The Family as Inattentive Audience

February 7, 2018 § 28 Comments

z KristenPaulson-NguyenAuthorPhotoBy Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

I’ve written a new essay, and I’m eager to share it. After we’ve eaten the dinner I rushed to prepare in between writing and participating in a Skype call with other writers — and thus screwed up, missing that the whole wheat orecchiette was supposed to be cooked in the chicken broth — I open up my laptop. “Want to hear the essay I wrote about me and my brother Rick today?”

My husband’s head is down; he’s looking at his phone. Our eight-year-old daughter dances next to her chair, eager for dessert. “It’s short,” I say. “Sure,” he says, not looking up. I begin to read, and for five seconds, my family pays attention. Then my daughter darts over to whisper something in her dad’s ear. He nods. I pause. “Are you guys listening?” My husband looks up from his phone.

A few years ago he bought me a copy of Poets & Writers magazine at Brookline Booksmith. As I flipped through it, ogling the far-flung retreats listed in the back matter, he shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, in both a resigned and fond way. “It’s all over now.” I saw then that he fears losing me. He’s afraid that a torrent of words will sweep me away from our marriage.

Maybe that’s why when I begin reading again he interrupts me with a question. I pause for the second time. I wonder: would a writer-husband be more attentive than my pharmacist-DJ husband, or less? I try an appeal to his creative side. “It’s not the same thing at all really, but think about this. What if you were DJing a song, and I shut off the music in the middle of it to ask you a question? How would you feel?” No response. “Can you please just listen for two more paragraphs? I’m getting to the point here.”

Maybe the essay should have gotten to the point sooner. This is the value of an audience, even an inattentive one — our daughter has disappeared into the living room to play. I finish reading. “What do you think?” I ask my husband. “Did you show it to your brother?” he asks. “No.” “Oh.” We sit. “Well,” I tell him. “Aren’t you glad that I didn’t write about you today?” We laugh uneasily.

I’ve been working on a book-length project about our marriage that requires me to enter and exit both the living partnership and the story about it. I do so clumsily. The transitions feel like stumbling through a revolving door. Despite my husband’s trepidation about losing me to exotic retreats, and about his presence in my memoir in progress, I recall a moment a few months ago when he indirectly showed his support of my work. He used a windfall to pay off our mortgage. His generosity is an extravagant gift. Perhaps he’s listening after all.

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist for her memoir-in-progress, To Have and To Hoard. Kristen completed GrubStreet’s year-long Memoir Incubator in 2017. Headspace published her personal essay “A Day With: Hoarding Disorder;” her reporting has appeared in the Boston Globe. Kristen is grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for giving her a character she relates to—Harriet the Spy (with her ever-present notebook). Follow Kristen @kpnwriter.

What Do I Tell My Teens about My Memoir?

January 20, 2016 § 14 Comments

Jennifer Lang

Jennifer Lang

by Jennifer Lang

Sitting at the table smearing hummus on oven-warmed pita last Saturday, I was caught off guard by my daughter’s question. “So, Mommy, what are you going to do after you graduate in July?” she asked. I had been home in Raanana less than twenty-four hours after my fourth residency at a MFA program in America when the subject of my creative thesis and the future came up in conversation. My body still felt cold from snowy Vermont despite the bright Israeli sun streaming in every window.

“Continue writing a book,” I said with conviction.

“About what?” she asked, testing me. Perhaps my daughter, the youngest and most innocent of my three kids, has heard enough of our marital spats to gauge the up-and-down temperature in our house. She knows I write creative nonfiction and have a tell-all tendency, fearing every teenager’s worst dream: will Mom expose us?

“Not sure yet,” I said, although I was. For the past six months, I have been traveling down memory lane, scouring old photo albums from our wedding and writing about the major crossroads in our marriage. But how could I tell my baby I’m writing about our union in order to explore what makes me—my husband, us, you, him, her, anybody—stay when things get tough? That I am on this journey thanks to my fellow writers’ probing questions about why I returned to a country that riles me, even frightens me? During my most recent workshop, I shared the first twenty pages of my manuscript with my cohorts and faculty leaders, eager to know if the material engaged them. Yes, everyone said, using words like riveting, compelling, hooked.

For years, I had been writing about my ambivalent relationship with the country of Israel, a place where I had never intended to live but visited often until, in my early twenties, I unexpectedly met and fell in love with a French immigrant and stayed. Israel, to me, has always been halfway around the world from my California-girl reference point. At the start of graduate school, I told my first mentor my intention to write a collection of linked essays about these feelings; he encouraged me to let go and write new material instead.

Then, early in my second semester, I submitted a segmented essay titled “Sealed” about running to our sealed room in Israel, as newlyweds, during the First Gulf War, and over two decades later during the Israel-Hamas War, with our kids. In the intervening years, we moved—from Israel to France to California to New York to Israel. Each move involved compromises and negotiations, deals we sealed, often with a kiss, sometimes with anger and resentment and always with great sacrifice. One of us chose country, the other religious lifestyle.

My mentor suggested I divide it into two essays: one on my marriage and one on the psychological effects of war. A list essay on the latter poured onto the page. But my marriage? Why, I wondered, would that interest anybody? I opened a Word document, introduced us and our core issues, saved it as “Saying I Do,” and closed it, blocked.

A few months later, I renamed it “Scenes from My Mixed Marriage” and approached our twenty-seven year history in bite-sized acts. I wrote about the first time we met; our linguistic flirtation in Hebrish, Franglais, and Frebrew; our intense chemistry; and my husband’s proposal to move in together after one month. I described my inner struggles about giving up graduate school, career and country—for him. I revisited heart-wrenching conversations, sometimes between the two of us and others with a therapist, about where to live and how to raise our kids Jewishly. I realized that my ambivalence about where I live is intimately tied to my complex, tri-cultural marriage.

Throughout the years, I have heard Mary Karr, William Zinsser, Kathryn Harrison, Anne Lamott and others discuss the importance of writing our emotional truth even about people who are still alive and in our lives. I received my husband’s blessing to write. But I never considered how, what or when to tell my sixteen, eighteen and twenty-two year old children that I would be writing about their father and me, which includes them too.

Even if the process of writing, revising and perhaps publishing a book takes years, they will always be my children. My drafts now include scenes about sex, escalating marital tension, our discussions on staying together or calling it quits. I don’t think kids should be privy to all that about their parents. Or am I acting prude and protective, a literary hover-mother?

I pledge to revisit the topic in six months, after I graduate, after the structure of the story becomes clearer, after I gain more confidence with the manuscript, after I unseal myself from all the places and parts I have played for so many years as wife, mom, woman and wanderer.


An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jennifer Lang resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Her essays have been published in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, the South Loop Review, The Indian River Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first memoir about staying in a complex marriage.

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