Rona Maynard kindly agreed to be guest author for Memories into Story, my Spring 2010 online course through U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. This is an edited compilation of my students’ thought-provoking questions and Rona’s candid and artful responses. Contributing interviewers: Heather Beveridge, Rick Brazeau, Lora De Meneghi, Marisa Falconi, Emily Finkelstein, Mary Jane Grant, Mary Rogers, Mary Wallace.
At what age did you write your first memoir?
I was in my mid-20s, working in my first job as copy editor for Miss Chatelaine (which subsequently evolved into Flare), when the editor assigned a package on women’s relationships. I remember that Katherine Govier, then just starting out, wrote the piece about friends. I volunteered to write about my sister. My boss was delighted with it, but years passed before I wrote another piece about my life. Like many women, I didn’t yet believe that my life was worthy of other people’s attention.
What inspired you to write your memoir My Mother’s Daughter?
All through my time at Chatelaine, readers responded warmly, even passionately, to my monthly column about my life as a woman in these times. The most popular column by far was about the death of my mother. I left the magazine knowing I would write some sort of autobiographical book but never dreamed it would focus on my mother. I figured she’d taken up enough space in my head during her lifetime. The book’s first draft had no theme; it was my agent, Bev Slopen, who suggested that a theme would strengthen the book and pull the reader through from chapter to chapter. She pointed out that the mother–daughter relationship already seemed to be driving a story that was pushing against the boundaries of my unformed manuscript. The experience taught me that resistance to a subject can signify powerful material that demands and deserves the attention of the writer.
On your website you talk about the process behind your book—that you did not really “see” the mother–daughter theme for a long time, and when it was pointed out to you, you initially fought the idea. Can you comment on how writing to a clear theme from day one might differ from a process of freewriting and then looking for a theme after the fact?
When writers start out with a map and destination, they very often end up somewhere different. I know of writers who’ve trashed hundreds of pages. So I wouldn’t worry about adherence to a method. Weighing the merits of one method versus another is like weighing a famously rigorous teacher against one who relies on encouragement and inspiration. Both approaches can work. So why worry about the approach, given that it will almost certainly change along the way? As I remind myself when I get bogged down in minutiae: Tell the damn story. And be prepared to throw out a lot of what you write, including some material that’s extremely close to your heart. One of the biggest challenges of writing is pitching everything that’s not part of the story. Another story, perhaps, but not this story. (For more on this theme, see Stephen King’s magnificent On Writing.)
How did you know what the story line was amidst all the memories from your life?
Once I knew that I was writing about the mother–daughter bond, I knew what was part of the story and what was not. For instance, the arc of my career was obviously pivotal because my mother had lost her career and would have loved an office with her name on the door. My experience as a wife and a mother was shaped, sometimes painfully, by my mother’s. People have asked me why there’s so little in the book about my friends. I’ve had some very important friends but they weren’t part of this particular story.
Most memoirs have a chronological structure. What other structures have you seen or tried that can work well in memoir?
Nancy Mairs, an American writer I admire, has several collections of autobiographical essays dealing with a long marriage that hasn’t been entirely faithful, violence in her intimate circle and, above all, living for decades with MS. She doesn’t attempt to tell a story sequentially, although you get a sense of the story from following her work. Take a look at Carnal Acts and A Troubled Guest. Mairs is more of an essayist than a memoirist, although she’s bravely and unflinchingly personal. It’s hard to find a market for this kind of book so most books written in the first person have a more traditional narrative structure. I’m sure there must be books in which the chapters radiate like spokes of a wheel, each one on a particular theme rather than a stage of life. This is the kind of book I initially planned to write (which just goes to show the irrelevance of plans).
When writing about your boss at Maclean’s, Peter C. Newman, how did you choose which interactions to use in order to give an impression of him without hitting the reader over the head with stories of how he treated you?
Well, there really weren’t all that many incidents. My time at Maclean’s was brief. I didn’t have to struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out, as writers often do. The greater issue was adding some nuance to the portrait of Newman. He did something he had no right to do, but I think out of weakness rather than meanness. And he told me the single most perceptive thing about magazine editing that anyone has ever told me: “A magazine is about the heart.” As I wrote in the book, I had no idea what he meant but the insight stayed with me. Looking back, I see myself as my own worst enemy at Maclean’s, “hugging my burden of resentment as if it defined me.”
Was the dialogue with Peter C. Newman invented to show his character, or was it remembered?
I remembered it almost word for word. I saved a note that he sent me, which also appears in the memoir. I did invent some conversations [in the book], following the speaker’s natural rhythms as I recalled them. But Newman had such a profound impact on my early career and spoke with me so seldom that most of his words stayed with me.
Do you consider how the people in your writing will be affected by the content of your pieces and, if so, do you perform creative alterations? Have you received any backlash?
The only person who’s complained—and a very significant one—is my husband, who’s quite private. In a blog post a few months back, I told a story about him and did not run it past him, thinking it was pretty innocuous. He took strong exception to one line, which I rewrote because it wasn’t worth fighting about. I should add that while I never ask him to vet short autobiographical pieces, I did ask him to read the manuscript of my book before publication. He dreaded the task because it’s not the kind of book he reads. So I was delighted when he praised it and didn’t suggest any changes except fixing typos, for which he has a keen eye.
Do you “preview” content with others before you publish, or do you just publish and let the chips fall as they may?
I ran the manuscript for My Mother’s Daughter past my sister, as she did with me when she published her memoir At Home in the World some years ago. She mentioned one detail I’d forgotten, leaving it entirely up to me whether to incorporate it or not (I did, with gratitude because it was so telling). I also asked my husband to read the book; we’ve been married for decades and I wasn’t about to let a careless choice of words jeopardize what we’d built together. A couple of good friends read portions of the manuscript in the early stages, when I needed encouragement to keep going. There’s no way I could have written this book while my parents were alive. I couldn’t even have seen them with such clarity, let alone dared to capture them on the page.
When you write about powerful people like you did in your piece about Maclean’s, do you ever hear from them?
Not so far.
In “Two Bowls of Soup: in Memory of Val Ross,” what is the purpose of the short single-character sentences in the middle of the piece, and had you seen this technique used by other writers?
I’m fascinated by rhythm in prose. When I’m writing, I can always hear every sentence in my head. I liked the sound of those short, extremely concrete sentences contrasting with the longer, more meditative ones. Subconsciously, I guess I must have sensed that the short sentences read like the effort of a racing, grieving brain to record every cherished detail of a person who is gone.
Had I noticed a similar device elsewhere? Oh, almost certainly. But where is anyone’s guess. I’ve learned from a multitude of writers. We all do, often unawares. We notice not just what works its way into the mind of the reader, but what pushes the reader away. Rhythm is a wonderful way of reinforcing that subliminal connection.
Your friend Val clearly had a huge impact on your life—how do you decide which people from your life to write about?
If someone looms large in my memories, I’m going to write about that person sooner or later. It’s just a question of where. My first grandson doesn’t figure in my memoir, although he was born during the period in question. He wasn’t part of that mother–daughter story. Then a couple of years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on being a grandmother, called Eye of My Heart. I had never written about this subject before, so it was quite an adventure. I couldn’t plunder any existing columns or blog posts. Getting the piece off the ground was painful but I’m immensely proud of it and have posted it on my website.
How do you come up with the topics for your blog?
Here, there and everywhere. A brief encounter with a stranger, a book that lingers on my mind, a news story that triggers an explosion of commentary, none of which gives voice to my own thoughts (e.g., my recent post on Helen Thomas) . . . anything can trigger the storytelling impulse. When nothing cries out, “Write me!” I start with a memory and see where it leads (e.g., another recent post about a pair of walking shoes my mother treasured).
Do you know ahead of time what you are going to write about or do you just sit down and write whatever comes up?
A little of both. I usually have at least a vague idea where I’m going, but I like to surprise myself. I find it boring to follow a plan.
In “My Tried-and-True Ritual for Falling Asleep,” the house becomes a character in your memoir. Have you ever used objects from your past in your writing? What were they, and did you use the same technique?
Oh, there are so many. Some examples: the box that holds our Christmas ornaments, the beloved stuffed mouse that my preschooler lost on the subway (“Looking for Mousie,” available on my site), the scuffed walking shoes in which my mother walked six miles a day until a brain tumour stopped her short (a recent blog post). My Mother’s Daughter includes an extended riff on my grandmother’s prized mink, which inspired no end of boasting during her lifetime and turned out to be worthless. And I did a whole series of blog posts on buying and selling a home, which remain among my favourites. Objects can be talismans, vessels for experience and discovery. I could write a whole essay on outfits I’ve loved or loathed through the years and what they reveal about that stage of my life. I could write about the recipe box I inherited from my mother. If you’re ever stuck for a subject, search your memory for an object or series of objects with rich associations. Then just ride the memory current.
You ask about my method. I didn’t think I had one but have since realized that I do—a very experiential one. I meditate on the memory. I wait for telling details to surface—sounds, aromas, facial expressions, colours and so on. Memories tend to trigger other memories. Once while writing about a beloved mentor of mine, I first saw the purple silk shirt she was wearing and then noticed the sweat stains under her arms as she leaned back in her chair, arms behind her head. Those sweat stains, and the expansive posture, said a lot about this woman. In short, I recreate the whole scene in my mind as I write. That’s the only way to make it live for the reader.
In your work, have you made a conscious effort to portray yourself truthfully and sometimes in so doing not portrayed yourself very positively? Do you consider this while writing?
What a perceptive question. Whenever I tell a story from my life, I’m mindful of my place as a character. I want the reader to believe in this character called “I” and paragons just aren’t believable. So I let myself be thorny on the page. I reveal my hasty judgments and lapses of courage. I’ve seen countless would-be memoirists fail because they strain too hard to be liked. They want to prove how strong and noble and selfless they are (often compared to someone else who’s cast as the villain). My goal is not to make you like me—that’s what friends are for—but to pull you into the story and keep you reading with conviction. In short, to believe me. And yet the more honest I am about myself, the more likely you are to sympathize with me because you see my humanity, which reminds you of your own. It’s in this moment that the me-ness of me encounters the you-ness of you. At an unconscious level, I always write with a question echoing in my head: “Who is ‘I’?” (That’s not a grammatical mistake.)
The narrator’s humanity is so pivotal that I’d better elaborate further. Every story derives its momentum from a hero with a task or mission. Then there has to be an obstacle in the hero’s way—a conflict of some kind. Little Red Riding Hood’s trek to grandmother’s house is a big yawn without the wolf. It’s easy to spot the external conflicts—hero against life-threatening illness, hero against natural disaster, hero against abusive parent, etc. But there’s usually also an internal conflict at play. This is a rich zone to mine. If you don’t go there, you’ll compromise the story and undermine the reader’s belief in “I.”
In “My Tried-and-True Ritual for Falling Asleep” you demonstrated the use of setting as a framework. Your first house and its special place in your life, memories and heart come alive with your descriptive and reflective sentences. What level of importance does setting hold in your work?
I’m smiling as I type this. You may have noticed that I’m often pretty sparing with physical description. I don’t mention what someone is wearing or how a room was furnished unless those particular details reveal something I’d like my reader to know. Over-elaborate descriptions are a sure sign of a writer trying too hard (no wonder Elmore Leonard rails against them). The right detail in a paragraph is like the pair of earrings—not mere decoration but an integral part of the whole. I chose the particular details you mention because they’re the ones that float to mind when I look back on that first house and ask myself what I loved about the place.
In your memoir you mention the advice given by an editor at Chatelaine that every story should include humour, insight and rue. How would you define rue in this context, and can you give an example from your own work?
What an interesting question! And the dictionary won’t be much help. In this context “rue” is compassionate regret for human folly, including—no, especially—the writer’s own. It’s about the exquisite, eternal tension between life as we want it to be and as it actually is. About embracing the perplexing, wondrous complications that someone has called “the ragged magnificence of life.” There’s a fine line between rue and world-weary bitterness. I try not to cross it. In reflecting on your question, I realize how formative and powerful that mentorly mantra has been for me. It’s not a method; it’s an attitude toward one’s material and oneself. This attitude infuses all my best work. For example, in My Mother’s Daughter I worked with the tension between my youthful pride and hope at landing this terrific job, and the arrogance that became my undoing there. I thought the enemy was Peter Newman but to a large extent it was my own immaturity. In his odd and fumbling way, Newman was a mentor.
Would you recommend that a person wait until they are older to write a memoir or does age not pose any boundaries?
I don’t think age has anything to do with it. Young adults have written some terrific memoirs (e.g., Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl); Anne Frank was a kid when she wrote the diary that made her famous. It all depends on the story the writer has to share and the courage with which she tells it.
How do you deal with the distractions of everyday life and keep writing?
I cultivate the art of saying no to appointments and requests I can defer. I remember that writing is a meditation. Sometimes you just have to sit there and face the blank screen while your thoughts drift. This is part of the process. So is going for a walk or chopping onions for a stew. The writer is always thinking about her work. But the point comes when she has to sit down and write something, as opposed to mulling it.
In your opinion, what are the top three obstacles for writers who aspire to be published?
First: I’ve heard countless writers lament the increasingly brutal, bottom-line-driven market in which risk-averse publishers compete for what sold last year. This is true of magazines as well as books and it’s obstacle number one. Second: the need to make a living (breaking into the business takes more time and effort than most people can afford). Third: lack of a distinctive story to tell or the ability to tell it with flair. If you have a rip-roaring yarn that’s truly unique, you may not need a lot of literary panache. If you’re a wizard with words, you can still get resistance unless your story stands out from all the other stories out there.
How would you recommend managing them?
For number one: a thick skin, persistence and a whiz-bang proposal that clearly and concisely makes the case for the appeal of your book in the marketplace and its “unique selling proposition,” as they say in Marketingland. For number two: a paycheque, a trust fund or a supportive spouse. For number three: a change of focus. Not every aspiring writer has what it takes to attract a publisher. Not every writer has talent (I say this based on intimate knowledge of the slush piles at three different national magazines). Some people would be better off writing for their children and grandchildren, or for their friends in the blogosphere. Just because a story can’t find a large audience doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling.
You have had such an extensive and diverse writing career. How do you keep your writing fresh in terms of your voice, imagery, etc.?
I don’t toss it off. I avoid clichés. I’m always on the lookout for something new to write about. When something catches my interest I always ask myself, “What can I write about this?” I challenge myself to find something that I haven’t said before (not easy, when you’ve written as much first-person prose as I have). I have a real horror of repeating myself. I know I tend to overuse certain words, so I push myself to find alternatives.
How has your perspective as a writer changed over the years? What advice do you have for young writers starting out?
I’m more confident now than I used to be. I’ve learned there’s no subject so odd or strange that readers won’t be able to identify. When I first started writing the Chatelaine editorials that became my signature in the job, I was fairly self-protective. The more honest and direct I became, the better the response from readers. But it still took a number of years before I wrote about dating the gay kid in high school and the sexual shame that resulted. Predictably, I heard from readers with similar experiences.
As for advice, I like Colette’s famous saying “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and for a longer time at what pains you.” In other words, follow your feelings. Get inside the experience that has stayed on your mind, nagging you and forming you. Recreate it so the reader can feel what you felt. Through memoir, the you-ness of you encounters the me-ness of me. All our stories are rivers flowing to the same ocean. This is the power of memoir.
Rona Maynard championed first-person storytelling as editor of Chatelaine, where her monthly column won a loyal following. The author of My Mother’s Daughter, a memoir that Alice Munro called “wonderfully honest and enthralling,” she blogs at www.ronamaynard.com and leads memoir workshops in Toronto.
For more about Rona Maynard, visit her website here.
Copyright 2010 Allyson Latta.