HOW 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.”
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.
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