NYC reading Monday 3/2/15

It’s Sunday night, and I’m making chicken broth and nursing a hot toddy while the snow (and/or freezing rain) continues to fall in New York. (Lousy Smarch weather.) Tomorrow, though, I’ll be out at Niagara Bar to read my writing at the Miss Manhattan non-fiction reading series! I’m excited to share some of my work along with a line-up of great writers. Many thanks to Elyssa Goodman for organizing this free event! Check out further details here or at the FB event page.

Hope all is well where you are, and you are feeling cared for, because you are. x

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:

What do you think are the biggest problems with memoirs today?
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.
What was your own conflict?
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.
So when you’re writing a memoir, you can’t allow yourself to be an unreliable narrator?
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.
But we remember the bleakness.
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?

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.”

How to Predict the Future

How to Predict the Future

I’ve got a new piece up over on The Toast’s Gal Science column this morning about climate change, which aims to unpack some of the jargon you see around this topic. It’s an intimidating topic! It can seem overwhelming to consider the cascading effects our activity is having on the planet. I talk a bit here about how the scientific community has been able to approach it, defining some of the terminology and concepts that have been put in place, and I hope it gives a better understanding of how this problem is being studied, and more importantly, that we can do something about it.

My degree is in sustainable development, which encompasses environmental issues such as this. As I continue to write I imagine there will be a good amount both on estrangement and on issues like this that I’m passionate about, among other topics.

Happy Friday, all!

Contact form, translations, and some thoughts on forgiveness

Hello all! I had a wonderful and extremely busy weekend, with both a favorite cousin and a dear friend in town, and am just now getting back into the swing of things here.

First and foremost, I wanted to note that I have added a contact form on the About page of this site. Inquiries sent there will be routed to my email. Please note: this form is primarily intended for media and business inquiries. I will make every effort to respond to other messages, but I cannot guarantee a response, given the volume of messages I have been receiving and limited time. As ever, though, your comments and tweets are deeply inspiring to me; thank you so much for choosing to share your thoughts and experiences with me.


Over the past week, I’ve twice woken up to mysterious emails in languages I sadly neither speak nor write – Portuguese and German. A quick trip to Google Translate informed me that translated versions of “Motherless by Choice” were appearing on Brasil Post (link) and Huffington Post Deutschland (link). I feel very fortunate to be able to share my writing across different languages and cultures, so thank you very much to the staff of both publications!


As I said above: thank you for all your comments and tweets! I mentioned in my interview that no one wants to choose to be motherless; I certainly didn’t want to be. It’s inspiring to read about how those among you who have had similar experiences have manage to grow and find strength and love elsewhere. The vast majority of comments have been positive, but there are a few which call me out for supposedly spreading a message of hate and lack of forgiveness. I am expanding this discussion into a new piece of writing I hope to share in the near future, but for now, let me say this: 

As I have said throughout, I do not hate my mother. I do not wish anything bad upon her, and writing this piece was not revenge toward her, but catharsis for me. I have specifically chosen not to name her and to give as few identifying details about her as possible. Her last name is different than mine, which helps with that. What I want more than anything for my mother is for her to live a happy and peaceful life, however she chooses to define it. It will just not be a life that overlaps with mine, because from childhood through my mid-twenties, whenever we did come into contact, those interactions gave rise to abnormal, unhealthy levels of pain and stress. People do not change simply because we wish they would, or because (as in my case) we bend over backward trying our best to accommodate their behavior, until we are too twisted to function healthily. Sometimes, as much as we don’t want to, we have to let go.

Please know that to be motherless is to be grieving a loss, whether death or estrangement. Commenter Kathleen Blair put it beautifully a few days ago: “The hole will always be there and you will not fill it because it cannot be filled by anything other than a mother’s unconditional love, which you are fully entitled to, which your mother owed to you, and which you were cheated out of.” You are not happy when you choose to be motherless because of your trauma. You are just choosing to survive a terrible injury, bravely.

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.

“Motherless by Choice” up at HuffPost!

“Motherless by Choice” up at HuffPost!

HuffPost Women asked recently to share my piece “Motherless by Choice” with their readership, and I was more than happy to do so. The post went live this morning, and my phone has been buzzing nonstop with notifications since then! Welcome, new readers, and thank you so much for all your comments. I’m very moved by your thoughtful responses, and sympathetic with those of you who have been through similar experiences, and glad it was able to resonate with you in some way.

I chose to share my story because there is not a lot of writing out there about this highly significant and emotional experience that affects so many people. It is not something that is easy to write about without rage and grief coloring your words, but I wanted to make that effort. Reading or writing about something deeply affecting you can be a good way to help work through it; at least this is my experience, and a major motivation for me in sharing it with others. While some might question sharing something so private and personal, it was a decision that was many years in the making, and was not made lightly.

I’ll have a less personal piece up at The Toast in the near future, and more to come soon; thanks for stopping by! Be well.