This interview was published several years back, but I wanted to reprint it here for those conference attendees who didn’t have a chance to read it.
After I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water I felt like my heart and brain had been sandblasted. It’s not your ordinary memoir, if there is such thing as an ordinary memoir. It’s raw and sad and real and scary. And she just takes so many risks as a writer—in not only what she describes, but how she describes it. I don’t know about you, but sometimes after reading such a book I feel that the writer has granted me permission to go deeper, to take more risks in my own writing. To find out more about Lidia visit her here.
Q: Over the years of teaching and editing I’ve met writers who afraid to tell the truths of their lives in a memoir. Typically they say they’re waiting for their parents or other significant people to die. Could you talk about taking risks in writing and how a writer can toss out their concerns about the fallout, and simply write? Maybe my question is how do you write the truth without feeling too vulnerable?
A: Well I bet you’d agree with what I’m going to say…there is no way to write the truth without feeling too vulnerable. And that is because that space of vulnerability is precisely where writers have to go, you know?
But at the start of your question is the issue of the people in our lives that our stories may touch. That is a difficultly. In my own case, my parents both died. And the fact is that I would not have written the book had they still been alive. Particularly my mother. My mother was in pain all of her life, and this book would have made her sad. I would not have contributed to increasing her pain – at least not intentionally. On the other hand, she would also have supported me, she would have told me I was brave.
The other “people” in my book I took different approaches with. I called or emailed most of them. I changed the names of a few. I made at least one “composite.”
But it’s just a veil we throw up when we say we can’t write stories because of how this or that person will react. It’s a safety veil. The reason to lift the veil and move through to your story has almost nothing to do with how the people in your life will react. You can’t control that. Ever. The reason to lift the veil is to step with your full self into your own story.
If other people find difficulty with your story, hey, they can write their own stories.
But I did list some good strategies: contact people you are worried about, change names if you must, use a composite if you can skillfully render events without distorting their truth, and this: trust art.
Q: Along with writing the truth, I noticed that there were lots of places in your story where you chose not to bring the reader along. Some of your story, such as your father’s abuse, is implied, not dramatized. How did you make decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out?
A: That’s a great question for this particular book. I have been quite demoralized and pissed off about the narrow options available to writers on certain topics: incest, abuse, addiction as examples. And what I mean about the narrow options is that it seems that it is the market, and not the writer or artist – who determines what kinds of stories can be told and HOW they can be told. Put simply, when publishing houses and agents and editors get to decide there is a certain market tested way of telling a story, it means how it is told is based on how it is sold.
So one of the many formal choices I created for this book (you’ll no doubt notice quite a few formal strategies) was to concentrate on the body as a character, and on the sensory spaces we all enter in times of fear or danger. In other words, I tried to create word houses or environments where the reader can feel what it’s like to be afraid or humiliated or damaged, without actually hurting the reader with the graphic details of my particular situation.
It’s my hope that this strategy opens up spaces for the reader to plug in their own archetypal experiences and their own individual stories – the river of sadness or pain moves through us all at one time or another. It’s not important that my story be bigger than anyone else’s.
It’s just important that we understand each other through stories and art.
So I suppose you could say that I trusted art, I trusted storytelling, I trusted language and image and lyric to “carry” the reader’s body close to difficult things.
Q: How do writers find themes that resonate both for the writer and reader?
A: I’m fairly Jungian when it comes to questions like this – I believe there are resonant archetypal images and emotions and rituals and … “memories” that connect us all even through our otherness.
But it’s tricky, as your question implies, because all writers are narcissists. HA!
So one strategy to think about is to move away from “self” and toward artistic production. Instead of asking myself, well, what happened to me and how can I tell it so that the reader will feel the weight of its importance, I asked, what is the central metaphor(s) of my life experience? It was the metaphor of swimming that brought me to a place to tell my story that included the reader. It was letting go of telling the story of my mind and telling the story of my body that opened up a place for the reader to travel with me. To de-privatize the selfstory. To de-mythologize the self.
We are all born through water. We are all made of mostly water. It’s a much more resonant way to tell my story than to focus on me me me me Or I I I I or the Lidianess of my experiences. There is an I, there is a me, but there is mostly a big, huge, generative metaphor that is more important than that.
That’s why I’ve invented so many metaphor exercises for writers…
Q: In The Chronology of Water you started near the middle of the story with the birth of your stillborn daughter then you moved in and out of time. How does a memoir writer find the best chronology for storytelling?
A: Well I don’t know why ANY memoir follows a linear timeline, to be honest…And I say that because I have done such extensive research in biochemistry and neuroscience on the topic of memory. Memory doesn’t work anything like we wish it did. Sad, but true.
It’s narrative that gives memory and experience its “shape.” I made a very conscious choice to de-emphasize the linear in order to, at least a little bit, emphasize what’s not only true about how memory works, but also what’s true about narrative theory.
Too, I wanted to begin with a birthdeath in order to disturb the notion that birth is the beginning and death is the end, since I no longer believe that either about life or narrative.
Q: What is the most challenging part of writing and how do you face it?
A: It’s ALL challenging, isn’t it??!!! Why do we do it, Jessica? HA!! Seriously though, the two biggest challenges for me seem to recur. The first is simply the challenge to stand up, claim the writing space, and innovate inside of it rather than mimic what’s been inherited. To say I too, am a writer, and this is what it looks like when I do it and not someone else.
The second great challenge for me is to not get lost inside making art. There is a HUGE part of me that would simply love to stay inside writing or painting. To not come out. To leave the world entirely. I am more at home inside writing than I am out in the world. It’s a great deal like being in water is for me—I’m more my self, I’m free, I’m in pure imagination and reflection and generation.
The tougher part for me is being out in the world like people are. I mean I can do it, but it never feels quite right. It’s painful and hard for me. I need LOADS of “recovery” time after being in public. I think a lot of writers, artists, introverts feel this way. So I suppose I’m saying my deeper challenges are OUTSIDE of making art. If I could get away with it, I’d stay in there and pull a few loved ones in with me. Unfortunately, that’s probably a space of psychosis so it’s good that there are loving people in my life to keep me tethered to the world.
Q: In your memoir there’s a chapter on writing fiction collaboratively in Ken Kesey’s class at the University of Oregon. Besides the lovely aspect that Kesey served as a father figure to you, I’m wondering what he taught you about writing and seeing the world as a writer.
A: He taught me it was OK to feel more passion about art and nature and animals than I do for most people. He taught me that the outsider status you need to have as a writer does not require violent alienation. He taught me that there are many ways to love, and writing is one way. He taught me that writers go down to difficult places for a culture and bring things back up to it—that we have a vital role to play in culture—and to try not to get sucked into the consumer culture definition of what and who a writer is. Which is a constant battle, you know…
Q: Can you talk about the role of your critique group in your writing process and life?
A: YES!! They are the BEST! HA…you knew I’d say that though, right? What I had no idea about is how important a writing group like this could be to someone like myself who is at heart an isolate.
This … “thing” we do every week is more than just bringing work in and getting feedback. It’s a way to feel present as a writer and artist. It’s a way to regather some of the energy you lose every day just trying to keep up with the dizzy whir of your life, not to mention your art. I think too even though this will sound a little ju ju, it’s a very important secular ritual. It recurs. It collects. It generates. It receives and gives. Every. Single. Week.
I love too that we are all very different kinds of writers. I suspect that our differences are important in terms of the ways we can help each other. We each “see” slightly differently how to write and why to write and what to write, and we bring all those differences – all of those voices – together. When you go home, those voices and emotions and ideas are still with you, swimming in your head in a comforting and reinforcing way. It’s a way to be not alone and alone as a writer.
Q: What’s your best advice for writers in 12 words or less?
A: If this is what you want, only you can invent its terms of being; write the world of your imagination.
Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: It’s more of a giant pile that starts at the floor and teeters upward like a paper tower…and the kinds of books in the pile have almost no identifiable connection…I’m a wicked and voracious reader…
Q: What’s next?
A: Well, I just finished a novel based on the Dora/Freud relationship called Dora: A Head Case that I’ll have to find a way to get into the world, and I’m currently working on a novel based on Joan of Arc. There’s only ever the next book…