Writing Lessons: How to Get Some Distance from Yourself When Writing Memoir

next_nadelson_243_400_80HOW DO YOU DISTANCE YOURSELF when writing memoir? It’s a great question, and an even greater exercise when you sit down to write. When Scott Nadelson proposed it, I snapped it right up, particularly after reading his fine new memoir, recently published by Hawthorne Press. A book of self-discovery, The Next Scott Nadelson, A Life in Progress, will amaze you, but pay close attention as it also teaches you how to get some distance from yourself when writing memoir. It’s something you must master in order to get to your best work. Read on for more, and for a chance to win the book.

How to Get Some Distance on Yourself When Writing Memoir

by Scott Nadelson

I never set out to write a memoir. I’ve been writing fiction for twenty years, and when I began the piece that would end up as the first chapter of The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress I did what I normally do when I sit down to write, which is to start with a seed of autobiography and from it improvise a story. Usually my characters’ lives and mine diverge after a few paragraphs, and I spend much of my effort trying to get under their skin, to understand their fears and desires, to unearth motivations and drives about which they may have only vague impressions. I first try to scrutinize my characters as honestly as possible, with a relentless but non-judgmental eye, and if I’m lucky, that scrutiny brings me to a complex view that leads to genuine compassion. In other words, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, I put my characters through hell and then love them as if they were my own children.

This time, however, after a drafting a few paragraphs about a break-up and its aftermath, I decided I need to stick with autobiography, with my own experiences and impressions, and decided, too, that the character needed my name. Doing so gave the writing process a new vulnerability that excited me. Long before anyone read it, I could sense how dropping the mask of fiction would bring a reader closer to the material, creating a natural intimacy that requires a leap of imagination when character and author are explicitly differentiated. As nervous as it made me, I couldn’t stop writing about Scott Nadelson, detailing his various failures and humiliations, his passions and desires, his struggles to discover or construct an identity.

And yet, I continued to do so with the same scrutinizing eye I bring to bear on all my characters, the same impulse to dig as deeply as possible, to keep them from getting away with any unexamined self-deception. I forced myself to be as hard on myself as I would be on any other character, even when my impulse was to let myself off the hook, explain away unflattering actions or thoughts, or dismiss them, or ignore them. The key, I found, was distance. I had to step away from my own emotions, from my embarrassment and fear and pain, far enough to get a clear view. I had to simultaneously delve into my experiences and pretend I was writing about someone else.

This is a move I have come to think of as crucial to the writing of memoir, at least for me. If I’d stayed too close, obeying the instinct toward self-protection, then I would have risked nothing, and nothing would have been at stake for a reader. But to see myself from the outside, as if I were a character in a fiction, allowed me to expose myself completely. There I was on the page, stripped down, with nowhere to hide. And then I could think, poor guy, now he deserves not just my pity but my love. Instead of wanting to protect him, or hide him, or turn away from him in shame, I could simply feel for him. As if for the first time, I could really see myself in him, and only then did I think that other people might see themselves in him, too.

 

The Next Scott Nadelson, an excerpt

I’m Your Man

If you want a lover I’ll do anything you ask me to.
And if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you. –Leonard Cohen

 

My fiancée left me for a drag king named Donny Manicotti.

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not. It’s my life.

I do find it funny now – from a distance of some years
and happily married – and even at the time I recognized how ridiculous the situation was, though mostly I was bewildered and devastated. I’d always prided myself on being someone who appreciated the absurdity of life, who didn’t take it too seriously, but there’s an enormous difference, I discovered, between reading a Kafka novel or watching a Woody Allen movie and living inside of one.

Because our wedding was only a month away, because
invitations had gone out and friends and family had bought plane tickets to Portland, because we’d written vows and picked out table settings and made mixed CDs for dancing, I believed our lives were on a track with a clear trajectory, and if I harbored
any doubts about my fiancée or our relationship – she struggled with depression, she had a temper, she didn’t like my friends –
I buried them under pride in my role as groom and husband-tobe. I hadn’t realized how important this threshold would feel
to me, how badly I wanted to cross it. It would finally make me an adult, though I was already thirty years old.

My fiancée had recently left her job as marketing director
of the literary organization and took a new one as features editor
at the local gay paper. In her twenties, when she lived in New York, she’d identified as lesbian and dated only women. Since then
she’d come to recognize herself as bisexual and even decided that she preferred being with men. And in the years before we’d
met she’d been with a number of them, manly men at that: not 
only the flight instructor, but also a fisherman and a computer
tech who liked fast cars. Too manly, she often said when we first started dating, describing the fights they’d had, the ways in
which she’d chafed against their aggression, their attempts at dominance. I was the perfect balance, she told me during our
first year together, a straight, sensitive guy who was boyish and bookish but liked the outdoors. She called me an honorary lesbian.

Still, she felt she was missing something from her New
York days, a sense of identity that had come with being part of
 an outsider community. She liked being seen as a radical, a nonconformist, and getting married to a straight guy made her fear losing some essential part of herself. So when the job at the paper came open, she jumped at the opportunity, and I encouraged her, saying that I wanted her to have all sides of herself,
that marrying me shouldn’t come with unnecessary compromises. I encouraged her to hang out with her co-workers, who frequented

a new, hip lesbian club – Tart, I think it was called – that
had recently opened across the river. Have fun, I said, relishing the time alone, hours that I didn’t have to worry about her depression or think about wedding details.

I first heard about Donny Manicotti a month or two before
he turned my life upside down. He was a rising star in Portland, darling of the young lesbian scene, and my fiancée had done
a story about his dance troupe, which performed weekly at Tart.
He was the alter-ego of a young woman whose real name was Annemarie. She was Filipina, but on stage she dressed as a sleazy Italian tough in a sleeveless undershirt, pencil mustache, and
fedora, a parody of the men I’d grown up around in New Jersey, whose children drove IROCs and Monte Carlos and slammed
me into lockers during high school for no reason other than that
 they were bigger than me and that I couldn’t fight back. In the pictures that accompanied my fiancée’s story, I could see that Annemarie was sleek and sexy, with muscled shoulders and a cut jawline, bare stomach ripped over slim hips. I hadn’t known 
there were such things as drag king troupes, and didn’t really understand the appeal of cross-dressing, or of watching cross-dressers, but the idea of a roomful of young women whistling and
writhing and getting drunk as a girl named Annemarie danced
 for them immediately turned me on.

My fiancée admitted that she had a crush on Donny – or
really, on Annemarie. “Who wouldn’t?” I said, and we both laughed it off as something innocent and expected, well within the boundaries of our bond. We couldn’t live a whole life together and not have occasional attractions to other people, could we? When she headed off to Tart for the evening, I’d ask if Donny would be there. “Feel free to give him a kiss,” I said. “Just don’t fall in love.”

But she did exactly that. When she came home in the middle
of the night and told me, her lips swollen, hair mussed, eyes flashing a crazy kind of light, my first instinct was to say, “But I told you not to.” I was too stunned to come up with much else as she cried and apologized and said that she hadn’t meant to,
 but that it just happened, and she couldn’t help it now, and really I never should have encouraged her to go out dancing. For a
day or so we talked about going to counseling. We even debated whether we could still get married and have an open relationship, and for the briefest moment the idea excited me, as I pictured myself sleeping with new women every week. An image flashed through my mind: my pale fiancée – now my wife – and the dark Annemarie tangled together in the sheets, and me, erection looming, climbing in. But the image didn’t last long, because of course I knew Annemarie wouldn’t want me coming anywhere near her with that erection, and really an open relationship
 would have meant me in bed alone, while my wife fucked a guy named Donny in the room next door.

By the time we came to the conclusion that we’d have to
call off the wedding, that I’d have to move out of the condo my fiancée owned, she was insisting that our break-up wasn’t just a consequence of her meeting someone new. She’d been dissatisfied for a long time, though maybe she hadn’t been fully conscious 
of it until now. Her needs weren’t being met, emotionally,

sexually. I wasn’t a full partner to her, I was too solitary and introverted, I never wanted to go shopping for curtains or think
about painting the living room. I gave so much time and attention
to my writing that I might as well have been having an affair.

Plus, marriage was just too conventional for her, and now she found even the idea of being in a long-term heterosexual relationship smothering. And also, she said, pacing the living room I didn’t want to think about painting, she thought she was really more attracted to women after all. The reasons kept coming, so many that I could only nod numbly and mutter,

“I guess it’s better to figure all this out now instead of in a year.”

Author bio

Scott Nadelson is the author of three previous collections: Aftermath, published by Hawthorne Books in 2011; The Cantor’s Daughter, recipient of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons fiction Prize for Emerging Jewish Writers and the Reform Judaism Fiction prize; and Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories, winner of the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. He teaches creative writing at Willamette University and lives in Salem, Oregon. His newest book, The New Scott Nadelson, A Life in Progress was just published by Hawthorne Books.

HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK

I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.

It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.

Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, December 2, right in time for the next installment of Writing Lessons.

Good luck!

Comments

  1. says

    This sums up so much, not only about distance, but about being willing – on the page – to let the narrator (me!) be her vulnerable, dumb, not very likable, nasty, rude, clueless self she may have been at the time of the memoir events. Important!

    “If I’d stayed too close, obeying the instinct toward self-protection, then I would have risked nothing, and nothing would have been at stake for a reader.”

    Such a great series, Marion!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Lisa. I love this series, and am learning right along with everyone else. What a great bunch of writers. I am deeply grateful to all of them. Thanks for coming by, and thanks for the comment. Please keep coming back.

    • Scott Nadelson says

      I’m glad you found it useful, Lisa. Vulnerability is a tough thing to achieve but in the end it’s what makes us want to engage with other people’s stories–they make us feel less alone in our own flaws and shortcomings. Thanks for reading.

  2. Katherine Stevenson says

    Wow! Another great writing lesson and fabulous excerpt. My biggest take-away is “I had to simultaneously delve into my experiences and pretend I was writing about someone else.” This is the key I needed today with my own writing of my memoir. Thank you Marion and Scott!

  3. Hollis says

    Hi Marion,
    Writing memoir and distancing yourself–it’s a hard lesson to learn, but at the same time that distance gives me permission to look at myself and write. Being in an MFA writing program, I have to say, that I still want my advisor to say, “Oh, how terrible…I can’t believe that happened…” but he comments on my writing, just like he’s supposed to.

    • Scott Nadelson says

      Hollis, I’ve definitely had the same impulse, and then I always have to remind myself that I don’t write in order to get something from a reader, but in order to offer a reader something–in the end, a story about me shouldn’t just be about me at all, but rather about our shared human experience.

  4. Mackenzie Davis says

    The timing of this is pretty amazing. I have an early life event that I would like to use as a starting point for a memoir and have been struggling to get it down on paper. About a week ago I started telling the story to an imaginary friend while I was driving alone in my car. I told it in the third person and the words flowed effortlessly. I thought, “Why can’t I do this when I write?”

    This one line in Nadelson’s interview really crystallized what I need to do: “But to see myself from the outside, as if I were a character in a fiction, allowed me to expose myself completely.”

    I look forward to reading the rest of Nadelson’s memoir and taking another stab at my own.

    • Scott Nadelson says

      Thanks for your comment, Mackenzie. The imaginary friend exercise is a great one. So is speaking about the self in the third person. (I do similar things while driving, and until blue tooth came along, people in other cars always looked at me like I was nuts). Good luck with the memoir.

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