What Are You Working On?
First, I'd just finished a novel that had undergone numerous rewrites, and the novel is set in the mid-70's and deals very thoroughly with grief--the daughter's mother goes missing, and it's about the search and discovery that she's been living all along in the basement of her home.
When I finished the novel, I was desperate to write something funny. And I was desperate to write something in my own voice. So I thought, you know, people are always asking me--"Tell the one about the one about the ruby slippers," or "Tell the one about the Greek guy"-- these are all stories I'd tell at a barbecue or over coffee. And I thought, Why not? Why not find a way to collect all the stories I like to tell? Why not take a crack at non-fiction?
The tough part about writing this book has been balancing the heavy material with the light material. I say it's a humor book, but there's a dead kitten, a suicide attempt and a miscarriage in there as well. I think life is like that -- your humor might develop out of tragedy, your funny stories carry more heft between the lines if you know the larger context. So the challenge was how to prepare the reader for both. I didn't want someone to open the book expecting one thing, only to be startled by the other. So I took a lot of time creating the unconventional shape for the book and writing the prologue.
It's been unbelievably rewarding just to find a way to get this on paper because I've always felt like a very compartmentalized person -- one of the main themes of my novel, in fact. You know, people know you as the smiley one or the wise one or the funny one, and then you have this hidden melancholy side.
I only recently started telling people in my real life that I write, and only last fall told my mother that I write. It was that difficult for me to break out of this pattern of concealing parts of myself. I honestly didn't think I could communicate both sides of the coin in the book in a way that worked, but I think I did in the end.
I don't really know how this came about, but since I was a kid I believed if I shared anything other than happiness or some achievement, I would scare people away. When I started writing poetry (which I don't write anymore), I remember my attempts at showing people confirmed this fear--that people would be scared off, that they wouldn't like or "get" that side of me.
But I couldn't help but continue the writing, and noticed that other writers had a real different tolerance for looking at the underbelly of life. You could talk about fear or shame or anger within characters and say things people don't say and look at things people normally close their eyes to. I felt I grew in empathy and wisdom with other writers because we had no limits on what we talked about. And there's a kind of trust and caring you build with people who can know your darkest or most tender thoughts and not run away.
Over time I just continued the habit until one day I realized (or rather, someone pointed out to me) that anyone who didn't know my writing and the many hours a day I spent reading, writing, and editing, didn't know the most of me. This was a terrible thing to discover about myself because there were many people I adored and considered myself very close to, and yet, I had gradually built this wall between us.
But since I've made more of an effort to stop doing that, my writing has really lightened up. It's more playful.
I'm in the editing phase right now. But I happened to mention my memoir on my blog, and the senior editor of a pretty huge magazine asked if she could excerpt it. I emailed her the entire, unedited book and she read it in a day and said all kinds of tremendous things about it, including the fact that she'd passed it to colleagues and there was lots of buzz about it. That was a nice surprise, so I'm pleased about its chances.
Susan's profile page on amazon.com
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published 7 Feb 06 on Too Beautiful. email copyright 2006 Mark Pritchard, Bernal Heights, San Francisco