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How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

How did writing this book change you?

I started this memoir seething with anger. It seared the page like acid. This was good. I’ve always had trouble facing and expressing anger in my life and it helped me greatly to give it voice, to exorcise it from my body. One of the most satisfying dreams I’ve ever had about my mom was a dream years before her death where I sat across from her at a restaurant table, opened my mouth as wide as it could go, and bellowed “NOOOOOOOOOOOO” like a fog horn from the very depths of my body. The word roared on and on and on and blew her hair back like gale-force winds. A Gayle-force I never used in the waking world. I woke feeling so much lighter inside. Writing my way through anger had a similar cleansing effect. And, much to my surprise, I wrote my way straight into compassion for my mom, straight into a new kind of Yes when I thought of her. By the time I was done writing this book, I appreciated my mom more deeply than I ever had when she was alive.

 

How did writing this book change you?

It helped me see myself more clearly, my own patterns of silence and denial, the times when I’ve been less than honest in my life. I felt a lot of shame as I confronted these aspects of myself, but I was able to find my way toward more compassion for my own little self, too. And seeing my own patterns more clearly means it will be easier to break those patterns. It has been already.

 

How did writing this book change you?

It helped me trust myself more. Trust myself enough to know when I was avoiding a scene because I was scared and needed to gently nudge myself forward or when I truly wasn’t ready to write the scene yet and needed to give myself more time. Trust myself enough to amicably switch agents when it was clear my former agent didn’t get my vision for the book (it took months of dragging my feet to act on this knowledge, but I knew it was the right thing to do—I just had to work up the nerve.) Trust myself enough to cut a full quarter of the text from the memoir, knowing I was bringing the book into sharper focus, knowing it had been important for me to write those extra pages but it wasn’t important for anyone else to read them.

 

How did writing this book change you?

It aged me. I don’t know if I can blame that on the book alone—blame time, blame Trump, blame major abdominal surgery, blame my dad’s death last year, blame losing a lot of weight though illness, through nonsense, then gaining back more than I lost, blame not enough sleep, not enough exercise—but this book definitely carved new grooves into my skin, turned my hair more white beneath the purple dye. I think about Poltergeist or even the new Ghostbusters movie where people’s hair turns white after they return from some other dimension. I delved into my own shadowy places and that journey is written all over me. A friend noted that I’ve been looking more alive lately, though, so maybe the book has changed me in that way, too. It has carved out more space for authentic joy.

 

How did writing this book change you?

In some ways, it ruined my writing life. I felt adrift after I finished crafting this book, lost as a creative person. I was sure I would never feel the same terrible urgency to write again, that nothing I wrote would ever feel as meaningful or necessary. I was sure I had burned my writing self down to cinders, that I had nothing left pull from, that all other writing would feel empty from that point, forced. But I am beginning to crawl out of that wreckage. I am starting to spark and simmer with new possibilities.

 

How did writing this book change you?

Less than I thought. I had deluded myself into believing I had healed myself completely by writing this book. I thought I had processed my mother’s death as fully as I possibly could, that I had left no stone unturned inside myself, no emotion unexplored. And then grief, that sneaky asshole, found a way to sneak up and kick me in the throat again and I was shocked. Shocked it was still there even after I had written about it so thoroughly, shocked it still was able to lay me flat.

 

How did writing this book change you?

More than I thought. I feel more brave than I ever have in my life. I have always been a quiet, shy person; writing this has made it easier for me to use my voice off the page—I am quicker to speak up, speak out. Perhaps part of this is growing older and giving less fucks, but I know writing this book helped me get to this point, too. The book helped me stop holding myself back as much. I no longer have the same tendency to hide, the same tendency to stay silent—or maybe I do, and I’m able to push past it now.

 

How did writing this book change you?

In addition to drinking, I’ve started swearing. This book has turned me into a fucking hooligan. Really, I don’t swear all that much, just as I don’t drink that much, but I don’t cringe when I do it now; it feels fucking great when I do it now. The fragile flower is gone and good fucking riddance.

 

How did writing this book change you?

It helped me gain some distance from my own story, knowing that once it goes into the world, it will not be my story anymore—it will be metabolized in a new way by everyone who reads it, will become their own. This feels like a fist unclenching inside my heart.

 

How did writing this book change you?

On a molecular level, I just feel different. I am letting myself feel proud of myself and my writing for maybe the first time ever. I’ve never been comfortable with the word “proud”, at least not when it comes to myself, but I’m letting myself own it now. I did this thing I wasn’t sure I could do. I made something out of this pain. I wrote the book of my fucking life.

__________________________

GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver),Self StorageDelta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

2 responses to “Gayle Brandeis: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. I bought your book and have read the first chapter. When I get to a stopping point with other reading I will focus on your words completely and get back to you. I remember gleaning small indicators of the difficulty you were facing with your mother during our Antioch years together. My relationship with my mother has always been difficult and the past fifteen years (after my father’s death) have been a steadily downhill challenge. She died on September 3 — actually we found her at least five days after her death. Despite being 90, going blind, and losing her hearing, and because of her alcoholism she told anyone who would listen, “I’m leaving my home feet first.” She did, in a horrific way. This was her mantra. I have written plenty of fiction inspired by aspects of her life, and have filled page after page of my journal after discovering her. I don’t know if I will ever write a memoir, but I look forward to immersing myself in yours. Culture and history places mothers in a way that is hard to escape. While most of my anger (it flares up occasionally) hit me over the past many years — my file on her is entitled “It’s Never Enough” (referencing my constant need to help her) — mostly my grief is now sadness over all that she missed. Take care and I look forward to continually following your writing efforts.

    • Gayle Brandeis says:

      Thank you so much, Kathleen. I’m so sorry about your mom–thank you so much for sharing some of your journey with her here. That shift from anger to sadness is such a powerful one, one I’ve found so healing, even though sadness hurts more than anger. The title of your file hit me right in the heart–I understand completely. Thank you again for reaching out. xoxo

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