I believe that everyone has a story. Storytelling is an art form as old as mankind, and as an editor and teacher, I’ve been privileged to spend most of my adult life coaxing stories out of others–as an editor at Vogue, the Paris Review, and later at Tin House; and as a writing instructor, most recently at the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, a literary oasis which I co-founded in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Helping others shape their stories has also had the benefit of keeping me safely on “my” side of the creative process, where the stories being chiseled and buffed until they shone, were not my own. It was a much, much harder thing to jump to the “other” side, the writer’s side of the creative process, and put my own life under the bare bulb of truth, and tell my own story.
A writer I admire has said that writing a memoir is the act of taking the trauma and chaos of one’s life, and shaping it into art. It took me until I was almost sixty to write my memoir All Happy Families, which was published in August 2018 by Harper Wave/Harper Collins, and the road to my writing my own book was a long and circuitous one.
Originally, I had started out as a writer. My first boss, the legendary features editor of Vogue in the 80s Leo Lerman, hired me to write reviews, travel pieces, and a few personal essays. The essays I wrote then were inspired wholly by Joan Didion, who had published her early essay “On Self Respect” while a 26-year-old junior editor at Vogue. Her candor, her laser targeted approach to examining the human heart and mind, nurtured in me a belief that true art, if it could ever be attained, had at its base the willingness to face and synthesize one’s own experience bravely enough to render it in lucid prose. After Vogue, I became the managing editor of the Paris Review, in my mid-twenties, and I naively thought I’d keep writing while I edited a literary magazine. That works for some people but it didn’t work for me. I found myself giving all my energy to the words of my authors. The auditory elements I use as a writer I used to help my writers–to “listen” to the sound of their sentences, the flow and the beat.
I do think on a personal level I may have found it temperamentally easier to be an editor. I was raised in a family with an ample level of dysfunction, chiefly my father’s active alcoholism, and an equally ample level of social protocol, my mother’s insistence on formality and decorum at all costs. These combined didn’t allow a child much opportunity to have a voice or an opinion. So, I relaxed into the job of editor as it felt very familiar—dealing with making other people’s messes look good, holding their hands, reassuring them, and in the meantime, I forgot about my own voice. It’s also very easy as a nurturing person to relax into the job of being an editor. I used to joke when I was in my thirties that I wasn’t ready to have children because I had all my authors to nurture. Then when I became a mother, in my forties, I found there was indeed a similarity in that nurturing instinct—at that point I was nurturing my two very young children and I was the Editorial Director of Tin House Books, a literary publishing imprint then in its infant stages, and all that seemed on a par. I got almost no writing done.
So, it took me years to get back to my own writing, and that may have had to do all of the above: my family of origin, my jobs as an editor, my kids…. But mainly I believe it was a resistance to doing the hard work myself that I had always expected of the writers I edit and teach: to face down the subject matter, dig deep in the well of memory and encounter the ghosts, the myths, indeed the trauma and pain of one’s own story, and find the emotional truth inside, the truth that needs urgently to be told.
The instigating event for All Happy Families was an essay I was commissioned to write for an anthology, Money Changes Everything. I wrote about my childhood home, a long, grey, shingled house perched on the dunes near the tip of Long Island, a house that looked, from the beach, like the very essence of luxury and happiness. In fact, the house was not on firm ground at all. In a literal sense, the whole edifice could have been destroyed in an instant by one of the late summer hurricanes that blow in the Northeast. Similarly, the life inside the house could have crumbled at any moment too, the facade equally tenuous. My mother used to sit on the couch in our living room as the winds whipped the sea up toward the house and say, “we live on such a perilous dune, all of this could just go” and she’d snap her fingers, “like that.” I titled my essay “The Perilous Dune” and that image was the presiding truth I wanted to tackle, the impermanence and potential danger behind the sheen of luxury and glamour.
A book editor saw the essay and offered me a contract to expand it into a full-length memoir. But expanding 5, 000 words to 65, 000 meant tackling some darker truths I had not ever told.
I often tell my students that their story might be the one they are working hardest to avoid. In my case, it was the story of my first wedding, at the age of 25, at that house on the perilous dune of my childhood. My father, for reasons of sudden alcohol withdrawal after a lifetime of addiction, had a massive stroke two days before the wedding, and lay in a coma in the next town on life support as the ceremony took place. On one level, it was a picture perfect postcard kind of a day: pink roses were wreathed in the lattice of the gazebo off the beach, the string quartet played a Bach double violin concerto, the tent was up on the lawn, and the setting sun shone rose and luminous over the seascape as we said our vows. All the unanswered questions about that day and what it represented: the collision of life and death, of celebration and mourning, of my mother’s insistence on decorum to mask grief, and the very spectacle of my father dying, while (literally) the band played on, all that I had pushed away for over thirty years. I never spoke about it, it was too painful. To write the memoir I had to tackle it all, the alcoholism, the false front my mother put up; in essence I had to look unflinchingly at the reality the child of an alcoholic grows up with–that there is no true sense of safety and permanence, the world can switch from light to very dark in an instant. Hope lives side by side with imminent chaos, as symbolized by the house on the dune, stately even as the sea slowly eroded the very firmament on which we’d built our home.
To get at the craft, to build the arc, I had to look hard at that crumbling home of childhood, and report from the scene of the disaster, stripped of the illusion. I finally came to terms with all of this as an adult, after personal experiences with substance abuse helped me understand the insidious ways that disease in a parent can imprint on one’s behavior long past childhood. People cover up trauma when it happens, in order to survive. It’s human to censor hard truths, to bury painful experience, yet it’s in direct conflict with the memoirist’s need to lay it all down—the good, the bad, and the truly ugly–in words that are eventually bound between hard covers and shared as entertainment. Not an easy prospect, and it can take years, often decades, to find the perspective, courage and even humor to properly approach, process, and create art from this raw material.
When my memoir was about to come out, my editor took me out to lunch and held up the first copy in her hands. “This is no longer yours” she said, “now you let it go out into the world.” And that’s part of it too, by creating art out of chaos, you also order it, and in that way, you can let it go. It doesn’t change the memory, or distort the pain, but it does help to understand. A memoir is not therapy, it’s not a journal entry, and it’s not a police blotter citing the eyewitness report of everyone in the room, it’s the writer’s narrative and it must be driven by that writer’s emotional truth. This is what I tried to do in the book.
Completing this book has been a gratifying professional accomplishment combined with the intensely challenging personal exploration that it required. I believe you have to put yourself in an uncomfortable position to take on the next challenge in life, and that certainly was true of this experience. I’m excited that the paperback version of All Happy Families will be released in June, and I have the beginnings of my next book underway.