding apologies, just stories; just material.
We were taking the story down in chunks—years of this excavation, years of phone calls that opened with bracing questions, like “When did you start using again in San Francisco?” and “What was the last straw that ended your marriage?” But she never received these calls with hostility, or resistance, or even annoyance. She’d say, “Well!” and I could hear her settling into her chair and trying to put the words together carefully but truthfully.
I had been wary about interviewing my mother at first, had wanted to guard my project against the flood of her emotion, worried the story I was trying to tell—about my father, and his art, and all that I inherited from him—would be overtaken. And she did overtake it in a way, but not the way I’d expected. As I started to understand her more and more through these stories, I realized I was shifting the landscape of my relationships with both of my parents where I’d only set out to explore and shift one.
I realized somewhere along the way that whatever I wanted to call it—interviews, research—this was also me asking my mother all the questions that it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask her at all until she was dead too, and I went again searching desperately for something that was gone. I thought during some of these interviews, and between them, that I should appreciate them for what they were: not just traces of my father, but honest, intimate, past-plumbing conversations with my mother.
In the midst of all of these conversations, I published an op-ed in a national paper about a viral photo of a little boy strapped into a car seat, staring into the camera, while his guardians sit nearly dead from opioid overdoses in the front seats. In the piece, I compared myself to that little boy and wrote about what it’s like to be the child of addicts—all the feelings that had been churning around about how it’s not their fault but it’s still their responsibility, and how it creates a shame that’s impossible not to inherit no matter how much you defend them, or how much you believe those defenses.
My mother called to tell me that when she first read the piece she was hurt, she wanted to argue, to point out that they never put me in that position. That most of the time they were just doing enough heroin to “maintain,” to avoid withdrawal, that they weren’t even really getting high, let alone doing enough to overdose. We were on the phone, so thankfully I didn’t have to mask the mounting rage on my face as I held my tongue while she rationalized, holding back an outburst about how ridiculous she sounded explaining that they were “good” heroin addict parents. But then, she said, she’d thought about it. She’d been rethinking a lot lately with all of these conversations we’d been having, and she’d realized that she’d convinced herself that because she did some things right, she had been a good mother. I had two parents who loved me, who cared whether I was fed and safe, who played games and read me stories. She’d focused on that part, and pretended that growing up knowing my parents were addicts, watching it tear their marriage apart and kill my father, somehow hadn’t affected me.
I pressed the phone to my ear, overwhelmed, realizing how badly I’d needed to hear her say these things. I didn’t interject; I just let her keep talking, repeating herself, explaining how her own perspective was shifting as we had all of these conversations and she was finally seeing that of course I had been harmed. Saying she was sorry.
Hearing her finally admit that she wasn’t a perfect mother, that she let me be exposed to things no kid should know about, that she’d let me fend for my own emotional wellbeing when I most needed her help—hearing her apologize—cracked something open in me. I’d wanted for years to throw all of this in her face, to accuse her, to expose her. But as soon as she admitted it, all I felt was forgiveness—flooding in through the cracks in the wall between us, cracks that had been formed by all the interviews, just enough to let some light in.
** This blog entry is excerpted from Lilly Dancyger’s memoir Negative Space (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021)
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award; and the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger. Find her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.
May 10, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Cheryl Achterberg
I wanted to learn to write memoir, specifically, how to end a memoir. Some say you must read to write. So, I read 50 memoirs with a few questions in mind. If a memoir is a fragment of a person’s life, is every memoir time-bound? How long might that time be? May I write about a long relationship that cuts across a lifetime, but is not in itself my whole life? Is that fragmentary enough? Does it make a difference if the narrator is a young adult or an older adult? According to C. S. Lakin, a memoir ends when “you’ve arrived,” but is that always obvious? What are the tropes in memoir, both good and bad?
It took two years to read a set of 50 memoirs. There are, of course, books about how to write memoir as well as webinars, blogs, and magazine articles. I’ve read many of those books and taken many of those webinars in the last two years as well. But they didn’t address my central question—how to end a memoir? Romances and mysteries have lists of do/don’t instructions. Why not memoirs?
My sample set was based on availability, a list of the 50 best memoirs in the last 50 years from the NY Times, and a specific interest in Alzheimer’s Disease. The COVID lockdown interfered with acquisition. Books were treated as if radioactive at my local library. The place was closed for months. Eventually, I could order books, but many had to be obtained from other libraries across the state. Browsing shelves was not an option.
I read the set of 50 books. Two-thirds were by women. Almost half (N=21) were written in the last five years (2015-2020) and ten were published in the 1990s. Most of the older ones are classics in the memoir genre, for instance, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and The Color of Water by James McBride. Six were by authors of color, two were LGBTQ. I generally avoided travel memoirs and celebrities except for Michael J. Fox’s latest. His No Time Like the Future is a model of story construction. Some memoirs are narrative masterpieces (e.g., Bauby, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Some are so memorable you will never forget them (e.g., Educated by Tara Westover). Here’s what I learned.
Memoirs deal with serious subject matter. In my set of 50, more endings dealt with death than any other topic. Five deaths were either patients the narrator cared for (e.g., Magnusson’s Where Memories Go) or the narrator’s directly, (e.g., Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face). Another eight were about coming to terms with one’s own mortality (e.g., Saunder’s Memory’s Last Breath) or the death of a parent, child, or loved one (e.g., Tretheway’s Memorial Drive).
Memoirs address humanity’s biggest emotional questions. Beyond death, the second largest ending category was resolving relationship problems including prodigal son/daughter themes (e.g., Karr, Cherry), understanding parents/seeing truth (e.g., Laymon, Heavy), escaping a bad marriage (Gee, Higher Education, Marijuana in the Mansion) or resolving sexual identity and marital relationships (e.g., Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Some confront grief (e.g., Before I Forget by B. Smith and Dan Gasby).
Meeting goals and challenges are prominent in endings. I defined a goal as something freely chosen such as Nita Sweeney setting out to run a marathon in Depression Hates a Moving Target. A challenge was an unplanned or unsettling event the narrator had to overcome as in Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. Together memoirs about goals and challenges accounted for 16 of the 50 memoirs I read. They show hope is justified, things can get better, and people can recover from setbacks. Rarely is failure ever documented (my sole example is Grann, The White Darkness).
Coming of age stories are represented but NOT dominant among memoirs. This finding was contrary to my expectations because I thought if there is a trope in memoir, coming of age would be it. There were six entries in my sample that recounted youth and adolescence ending in college entry, marriage, or moving. They might be called traditional or archetypic female narratives. However, both men (e.g., Wolff, The Boy’s Life) and women (e.g., Murray, Breaking Night) writers were represented in this set.
I did not find the proverbial tropes in memoir. There were no rags to riches stories nor were there any helpless female fatales. Neither did I find a standard timeline—a book might cover weeks or years or even a lifetime—so long as the “fragment” of a life was narrowed to a puzzling relationship, a question to be resolved, or challenge to be surmounted. Paula Balzer advises that memoirists should write with the end in sight. That may not be possible if self-discovery occurs in the process of the author’s writing. Besides, some things really are unending. A writer may learn that only by writing. As Lilly Dancyger noted, you can’t pretend your issue is “neatly resolved when it’s not.” And sometimes, that may be the point.
I learned there are no magic formulas, but memoirs are not about time. That finding answered my central question. Memoir endings can land anywhere and be anything if they carry a meaning. The memoirist should just write without worrying about the ending. The more important issue is what does the writing have to teach and share with yourself, other people, and the world at large. That’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.