Our nonfiction co-editor Louisa Wakefield recently had this exchange with Rebecca Fremo, our Issue #25 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about exploring the complexities of human behavior, writing about people you know, and allowing an essay to become what it wants to be.
In this piece, you talk about changing your major from theatre to English literature early in your college career. What led to that decision to focus more on literature? Did you already have a passion for writing, or were you drawn to it through the study of literature?
I wish it had been so logical! I loved theatre with all my heart. But I couldn’t live with the uncertainty of that kind of life, and I have never been very good at accepting my own body. When you’re an actor, your body is your whole toolbox. I didn’t really like my toolbox. I knew I couldn’t take it back to Sears and get a new one, so…
I went with English because it was all I knew. I had always been pretty good at writing (I was always that kid who wrote well but wasn’t necessarily the best writer in the room), and I loved to read. I had edited my high school literary magazine, and I loved to write, but when I took Creative Writing in college, my professor was this very scary guy who loved David Lynch movies and wore clunky black shoes every day. He didn’t like my writing much; I wrote about mundane things like my own working mother, and it was not uncommon for me to use Poptarts as metaphors. But I excelled in my college literature courses, and English just seemed like a natural place to go next after theatre. I became a high school teacher initially, and that’s when I really began to lean more towards an interest in writing rather than literature—I loved teaching writing to students.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
Motherhood, for sure. I’m endlessly interested in how anybody survives it. I’m also hung up on what it means to feel like your “old” self while the body in the mirror morphs into some unrecognizable person right before your eyes. How much cognitive dissonance can one human really experience before her brain just implodes? I was at a Stevie Nicks concert last week, and I was surrounded by grey-haired women in shawls and top hats with feathers stuck in them, and I thought, wow, who are all those old women dressed up like Stevie? And then I went into the women’s bathroom and caught a glimpse of my middle-aged face and shawled body in the mirror.
That’s the moment I want to write about—the moment we recognize that middle-aged woman, for sure, but then I really want to write about how she copes with that realization.
It seems like this is a story that was brewing for a while. What finally drove you to write it? Was there a distinct moment that inspired you (a story in the news, a conversation with a family member, etc.)?
I think it was the incident with the Uzi that I describe in the piece that made me really want to dive in. I just remember having that thought: “How could anyone let their child go shoot an Uzi on a gun range?” and then realizing that what I had allowed my kids to do wasn’t a whole lot different. And that was stunning to me, because I see myself as pro-gun control and progressive and all that stuff. I really thought the piece would be more about the issue of guns itself, but the more I reflected on the experience in Missouri, the more it became something different altogether. The question shifted from “How could I let them shoot a gun?” to “What is it about my relationship with Cim that made me feel—even for a moment—that it would be okay for them to shoot that gun?” And then, of course, you realize that no question about human behavior is ever really easy.
But I have to give the credit for the turn that the essay takes—away from the gun question and toward the mothering or care-taking question—to my friend and writing partner, Amy. She read draft after draft in the summer of 2016, and she saw right away that Cim seemed to parent me in ways that my own mom couldn’t. That’s all she had to say—I could see exactly where the essay would go.
While the essay is clearly not pro-gun, it never takes a strong anti-gun stance either. Were there times while writing that you considered making it more of a persuasive piece?
As a poet, I’ve learned that poems become what they want to become. When I write essays, I think the same thing is true. I may have set out to investigate something about guns, to think about how or why parents might allow their children to shoot guns (and certainly, as I mention in the essay, Sandy Hook was on my mind, as was Virginia Tech, since it’s my alma mater). But the essay really wanted to be about that very foundational relationship with my friend Cim. I’m in a place in my own life, frankly, where I miss my women friends so desperately, and the harder and more complicated my life as a parent becomes, the more I miss friends like her. And I have to admit that I’m much less interested myself in creative nonfiction that’s overtly rooted in the exploration of such volatile political issues. I’m more interested in reading along as people puzzle through the very personal decisions in their own lives, yet put those decisions within some sort of cultural or political context.
How has your relationship with your family, touched on in this essay, affected your work? How do they feel about appearing in your writing? Do you find it hard to write about people who have been and remain close to you?
I didn’t write about my parents for a long, long time. I write often about my children. But I’m careful to allow them to maintain dignity and some privacy. They read everything I write about them, as do their dads (my husband and my ex-husband).
But my parents? That’s tricky. In fact, it wasn’t until I began to teach creative nonfiction myself about ten years ago that I even considered doing this. But in helping my own students navigate ethical questions about how to represent their family members as characters, I have come to believe what I’ve often told them: our stories really do belong to us. They shape us. And sometimes we have to tell them in order to make ourselves whole. I’m trained originally as a composition studies scholar; I do ethno-oriented case study research, which means that I often have to represent the voices and experiences of other teachers and students. I have always tried hard to operate ethically in that regard, sharing drafts of research at every step of the way, making sure all parties involved have a chance to weigh in on my representations of them long before anything is published. This is also true for my creative nonfiction. For instance, I sent Cim early drafts of this piece, listened to her feedback, gained a great deal from her own versions of events. Had she said, “You know what? I’d rather that you not publish this,” I would have honored her request.
But…for reasons that I’m still trying to understand myself, the situation with my parents is different and complex. I have not shown this essay to my parents, and I don’t plan to do so. I have shown it to my brother, my sister-in-law, and my oldest son, as well as my ex-husband (who is “the boyfriend” mentioned throughout). I knew that the essay would be extremely painful for my parents to read, even though at the end of the day, I felt like it wasn’t hurtful, and I didn’t intend for it to be hurtful. But painful and hurtful aren’t the same thing. I have a mother who is mentally ill, and reading this essay would cause her to have a host of responses, including embarrassment, self-consciousness, anger, and defensiveness. I couldn’t risk that. I wish that it would bring her a different kind of reaction: empathy, clarity, a little bit of regret. But that’s part of what I’ve learned as the child of a person with mental illness—my mother isn’t ever going to have the kind of reaction that I might expect or want. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for me to want it.
What are the complications of writing about memories that are hazy or incomplete? Do you have any particular methods you use to access or flesh out these memories?
What a great question! I use photographs in order to look at pictures of myself or my family and friends from a particular moment in time. Then I can both describe what I see and what I can’t see but still know is there. How do I know? Where do those instincts come from? Questioning how I “fill in the blanks” helps me ensure that I don’t take too many liberties. I also use music, because a particular song or album from a certain point in my life can bring back all sorts of images and connections. I especially like to interview other people who were there. I called or wrote to Cim quite a few times while I was working on this piece. I like to compare notes about our memories. Journaling about a particular scene or memory is always helpful, too.
What does your typical writing process look like?
Sad. So sad. I’m a professor at a tiny liberal arts college where we all work like dogs for nine months out of the year—like, all day, every day, plus weekends and nights—and I have three kids. So…all my writing happens during the summer months and over Christmas break, and sometimes in the evenings during September and October, when I haven’t yet run out of gas for the semester. I typically start with some tiny scene in a journal, and then I work really intensively on that scene, adding more and more over the course of a summer. I’ll do it longhand first, and then when I’m ready to type, I know that I’m ready to shape the memory. Then I often will let it sit for months, returning to it at Christmas break, spring break, Easter break. By the second summer, I’m usually ready to show a draft to Amy, or Julie—another fabulous writing group member—or a close friend from home, like Cim or my oldest friend (since third grade!), Susan. Or my terrific colleague and writer friend, Eric. They read, give me feedback, and then I really start to revise.
Which writers excite and influence you?
I love David Sedaris, Terry Tempest Williams, Alice Walker, Brian Doyle, Anne Lamott, and just about anybody I read in Creative Nonfiction (the journal). I was reading Pam Houston and Camille Dungy the summer that I started “Bring Out Your Dead.” Now I am going through a phase where I read lots of exposé nonfiction about food—Fast Food Nation, The American Way of Eating—stuff like that. I’m also reading Kao Kalia Yang’s new book, The Song Poet.
You are a professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN. What do you feel most passionate about sharing with your students about writing, or about the experiences that can shape a writer?
I have a great job—I work with first year student writers, and I work with graduating seniors that are writing novellas and chapbooks, and just about every other kind of writer in between. I’m most passionate about teaching multilingual students and helping them shape the stories about their own educational experiences; I firmly believe in the power of self-reflection and the autobiographical impulse as a tool for learning. It’s fun to workshop my own writing with students, too, or to bring in comments from editors or rejection letters so that I can say, “See? We’re all in this together.” Right now I am posting “rejections of the month” on my office door—the ones that actually mention a poem or essay by name and say, “you came close, but it wasn’t for us this time,” so that students can see we can find encouragement even in “thanks, but no thanks.”