Our managing editor, Danielle Thierry, recently spoke with R.A. Lev, author of Issue #2’s “The Swim Lesson.” Here’s what she had to say about her writing, inspirations, and what it’s like turning the lens onto her own life after more than a decade in journalism.
Can you describe how this essay evolved and how the different pieces (your son’s swim lessons, your father’s abuse, your own relationship) began to take shape and fit together on the page?
My husband and I were discussing how similar Jack is to me—my husband’s words were, He’s you!—and I was both exhilarated and scared at the same time. I started writing about his swim lessons, but wound up doing a lot of thinking on that wobbly bench. As I’ve watched my son grow, I’ve struggled to come to terms with how my own childhood has informed the way I parent. So I wrote some sections about the way I grew up and folded them in. The “lesson” in the title is a loaded word.
You’ve been a journalist and magazine editor for many years. What was it like to try your hand at such a personal story? And how did your process differ from your more journalistic writing pursuits?
I’ve become very good at profiling people, spending a few days with someone and getting at the heart of how they tick. This was the first time I’ve turned the tables on myself and asked the same questions. There was a lot of soul searching there. Journalism at its heart has so many conventions. It was so refreshing to find my voice and experiment with form.
What about when it comes to the end result and to putting the piece out there in the world: how does the sense of completion and letting the piece go differ when it’s a personal essay rather than a journalistic piece?
This was so much more terrifying! For a journalism piece, you just worry that you got everything right, that you fact-checked everything. This, on the other hand, is my life—and my son’s and my mother’s. I wanted to be sure I was fair to them, but I couldn’t escape the emotion.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
A lot of the parenting writing out there is about how to parent—tiger moms, raising bébé… I want people to feel something universal, what being a mother feels like in certain moments. The joy. And the absolute terror.
Your essay focuses on your role both as daughter and as mother. How has becoming a mother affected your perspectives as a writer?
I keep thinking, I better be a good mom—my son may write a memoir! Seriously, it does affect how I write because it has affected how I see the world. Everything takes on a heavier weight. There’s no time for frivolousness or anything wasted—time or words. And it’s like a camera is now homed in on my life. For example, it didn’t matter to me before I had children that I couldn’t swim. But now that I do, I see my limitations and I want to fix them. And I want to write pieces my kids will be proud of. A good friend of mine, who is single, is working on a piece about the life of a ‘sugar baby’, and she’s going to try having a ‘sugar daddy’ month. I don’t think I’m allowed to write those kinds of pieces anymore.
There’s a lot of talk about truth, and the line between fact and fiction, when it comes to creative nonfiction. What’s your perspective on this topic—as a longtime journalist and also now as a writer of personal essays? And what advice would you give to creative nonfiction writers on how to walk that line effectively and honestly in their writing?
People are always questioning memory, like: how could you remember that? And, in truth, you can’t remember every conversation you had. Even as journalists, unless we use recorders, we don’t get every word a source says. But you can remember events and mood and the way things happened when you’re writing personal essays. I would say try to stay true to the period you’re writing about. Don’t impart your adult mindset on what you are writing about your childhood, for instance. You remember that a chair is yellow, not that it was an Eames chair made in 1975.
What is the first creative piece you remember writing?
At seven I wrote a chapter book—the chapters were a page, maybe—about a girl who leaves her small town and moves to the city, where she falls in love. Now it could be my first memoir.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Write. Just do it. Even if it’s only 15 minutes when you’re waiting for the train or from midnight to 4am after the kids are asleep—just write. So when someone asks what you do, you can stop say saying, writer? (with a question mark). You are a writer. Just write.
What’s it like trying to find time to write personal essays as a mom of young children? Any advice for other parents?
Ha! See previous question.