Two Posts this Week: Katherine Ellison, author of Buzz, and Christina Meldrum, who was the first author ever to guest post on 1st Books, and has a new novel, Amaryllis in Blueberry just out. Do enjoy them both!
Katherine Ellison: Writing about my Son
Katherine Ellison is a friend and fellow Wombatista – a group of writers I gather with for the occasional dinner and chat. She’s one of those writers I hold in awe: a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who has written for Smithsonian, Time, Fortune, Working Mother, and The Atlantic Monthly – and can also write the long stuff. Her books include The Mommy Brain, The New Economy of Nature, and most recently, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention. Buzz is a memoir and “…an insightful, fast-paced, unexpectedly funny read” (that’s People Magazine) that is “…riveting, beautifully written and totally credible” (that’s the Huffington Post). Her post below about writing it is as honest and moving as the book itself. – Meg
I was smitten at age 11, as a chubby fifth-grader, after Archie Comics paid me $10 for an essay about my pet Schnauzer. I had few friends back then, besides the Schnauzer. But writing came easily to me. “Tell me more,” the world of publishing seemed to whisper. I didn’t need to be asked twice.
I was already filling up journals: first the girly-pink-plastic-covered kind, with puny locks, then cheap blank books from Chinatown, bound with the brilliant silk also used to make the body-hugging dresses called cheongsams.
Writing was my vivid and intimate ally in the midst of my family’s bewildering chaos. My father, a big-hearted, complicated man, was suffering in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. On nights when his anger erupted in fights with my brothers, I’d cower in my room, scribbling the details of the latest melee.
Some people cope with fear by counting steps or turning a light switch off and on. I learned to write, chasing a similar fantasy of taming random reality. Writing let me choose where to focus my attention. While I couldn’t control my father, I discovered that I could coin a phrase.
As I grew older, writing assignments, like a generous lover, paid my bills and led me on exotic adventures. When I was 21, my first newspaper job walked me down the aisle of independence, out of my father’s house. Writing introduced me to my future husband, a fellow writer, while we were covering the Contra war in Nicaragua. We spent a working honeymoon reporting in Brazil. But writing remained my most constant companion.
All this is by way of explanation for what happened many years later, when I’d left newspapers to freelance, while raising two high-maintenance boys. It had become, again, a time of bewildering chaos. My first-born son had been diagnosed with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, as had I. We clashed constantly. After marrying a man so much calmer than my father, counting on mellowing out the gene pool – think Labradoodle – there I was again, living under the volcano.
And for once, writing offered no respite. In the fall of 2007, I was working on a proposal for a book about plastic pollution, yet couldn’t focus on anything other than my son’s escalating crises at school and home. And so one day in desperation, I started writing about what was closest to my heart. This time, the words came easily, describing worries I hadn’t yet managed to acknowledge – such as how, while I’d never stopped loving my son, I’d certainly stopped wanting to be with him. As I watched the words form on the screen, I realized I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d hugged him.
Like a friend insisting on honesty, writing cajoled me to reveal these painful truths, eventually reminding me how my son, in the midst of yet another argument, had shouted something I’d needed to hear.
“Understand me!” he’d pleaded.
As I read these words back to myself, they formed a challenge. I dropped the project on plastic, and resolved to do my best to use my writing to find a way out of our fix.
Several benefits accrued immediately. Research provided a way to venture into the crazy souk of our modern mental health care industry, granting license to interview top experts and cherry-pick strategies to deal with our problem. Whereas before I’d felt isolated, judged by other mothers, my writing connected me to other writers, providing one of those proverbial villages I’d longed for to help me raise my child. Not least, writing offered a pretext to ask my now elderly father to explain what he’d been living through while I was growing up. His answers helped dissolve decades of anger.
By the end of the year I dedicated to this project, writing had given me back my mothering mojo. Once again, I was hugging my son all the time. Today we still have problems but are no longer locked in a tug-of-war: writing redefined our struggles as a project deserving our joint efforts.
I’ve known all along that writing’s gifts are rarely free. Writing about my son raises moral issues that certainly didn’t arise when the topic was foreign wars or my Schnauzer. Even now, months after Buzz was published, I still wonder. Will what I’ve written threaten our family’s privacy? Might it undermine the new trust I enjoy with my son and my father? Will the bargain be worth it?
My doubt torments me.
Writing about it helps. – Katherine
Christina Meldrum: The Slanted Journey
I’m just thrilled that Christina Meldrum – the first author ever to guest post for me on 1st Books – has a new novel out this week. I read Amaryllis in Blueberry in advanced reader copy, and it is divine! Do do do read this wonderful novel. And enjoy the rerun of her post! – Meg
One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems begins,
Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies.
This could have been the motto for my first book, MADAPPLE, which was released by Knopf this week. For me, writing and finally completing and publishing the book definitely lied in Circuit. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “circuit” as, “A path or route the complete traversal of which…requires returning to the starting point.” It was my goal for MADAPPLE to tell some version of Truth, and I was fine with telling it slant, per Emily. The Circuit part, however, was not part of the plan!
Nevertheless, I see now Emily knew what she was talking about. Success did lie in Circuit, at least for me. I began MADAPPLE over ten years ago while I was working as a litigator. I would rise at five each morning to write before work. I completed the initial draft of the book this way—although the initial draft bears almost no resemblance to the final product. Writing MADAPPLE had little to do with linear progression. I wrote around and around and around. And then I added layers to the spiral, making it feel at times as if MADAPPLE consisted of three (or more!) unwieldy dimensions. More often than not, I was certain I’d landed right back where I’d started.
And I had. Yet I hadn’t. I may have been back at square one, but I’d changed along the way, so that I saw square one a little differently. In fact, square one wasn’t quite the square I thought it was. Actually, it wasn’t a square at all: it was a circle (or a Circuit!).
When I finally finished MADAPPLE and was ready to think about getting it published, I headed back to the starting point.
Agents? Editors? Publishing houses?
Rejections. Rejections. Rejections.
I felt a bit like the hamster on the wheel. What did any of this have to do with Truth? I wanted to ask Emily.
Ultimately, I had to answer this question myself. And the answer? Well, it turns out that, for me, this journey had everything to do with Truth, actually.
My point is this: writing and publishing my first book was as much about the slanted journey as it was about anything. Any given journey may take a year, or five years or ten. Or it may take a lifetime. But success in Circuit lies. Writing one’s first book is often a very gradual, circuitous journey. But as Emily says in the last lines of her poem:
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—