Monday, November 16, 2015

Jill Talbot in conversation with Sarah Einstein, winner of the 2014 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction

In her award-winning book, Mot: A Memoir, Sarah Einstein begins each chapter with an epigraph. For the closing chapter, she turns to Rumi:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where
did I come from, and what am I supposed to be 
doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, 
I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.

Isn’t this what essayists do, think about where we come from and what we’re supposed to do or be, feeling as if we’re far away from ourselves? “My limitations are more obvious to me,” Einstein declares in the final chapter, “and I now know that wanting to do a thing isn’t the same as being able to do it.” 

Einstein’s Mot is a moving account of her friendship with a homeless man who “[struggles] with the idea of home, mourning the ones he hasn’t had and coming to terms with the idea of settling for this one, at least for now.” Yet Mot doesn’t struggle alone, as Einstein also reveals the troubles within her own settings and settlings. I, too, know this conflict well-the desire to be elsewhere when nowhere feels like my current address. 

I didn’t know anything about Mot when I began reading, but I did know one thing about Sarah Einstein, who I met for the first time in the summer of 2014. After our initial meeting, we kept in touch with brief e-mail exchanges, a FB message here and there, but we didn’t really know each other beyond each other’s work in the essay world. During one of those exchanges, I mentioned a difficulty in my life, and without hesitation, Sarah Einstein offered to help. 

It’s this quality of character that is central to Mot, a woman who helps without hesitation, but she’s also a woman “[trying] to save herself.” A woman who wonders, as we all do now and again (and again), what it is she is supposed to be doing. 

We conducted our conversation via e-mail. 


You mention in your Acknowledgments that Mot knew you were writing about him. When in the friendship did you begin writing about him and why? 

Well, now I have to make a confession, which is that I wrote about Mot specifically to be able to make my visits to him seem reasonable to other people. If you tell your friends, your family, “Oh, I’m going to drive to Texas to visit a friend who is living there behind an old abandoned industrial building,” they will shake their heads and try to dissuade you. But if you add “because I’m going to write a book about him and the brilliant ways he finds to survive a very difficult life,” suddenly most of them will agree that this is a fabulous idea and a few of them will even offer you camping gear to help you on your journey. Mot and I both recognized the improbability of our friendship, and acknowledged the very reasonable concerns of my very reasonable friends, and concocted the idea of the book together. I can’t remember if it was his idea or mine, initially. I think he may have jokingly said, “You should write a book about all the bleep-ups over here” or something similar, and that we slowly came to see the idea not as a joke, but instead as a shared project that could give us a reason to keep the friendship alive. 

But here is the thing. The book started out as just that: a ruse to make the visits seem less ridiculous to other people. At the time, I never thought I would actually finish it, much less publish it. I certainly didn’t have that kind of confidence in myself, or in my ability to effectively write about our friendship in a way that would matter to anyone but the two of us. It was, instead, like Mot’s plans to build a front-and-back pack, or an all-wooden, solar paneled trailer for his car: something fun to plan but which we both believed could not actually be done. It was kind of a surprise to me, then, when I found that I actually did have the makings of a book in the copious notes I’d taken.

What’s the oddest thing you jotted a note down on—can you recall? Do you still have it? Or were your notes more structured, methodical?

I think I still have my written notes, in a box in our room of we-are-always-moving boxes, but if you asked me to put my hands on them, I couldn’t just now. But the oddest thing in my notes isn’t written at all, but rather collected, and I could go and find this collection because I always know where it is. It’s a small shoebox stuffed with plastic baggies full of the smells of my time with Mot—dry alfalfa, a rag soaked in the Dollar Tree laundry detergent he used, another in WD40, some loose leaf lapsang souchong for the smell of wood smoke, a few dried grapefruit rinds—that I used to trigger memory while working. I believe that smell is a powerful tool for the memoirist, that it allows us to access memory in a way the other senses don’t. Other writers often laugh at me when I tell them about this box of collected smells, but it was an invaluable tool. 

[Thirty minutes later, Sarah sent me another e-mail.]

It occurs to me that maybe I've been obtuse, and that there is something in what you were getting toward earlier, which is that when I took notes—as I did always—Mot would sometimes look over the notes themselves (never the drafts) and correct things, usually in the transcribed conversations. Sometimes, this made them unusable, as he would "correct' them in a way that made them false, not because he was lying but because of how delusion overwrote his memories, but that only happened rarely. More often, he simply remembered the actual words a little more accurately than I did. Because of his idiosyncratic way of speaking, and because of the importance of getting his voice right on the page, this was key to making the memoir work, both textually and ethically. 

I’m fascinated by the collection of artifacts and the trigger of smell for you as a writer. I’m that way with songsif I want to remember what it felt like to be in a certain room or sitting at a bar or driving down the highway, I’ll put the song that was playing on repeat. It feels as if I’m sitting inside the song and the memory, and I stay there as long as I need until I feel I’ve put the reader back there, too. 

I want to ask you about the experience of winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, a coveted award that places you in company with incredibly talented essayists such as Marcia Aldrich, Sonja Livingston, Jill Christman, Michael Martone, Lia Purpura, and Scott Russell Sanders, to name a few. Mot: A Memoir is a memoir-in-essays, is it not? Each piece stands alone, and a couple of the essays double-back in time so that we’re not always moving forward but going back to reconsider a lingering moment or an individual (the essay about Wilbur my favorite—I nearly wept reading it). I think Essay Daily readers would love to hear your thoughts about your choice to approach and structure Mot in this way. 

That’s interesting, because I thought I was writing traditional chapters, although obviously the one involving Wilbur—which did appear, in slightly different form, as a stand-alone essay in The Sun—is an exception. If the book reads as a series of stand-alone essays, I imagine it’s because I’m so much more comfortable writing in the short form that my chapters each have their own narrative arcs. 

One of the real challenges of writing this book was that I felt I had to leave most of my writerly tricks off the page. I love to work with form—the collage essay, the hermit crab essay, the lyric—but I felt this story had to be straight narrative. Mot himself brings so much that is lyric to the page, and I knew that the way he uses language and tracking his interior life was already going to be a challenge for the reader. So this, more than anything else I’ve written, and probably more than anything I will write, is a straight up narrative recounting. It was strange, and not completely pleasant, to have to make my own prose so plain and the structure of the book as linear as it is, but I think the story demanded that simplicity. 

You could look at these as traditional chapters, as each first sentence carries over from some previous chapter, but you could also read each one as beginning in media res, because they do work on their own (I did feel that narrative arc in each one). As for your “straight up narrative recounting,” I always tell my students that there is material we need to let alone, to allow the content to stand on its own because any commentary or complexity becomes an intrusion. The material is enough.

The other night I was talking to my students about writing portraits. One of the aspects of writing other people is that we have to find a relationship between our selves and the person we’re writing aboutwhether that person is a contrast, a mirror, or a fear of what we worry we might become. Do you think in writing Mot you were writing some aspect of yourself? What was it about him that initially inspired you?

There was, indeed, a lot of commonality between Mot and me: we were both socially awkward people, we were both trying to survive a community of people who frightened us, and we were both people who believed things that might not be true and who needed to question those beliefs in a regular basis. For Mot, those beliefs were his delusions. For me, it was coming to terms with things I’d believed about myself—that I would be a good wife, that I would be a good advocate for the homeless, that I was strong enough to face the small violences of working in that community—which were turning out not to be true. 

What fascinated me about Mot was how much better he was than I have ever been at navigating this need to constantly examine what he believed to be true, and how ingenious he was at finding solutions to the difficult problems that result from living on shifting sands. I felt a kinship with, but even more an admiration for, him. But even as I say that, I also know that I need to say this is not a book about learning life lessons from the exoticized other. There was a point in the writing where an agent was interested in the manuscript, but wanted me to make it more Tuesdays with Morrie meets The Blind Side. I actually wasted some time writing toward that goal, until I realized that what I was writing was horrible: it objectified Mot, and it suggested that a good way for white, middle-class, middle-aged women to get a better understanding of their own difficulties was to tourist in the difficulties of others. It’s not, and this isn’t that sort of book. This is, instead, a book about two people who had a common affection for one another trying—and ultimately failing—to have a friendship in spite of some significant challenges. Any lessons learned along the way were incidental, though of course there were some, because if you are living your life you should also always be learning from it. 

You write that to Mot, the value of your friendship wasn’t “that [you] might change his life but that [you] could accept it as it was.” I think the narratives the agent wanted belies that truth—because in those Hollywood/Oprah narratives, it’s all about how a life was changed. You’re writing about accepting a life for how someone chooses to live it. Beautiful. 

Let’s talk about your work with the homeless. In the epilogue, you write “I’m done with being on the front lines of the battle against homelessness. I go to graduate school instead, studying writing instead of social work.” In the final pages, you include alarming statistics as well as suggestions for ways in which readers can be involved and better informed about policy issues while also highlighting people like Mot who “simply can’t live in traditional housing.” You insist, “We need to find a way to create communities that can be inclusive of them.” I was moved and inspired by the epilogueurged, even. Do you see this book as a return to the front lines of the battle, and do you hope that it has an impact on instilling empathy and action for the homeless in its readers? 

The front lines of the battle against the violence of poverty are a long way from the comfortable homes and university-subsidized grad programs in which I wrote this book, so no, I don’t think of it as a return to the front lines. It’s work I cherished when I was younger, but one of the lessons of the time in my life this book describes is that it’s not work I have the energy to do well any longer, and I think doing this work badly would be a much greater sin than leaving it to those who are able to do it well. 

But not everything happens on the front lines. There are important battles to be fought in changing the ways we understand both the causes of poverty and the ways to ameliorate the hardships it causes. My hope for this book was that it would open the reader up to a more compassionate understanding of the people who live on the margins of our communities, and that it would trouble what we think we know about them from the media and our own, often very shallow, encounters. 

I think you achieve this because you elucidate the ways in which Mot is like all of us. He wants to live the way he wants to live, even if it’s not understood and accepted by others. Another thing, and this may be my reading, but he wants to keep some parts of himself to himself, as if “he’s afraid of leaving a part of himself behind, though he can’t or won’t say why.” And as for that compassionate understanding? You’re so incredibly conscientious, empathetic, and careful around himas we all should be with other people, those we know well and those we only know in passing.

I want to ask you about a fellow memoirist’s thoughts on the state of the memoir. In a recent article, Debra Monroe, author of My Unsentimental Education, regrets the focus in current memoir on trauma and addiciton (the recovery memoir) and instead longs for the memoir of discovery. She argues, “Memoir means ‘based in memory,’ but in the hive-mind it means ‘memory of trauma.’ I want memoir to mean based in any memory that includes curiosity, analysis, and dissent.” 

She also notes, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek. On every page, a smart narrator ponders human desires, freedoms, fears, impasses. And these books manifest in shapes so variable the idea of a storytelling arc seems renewable too—as motley and startling as a dream.” 

I’m hoping you might respond to Monroe’s thoughts. In particular, I wonder how you think of Mot within the context of memoir, either traditional, contemporary, or current. 

I loved that article by Monroe, and the points she makes about the way we—at this moment, I think not before and hopefully not for long—think of memoir as necessarily the story of trauma and recovery. I think this limits not only the books that make it into the hands of readers, but also colors the way in which readers encounter memoir. I’ve heard from readers who, because they expected Mot to be centered around trauma, read it in such a way as to actually invent a central trauma when there genuinely isn’t one. Rather, there are two people—one of whom has a difficult life and certainly more than his share of traumatic events in it—trying to discover whether or not a friendship can survive their differences. 

I, like Monroe, want more memoirs of discovery. I also want memoirs of joy, memoirs of accomplishment, memoirs of quiet lives lived well, memoirs of adventure. Memoirs about nothing at all except what it means to be human, and memoirs about very big things, indeed. The only thing that constrains the genre is the need to tell the truth of lived experience, and I want the fullness of that experience, not only its difficulties. 

Can you talk a bit more about that idea that “the need to tell the truth of lived experiences” constrains the genre, because as we’re here on this Essay Daily stage, I’m sure that readers would also like to hear how that relates to the essay. 

I’m one of those people who believes that memoir needs to be nonfictional, and that because they are the stories of our lived experience, they need to adhere to the truth of those experiences. (I know, I’m such a killjoy.) Let me say that I don’t think this applies to all essays; for instance, I love BJ Hollars’ Dispatches from the Drownings, which neither recounts his own lived experience nor pretends to be wholly nonfictional. But for the essay or longform work that is also memoiristic, I believe that we are obligated to do our best to tell the truth, to constrain ourselves to what actually happened rather than what would have made a more compelling story or a cleaner ending.

This got a little bit troublesome during the time when I was trying to sell Mot through more conventional means. At one time, I was working with a potential publisher who wanted me to end the story earlier than I do, to leave the reader believing that Mot and I had succeeded in creating for him a less difficult life. She wanted the book to, in her words, give the reader a happy ending. Well, that’s not how the things actually happened, and to pretend that it was—not, I acknowledge, by making things up, but by leaving out the truth of the matter—struck me as a kind of dishonesty that my understanding of the value of memoir doesn’t allow. 

I read memoir to expand my understanding of what it means to be human, and the best memoir does just that for me. It gives me insight into how other people do and don’t function through the complexities of life, which gives me insight into my own ways of (not) getting by in the world and, I like to believe, makes me kinder toward others. If I obscure the way things turned out, if I smooth out the difficulties, claim false heroics, make my struggles seem bigger than they genuinely were, or tell whatever untruth I’m tempted to tell, then I think I’m breaking the agreement between the memoirist and the reader in a way that is both genuinely meaningful and harmful. 

But, oh, it’s tempting. As I was writing, I wanted to grant my past self a little more grace than she had, paint a gentler picture of my marriage to Scotti, gloss over the complicated truths about Friendship Room to paint a nobler picture of the people who frequented it. And there were early drafts where a lot of that desire to write a better version of the past leaked into the text. I’m mostly talking about how I struggle—and I assume many other writers struggle—against the impulse to put a better version of myself on the page, to write loved ones as more noble than they are, to see my own troubles as bigger than perhaps they really were, when I go back to visit my past in order to write about it. It’s hard to confront our past selves without wanting to gentle them a little bit, give them some of the wisdom we’ve gained since we lived in those moments, and—maybe just for me?—the writing is also always a little bit about calling myself on my own bullshit.

By its nature, the essay doesn’t have a happy endinghell, it doesn’t even have an ending, really. Or not one we would hope formaybe that’s why we essay? To question those endings, to write and rewrite in an attempt to unwrite them.

Maybe a way to end our conversation is to ask you a question about questions. One of your mentors, Dinty W. Moore, has this to say about questions and endings: “My teaching over the years has migrated from a ‘what is this essay saying?’ to a ‘what is this essay asking?’ approach, because it is the journey of interrogation, the search for meaning, that is essential, not necessarily any answer or conclusion.” 

What is Mot asking?

I hope that Mot’s asking a couple of questions. The most obvious, and so maybe the least interesting, is whether or not friendship can be enough to make the difference between a livable difficult life and an unlivable one. And, although I think it would be easy to read the book and think that the answer to that question is no¸ I’d like to point out that my ex-husband’s devotion did indeed make exactly that difference in the life of Rita, his client-turned-friend, and that it was that friendship that began as the model for my friendship with Mot. So I don’t think the book provides any easy, or obvious, conclusions on that.

But I also hope it’s asking a deeper, more interesting question about how we could make room in our lives, our communities, and our public policy for people who can’t, or don’t want to, live the way most of us do. When we talk about homelessness, we assume that the fix is to provide the homeless with places to live, because we’ve reduced a complex set of issues to a word that implies a single, simple, easily fixable problem. But, of course, sometimes a home is not the answer. 

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. She is also the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren't were named Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015, and her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. 

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