In this episode of Life Stories, I meet up with Beth Lisick, a writer I’ve been a fan of for nearly twenty years since she was doing spoken word performances in clubs in San Francisco. There’s some scenes from that part of her life that make it into Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames, but the book also reached back to her early childhood and to fairly recent events—it’s not a conventional memoir so much as a collection of fragmentary moments of embarrassment and mortification and humiliation. Here’s what she told me about how it came together, after she’d become frustrated with the autobiographical writing she’d been doing for mainstream publishers over much of the last decade:
“I was really tired of trying to write about myself in this way where I was creating a character, and I had to make that character funny, yet smart, yet accessible, yet a little bit crazy… suitable for editors at a big publishing house to say, ‘Oh, this is relatable! You seem so nice and a little messed up, a little bit quirky…’ I didn’t like having to present myself in this way that I felt pressured to, so I decided to start writing this novel, and after I began the novel, I thought, okay, I’m never writing about myself again.
And then I remembered: God, I have so many amazing stories that are just little vignettes, little moments really, that aren’t… that never found themselves into essays or big stories, and so it was almost like, for me, the nail in the coffin of autobiographical work, that I was just like, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to come up with everything I can think of about my life that is funny, interesting, weird, terrible and put it in this book and then move on.”
She describes the reaction from her previous publisher: “Oh, you know, I think what we really need is just ten longer, funny essays and if you want to do that, we’d love to publish it.” But she felt that this way the way this book needed to be written, which is why it ended up at the indie publishing house City Lights. We get into some more details of the frustrations she felt with those earlier autobiographical personas (especially the molds that other people wanted to cast her into), then talk about things like the tensions between creative freedom and financial success and what it’s like to define yourself by your failures. Among other topics.
There was a moment earlier this year, in my conversation with Dani Shapiro, where we discussed the idea of memoir as picking at the deepest wounds, and I think you can apply that metaphor to Yokohama Threeway—except that Beth is paying attention to a broad series of cuts and scrapes, leaving any larger narrative unspoken. It’s not quite poetry, but it’s more than simple prose, and its intimacy sneaks up on you.
Listen to Life Stories #56: Beth Lisick (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
9 December 2013 | life stories |
Life Stories is a podcast series where I talk to memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir. This week’s guest, Nancy K. Miller, teaches classes on memoir as a professor of English and comparative literature at CUNY, so one of the things I made sure to ask her was whether that made it any easier to tackle her own life writing, as seen in Breathless: An American Girl in Paris. “Not really,” she told me, but she also mentioned that her awareness of what literary theorists call “the autobiographical pact” strengthened her own resolve to be truthful in telling her story, even when adding stylistic embellishments.
Mostly, though, we talked about the story she tells of a young woman in the 1960s, fresh out of college, inspired by Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless to go to Paris where she attempted to become, as she puts it, someone other than her parents’ daughter—only to find that the more she tries to break that orbit, the tighter she gets locked into it. That eventually led her into a marriage which, I observed, she eventually set about undermining with a fascinating precision through an extramarital affair. Her response was intriguing:
“I know this might seem impossible, but… I had never been in therapy, I didn’t know anyone in therapy, I’d almost say I didn’t know I had an unconscious–and the concept of self-sabotage was not available to me. What I think happened was, because I really was not on to myself, I just kept going along with a certain amount of unhappiness and frustration with no language for it, and I also had no vision, because I was so invested in the idea that I was going to remain in Paris and remain in this situation that I couldn’t see a way out. I didn’t even know I would approach the idea of there being a problem, say, in my marriage because my ex was not someone you could even talk to… talk with about these things, because he didn’t have an unconscious either, as far as I could tell.”
We also talk about how she initially rejected the advice from the therapist she shared this story with as it was happening, and how the blossoming of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s ultimately helped her turn her life around once she stopped worrying about who she was supposed to be and began to contemplate what she could do. Longtime listeners might recall an earlier interview with Jessica Dorfman Jones about the slow destruction of her own marriage and the early glimpses of her life afterwards, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition here, I think—so if you haven’t heard that episode before, I’d encourage to seek it out.
Listen to Life Stories #55: Nancy K. Miller (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
1 December 2013 | life stories |