This is how a literary friendship begins: on a train going in the wrong direction. My friend Kamy Wicoff and I first met at a lovely literary salon our mutual friend Marilyn Yalom hosts, but Kamy lives in New York and I’m in California. We reconnected again, though, when we were both speaking at an AWP conference in Denver. We headed of together to a SheWrites gathering on the Denver light rail, only to find we’d headed in the wrong direction—a blessing, it turned out, as it gave us time to get to know each other, and I’ve adored her ever since. Kamy is not only the founder of SheWrites, a terrific online home for writers and now an independent press as well—she’s also a fabulous fiction writer! Gretchen Rubin calls Wishful Thinking, Kamy’s new novel, “funny, tender, perceptive,” and says, “I tore through this book.” If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, pop out to Bookpassage in Corte Madera tonight for a She Writes Press event. You’ll learn a lot about writing and publishing, and you can get a copy of Wishful Thinking while you’re there! – Meg
How Writing Fiction Helped Me Tell the Truth About My Life
My first book was nonfiction—a combination of memoir and reporting about the big American Wedding titled I Do But I Don’t: Why The Way We Marry Matters. I worked hard to make it as true as I could to my experience of being a bride, seeking, through a combination of soul-searching and research, to understand why I wed the way I did. In writing the book, which took me more than four years, I asked myself and the more than eighty other women I interviewed tough questions about each stage of the modern wedding, from the proposal to the white dress to the over-the-top expenditures to the ceremony itself. I was proud of the book. I still am proud of the book. But in one fundamental way, it wasn’t true.
Why? Because what had motivated me to write it—the discomfort, agitation, and coercion I felt as I attempted to plan a wedding while remaining true to myself—could only be partially explained by the real and important issues I identified in the book. As it turned out, I was not agitated, uncomfortable, and under duress solely because of the off-the-rails inanity of the Wedding Industrial Complex. It was also because I had married the wrong guy.
I didn’t figure this out until several years after the book was published. I toured while I was pregnant with our second son. (One morning show host seemed particularly relieved that I was so obviously “happily married”, as though my being with child made the feminist critiques in the book more suitable morning show fare.) But I’ll never forget when I told my long-time mentor and friend, the brilliant writer Francine Prose, that my marriage was ending. Without missing a beat, she looked at me and said, “Well…you wrote that book.”
Like, duh. Why do you think you spent four years looking for every possible reason you were a miserable bride?
You were running from the elephant in the room.
Since my divorce, if I had a nickel for every person who asked me, “So are you going to write I Didn’t?”, I could cover the costs of divorcing the kind of man who had demanded a black tie, three-hundred person wedding on a ranch in the middle of nowhere (he paid, I planned), and then some. But if there was one thing I knew for sure in the horrific wake of the dissolution of my marriage, it was that I would never write a book based on my personal life again.
Which was terrifying. I am a writer. I have to write. I need to write. But the only time I’d attempted fiction (in college, admittedly), it was god-awful. And now memoir, the genre I’d gone to graduate school to study, was out.
So I wrote nothing at all. I survived this period by founding a community for women writers online, SheWrites.com. If I couldn’t write, I thought, at least I could surround myself with other writers, keeping my writerly-self on a kind of life support. I didn’t—couldn’t—write for years.
And then one day it happened. I got an idea. An idea that was so far removed from nonfiction it was like a ticket to outer space. And in a way it was. The premise that hit me one day, in that bolt-from-the-blue way writers dream about, was this: a divorced mother of two boys gets a time-travel app on her phone that lets her be in more than one place at a time.
Science fiction, the opposite of memoir! Except that I am a divorced mother of two boys. And as a divorced mom, I constantly need to be in more than one place at a time. And, as is true for my heroine, Jennifer Sharpe, divorce is both the worst thing that ever happened to me and the thing I am most grateful for. (I did write about this in the only nonfiction piece I ever plan to write about it, Divorce: Gratitude and Pain.) Jennifer Sharpe is not me, though at times my two boys, understandably, have expressed some confusion. (In the book Jennifer falls for her older son’s guitar teacher, and upon hearing this, my son asked, horrified, “You went out with Peter?”) But by writing about a woman who isn’t me, giving her an ex-husband nothing like mine, and altering all the every day details of her life, I discovered a freedom to tell my truth that was nothing short of life-changing. By writing fiction, I found a way to write about deep, raw, emotional realities of my life so far that I could never have presented honestly in memoir for fear of hurting my children or their dad.
As a result, my first novel, Wishful Thinking, is in many ways more unstintingly honest than my only memoir, I Do But I Don’t.
Many years ago, I taught memoir to first-time writers in a continuing education class in New York. Very often, when reading the work my students submitted, I’d feel the absence of things, omissions and evasions they thought they could get away with in the most ruthlessly revealing genre there is, but which were glaring and undermined their writing. These omissions were necessary for them because they were unwilling to fully expose themselves or others in their lives. I understand. The best memoirists, however, hold nothing back. But for some of us this is impossible. (For some of us, as with my first book, we don’t even know what we are withholding.) I wish then that I had known what I know now. I wish I’d said to some of those students, “You don’t have to write memoir to write about your life.”
Tell the truth, but tell it slant. At long last, I think I know what it means. – Kamy