Suzanne Roberts is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s $1,000 “Mistakes” essay contest. Her prize-winning essay, selected from more than 800 submissions, tells the story of two young women—they call each other “The Slut” and “Miss Goody Two Shoes”—pregnant at the same time by the same man, eighteen years ago. “I am one of these women, or was, and now I realize that it doesn’t matter which one,” she writes. Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.
Your story is braided with an etymological investigation of the word “mistake.” What inspired you to approach the topic this way, and how did this approach help you shape the essay?
I have always been interested in the etymology of words. Words help me figure out my ideas, and so sometimes, I sort out what I’m thinking by looking up where words come from. I mostly thought about how “mistake” is often used synonymously with “unintended pregnancy.” Even if someone has the child from an unwanted pregnancy, sometimes the baby is called a mistake. This is rude, of course, but we have all heard it. So that got me to thinking about the word and where it came from. Braiding it into the essay also gave me a break from the core of the story, which was much harder to write than the roots of words.
Despite abortion’s frequent presence in the public discourse, the stigma surrounding it is still forcefully present in our cultural consciousness. In light of this, what inspired you to finally write this essay? Do you have any concerns about its reception?
I don’t have any concerns, not anymore. I did, but it’s a strange thing. Initially I wrote this essay to join into a conversation about women’s reproductive rights. The only way I know how to convey my beliefs—that the choices a woman makes about her health and her body are no one’s business but her own—is to tell my own story. And if this story helps just one woman feel better about the ghosts of her past, then telling my own story is worth any criticism I might face.
It started when a friend of mine was editing Get Out of My Crotch!—an anthology to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade—and she asked me to submit something. I figured if all of these other writers could tell their stories, I could tell mine. That first essay was pretty awful, and I knew it wasn’t going to be ready in time for publication. Over the next year, I kept working on the essay without any real plans for it; I just knew I had to get it right. The magic of writing, I think, is watching an essay go places you weren’t expecting. People might say, how can you not know where the essay is going if you are writing about your life? But it isn’t the story of your life that matters so much as the story behind the story. With each revision, I came closer to figuring out what the story was really about, which is grief and recklessness, the nature of shame and how it takes away our power. And what I have learned is that the only way to let go of that shame—or any shame for that matter—is in the telling.
You present the people involved in the essay as neither “good” nor “bad” but essentially human—why is this important?
Because no one is all good or all bad. Because so much about the very notion of good and bad is wrong anyway. I had an abortion, and it was bad. I had an abortion, and it was good. Both are true at the same time. Do you know how many things in my single, small life I can say that about?
You say in the essay that you have never spoken or written—even, with one exception, in your journal—about the day you had an abortion. “Too private, I must have thought, even for the page,” you write. After so long, how did you tap into the emotions and even the setting, characters, and other details associated with these events?
I never wrote about the actual procedure, but I wrote around it in my journal. I wrote down the details of Vanessa, the tutu-wearing pug at the holiday party, and about the storm, power outages, and the rain-soaked streets. So when I finally came to write the story, it was easy to access—not easy to tell, but easy to remember. In so many ways, I am still there under the umbrella, on my way home from the clinic, still inside the sad heart of that twenty-four-year-old girl. As for writing about the actual abortion, some memories are stored in our bodies in a way that makes it easy to access the details, especially if the memory carries emotional baggage, and this one did.
Do you still keep a journal today?
Yes, absolutely. I recently laid out all my journals from the last twenty years, and I had filled more than a hundred journals. Every single essay or poem I have ever written came from a journal entry. My memoir Almost Somewhere came from a journal. You never know when you have a story. I certainly didn’t think I would write this essay when it was happening to me. The last thing I wanted to do was to tell anyone, and here I am now, telling everyone. But I write not only to make something of it later on, but to make sense of what’s going on at the moment. I think I would be a very confused person if I didn’t write in a journal regularly.
Why is it important to tell readers that your identity as “The Slut” or “Miss Goody Two Shoes” is unimportant? What made you decide to address this idea directly, rather than implying the information as the work progressed?
At the time, those identities seemed like everything, as damaging as they were and are. By not revealing which one I was, I hope to dismantle the importance, rendering those labels meaningless. I addressed the idea directly because I worried that without doing so, it would seem like some sort of cute trick, and I definitely didn’t want the essay to read that way.
Your tone in this piece is so even keeled, contrasting the very emotional circumstances you’re relating. Do you ever struggle to find a balance between your personal self and yourself as a writer? Especially with this sort of intensely private story, what are your methods for balancing the two?
I wish I had a different answer for this—one where I have gracefully figured out how to be Suzanne the person and Suzanne the artist. The only thing that really separates the me in my essays and the real me is time, which is probably why most things I write about have a twenty-year time lag. That way I am truly not the Suzanne in this essay, but only because I have two decades on her.
I also have this weird go-to when I feel like I’ve revealed too much of my private life on the page. I think, In a hundred years, I’ll be dead, so who cares? I even tell this to my students in freshman composition when they don’t want to share their work with each other. They look at me as if I have lost my mind, but I know some of the students take that to heart and feel less self-conscious. Everyone in the room will be dead in a hundred years, so who cares what anyone thinks?
Why is it important to present the other woman’s experience as ultimately parallel to your own? Did something motivate you to draw that connection retrospectively? Or was it something you realized in the process of writing?
It was very much in the process. I didn’t even remember most of the situation with the other woman until I started writing. And it was in a much later draft, when I started writing about my father, that I remembered this other woman had lost her mother. Even though we thought we were so different, we had so much in common when it comes to the things that matter. We were both fucked up by grief, which led to fucking the wrong man. Really, we should have been friends. And maybe if we were in our forties and not our twenties, we could have seen that.
E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That is one of the things about writing: there is no way to know what something means, at least for me, until I write it and re-write it, asking the same questions again and again: Why am I telling this story? What does it mean? Where can I go deeper? What is the story behind the story?
Did you draw courage or inspiration from any other works while writing this piece? If so, what are they?
Yes, probably everyone I have ever read. Isn’t that always the case? I read a lot, and whenever I’m asked to give advice about writing, I always say the same thing: Read widely and read deeply. If you do this, you will hold so many sentences in your body that it will become much easier to tell your own story, but you will also see that the world exists outside of your own narrow perspective. Also, when I read something really honest, it gives me permission to tell my own truth—when I read something and think, Did she really just say that? Why, yes she did. Those are the writers and poets who give me inspiration and courage: writers such as Emily Brontë, Kate Chopin, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and contemporary writers like Maggie Nelson, bell hooks, Dorothy Allison, Carolyn Forché, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Patricia Smith, Lauren Slater, Pam Houston, and Jenny Boully. I could go on and on, but those are a few writers I keep returning to.
In your opinion, does current feminist literature neglect personal stories in relation to abortion? Why or why not?
The sad truth of it is that the world doesn’t really want to hear from its ladies. Not like this. I think there are many women who are changing this—writers who are making the unsayable sayable. As I mentioned earlier, I had been solicited to write this essay by a friend, Kim Wyatt, the publisher of Bona Fide Books and Cherry Bomb Books, because she felt like there needed to be a counter-voice to the right-wing politics and legislation regarding women’s reproductive rights. Get Out of My Crotch! features many women writers who are pushing the boundaries of the unsayable, writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and Roxane Gay, badass truth-tellers who face feminist issue with courage and grace. Anyone interested in feminist issues should pick up a copy of this book.
What are the benefits of using literary forms to address feminist issues? What are the disadvantages?
If done well, the literary form will create a dialogue and facilitate change, but unfortunately, we so often end up just talking to each other. Two years in a row I have facilitated feminist panels at AWP, and in both instances, the audiences were 98% women, and it seemed like they mostly agreed with us. One way to overcome “preaching to the choir” is to politicize our classrooms by teaching feminist texts, books that question the status quo and strive to deconstruct all systems of domination. The issues of women’s reproductive health is not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. When women are denied appropriate health care, it affects the entire society. We have to find ways to widen the discussion, and using literature is one important way.
What advice would you give other writers attempting to address feminist issues in their creative work?
Read other writers to keep current with the discourse—you can’t join the conversation if you don’t know what the conversation is. And beyond that, I would say to write what you need to write. Tell the stories you need to tell and don’t worry about whether or not the work delivers a message until you start revision. I have all sorts of ideas and opinions about things, but to use my writing directly as a platform for my ideas has never really worked for me. It’s true that stories and poems make arguments, but to come at an issue from an oblique angle—as Emily Dickinson says, to tell it slant—seems to me the better approach. And finally, I would encourage writers to give their work time. The first draft of this essay sucked. It didn’t go deep enough, and it came off as didactic. I needed to sit with the essay for a long time in order to tell the story in the way it needed to be told.
You mentioned that the essay went through many revisions, and that the only way to let go of shame was through the retelling—can you talk more about how this applies to the wider women’s rights narrative?
As I said earlier, once you tell a story, the disgrace slips away; shame loses its power. And it is hard sometimes to be outspoken about our beliefs, but the thing is that if we don’t say what we believe, we can’t help to make things better for other people or for ourselves. When I told my mother that this essay was going to be published, she said, “But I’ve never told anyone about that,” meaning the abortion. I said, “And now you don’t have to. I’m telling it.” And you know what? I have no doubt that she will be the first one to share the essay on her Facebook page. Once we release ourselves from the burden of our shame, everyone else can too.
Is this essay part of a larger work? Or do you have any plans for incorporating it into a larger piece?
It is. I started out thinking I was writing a book, a memoir about grief and desire that also happened to take place in twenty-five different countries (the working title is Gone Missing: Twenty Countries and Ten Men). Really, what I had on my hands was a hot mess. So I spent some time just looking at the manuscript, and I realized it is really two books: one is a travel memoir about the connections between place, desire, and identity; the other is a collection of essays about grief, which is where “The Same Story” now lives. In the end, both manuscripts are about longing—I have always known that my writerly obsessions are sex and death, but I have come to realize that really what I am most interested in is longing, in that Gabriel García Márquez way—longing for the things we have lost, the things we have not yet had, the things we will never have, and maybe even the things that exist only in our minds.