Natalie Serber: I met Robin Black in grad school in 2002 and listened with eager ears each time she raised a question or offered an opinion in lectures and discussions. I would’ve been a bit intimidated by her intelligence and curiosity if it weren’t for her friendliness…however, I don’t remember her out on the dance floor at Warren Wilson’s famous, blow-off-steam dances! I do remember she made a regular pilgrimage to a fortune teller in the woods. Mysterious things happened at WW.
RB: We both have new nonfiction books out, after publishing primarily fiction. And both of our books are centered around circumstances traditionally seen as fairly personal, even private. In Community Chest you write vividly and honestly about your experiences with breast cancer, including some decidedly intimate aspects. My new book discusses my struggles with emotional difficulties, including nearly two decades of agoraphobia. My own experience, though, is that in many ways fiction feels more exposing to me, than do essays, even about such personal experiences. With memoir, I have more control over what I reveal than I do with fiction, which in my case is never autobiographical, but always feels to me like showing people my dreams, exposing aspects of myself I don’t even know I am exposing. I was just wondering how all those notions of privacy and disclosure in the two forms play out for you, as you move between the genres.
NS: Congratulations on the publication of Crash Course, Robin. I’m very excited to read it. I would have to answer that both fiction and memoir seem to me to be equally weighted in the risk of exposure. And I say risk, not because I’m a terribly private person, but because in all of our work we reveal ourselves, whether in the dream of fiction, as you say, or in the exploration of life events through memoir or essay. My approach to the writing is always the same, tell the truest thing, whether it happened or not. I think I feel slightly more protected with fiction because there is the scrim I can hide behind with the invented characters, the invented situations. But, the yearnings and conflicts my characters endure are often the very same things with which I struggle—the desire to be known, the questions of being loving and lovable. For me, the writing is all about connecting with the world, in either genre.
RB: I totally agree about connecting with the world — though I think that has gotten to be a stronger element the longer I do this. When I first started writing, at age thirty-nine, I felt like I was writing to save my own life, or anyway my sanity. The material just HAD to emerge. Now, I feel no less inclined to write, but it’s not as much about how I feel, as about reaching out, making connections. I suppose some of that is the result of having readers in the world, but some of it may truly be that the process of working is different, now that I had that initial burst of doing the writing that felt like if I didn’t get the words on the page I would vanish. Though having said that, in this essay collection, I share a lot about some emotional struggles I’ve had, and also about raising a child with special needs, and that material does feel urgent. But it feels urgent in part because I’m reaching out to others with similar challenges. I wonder if that ties in with your feelings writing about your breast cancer experience?
NS: Yes, indeed there was urgency in writing the early pieces that became my book, Community Chest. I was terrified when I received a breast cancer diagnosis and there was no place to turn but the page. Family and friends and doctors did their best to listen and to offer solace, but the feelings stirring inside me could only be exorcised on the page. As much as people in my life supported and held me (literally and metaphorically) cancer was terribly lonely and by writing and posting on my blog I was reaching for community and understanding. As I continued down the path of treatment (never ending it seemed) the writing lost its urgency and became more a curious dive into illness and fear. I became very interested in the dark hallways of my own mind. Which brings me around to something you talk about in Crash Course. You speak about wanting to write in innocence, unaware of your obsessions. I’ve been working on a novel and I too want to be surprised by the way my deepest concerns are illuminated in the lives of my characters. If I’m not surprised, how in the world can I hope for my readers to make discoveries?
How do you maintain a slight-of-hand naïveté regarding the ‘about’ of your book while you’re writing drafts? If I understand what my writing project is about before I’ve finished a draft, the writing feels crimped, with little room for discovery.
RB: I always say—though it’s not very precise—that I like to stay a little stupid about what I’m writing, while I’m writing it. One of my biggest fears is that an early draft will be too thought out, too tidy, too planned. I don’t exactly know how to do that though, how to put myself in that kind of half aware state. I guess I would turn the question around a bit and say, though I don’t know how to get to the state in which my obsessions have a free flow to the page, when it happens, I know it. When it happens, I really feel like I’m writing in that hours-are-flying-by way. The best fiction I’ve ever written has come from somewhere that isn’t quite conscious —the first draft has, I mean. After that, the intent kicks in and I start making decisions rather than following hunches.
Speaking of decisions, one of the decisions you and I have both faced with these non-fiction books involves how to write about other people. Several of the essays in Crash Course are about my difficult relationship with my late father. Others, as I mentioned, are about experiences I’ve had with my daughter who has special needs. I did all kinds of gut-checks over those essays, and spoke with my daughter about whether she was comfortable. But I still know that there will be readers out there who feel, for example, that I should have left my father’s memory undisturbed.
I think that’s always such a difficult line to walk and I’m curious about how you made those choices about what to include and what not to include—if indeed there were things you wrote around.
NS: It’s very hard to know how much of your story to reveal, especially when your story intersects with the lives of those you love. In Community Chest I have an essay about grappling with the discovery of my daughter’s pierced nipple. I don’t think the essay is about my daughter at all, it’s about my perceptions, it’s about breasts and fear and cancer and letting go. Of course I showed the essay to my daughter before I published it and got, well, her permission if not exactly her blessing.
This conundrum is not exclusive to non-fiction. I’ve had to make some tough decisions with my fiction as well. There are two quotes that I fall back to, one from the writer Anne Lamott who says something along the lines of, if your writing pisses off your family, congratulations, you’ve found your true voice. And from the writer Dorothy Gallagher who in speaking about fiction says, “The writers’ business is to find the shape in an unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.” I think Gallagher, when she mentions not serving the truth, is speaking about the facts of how things happened, not about emotional truths.
Since my writing is often about trying and painful experiences that pushed hard against me, it makes sense that family would be a subject. In our homes, surrounded by the people we love, we are at our best and at our worst and we mostly continue to love one another. Of course we write about that.
In Crash Course you play with form. Some essays are incredibly brief, some are in list form, like the terrific essay, “AD(H)DII:August 8, 2011,” which also includes footnotes. I too have a list essay in my book, “#baldunderneath.” For me the form arose from a wish to escape my slog through chemo. There was something about the white space the list provided, the ‘air’ around the words that felt necessary. Tell me about your decisions to play with form.
RB: I love that essay of yours. I have both read and heard you read it and in both cases I loved the way that fragments and slightly random—or anyway nonlinear—elements seem to be true to your state of mind and being at the time. In a sense, your whole book is a collage of a kind. Each essay stands alone, but really the beauty of the book is in how eloquently they speak to each other, and speak together.
As for me, the earliest essays I wrote, maybe fifteen years ago, were in very non-traditional forms—collage, and other kinds of nonlinear structures. I have always found myself running to those different approaches when wanting to convey something more experiential than analytic. And actually in the past, the harder the topic, the more fractured my structures have been.
With this list essay in this book though, I have to confess, Hunger Mountain, where it first appeared had commissioned lists from me and from others. My mind went naturally to the “To Do” lists I used to make fairly often and never complete. Footnoting one of those to examine the great discrepancy between the aspirational words and reality was fun—and actually cured me of To Do lists for a while. At the same time it was a bit of a personal exploration for me of the myriad ways ADD continues to affect my life.
As I wait for responses to my book, only just coming out this week, I wonder about your experiences with having Community Chest read. We have both written these books for others as well as for ourselves, to offer some company along the way when life is bumpy—to say the least—using our own experiences. For all that fiction is in some ways about a companionship with readers, this seems to me to be very different to me. And I would love to hear some of the responses you have gotten to Community Chest. I should say, I sat in an audience of women at your recent reading, among whom I sensed were others who had received breast cancer diagnoses, and I was struck by how thirsty they were both to hear your voice and also, in some ways, to have you speak for them.
I’m afraid we have to wind this exchange down—though I feel we could pass it back and forth for months—and I would love to know what the experience of having a book of memoir essays, this particular book, out in the world has been like for you.
NS: Robin, thanks so much for inviting me to participate in this conversation with you. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and feel like we too are playing with form, an epistolary essay!
One of the most gratifying things about writing Community Chest has been the response from readers. Not only did writing about my cancer experience make me feel less alone as I was going through it, knowing that my exploration has made others feel known in their fear is an amazing gift. I have heard from readers who are grateful for the humor and the authenticity, who say reading the book offered them solace. What an amazing gift for me.
I’m certain that your book will make many readers feel known as well. Those of us who found our careers late in life, who struggle with trusting our own voice, with family history, with raising children with special needs, will all find an encouraging teacher in your essays. I love your dedication to your daughter, Annie. “Best. Teacher. Ever.” I shudder at saying that about breast cancer, but it did make things very real, very fast. It’s life isn’t it, that makes all of the work so challenging and essential. Rilke has a quote that I posted on my mirror when I was going through treatment, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.”