CNF: Your essay “Rebecca vs. Mr. Wonderful” tells the story of a morning you spent sitting on your porch, drinking cheap beer and watching your (soon-to-be) ex-husband haul the contents of your former family home to the curb. How would you describe your voice in the piece, and its role in the story?
LINK: That’d be bravado and sarcasm mixed with a shot of panic. Until that moment, I always thought of myself as independent in the practical ways that matter most when you’ve chosen a rural life—growing our food, caring for our animals, raising decent and hardworking sons—but on that day on my porch, I couldn’t deny that the independence I was so proud of was really a bit of a sham. I’d never been on my own before. Sure, I could de-worm a horse, get ripe tomatoes by July and prime a well pump, but I was also 40 years old and had always depended on a father or a husband for backup. Now, there was just me. So I suppose one way voice works in the piece is to convey that sense of fear and show how ineffectually I chose to deal with it. In my come-to-Jesus moment, what did I reach for? Binoculars and beer.
CNF: How did you go about re-creating this state of mind in your work?
LINK: I’ve found that I work best when I begin a draft with a single strong moment and move the piece forward from there. For this essay, it was the ridiculous image of that giant pink disco ball rolling around in my rusty wheelbarrow that anchored me. Focusing on that helped put me back in that moment, and in touch with all the anger and desperation I felt at the time. As I worked on the essay, that image and others began to represent my efforts to re-claim “stuff,” but re-claim my life and myself, too. I still live in the house depicted in the essay, and I didn’t remember this until you asked me the question, but I took my laptop out onto my porch and that’s where I revised the piece. Maybe that helped me convey the sense of immediacy I was looking for.
CNF: In a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dinah Lenney writes, “It requires discipline: endless rehearsals for the performer, endless sketching for the artist, endless revising for the writer in order to achieve a feeling of spontaneity and authenticity in the work.” In this piece, did your voice come naturally, or through endless revision? How can a writer create spontaneity in a labored art?
LINK: I read that piece, too. Insightful. I especially loved the way Lenney categorized memoir as a kind of performance. Writing about ourselves, we are the people we are only in that moment. The next moment, the next month, the next year, we’re someone else. Maybe only slightly different, maybe only a few things have changed, but still different from the person on that page from the past. The voice in this essay came naturally for me, but there was way too much of it. In the same way that a real argument between two people who used to love each other can go on and on until any meaning is lost, too much voice in my writing can have the same effect. And, that was my original challenge here. How to say just enough to reveal who was telling the story, make the narrator someone a reader would want to share some time with, but not so much that they’d get sick of her. I gave myself permission to be as self-indulgent as I wanted, and then I cut like hell! If I learned anything writing this piece it was that spontaneity is best achieved by careful revision. A weird dichotomy—similar in some ways to the adage that writing with tiny detail is the only way to tell a truly universal story.
CNF: Your internal dialogue in the piece is colorful and consistently rich with detail. How soon after the events took place did you begin writing?
LINK: Sometimes you feel a writing urge even while something terrible is happening. Like the end of a marriage. That was the case here. Afterward, I felt guilty about my wedding dress because my mother had helped me hand-sew it and because those glass buttons we stitched up the back had belonged to her mother, my grandmother. I knew the day was going to come when she would ask me what happened to the dress. I thought that if I could tell her a story, she might accept my answer better, so about a month after I dumped it into that Goodwill worker’s arms I jotted down the scene. Later, when my ex and I divided our possessions, I connected the dress to the disco ball and to ways in which we determine what is trash and what has value, and I wrote a few more notes. It wasn’t until long after the divorce was final, though, that I could write the whole essay. I wanted the piece to feel spontaneous but to have details I could only appreciate the significance of after some time had passed.
CNF: The piece does feel very immediate. I notice, for instance, that it’s full of sarcasm and anger, but really very little sadness. One might assume sadness to be an emotion that came later. While writing, did you try to prevent secondary emotions from tinting the portrayal of your lived experienced? How can writers find the balance between letting time pass for perspective and being true to the moment?
LINK: Anger is an action-oriented emotion while sadness is more of a sit-in-a-chair-under-a-blanket kind of feeling. For me, there’s a sense of power and fearlessness that comes with writing about anger. I felt that allowing sadness to enter in would have dissipated the forward motion I wanted to convey. So yes, I did consciously work to keep the sadness out. It would have slowed the piece down, and just taken the air right out of it, I think. It’s difficult to access ugly emotions, especially when they’ve been diluted to more palatable ones with the passage of time. I think digging into a memorable image helps. Observing yourself without judgment helps. In this case, writing in present tense helped, too.
CNF: How so?
LINK: I had never written anything in present tense before this. It was not a conscious choice at all, more of an organic one. Memoir and personal essay were new to me, too, so I didn’t know enough not to use it. Later, when I was revising, I read all sorts of criticism of present tense and in response I reworked part of the piece in past tense, but it felt so flat that I abandoned the effort. Present tense can be limiting because it doesn’t offer the writer as many natural opportunities for reflection. And memoir is all about stepping back and reflecting on past experiences. It can be awkward to do any meaningful reflection in present tense. It just doesn’t work to drag the reader back and forth and alongside like that. And yet, I felt a sense of freedom writing in the present tense that I wasn’t willing to let go of. Ultimately, I decided to stick with my first impulse and work in the reflection via opinion, brief flashbacks and stream of consciousness.
CNF: Starting at the beginning, almost half of the piece is narrated from your front porch. Do you think a strong voice can, in a sense, replace action?
LINK: I think it can up to a point. Voice can introduce us to characters interesting enough that we might be willing to take a look at the world through their eyes (or through their binoculars, as the case may be). How long a reader is willing to look around from that vantage point is partly a function of how compelling the voice is. But no matter how fascinating the narrator proves to be, eventually something has to happen or the reader is going to stop reading. Voice can collect all sorts of memories and slights and opinions and pretty observations and put them into a big pile, but the reader is still going to want a lit match tossed in at some point. Otherwise, it’s an op-ed piece.
CNF: Recently, memoir has been criticized for being … well, everywhere. It’s been argued that too many memoirs have been written about too many stories we’re all too familiar with. Given this criticism, do you think the importance of voice in the genre is changing?
LINK: Oh, I get my back up whenever I hear reviewers say that too many memoirs are being published. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Genzlinger. And you, Ms. Moore. Replace “memoir” in your question with “novel” and it would be a non-issue. It’s such an elitist attitude too; this idea that only certain lives are worthy of reading about. Who decides which ones? It used to be the book publishing industry, but the Internet has changed that, and I think for the better. Readers get to decide now, and while they may have to wade through a lot to find what they’re looking for, the choices will increasingly be a more complete reflection of the human experience. I think the trend in modern memoir is a move away from those about extreme experiences and toward those with compelling voices. An ordinary life can be interesting to read about even when the narrator didn’t almost die on a mountain, didn’t barely survive a war, didn’t beat a heroin addiction. That’s the real challenge for writers working from their own experience: how do you make the ordinary just as compelling as the extraordinary? The way to do that is to develop your voice. To not only tell the story that only you can tell, but to tell it in the voice that only you possess. Yes, there are shallow memoirs being published. But there are bad novels, bad poems, bad anthologies being published, too, and no one is saying we should scrap those entire genres. A better answer to the challenge of “too many memoirs” is to read the good ones. Write the good ones. Identify your voice, and use it well.
CNF: You recently sold a memoir to Knopf that tells a story related to “Rebecca vs. Mr. Wonderful.” What role does voice play in the book?
LINK: It probably wouldn’t be too big a stretch to say that voice is the book. The challenge was to take the narrator of this personal essay and write a full-length book about a year in her—my—life while maintaining the intensity of that voice. At least, that was my goal. And to do it within the present tense while working in enough reflection and a fully realized story arc so the work felt meaningful to a reader. Both of my other books are nonfiction, written from an objective reporter’s point of view. Reporting on your own life is just plain gut wrenching. But it’s immensely satisfying, too. For me, memoir, whether a personal essay or a book-length work, is the only form that offers those extremes.
Jenelle Pifer conducted this interview for CNF. Jenelle is a creative writer and journalist in Pittsburgh, PA. A former assistant editor at Creative Nonfiction, she now works in public radio and regularly covers science and the environment for Essential Public Radio and The Allegheny Front.