As a fiction writer who understands the necessity of plot, did you manipulate truth into a plot when you wrote your memoir?
A memoir is plotted, yes. You sift through life to find the story-shape. Events in life are often foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing gets obscured by random facts. Life has recurring motifs, but they too get buried. And sometimes life serves up a central conflict, a crisis, and, afterward, the opportunity to draw conclusions about that crisis. My point is that you don’t make a plot in nonfiction as much as you find plot. That’s mostly a matter of elision: leaving out the irrelevant. And sometimes it means emphasizing something that wishful thinking or self-protective evasion will make you hurry past. So a memoir is never the whole truth. It’s the distilled, arranged truth. I write about this overtly in the memoir—my need to find a story-shape in the randomness of life. Finding a story-shape is an act of faith, hanging onto that unproven but irresistible conviction that our mistakes and troubles matter.
Is that the hardest part of nonfiction, wrestling it into a story-shape?
It is trickier than writing fiction. Writing a memoir is like cooking for someone on a restricted diet. You use a recipe, but now you can’t use every ingredient. You have to make a story, but the ingredients are from a short list: things that really happened.
The other hard part is finding the right perspective, or tone. A memoir requires you to be unflinchingly candid but also measured, restrained. I tended to emphasize what I did wrong, how I’d contributed to my bad luck. I thought that was honest self-scrutiny. I didn’t describe things I’d done well. A few of my first readers and my editor forced me emphasize some of my better moments. In fact, my editor told me I needed to depict a few good moments from my daughter’s childhood, and I told her they’re weren’t any. At the time, I remembered those years as sheer work, serial crises, as a steep learning curve. Then I interviewed my daughter. I didn’t ask her if she had “good memories.” I said: “Do you remember when we lived in the yellow house? What things do you remember?” And she had all of these wonderful memories I’d forgotten. She returned my attention to them, and I am still grateful. I put them in the book. After all, they’re part of the story too.
As the author of five books, what would you tell the Debra Monroe who wrote your first book?
I would tell my former self to let the story-shape emerge before I got so married to my labored-over words and sentences. I used to perfect a sentence, then another, then another, until I had an ideal paragraph. Then I’d do I again and again. By the time I got to the end of a story or, God help me, a book, I was so sick of what I’d written, and I’d been miserable while writing. Yet I was certain I had to write so ploddingly to find my essential images to give my story its form. My writing time is more interrupted now. So I write a first draft quickly and return later to slowly refine the sentences and paragraphs. Interesting images still emerge, some in the first draft, some in later drafts. It’s just more fun writing this way. My sense of discovery is more keen because I’m not worried I’m writing something I can’t finish.
Can you think of other youthful ideas about writing that have since gone by the wayside?
I used to worry about not being original. Now I realize everyone is. Every life is as non-repeatable as evolution: a series of accidents turning into a causal chain. At a certain point, I realized everyone is so unique that maybe a writer’s biggest task is making uniqueness accessible to others. Then I worried about finding commonality. But finding commonality isn’t hard either. We are all born into circumstances beyond our control. We want to make the most of these, to perhaps transcend them, to grow up to give and receive love, and to live a useful life. And we don’t have forever. There’s that deadline, death.
In your memoir, you’re brutally honest with yourself. How bad did that feel?
At times, writing the memoir was liberating. I was writing about myself, but I wasn’t writing to myself. I stepped into a persona. While I was describing my younger self, the persona helped me remember I’d once had a buoyant sense that the world was somehow enchanted, as if tree branches were forming a helpful canopy above the road I traveled down, even as I puzzled over how to solve my problems; as if the syncopated sound of sprinklers on city lawns as I walked through streets at night, meantime wondering how to change my life, were syncopating just for me. This is not to say that my early years were a piece of cake. My childhood strikes some readers as less than ideal. And I married that man who had what you might call “anger-management issues.” Yet I survived, not unscathed, but hopeful. Yet, when I began to write about the most daunting events—the book’s climax—I was writing about a time in which I’d lost that buoyant, protected sense. That’s when it felt bad to write honestly. I had to revisit what, so far, were the worst moments of my life. But I’d found the voice that carried me through the beginning, and I decided to trust it: the same stance, the sense of humor, the penchant for oddball details.
You were also brutally honest about people close to you. Did that make you nervous?
Of course. But I mostly tell my secrets, not other people’s. I do tell my mother’s. I’m not sure I could have written this book if she were alive. Everyone else in the book is alive, however. But I depict them complexly. No one comes off as malevolent. Maybe my stepfather does. Yet even his worst moments are so incongruous they’re strangely comic.
I know a lot of writers worry about hurting family members. I hear this from younger writers I teach. A student will say his dad is upset about his story. (I answer: So why did you send him one of your two free copies of The Colorado Review?) If your family asks to see your work, then you must tell them: this is fiction, if it is. If it’s a memoir, you say: this is subjective. This is my autobiography, not yours. I’ve been lucky in that my family doesn’t read, and so they’ve never paid attention to any of my books. I never mentioned that I’d written a memoir. But then my niece saw it reviewed in People magazine and was like: “Wow, is that a picture of my aunt and cousin?” So word got out. I’m not trying to downplay this pressure. But if you write well, and that means depicting people with their best intentions and also their best intentions gone awry, you can hold your head up and own what you’ve written. There’s also that other issue—that I signed on to give up my privacy when I wrote the memoir, but people I depicted did not. So, like many memoirists, I changed names and physical characteristics of everyone except family, and I say so in a note at the front. People are free to identify themselves or not.
I’ve also been asked if I feel it’s fair to write about my daughter. I asked her for permission to publish the book. I understand she’s too young to fully understand what that means, but it’s not my first book, and we have many friends who are writers, so she has some idea. Besides, she comes off as the most together person in the book. She was born smart and happy. I don’t feel bad about depicting her—most reviewers note that she steals the show. But she’s ten when the book ends. That was a good time to quit writing about her.
You recall many conversations and people. How comfortable were you recalling specifics from memory?
Right, I use dialogue. Reported books—researched nonfiction—don’t, unless it’s taped first. Of course I didn’t tape my life. Not that taping keeps you honest. Think of Richard Nixon. But I couldn’t write a memoir without dialogue. Dialogue is action. It’s the externalization of conflict. A story can’t be all contemplation and pondering. When I wrote dialogue I just tried to be really true to the person as I remembered him or her, to be true to the tenor of the conversation. It’s a matter of balance. You have to show the person’s best side, also moments when that best side doesn’t suffice. Just as you show your own strength and also the moments when your strength fails, you show other people’s strength and the moments when theirs fails too. You do this because it’s good writing. No one believes a story about heroes and villains. We’re all complicit. It’s a matter of making depictions seem fair to a reader, but the easiest way to seem fair is to be fair.
When, if ever, is it okay to blur details, or leave out things that may take away from narrative shape?
You must leave things out. My memoir zeroes in on eleven years of my life, but also covers related moments from my childhood. If I hadn’t “left things out,” it would be a gazillion pages long. You leave out what doesn’t pertain. What makes a memoir dishonest is leaving out details that would change the content of the story. Leaving out details because they distort the shape of the story but not its content is absolutely necessary.
What has writing the memoir, including its publication and national attention, taught you?
By the time I’d become a mother, I’d isolated myself. I was living my life in a bunker with occasional quick exits for human contact. I was afraid to let anyone in. But I wanted to be a mother. I had high hopes. Then I was overwhelmed with fear—fear of loss, fear of failure. I was continually reminded that love won’t stave off bad luck or even death. What I learned as I wrote is that excruciating fear—because you want your child to always be here, now, so you can see that she’s fine, so you can help her or save her—is part of love. Love costs, and its price is fear. I’ve learned I’d pay the price many times over.
The attention the book got is maybe because transracial adoption is suddenly more common, and it wasn’t when I adopted. But letters from readers I value most are the ones that acknowledge that, even if the letter writer’s life is outwardly nothing like mine (no adopted child, no weird childhood in Wisconsin), the letter writer felt I was telling her story. I learned that a lot of women, not just me, have been socialized to avoid trouble, to go along to get along, to make peace at any cost. At a certain point, life forces us to make a ruckus, to take charge and live better. I built a home and family from scratch—as a carpenter, as an adoptive mother. But many women do the same on a less literal level.
Since the events described in the book, you’ve married and moved to Austin, often called the most liberal city in Texas. Does the “minority’s minority” line still apply? What has become easier? What’s more difficult?
First of all, it’s so much easier being a parent with a good partner. A bad partner would obviously make life harder, which is why I originally set out to be a single parent. But my husband is great—someone with good instincts helping decide how to handle tough moments, also someone to share proud moments with, which used to feel a bit lonely.
As for interracial families being “the minority’s minority” in Austin, even the black population is small here, around 12%, and neighborhoods are pretty racially distinct. So it’s a little more diverse, but not a lot. We do see a few families who look like us. Yet, given when adoption legislation changed, the children are all toddlers, not teenagers.
The big difference between the liberal city and the time-warp country is that racism is coded here. In the country, people blurted out consternation or dumbfounded approval, and we learned to respond. But coded racism means you have to respond in code, which requires a different rhetorical finesse. My daughter has rhetorical finesse to spare—maybe because she confronted questions so early, questions about race, adoption, family. I answered them as honestly as I could in age-appropriate language. It was a crash course I wouldn’t have enrolled her in if I’d had a choice. But she has more clarity and poise than many people twice her age, and a wild sense of humor too. It is easier living here, yes. Maybe our time in country—whether we knew it or not at the time—was a good preparation.