I’m not sure what to ask myself right now besides do you want some more wine? So for the purposes of this self-interview, I will answer the top ten questions people have asked me about The Wrong Way to Save Your Life since it came out, in order of most frequently asked.
One: How is Sophia?
My buddy Sophia is five years old and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor. There’s an essay in the book called “We Say and Do Kind Things” about the first few months after her initial diagnosis at two-and-a-half, and how she and her mom, my dear friend Sarah, taught me to choose kindness over fear. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people asking about her health. Thank you for those emails. Thank you for caring about this little girl and her family who I love so very much.
The answer is there are good days and bad days. The answer is fuck cancer. The answer is she’s a small child being treated with Vineblastine, which was developed in 1958 for adults with fully developed bodies and fully developed brains. The answer is only four percent of federal funding for cancer research is spent on childhood cancers. The answer is she takes my breath away.
When I finished the essay about her, I sent it to Sarah for her approval and any corrections or cuts she wanted me to make. I was nervous; this was her story, not mine, and I had to do it justice. Her response is something I will carry with me forever: “It is your story. It’s everybody’s story. If we keep thinking that the hard things in the world belong to someone else, that we don’t have a part to play, then none of this will ever get better.”
She was talking about pediatric cancer. But she could have been taking about anything.
We’ve performed this essay together for 2nd Story. I hope you’ll listen. I hope you’ll hear her voice.
Two: How do the people you write about feel about you writing about them?
The Chicago Reader asked them. All of them. My dad, my husband, my best friends and colleagues and former employers, the realtor who saved us from foreclosure, and most importantly, my nine-year-old son, whose answer made me cry: “I love knowing that my mom writes about me because it means she loves me. She probably writes about that, too. But I don’t like it when she gets up so early in the morning to write. She needs to stay asleep so she’s healthy. Also: there’s no right or wrong way to save your life.”
Three: Did you really dissect all those deer hearts?
Four: How do you keep writing when the world is a shitshow?
I turned in the first full draft of this book in the summer of 2016 and rewrote it that fall, in the final months of the presidential campaign. There are seventeen essays, all about fear, and rewriting a book about fear during that time was a mind-fuck. The Access Hollywood Tapes had just come out and so many of my students were writing about sexual assault. My son, then eight, came home from the playground and asked what pussy meant. I watched Trump rallies online, the violent rhetoric directed at black people, Latinx people, Muslim people, queer people, disabled people, women, i.e. everyone I know and love. This is not theoretical for me. This is my family. And even if it wasn’t, I want to be a person who gives a shit about everyone’s families, not just her own.
I teach creative nonfiction, and we had class the day after the election. I emailed everyone and said they didn’t have to come, but I’d be there if they wanted to join me. They did. All of them. There were two guys in the class and they each brought in something for all of the women in the class. Thirteen cupcakes. Thirteen flowers. Their first thoughts were of these thirteen women and the stories they’d told about assault. That moment, on that day, was important for me in thinking about why I keep writing and teaching. Stories matter. They help us see each other.
That said: some days I don’t write. Some days I drink. Some days I cry. Some days I imagine, with an uncomfortable clarity, launching myself into the sea. But then there’s the next day and I have shit to do and a kid to raise and people to help in whatever ways I can: my vote and my voice and my teaching and my writing and my body in the goddamn street.
Five: How do you tell all these personal things? Aren’t you scared?
Yes. I am scared. All of the time. Here’s a better question: what gets me through?
Answer: Every day, for nearly twenty years, I’ve sat in rooms with young people who are writing to save their own lives. They put their hearts on the page and they hand those pages to me. I better damn well be worthy of them. bell hooks: “I don’t think for a minute that we can be teachers who invite students into radical openness if we’re not willing to be radically open ourselves.” There’s an essay in my book called “F,” about self-harm. I first read it to the students at Interlochen Arts Academy when I was there as a visiting writer. I was nervous to write it, and nervous to hear it aloud, but they were so brave in their work. I wanted to be brave, too.
Answer: In Chicago, the performance community and the literary community are tangled together in all sorts of ways. I didn’t start writing personal essays to publish; I wrote them to perform. There’s a safety in that. It’s about the moment, the live experience. I don’t have to worry about my dad in Alaska, or my ex in New York, or my kid ten years into the future reading it. It’s me and the fifty or a hundred or five hundred people here in the moment. Live Chicago audiences have been supporting my work for years. They hold me to the highest standard of excellence. If I’m phoning it in, they will tell me. If I’m dancing around the truth, they’re clear as day: Do better. Work harder. We work.
Answer: I want this world to be better for my kid and your kid and everybody’s kids. I think art has a place in that.
Answer: I could write “Here is My Heart,” because Nicole Piasecki wrote “Maybe We Can Make a Circle.” Or maybe vice versa. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Both of those essays together get us closer to the truth.
Answer: I write a lot about postpartum depression, which knocked me on my ass for a couple of years. I was, quite literally, on the floor. And while I was down there, other people stood up. Other people yelled and fought and taught and wrote and tried. And now I’m up. I’m here. I’m fighting. I’m yelling my face off because I can and there are other people right now who can’t, who need to take care of themselves and their health and their families and their communities. We need each other. We’re all we have.
Six: “This is more of a comment than a ques—”
Seven: What are you reading right now?
Kelly Sundburg’s forthcoming memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, which gutted me. Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot. Lidia Yuknavitch’s new Misfits Manifesto. Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith. The music issue of The Believer, with this incredible essay by Melissa Febos where she recorded her own orgasms. And I carry a ratted copy of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby around in my bag because jesusgod I need to laugh.
If we don’t laugh we’ll jump off the roof.
Eight: There’s one really long essay that sort of runs through the whole book?
Have you read “All Apologies,” by Eula Biss? I love its architecture—a concise, lyrical list of apologies, both personal and political, that tangle together and collide at the end. I wanted to try that same structure, but about fear. What always happens with me is I get an idea, and I make tons of plans and outlines, and when I finally write the thing it comes out as something different entirely, like that Frank O’Hara poem about sardines and oranges. My attempt at a concise, lyrical essay ended up at 60,000 words.
I came up in the performance community in Chicago, and having an outside eye on the work—a director, a producer, an editor—is second nature. I gave that beast of an essay to my editor and my agent, both brilliant women who I trust completely, and we talked it through on an epic conference call where I drank a pot of coffee and paced the length of my apartment. Somewhere during that conversation—I don’t know how else to say this—I saw it. I saw how the book would work. We’d break the essay into four parts per decade of my life—ten, twenty, thirty, forty—and section the whole collection in a similar way.
A lot of reviewers have mentioned that it feels more like a memoir than an essay collection. This is what gives it that feel, I think.
Nine: What are you working on now?
A novel. It’s very weird.
Ten: Where did the title of the book come from?
Our building caught on fire, and I had five minutes to get my kid and out the back door. I wrote about it for the New York Times, and then expanded it for the book. After it was published, there were a lot of comments, which as a rule I don’t read because they’re a trash heap but in this particular instance, a stranger wrote me through my personal website, and across all my social media channels, and she looked up my work email in the directory at my job and said, THAT WAS THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. I stared at that email for a long time. It was a big realization for me, like lightbulb, lightning bolt, ton of bricks.
People are going to come after us no matter what we say. We may as well say things that matter.