Who do you think you are? I mean, what makes you so special?
I ask myself these questions all the time. I imagine people asking these questions about me behind my back. So, I wanted to include them at the beginning of this Self Interview. They’re actually important questions. Even though some people would say we shouldn’t be this hard on ourselves, I think we should. I think we should come to the page, whether we’re writing the page or reading it, with a sense of urgency.
Who do we think we are? What makes us so special? Who am I in relation to others? What good can I do? What evil have I done? Where am I duplicitous in the events of this particular lifetime? And, you know, we don’t apply this to just ourselves. We apply these questions to others. It’s at the heart of empathy—who do we think they are? What makes them so special? It’s the stuff of literary transformation.
A lot of people have had it much worse than you have. What gives you the right to write a book when there are other people with harder stories?
This is what I imagine people will say before they read my book, Narrow River, Wide Sky: A Memoir. Again, as above, it’s nothing I haven’t said to myself during the long years of writing it. The thing about memoir, though, isn’t that it’s about confession, or trauma survival, or drug addiction, or any of what literary memoirs include as scenes, as content. Those things are included, but they’re metaphors and literary devices and artistic expression. That’s the thing about literary memoir that intrigues me the most—how do we claim, use, write, and reflect on our experiences so they become more than they were, whether we make them smaller or more important upon reflection, and most urgently, how do we offer this up to others, and what can we make smaller and more important in the larger landscape of society? How do we transform our inner lives as a matter of compassion to ourselves and to be of service to others? That’s what I’m after.
How do you think people/real life characters in your books will respond to this? How will this make them feel?
I included a few words—instructions, if you will, for them. I wrote, “Brain studies have shown that memory is a tricky thing. As the writer of this book, I took liberties with my memories and the timeline of events to create a narrative. Some names have been changed, but most haven’t. Identities are the ones I’ve projected onto the various characters of my life and I could be wrong. I know only a tiny slice of who anyone is.”
I hope readers and other writers and critics will take this to heart—I don’t want to vilify anyone. It isn’t possible for one person to change the systems that create societies. I’d love to change many of my brother’s opinions and behaviors and his affects on the world (not all—he has many excellent qualities and ideas), but I was never able to do that. I offer up this book instead. I’m hoping he’ll read it and understand. I’m hoping others who are shining stars in the book will, too. I’m hoping they won’t take it personally. I’m hoping they’ll understand the metaphors and will wrestle with them the way I do. I’m hoping that readers will understand that, too, and not vilify anyone in the book either. That’s not why I wrote this.
You write scenes in literary vignettes and tie them together to create a narrative arc, but there’s more here than stories. Why didn’t you just write a ranting essay and get it over with?
I love ranting—ask my family and friends, but it’s not that interesting to anyone (ask those same family and friends). I wanted to write something beautiful. There are things I wanted to say that can’t really be said in a Facebook post or even in a poem. Some things take time to tell or they come out wrong. Quick confessions can be perceived as emotional dumps that burden the receiver who has to bear all the emotional labor and the psychic wounding. A story told over time and landscape is told through the storyteller who takes the responsibility to do the work—emotional, artistic, spiritual, and the story becomes a gift given then. I hope that doesn’t sound bad, but I really think it’s my responsibility to create good art that’s healing and helpful. I’ve done enough damaging and unhelpful stuff. It’s in the memoir.
Everyone wants to be a writer. Do you have advice for them?
Write. Don’t write like anyone else, but read everything and learn what quality writing is. Be discerning, too. There is no one right way, and the aim is to find your own particular voice. Take everyone’s words with cautious gratitude, but if the words don’t help you write more, leave them behind. That’s the thing. Write. It’s lonely, and other writers can lead you astray as often as they can help. Find a way to beat back the loneliness from time to time, but it’s something you have to deal with. You have to be bored. You have to be lonely. Boredom and loneliness create space for writing to happen. Also, don’t worry if writing makes you cry. It’s perfectly normal. I’ve heard lots of writers talk about it.
Why did this book take so long to write?
I had to live my life—mothering, being a wife, dog owner, teacher etc. Working and living and being. In between, in the moments, in the intentional times when I said, “I’m going to write,” I wrote—or I didn’t and felt guilty about it in any case. It also took a long time, not just because I had to get the stories down, but because I had to figure out how to write them the way I wanted to write them without knowing exactly how I wanted that to look. Artistic endeavors are matters of patience and that’s tough in a world that is speeding up to a level unseen in human history. I don’t think it’s a good thing, but I’m sure future generations will do something good with it.
Why do you want to put this out into the world if it could hurt your relationships with family members?
It has but those relationships were damaged beyond fixing before I wrote the book, and I understand that a lot of people like the idea of hope—never give up and all that. I call myself anti-hope because hope can keep us bashing our heads against impenetrable walls and wading through quick sand and many other metaphors. Life’s so very short. Let’s do what is true and meaningful and helpful. Let’s not protect our fragility with regard to bigger issues. Let’s care for the more vulnerable mythologies and characters in our lives—children over parents, kind elders over powerful ones. That sort of thing.
How has your family reacted to the book?
My brother, Brian, read Chapter Eight in one of its incarnations—he called it a zillion negative comments. He’d read pieces earlier and said he remembered things that way, too. We argued about what happened when we went to California to visit our father and he asked us whether we wanted to live with our mother or with him. Brian and Ron both said to write what I needed to write. So loving of them. So hard for them, too. I appreciate them for that. Brian also read Ariel Gore’s blurb of the book and said, “Israel,” so I know the book is on the right track. When you read the book, you’ll understand.
How did you learn to write?
At first, I kept journals—writing random thoughts, memories, desires for what I wanted a book to do, artistic experiments. I took classes with Ariel Gore of Hip Mama. Her writing is superlative. I learned over time—a long time. Even though, I’m anti-hope, I still believe we should never give up on good things. We oughtta endeavor. It’s all we have.
Why are you asking people to sign your book?
I’m asking people to sign my book—the one that’s going with me on the book tour because it’s a community effort. There are so many writers who told me what was what. So far, Cheryl Strayed has signed it (the first one, actually) and Tijan Sallah, who wrote a biography on Chinua Achebe. In the book, I wrote that I didn’t think my daughter would learn rebellion from me, but she’d learn it from my mother but when she signed my book, she wrote, “Thank you for teaching me rebellion.” I cried—audibly.
JENNY FORRESTER has been published in a number of print and online publications including Seattle’s City Arts Magazine, Nailed Magazine, Hip Mama, The Literary Kitchen, Indiana Review, and Columbia Journal. Her work is included in Listen to Your Mother anthology, published by Putnam. She curates the Unchaste Readers Series.