What would you write about if you weren’t afraid

Happy New Year, one and all. This isn’t so much a post as an appreciation of the following 2009 interview between Mary Karr and The Paris Review. I’ve been reading (in some cases, re-reading) a great deal of memoir over the past few weeks, to get a better sense of the kind of structure that makes such books work, and her book Lit has been a phenomenal learning experience as well as just a powerful read. I found her interview here and excerpt a few bits below that stood out to me, including the long section that concludes the conversation. If you’ve thought about or done memoir writing, they may be of interest to you. Looking forward to sharing much more with you in 2015 ❤

On fiction versus memoir and respect for one's audience:

In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.

On fear:

A priest once asked me a very smart question, which I’ve yet to answer, or have only answered in small increments: What would you write if you weren’t afraid?

On problems in memoir writing, and strengths:

INTERVIEWER
What do you think are the biggest problems with memoirs today?
KARR
They’re not reflective enough. They lack self-awareness. I always tell my students that if the reader knows something about your psychology that you do not admit, you’re in trouble. The reader will notice that you’re an asshole because instead of going to your mother’s deathbed you’re out buying really nice designer boots. If you don’t acknowledge the assholery of that choice, then there’s a rift, a disjunction between narrator and reader. And in autobiography, that intimacy is part of what readers want. They have to trust your judgment.
The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self, and the self has to be different at the end of the book than it was at the beginning. Otherwise you have what I call the sound-bite memoir or the ass-whipping memoir. Year one: ass-whipping. Year two: ass-whipping. Then they slap “Mommy Dearest” on it and shove it into the bookstores. Those memoirs cover a single aspect: so-and-so’s a drunk, or a sex slave, or has been hit on the head with a brick by her mother every day of her life—and that’s it. The character of the writer is a dull steady state till he gets old enough to get car keys and leave. That’s not a literary memoir any more than a Harlequin romance is a great novel.
INTERVIEWER
What was your own conflict?
KARR
My own bitterness and cynicism had to be pried away for the light to get in. The fury that I thought protected me from harm actually sealed me off from joy. Also, I sensed I’d betrayed my father and our redneck background by living at Harvard with my ex-husband and his polo-playing family. That my mother had given me a great love of art, truth, books, conversation, and beauty, and I was too angry at her to feel gratitude. I had to start living with some modicum of wonder, a state of praise rather than blame. It’s a journey from complaint to praise.
… So you better make a reader damn curious about who’s talking. If thin, shallow characters were interesting, we’d all be watching Jerry Springer. You watch Springer because you don’t identify with those people. There’s no depth of connection to their narratives—they’re grotesques.
Memoirists shouldn’t exaggerate the most gruesome aspects of their lives. Otherwise, a reader can’t enter the experience. She can only gawk from afar. You have to normalize the incredible. Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz writes more vividly about his own faults than the Nazis’, whose evils are common knowledge. That is what’s powerful about the book.
You have to correct for your own selfish motives. I want to look like a nice person, so I paint my ex-husband as a saint. But in truth, I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. Once I render that, I don’t come out seeming so nice, which is more accurate.
INTERVIEWER
So when you’re writing a memoir, you can’t allow yourself to be an unreliable narrator?
KARR
You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.
INTERVIEWER
But we remember the bleakness.
KARR
That’s mostly what we remember.

Motherless by Choice at Christmas

“Perhaps I’m not asking whether estrangement is right or wrong, but instead: how can I truly celebrate togetherness and kinship and love without a mother in my life?”

This isn’t an easy time of year to be estranged from someone, even if you’ve made that decision purposefully. I write about the complicated feelings that come with the holidays over at The Frisky.

I’m really looking forward to seeing my family this year – in many ways it’s been a great year for me, but one with a lot of ups and downs, and it will be good to just be comfortable for a few days with the people I love. What are you struggling with at the holidays, and what are you looking forward to the most?

Intermezzo

I’ve disappeared again! This will happen from time to time, I assure you. My brain will decide that right now the most important thing to focus on is my work, or job hunting, or dating, or eating well and working out. As such, writing will be shuffled around among all those other pursuits and will vanish from sight for a while, the housekeys at the bottom of the overstuffed handbag of my mind. (In this metaphor, “lying in bed watching Netflix” is represented by “a bunch of crumpled up receipts.”)

I’m also dealing with some heavy family shit at the moment, and trying to take care of myself and those I love. The worst has passed, thankfully, but I am still scared and sad for someone I love very much. Woke up this morning and a voice in my head said, “You know, calling in sick to work and lying in bed crying about how horrible [stuff that just happened] is sounds AWESOME.” Fortunately, my own voice responded with “nooooooo, fuck you, i’m going to work even if everything sucks.” And somehow, making that one little effort makes all the other little efforts of the day easier. Not fun or anything, of course, but easier.

Also: if you are having a day when staying in bed crying sounds alarmingly tempting, may I humbly recommend going out wearing a shawl instead? It is basically a socially acceptable way to drag yourself out in public still wrapped in blankets! I am wearing this one and it is so cozy and nice. Be kind to yourself, in any little way you can while still getting things done. It will help.

***

I am thinking and writing about holidays and estrangement. If you want to leave a comment or send me a message (via the About page) about how estrangement factors into the holidays and family for you, please do. We’re heading into a time of year where these issues may weigh particularly heavily on us; I hope you are doing well. I’m thinking of you.

Key Issues

Thursday morning, I remembered my glasses, my umbrella, my book for the train (Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce) – and almost walked out without my keys. Fortunately I caught the door just in time before it locked behind me. An ordinary careless moment, except for some of the anxiety it triggered, which kept pace with me as I walked down the street, illuminating old memories floating at unseen depths.

We used to sit in the backseat of the car, my sister and I, and watch as my mother locked the door to the house behind her in preparation for leaving. Then she unlocked it. Then locked it again. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Minutes passed. We watched in silence – it would have been risky to demand we get going. Lock. Unlock. Continue reading “Key Issues”

Reblogs and Q&A!

Hello, HuffPost and Freshly Pressed readers! I’m very honored by the attention I’ve received after publishing Why did this happen? – it was selected as an editor’s pick by Freshly Pressed, and is now reblogged over at HuffPost Women. I’m even more floored by all the feedback I’m getting directly from you guys. Your comments and conversations on the post blow me away with their thoughtfulness and insight, not to mention your strength in getting through similar experiences. I’m so glad to make these posts a place for discussion of a topic that so often goes undiscussed. The decision to protect yourself and your family from a harmful person should not be a forbidden topic, not matter how that person may be related to you.

If that piece resonated with you, you may wish to read my original post, Motherless by Choice, if you haven’t yet done so.  I’ll be doing more writing to explore some of the nuances of estrangement, and will use the same tags for those pieces as I have so far – motherless by choice, estrangement, etc. (A list of tags I’ve used can be found via the menu button at the top of this website.)

In the meantime, however, I want to know what questions you have for me. I’d like to do a Q&A for new readers within the next week or two, as a jumping-off point for further conversation. If you have any questions for me about estrangement, my life, my writing, or related topics, please leave them in the comments on this post or tweet me at @october31st, and I will go through and select some to respond to in a future post.

I hope everyone is having a good week so far. I can’t wait till the end of the week – my sister and cousin are visiting me in NYC for the holiday weekend! ❤ Talk soon, and take care of yourself.

Why did this happen? Estranging myself from my mother.

Why did this happen?

There is no answer to that question.

There are too many answers to that question.

If your childhood was unhappy, if there was someone who hurt you when their role was to protect you, you may never know why it was that way. It may not be possible to reconstruct how their weaknesses and angers and sorrows were weighed, over and over, against their strengths and sense of responsibility and their love for you – and why they all too often came up short. It is dead weight you will carry on your back, in your mind and your heart, without ever seeing it in full. It is dark matter pulling unseen at the stars in your sky.

If you estrange yourself from them, you will grieve this loss for years, like the death of a beloved. Giovanna Calvino, daughter of Italo, spoke of timelessly mourning her father’s death: “For me, at the very best, only four-fifths made it through… The rest of me is trapped in a space-time loop where I am forever reeling from the loss of my father.” Estrangement is the loss of a beloved. You lost who they might have been to you. You will slowly learn to accept that some fraction of yourself will always be fearful, heartbroken and ashamed.

You will be called selfish when you pull yourself away from them in an effort to keep yourself safe, and it will make you feel like everything they said about you was true:

Continue reading “Why did this happen? Estranging myself from my mother.”

My Interview About Being Motherless By Choice On HuffPost Live

Yesterday morning I spoke with Caitlyn Becker on HuffPost Live’s “What’s Trending” segment about being motherless by choice. You can watch the interview in the video embedded at the bottom of the original HP post here. “What’s Trending” covers the stories capturing their readers’ attention. Thank you so much to everyone at HuffPost for giving me this platform!

I’ve been so moved by all your responses coming in here and on Twitter, and at how quickly this conversation developed. I knew I wanted to give voice to this experience too many people go through, and the turbulent and ambiguous emotions it causes in us to choose to be motherless. I especially wanted to write it now because I’ve been fortunate enough to build a better life for myself, and to know others that have done so in their own ways.

I write on a variety of topics, but I plan to continue writing about this in some way. It means a lot to me to be able to connect with others in the same boat, and hopefully let them know they’re not alone.

On a much more prosaic level: I have a day job, so I’m not always able to make updates as quickly as I’d like, but I hope to make a few revisions to this site very soon. Stay tuned! And thank you.