Life Stories #104: Minna Zallman Proctor

Life Stories: Minna Zallman Proctor

I met with Minna Zallman Proctor a while back, shortly after the publication of Landslide, a collection of autobiographical essays that orbit around her relationship with her mother. One of the things we discussed was how circumspect she was in the portrayal of her own children, and that prompted me to say something about how we don’t really know the author of a memoir or an autobiographical essay, that the “I” we read is a controlled, calibrated literary invention. Proctor challenged that assumption:

“The book is, at best, a portrait of my brain, of the way I think of things. In that sense, it’s incredibly honest. I don’t think that you can write a book like this without a degree of intimacy, a degree of candor and vulnerability—a great degree of those things—and I think that the vulnerability that I express in my personal essay writing… and sometimes my book reviews, too, for that matter… is in that I am laying it all out. This is the way my brain works.

“When I wrote my first book [Do You Hear What I Hear?], about my father trying to become a priest, I don’t think I fully understood that, hadn’t fully comprehended that. So that book is a very strange patchwork, in a way… part memoir, part philosophy, part research about the Episcopal Church, and lots of portraiture and interview work. All of those things kind of fit together, and they kind of don’t.

“And I think what I realized when that book came out and reviews started coming in was that when people criticized the organization of the book, what I felt was… Criticizing the book was criticizing the way I thought. And it felt much worse than if someone says, ‘You look fat in those pants.’ It was a whole different thing; it was like, ‘Your brain doesn’t organize things correctly,’ or, ‘Your brain organizes things in such a way that I can’t follow you.’

“So I was really aware of that with this book, and knew that what I was putting out there, what I felt vulnerable about, was that i was going to just let people see… I was going to try to explain to people how I think and how I feel… And in that sense, I think you really do know me from the book, because it’s constructed, but what it is is meant to be an expression of that part of my brain.”

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photo: Sandra Dawn

26 July 2018 | life stories |