Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is.
Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick (2016) and Quotidiana (2010), winner of Foreword Reviews and Independent Publisher book of the year awards, and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His personal essays, nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and noted in the Best American Essays six times, have been published widely in such journals as Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, the Normal School, River Teeth, and Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in the Best Creative Nonfiction and the Best American Spiritual Writing. With David Lazar, he co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and now co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Uruguay, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates an online anthology and essay resource at www.quotidiana.org.
About Sublime Physick: A follow-up to Patrick Madden’s award-winning debut, this introspective and exuberant collection of essays is wide-ranging and wild, following bifurcating paths of thought to surprising connections. In Sublime Physick, Madden seeks what is common and ennobling among seemingly disparate, even divisive, subjects, ruminating on midlife, time, family, forgiveness, loss, originality, a Canadian rock band, and much more, discerning the ways in which the natural world (fisica) transcends and joins the realm of ideas (sublime) through the application of a meditative mind.
In twelve essays that straddle the classical and the contemporary, Madden transmutes the ruder world into a finer one, articulating with subtle humor and playfulness how science and experience abut and intersect with spirituality and everyday life.
Watch the book trailer for Sublime Physick here…in which Montaigne and Sebald get drunk together.
For teachers who’d like to adopt this book for their classes, Madden has provided a number of helpful teaching resources, including a 40-minute lecture on his writing process and writing prompts for each of the book’s essays. You can find those here.
Julija Šukys: First of all, Pat, thank you for this wonderful book. It’s a beautiful, melancholic text, penned, or at least published, at mid-life. We’re almost the same age, you and I, so I connected to the simultaneous gaze backward to childhood, forward to aging and death, and downward to the children at our feet. Tell me a bit about the organizing principle of this book. You write that the “essays all derive, in some way, from the physical world, and all reach, always insufficiently, toward the sublime.” Can you say a little bit more about this?
Patrick Madden: Thanks, Julija. I’m really glad you liked the book. I think that the middle of life (whether “midlife” or not) is a long period of relative stasis (I know I’m oversimplifying), so I hope that these essays can speak to lots of people, in the middle of life. As for the organizing principle of the book: I wanted to collect essays under a general characteristic that holds true not only for my own essays but for essays generally, and I discovered that phrase, sublime physick, while researching Amedeo Avogadro, the 19th-century Italian chemist who theorized that equal volumes of gas contained equal numbers of molecules, no matter the gases. We’ve since named Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, the number of molecules in one mole) after him. Aaanyway, I learned that he held the chair of fisica sublime at the University of Turin. I thought it was a lovely oxymoronic term, because it suggests both the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the sublime. While I realize that this department was the equivalent of our modern-day “theoretical physics” (thinking about the science of the natural world), I played with all sorts of definitions and combinations that give insight into what essays tend to do. So this book collects many essays that have science themes and metaphors (I did my bachelor’s degree in physics), and they all make connections between the world of lived experiences (the concrete) and the world of ideas (the abstract), sometimes with a reach toward the spiritual (or sublime).
As you know, I had a group of students read your essay, “Spit,” and the endeavor was wildly successful – my students are still talking about you. In many ways, “Spit” is a classic essay: it combines scene, research and reflection flawlessly. It’s conversational and intimate yet deeply, deeply intellectual, and it vacillates in the most surprising ways between the big and the small. It appears to be about one thing (saliva!) and turns out to be about something else entirely (redemption, forgiveness, self-forgiveness). Tell me about the writing process of this essay.
I am smiling. They were a great bunch to talk with, and I’m glad the essay had a good effect on them. I hope one thing they can take from that essay is that they can write about anything, even frivolous or unappealing things, and they can write without knowing from the start where they’re going or what it all means. One night as I was putting my daughters to bed. I realized that one of them was learning to whistle, another was learning to snap her fingers, and the third was learning to ride a bike, and I had a flash of memory to when I learned how to spit. I thought this was an odd thing to remember, especially because I don’t usually have a good memory. So I began to write an essay about spit. It was all very superficial at first: I gathered all the memories and associations I could make with the literal act of expectorating. Of course, I knew that this would never work as an essay. I needed something significant, an idea to explore. I soon remembered what is probably the essay’s climactic moment, when I returned home for a weekend during my freshman year of college and I discovered that one of my friends was now hanging out with a different crowd, doing as they did. I got upset, we argued, and in the escalation of emotions, I spat at him. Because my friend had since died, very young, I began thinking about forgiveness. Beyond that, as I was trying to get some DNA research done on my ancestry (by sending a cheek swab for analysis), I met, through email and phone, a distant relative who’d never known anybody he was genetically related to. Even though our common ancestor lived centuries ago, he was pleased to get to know me. As we shared our experiences, I learned that he’d recently gotten into some legal trouble, so that the life he’d worked so hard to build was falling apart. I began to see him as a tragic hero, undone by his fatal flaw and events beyond his control. This was a challenge to the dear notion that people can repent and change. So I wrote toward this uncomfortable question: What is repentance? How can we forgive? And so forth. I felt that this was a substantial idea at the end of an initially inane essay.
Some time ago, I was introduced at a reading as “an essayist,” and immediately felt a sort of revolt inside me that said “No! I’m not an essayist…” A few seconds later, I reversed this and thought, “Hang on, maybe I am an essayist…” It’s been a long road, but for what it’s worth, I increasingly define myself as such. By contrast, you seem to have understood early on exactly what kind of writer you were. In “On Being Recognized,” you quote Arthur Christopher Benson: “The point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality” (117). What is the point of the essay for you, Pat? Can you talk a little about your journey to the essay? Did you flirt with other genres before you settled on this one? Do you ever (as I did recently) get accused of fetishizing the essay?
“Fetishizing the essay”! I like that phrase. I’ve never been accused of that, but only (I suppose) because it’s so obvious that I do it. People feel it’s unnecessary to even make the statement about me. Of course, I deny the premise, as “fetishizing” assumes that the obsession is “excessive or irrational,” and this is obviously false. In any case, I never really had any other literary goals, and though I like reading other genres, I’ve never seriously tried writing in them. Joseph Epstein says that essayists are all failed at other literary and artistic pursuits (e.g., Lamb the failed playwright and poet; Hazlitt the failed painter), but this is not the case for me. Unless I’m a failed physicist, I guess. Yes, maybe that’s it. I came to the essay because it promised a great freedom. I had a physics degree, but already before I had graduated I felt the narrowing constraints of lifelong expertise in a very small subject area. In physics, this smallness is doubly true: each physicist’s field is metaphorically small, but also a cutting-edge physicist will probably be working with subatomic particles, invisible even to microscopes, and the work tends to involve colliding accelerated particles then sifting through the computer data for years in order to get a read on what flashed into and out of existence during a nanosecond of interesting results. Aaanyway, I felt claustrophobic at the prospect of dedicating my life to this. Meanwhile, in the two years after graduation, I served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, which gave me a lot of time to think about my future. Gradually I realized that I loved to think wildly, without restraint, flitting from one subject of interest to the next as the spirit moved me. And eventually I discovered or decided that writing essays could be a way to keep my life open and free, to study what subjects inspired me for as long as they inspired me, and then move on. So I came to the essay knowingly, intentionally, and with great hopes. I think now that I was naïve, but also very lucky, so that my life has worked out to be what I had hoped for.
By the way, I don’t know who introduced you as an essayist, but I feel that the title is a great compliment. Most people who would use it to describe you would do so knowingly, meaning that you’re an experimenter and explorer. Continue reading
Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Other Side of Silence (2010) and the lead editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (2013). She is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, an independent nonprofit devoted to publishing and celebrating the essay, and the editor of the press’s periodical pamphlet series Occasional Papers on Practice & Form. She has received many awards and honors, including fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the New York Center for Book Arts. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays; Blurring the Boundaries. Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction; and An Ethical Compass. Coming of Age in the 21st Century and appears regularly in literary periodicals. She teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.
About You: Up close and personal, this first-of-its-kind collection showcases contemporary essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second person point of view affords both writer and reader.
Julija Šukys: Kim, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The subject of the second-person voice came up a number of times during my seminars this year – especially my graduate seminars. I, for one, really like the second-person voice and have used it at least twice, in two different essays and I’m always interested to see what others do with it. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it turns out to be a little bit controversial. Some readers/writers see the use of the second-person voice as contrived or too cute. Some find it distancing. I’m so interested to hear what you have to say about all of this!
Kim Dana Kupperman: I’d like to make a distinction before we begin: when I say “second-person point of view,” I’m mostly referring to the grammatical pronoun you; this somehow feels different to me than “second-person voice,” though I think I know what you mean, or, at least I interpret what you mean as “tone,” or “effect,” or, even, “mood,” all of which can be evoked by using a second-person point of view.
That’s a really helpful distinction: point of view vs. voice. I like the precision of the former.
Tell me what drew you to the idea of pulling together this anthology of essays devoted to the second person. Were most of these pieces commissioned for this collection, or did you draw from the world of literary journals?
As a reader, I’ve been very interested in the second-person point of view, from its obvious and historic epistolary use, to the briefer asides to the reader in prose (nonfiction and fiction), to longer works such as the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, to Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, to name three examples. There was no anthology—at least not one in print that I knew of—that collected essays devoted to the second person, written by contemporary writers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any anthologies that have collected such essays by writers in any century. As an editor and publisher, I sought to fill that gap; most of the pieces were solicited in a call for submissions as well as direct requests to writers and editors whose work the three of us—Heather Simons, James Chesbro, and myself—admired.
I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?
“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”
There are, of course, a number of pieces here that play with the question of who exactly “you” is. For example, Michelle Auerbach wonderfully satirizes how-to books and advice columns in “How to Screw Up a First Date.” Becca Lee Jensen Ogden’s “Nothing Good Happens after Forty-One Weeks” plays with the form of online pregnancy journals digests (It starts: “Hello Becca! You are now thirty-eight weeks! Your baby is now considered full-term”). I found Ogden’s piece particularly moving. It’s a very effective use of the second person in part because the target or referent of the “you” shifts subtly partway through the piece. Her “you” is both a voice addressing the narrator from outside as well as from inside. Among other things, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the experience of pregnancy. Do you see the “you” working in other ways that I’ve perhaps overlooked?
In the introduction to the anthology, I mention specific uses of the second person: first, the you as I (i.e., the “diaristic”); second, the epistolary, in which the writer creates a rhetorical apostrophe, or an address to someone who is absent (or who cannot—yet, and for whatever reasons—read what is being written, as in Brian Hoover’s “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter”); and third, the note-to-self or how-to manual. We’ve included essays in this collection that feature the more traditional use of the second person, a direct aside, or invitation, to the reader, though the essays are unconventional in their approaches (for example, Amy Leach’s “You Be the Moon” and Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page”).
As I mentioned above, some of my students have commented on the distancing effect of “you” – especially when the “you” stands in for “I.” For me, intimacy returns (? I’m not sure this is the right word…) when the “you” addresses someone as one might do in a letter. This is how I’ve used the second person, and it’s how a small number of your contributors have used it. For example, Elizabeth Stone addresses her late father in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard” (another piece I found to be very strong). I wonder if you have any thoughts on narrative distance and intimacy and the use of the second person. Do you see it as potentially (if perhaps productively) distancing? Do you see ways of creating intimacy using this pronoun, as I do?
The second-person point of view has the ability to distance and create intimacy at the same time. Intimacy, as you so accurately point out, is created especially in the epistolary usage, in which a reader may feel addressed directly by the narrator, even though the narrator is writing to a specific person (e.g., Kim Adrian, Marsha McGregor, Elizabeth Stone); distance is achieved when the you stands in for I; or, perhaps, a certain remoteness is created, which takes the I out of the equation and allows the writer to scrutinize, perhaps more closely, the subject at hand.
Next: a question on form. I was very interested and intrigued by the brevity of some of most of these pieces. Amongst my favorites is Eduardo Galeano’s “Dreams.” It’s a tiny jewel of a text, only two paragraphs long, with a “you” that refers not to the narrator himself but out to an unnamed interlocutor. The text itself is dreamlike and imagistic. Another text that struck me was one you’ve mentioned, Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page.” It is a tiny text about text: about the effects of layout and font choices and the physicality of letters on a reader. (The “you” here seems to address me, the reader, in perhaps the most direct sense of all the pieces.) What do you think is it about the use of the second person that cultivates brevity?
This is a terrific question. Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the seemingly experimental nature of the second person—readers will tolerate the schism between distance and intimacy only to a degree (although Stewart O’Nan manages to sustain the second person for the duration of an entire novel). Think about reading Gertrude Stein, and the kind of suspension—not only of disbelief, but of narrative expectation—required to enter into some of her texts; the effort is well worth it, but it requires a certain readerly stamina.
What is the greatest hazard of using the second person?
When you use it to be clever. Cleverness is not a hallmark of the second-person point of view. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
And conversely, what can it achieve that a simple first-person (or third-person) point of view can’t?
As we’ve noted, the second-person point of view distances the writer from what might be painful to write. In a way, the you becomes the ultimate persona—or, if it doesn’t, it serves as a process that might help developing writers better understand persona. This speaks to, perhaps, what you have called the “second-person voice”: voice is an element that is part of persona, the disguise adopted by a narrator to tell a story. And by using the second-person point of view, the narrator assumes a mask—distance, in this case—that infuses how s/he sounds with a kind of remote quality that cannot be achieved with first person (but certainly can be realized, without the dual edge of intimacy offered by second person, using third-person omniscient).
Which texts in this collection surprised you most in terms of what they were able to achieve through the use of the second person?
That’s a tough question… I think I was more surprised, in the acquisition process, by writers and editors we encountered who felt that the second-person point of view was too trendy, misused, or, simply, not their cup of tea. Certainly, there are instances of misuse with every experimental form. Some of the work in this anthology may have been better rendered in first person. But the writer stuck to the second-person point of view and had reasons to stick to it. In some ways, that stubbornness surprised me. In other ways, I find it charming.
Kim Dana Kupperman, thanks so much for doing this and for putting together the anthology. I know this conversation will find a place in future seminar rooms and in readers’ hands.
September 4, 2014
Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.
Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.
The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.
The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.
Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.
Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?
Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.
I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.
The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.
At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it. I thought 20 or 30 people might show up. But over 400 came. I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.
A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired. Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.
In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives. No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.
I also wanted other kinds of diversity: cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself. There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.
Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?
I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.
I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.
And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.
I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.
It’s been an amazing few weeks: there have been fantastic reviews of my book Epistolophilia appearing from coast to coast. I’ve been out to British Columbia, where I gave my first real public reading at the beautiful Vancouver Public Library, and we launched the book with a splash on June 7, 2012 in Montreal. It was wonderful to see so many familiar and unfamiliar faces. Thanks to all for coming.
As the weather heats up, the literary scene begins to slow. This summer I’ll be doing more intimate events, and plan to use the break to integrate virtual book club visits (via skype) into my author program. Check back for a reading guide and book club instructions soon.
But today, Sebastian and I are headed outside to tend our neglected garden. Supporting a new book takes a lot of time and effort, and the poor plants have suffered. With a bit of sweat and toil, though, we should be able to get it back in shape.
Next week, my big boy starts day camp, and I’ll return to my desk in earnest.
[Photo: Sebastian Gurd]
Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):
Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.
Photo by Genevieve Goyette
This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.
978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp
When did you start reading as a child?
I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.
What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?
I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.
Who are your top five authors?
WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.
Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.
Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.
Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.
What book changed your life?
There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).
I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.
A few months ago, a friend asked me before departing to France on sabbatical if she should be concerned about anti-Semitism there. “Oh no,” I said, dismissing her concerns. Now, in the wake of the Toulouse Jewish school shooting, I see I may have been wrong to be so quick in my assurance that all would be well.
I have complex emotional relationship to France, but I love Toulouse, “la ville rose.” My family and I spent a few weeks there while I was doing research for Epistolophilia. Ona Šimaitė lived there for a time after 1945, and we went to the city to retrace her steps. We liked it so much that it was one of the places we considered when searching for a place to spend our 8-month sabbatical.
My visit to Toulouse was my first return to the south of France in almost two decades. I had lived in Aix-en-Provence for a year as a student in my 20s. It was an incredibly difficult year, and I returned home shaken and traumatized. It took almost twenty years before I could consider returning without anxiety. So it was a big deal when, a few weeks ago, my son (on the cusp of turning 5) and I boarded a plane from Malta to Marseille to visit my old friend, Sarah.
Since I last saw her, Sarah has married a Moroccan man. Out of love for his wife, Mohammed left his country for her and settled in France. The stories they told me of raising “mixed” kids and of the difficulties that Med (Mohammed’s nickname) has finding and keeping jobs — despite the fact that he’s friendly, competent, fluent in French, and a highly trained professional — revealed how little had changed since the summer I left Aix after an “Arabe” had been savagely beaten on the swanky Cours Mirabeau for no apparent reason. One of the things that troubled me back then was the overt racism against “les Arabes” — mostly Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians who have lived in France for several generations. Now, if anything, things appear to have gotten worse.
North Africans born in France call themselves “Beurs,” a distorted anagram of the word “Arabe.” Generally speaking, Beurs have a tough go of it in France. On the one hand, young people of colour are told that they must assimilate and become French. But on the other, the fact that they are always identified as “of Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisan/etc. descent” reveals that they will never, despite their best efforts, be French enough. (Incidentally, there are a lot of good books about Beur culture, and even more good music produced by Beurs. See, for example the books of Leïla Sebbar or the music of the group Gnawa Diffusion. I’m a bit out of the loop at this point, and not nearly cool enough to know much about the music, but with a bit of digging, you’ll unearth some interesting things.)
The point is that we’ve now learned the Toulouse Jewish school shooter (also the killer of French soldiers of North African origin) is a French Algerian, a Beur. And this fact has sent me into despair. All I see is a spiral of hatred upon hatred, and I can’t see a way out.
I ache for the families of the dead.
And for the Jewish kids in France who will now go to school under armed guard.
And for the innocent Beur kids who will suffer for this crime.
And for Sarah and Med, for whom things are bound to get worse.
[Photo: celine nadeau]
This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.
The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.
The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.
The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.
But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.
Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.
Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.
Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.
The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.
But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.
So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book here. Enter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.
If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.
This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.
“Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her. I stumble out of bed ready for the worst. The last time my mother called was in 1990. I was thirty-one and living in Chicago. She said if I didn’t come home right away she’d kill herself.”
In The Memory Palace Mira Bartók chronicles her life with her brilliant but mentally ill mother Norma, and explores their volatile relationship and ultimately unbreakable bond.
A piano prodigy in her youth, Norma’s severe case of schizophrenia created a hellish upbringing for Mira and her sister. When they were young, Norma neglected the girls, and Mira and her sister were forced to make do on their own. As the girls entered their teenage years, Norma’s illness grew progressively severe.
Finally, after Norma attacked her daughters when they insisted she get help, Mira and her sister decided that, in order to stay safe, they had to change their names and cut off all communication with her. For the next seventeen years, Mira’s only contact with her mother was through letters exchanged through a post office box.
When she was 40, a car accident left Mira with a traumatic brain injury. In an effort to reconnect to her past, she reached out to the shelter where she thought her mother was living and received word that Norma was dying in a hospital in Cleveland. The Memory Palace tells the story of their reconciliation.
Mira’s original paintings of her memory palace appear throughout the book (one of these appears below), as do passages from her mother’s letters and journal entries.
Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has been noted in The Best American Essays series, and she is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (to be decided on March 8, 2012). The Memory Palace has also appeared on the American Library Association’s notable books list. Bartók lives in western Massachusetts, where she runs Mira’s List (miraslist.com), a blog that helps artists find funding and residences all over the world. Please visit her website at www.thememorypalace.com.
Julija Šukys: The Memory Palace tells the story of your schizophrenic mother, and your 17-year-long separation from her, during which time you communicated with her exclusively through letters sent to a PO Box. After suffering a traumatic brain injury, you decided to find her, and discovered that she was dying. In the last days of your mother’s life, you and your sister reconciled with her and managed to find a glimmer of the woman whose essence had been largely hijacked by mental illness for many years.
When you describe experiencing your brain injury, it seems to bring a new understanding of your mother’s path in life. Can you talk a little about whether or how your own memory loss, difficulty with language, and the sensitivity to noise and other stimuli that have resulted from your accident changed your relationship to your mother, perhaps even before you were reunited?
Mira Bartók: That’s an interesting question. While I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, I do think my own brain injury made me, over time, understand more viscerally how my mother’s damaged brain worked. Especially when she was in situations where there was excess stimulation, like restaurants or large crowds. And as I began to study more neuroscience, I understood even more about her struggle to just be in the world. Then you also have to add the fact that she heard voices and saw visions. I can’t even begin to grasp how horrific all that must have been for her.
As far as my injury changing my relationship to my mother, well, I think it made me both more compassionate toward her but also made me feel sad about the fact that I couldn’t rely on her to just be a normal mom. The primary caretaker I really had during that first year and subsequent years was my husband who I met six months after my accident.
Your book is organized around the metaphor of a memory palace, a mnemonic device originated by Simonides that relies on imagined special organization to recollect memories. In your case, you’ve built a sort of mental art gallery that houses paintings – your own and those of others. Each image hangs in a specific spot in the museum or palace, and each anchors a story from your life. My understanding is that this mnemonic technique is difficult to master unless you begin to build your memory palace at a very young age. When did you (consciously or unconsciously) start to build yours, and how?
What we know now about the brain and memory is that this kind of system doesn’t work at all. It was created during a time when people thought that memory was a fixed phenomenon and could be stored away forever. However, I loved the metaphor of it and I also loved the fact that it was an impossible thing. Just the fact that I created a memory palace on my studio wall was an act of love and longing for the impossible. I began to collect and use images for my book early in the process of writing it—making sketches and using images from my computer as memory prompts. Then, toward the end of the book, I ended up using all those images and creating the whole thing on my wall.
For a great book about memory, I highly recommend Eric Kandel’s book In Search of Memory. I believe he won the Nobel Prize for his work in memory research and neuroplasticity.
Because of the traumatic brain injury, you have short-term memory loss. I heard you describe how you would file snippets of writing immediately after getting it down on paper inside your memory filing cabinet/palace of sorts. I’d love to hear more about this particular writing process.
In the early days of writing my book, I had such an issue with memory that I would forget what I wrote from one day to the next. So I searched in myself for a system that would help and because I come from the museum world, it made sense that I create a kind of cabinet of sorts. I put together a cabinet with slots for each chapter and whenever I worked on something I printed it out immediately and placed it in that chapter’s drawer.
I did the same for sketches or reference material. That way, in the morning, I had physical evidence of what I had done. And before I went to bed every night, I repeated as many chapter titles as I could and tried to recall what those chapters were about. I do believe that after doing this for about three years I rewired my brain to some extent, and my memory improved. Thus, the beauty of neuroplasticity!
How long did you work on the book? How long after your mother’s death did you decide to start writing? And did you choose to write the book, or did the book, in a sense, choose you?
Wow, that’s a lot of questions in a row for someone with TBI [traumatic brain injury]. Let me see if I can follow what you just said! Stuff like that is hard for us TBIers. Okay, how long did I work on the book? About four years. But I wrote the last third of it in the six months after my mom died. She gave me the end to my story. So that answers the next question, i.e. I started it before she died and before I even knew she was ill and living in a shelter.
I chose to write the book (which actually began as a book of essays about my mom, then morphed into a memoir with a narrative arc) because she kept getting in the way of my fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I wrote this book so that I could face this difficult material and move on to the work I will do the rest of my life, the kind of work that I long to do, which is not memoir at all. It’s fabulist fiction with pictures, it’s radio documentaries, it’s multimedia collaborations and dark illustrated books for teens. And lyrical poetry. I’m happy I did it, happy that I honored my mother in this way. Now on to making up weird little stories and drawing again!
You and your sister changed your names and cut all ties with your mother after a violent incident. Your mother attacked you with a broken bottle, and could very well have killed you. You describe having to make a choice between your mother and your art; between your mother and life itself. It’s not a choice you made lightly, and certainly not without psychic fallout – for me, the struggle with guilt and questions of what else you could have done were palpable all the way through the text. Cognitive issues united you and your mother, but so did art. I wonder if you could talk a little about your mother’s artistic talents, practice and ambitions. Have your own artistic practices – visual, literary and musical – created a different kind of bridge to your mother?
Although my mom was so ill, we had a lot in common. I felt like I really got her and she got me, somewhere deep inside beyond her illness. She was driven to create and to learn everything in the world and to play music, without thinking about pleasing people first or acquiring prestige, etc. I am the same way. Had my mom not been so sick, she probably would be playing Carnegie Hall, or at least she would have been part of a stellar chamber group of musicians and would have mentored many young people. And she might have also become a poet and maybe a great one.
After reading her diaries, I now wonder who the real writer in the family is!
This is a book about memory: about reconstructing memory, excavating memory, but also about its unreliability and its impermanence. The book (in addition to being built around the image of a memory palace) is also, as you’ve just said, structured around excerpts from your mother’s diaries. One of the most poignant things your mother wrote is “I have forgotten everything I have ever learned.” Once a musical prodigy, your mother seems to have been aware of her artistic and intellectual losses.
I wonder if you could talk a little about where you stand in relation to memory now. Do you see the inevitable forgetting that happens to all of us as a tragedy? Is this book a kind of revolt against oblivion, or is it something more complex? Have you somehow managed to make peace with your own memory loss through writing, or that too simplistic?
What we know now about neuroplasticity, i.e. the ability to change our brain—with cognitive therapy, meditation and other like practices, exercize, biofeedback, etc. (and yes, medication), I have a lot of hope about the future of memory loss for people like me. I know from sheer hard work and determination, I changed my brain and built new neuropathways during the writing of this book. I went from not being able to remember what I wrote from one day to the next (several years after the accident, when doctors told me that I had reached the limit of recovery) to being able to write something one day and remember even a few days later. (Unless it’s just a very bad week and there are those bad weeks of fatigue.)
That said, I do not want to diminish the loss that people feel as they get older and slip into that strange state of forgetting. We are our memories, in many ways. And I have such huge chunks of lost time and lost years. It’s sad sometimes. But then, I am also someone who tries to live in the present. So I guess I just do the best I can.
You’ve written a huge number (28!) of books for children. This is your first book for adults. Talk a little about the difference between writing for kids and for adults. Is there a difference in your experience and approach to writing for different audiences?
Well, many of those books are educational books about different cultures so they are different than writing other kinds of books for children. What I liked best about them though was including folktales in them. I actually do that a lot in my adult writing too. I like to use folklore, both the structure of folktales and their sense of fabulism in my stories and even my nonfiction. I do this with my memoir too. The difference I guess is that you have to be more aware of what age you are writing for. But I don’t start out writing for any specific age group or specific audience. I just start a project and then at the end of it, I decide who its for. My next two projects are probably for older teens but I think they will be for adults as well.
[Image: Mira Bartók]
This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.
Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.
Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:
Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.
Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!
Robbers: In the name of who?
Who-Man: No, Who!
Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!
Robbers: Oh man, what?
And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.
Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”
As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.
When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.
Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.
Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)
For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.
Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.
In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.
For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.
That too was fun.
In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.
Your writing will be better for it.
[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]
This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.