My mother gave me a book– ten years ago? fifteen years ago? I finally cracked it open last week. It’s fantastic. Why-O-why, even in mid-life, are some of us so resistant to our mom’s suggestions? The fact that my mom got it so right with this particular book recommendation makes me feel seen by her. Here’s what I propose, instead of looking at a recommendation as an assignment from the Mom Administration, why not look at the book, podcast, recipe, movie or tv show as a declaration of love, as a way of being reminded, “Hey, I know you, and I still love you.”
The book is Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. I know I was initially resistant because the memoir is about Gornick’s relationship with her mom. I feared that if my mom and I read the book, we’d end up excavating our relationship. Yikes! The writer Edna O’Brien says that Gornick’s book confronts, “the principal crux of female despair,” that is, the mother/daughter relationship. Yikes again! And it does, though I would add it also celebrates the crux of female strength, resilience, and selfhood.
In alternating chapters, Gornick focuses on her childhood in the Bronx in the 50s, and upon her adult relationship with her mom. The two women walk around Manhattan and argue. It’s fantastic because each woman retains the capacity to be surprised by the other’s insights, reactions, and experiences. Their intimacy is palpable in the way they know how to push buttons and in the way they resist the temptation.
In one section, the mother is disparaging a book suggestion the daughter has made. Of the book she says, “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing?” To which the daughter, Gornick, has an internal rant, “only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” But, the operative word here is internal. She holds back. What she says aloud is, “don’t say it has nothing to teach you…That’s unworthy of you, and the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” After silence and a few blocks of walking the mother returns with an assessment of the main character in the book, and a truth about her own life. “I’m jealous she lived her life, I didn’t live mine.” Gornick and her mother hug and I feel a tug of recognition about how we try to protect ourselves from the truth, and a wash of gratitude about the way books bring us face to face with said truth. (Man, I just killed that moment–in a bad way–with this telling. Trust me. It’s marvelous.)
A conversation I constantly have with my students revolves around stakes. What are the stakes for your character in this situation? What do they have to lose? How are they playing a part in their own demise? If the student is writing memoir then I wonder, why are you telling me this anecdote from your life? What truth are you uncovering here? Why do you believe this moment in your life has stayed so vivid and bright? What is it illustrating about you, your family, your relationships?
Sometimes we don’t want to know what the truth is. We avoid the stakes in the situation because they are too big, too frightening, and we don’t want to reveal our dark roles, our unkindnesses, or any of our ugly parts. We all want to be loved.
To help my students get to the underbelly of a story or a section of their memoir, we do this fantastic exercise from my friend, the poet, Jessica Bergamino.
Think about your deepest secret, the thing you are most afraid of telling anyone. How would you admit it to:
- Your best friend
- Your therapist
- A doctor
- A parent
- A teacher
- A neighbor
- A stranger in a bar/seatmate on a plane
Write out each version of the secret (and then burn them!), gradually getting farther and farther away. Perhaps this will help you discover the stakes at the heart of of all your stories, and reveal a way for you to get the risk, the fear, on the page. In our work we take the soft, squishy, and painful bits of our lives and make them into art. In so doing, the work becomes more powerful and the burden of the secret is lightened.
As you may recall, my New Year’s Resolution was to make a cake a month. Cakes, as I’ve said, bring their own parade. It’s been a blast. I’ve made banana cake, chocolate raspberry cake, lemon semolina cake, mocha walnut cake, carrot cake, olive oil cake, apple cake, almond blood orange cake, blueberry lemon yogurt cake. But friends, I now give you the pièce de résistance, the cake I’ve been waiting all year to make…Pumpkin Cake w/Brown Butter Icing.
Can you see how these pages from my hand written recipe book are so well loved? I have no idea from whence the recipe came, all I know is I ADORE it. And, you may too. Boy, I hope so! Maybe you’ll even make one for your mother.