CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mary Cappello

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Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack). University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.

About Life Breaks In:  Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.

This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.

What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.

“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.

“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
— The Brothers Quay

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“Mood is alpha and omega, it is everything and nothing” – Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In

Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.

You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?

Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.

The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”

I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.

I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.

As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.

You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).

Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)

All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!

Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).

I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”

Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaā­k, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

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William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.

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Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

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Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

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.

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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.

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On Writing About Terrible Things

WARSAW GHETTO, POLAND ---JEWISH GHETTO POLICE ARM BAND EARLY 1940's by woody1778a

A friend wrote me that she’d bought the Kindle version of Epistolophilia. She commented:

“Really easy to read writing and I love the conversational style you use, although such a heavy topic. I find I have to read in doses. How did you keep from getting swallowed by sorrow while doing all the work and writing?”

She’s not the first person to tell me she’s had to read the book in small chunks to keep from getting overwhelmed by the terrible events it describes. Nor is she the first person to wonder about how I survive researching and writing about the painful eras I work on. It’s not an easy question to answer.

I’ve been thinking about my father’s death in relation to this question, and the process by which I was able to start talking and writing about the pain and sorrow associated with that loss. My father’s now been gone for twenty-one years, but it’s only been eleven years since I’ve been able to talk about him without drowning in sorrow. I’m only just beginning to be able to write about him, but doing so gives me perspective and helps me understand my own past in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. It also helps to feel that in writing about him, I’m creating something for him.

Something similar was in play with Epistolophilia. I’ve been researching the Vilna Ghetto for some fifteen years, and I worked on Epistolophilia for eight. Although there were days when the facts overwhelmed me, time and writing saved me from drowning. I worked very slowly, bit by bit, breaking the story down (not unlike some of my readers, interestingly) to very small pieces (3 pages at a time; 1 idea at a time). That helped. But the sense that I was writing the book as a gift for Ona Šimaitė was probably the most powerful impetus to keep going.

I must admit I’ve wondered what it says about me that I only write about murders, civil war, genocide, terror, and mass deportation. A psychoanalyst would, no doubt, have a field day. But I believe that someone must speak for the dead. Someone must tell the stories they couldn’t and can’t. And someone must try and remember a few souls threatened by oblivion.

That’s what I try to do.

[Photo: Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Police Armband by woody1778a]

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On Clutter

Pack Rat by davedillonphoto

Today, I return to my manuscripts. I’ve got both an essay and a book that I abandoned unceremoniously some four months ago. I can’t wait to get back to them.

But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.

Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)

Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.

My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.

The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.

When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.

“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.

And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.

I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.

I’ll let you know what I find.

[Photo: Pack Rat by davedillonphoto]

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Mira Bartók Wins National Book Critics Circle Award

Congratulations to Mira Bartók on winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography for The Memory Palace. The Circle says The Memory Palace “rose to the formal challenge of blending her mother’s journals, reflections on her mother’s mental illness and subsequent homelessness, and thoughts on her own recovery from a head injury to create a heartfelt yet respectful work of art.”

A while ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mira about her book. It was a great conversation You can find it here.

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On Chronology and Necessary Abandonment: Working with Letters and Diaries

Broken by MarcelGermain

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. And even though this isn’t my first book or review, it’s still a wild ride to have strangers reading my work.

In her review of the book, Claire Posner points to a major challenge that I faced writing this book: chronology.

Perhaps reflecting the uneven records that Šimaitė left behind, Epistolophilia‘s chapters are grouped by subject matter rather than in chronological order.

She’s right: rather than telling Šimaitė’s story from beginning to end in a clean and linear fashion, I attacked the librarian’s life by topic, and attempted to answer the questions that the process of piecing her story together raised for me.

This book, as many of you know by now, was a struggle to write. The archival materials I was working with (letters and diaries) resisted my efforts to tame them. I simultaneously had too much and too little to work with. Only after a long internal battle and after putting aside some of my ideas about how this book should look did Epistolophilia finally come together.

The funny thing is that despite its being such a major obstacle, I’d pretty much forgotten about the issue of chronology and how much pain it had caused me, until I read the ForeWord review.

So what did I learn from writing Šimaitė’s life? For one: we don’t actually live our lives chronologically. Two: we certainly don’t record them that way. Rather, we move continually back and forth between the past and present, reinterpreting, forgetting, remembering, inventing, telling ourselves our own histories, then (in the best cases) turning around and recounting those histories to our children, our loved ones, and our readers.

So, when I was recently asked by a fellow writer how she should tackle a large collection of letters in her possession, I had to stop and think. The obvious advice is to organize and read the letters and diaries chronologically (if they come from different archives, be sure to devise a system to identify the source of each letter before mixing documents up — I used coloured star stickers). Then, the second most obvious piece of advice would perhaps be to abandon chronology altogether.

The difficulty lies in the fact that you’ve got to make order from chaos to start. But then you may realize that the order has created a new kind of chaos. Do not confuse mere chronology with structure. Chronology may be a start, but it may not be a solution. It may even be a problem.

I suspect that each body of correspondence or life writing demands its own structure when being reworked for a book. This is great, because it means that there are no rules. (But the bad news too is that there are no rules.) You have to pay close attention to your material and tease out its meaning. With luck, once you have meaning, structure should follow. By this I mean that once you see a story emerging from a pile of documents, chances are you can also see how to tell it.

The best I can offer for now, in terms of a method, is this:

  1. Organize your materials chronologically.
  2. Read them chronologically
  3. Track the story they tell. (Find their meaning)
  4. Abandon chronology if necessary. (Build a structure)
  5. Tell the story as the material demands.

I’d love to hear from others working with letters and diaries. How have you coped with an embarrassment of riches that resists structure? How do you organize your material and tame it? What is your relationship to chronology and the material traces of lives lived?

Share your thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can learn from one another.

[Photo: MarcelGermain]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace. Free Press, 2011.

“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]

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