Our nonfiction editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Nancy McCabe, our Issue #26 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about embracing the wrong turns in life, her love for the revision process, and her decision to rework a memoir draft into a collection of essays.
You talk about how the marriage and honeymoon period felt like fiction to you. What happens after the end of the piece? Do you remember how long you experienced that “fictional” element to your life?
Marc and I were married five years before we parted ways, and he recently told me that it feels like his life has had three acts—childhood, our marriage and the growth that came from that, and his current life and family. I feel exactly the same way. So now, looking back on Act 2, which now seems like a long time ago, it feels so remote from my current life that it’s as if I made it up. I also wrote a lot of fiction about it before I turned to nonfiction, so I had to go back and extract what really happened from fictional elements that had entered the story over the years; the process still contributes to the illusion that this was something I invented.
Much of this piece is a response to the question, “Why did I marry him?” But there also seems to be another question, about how to shape a life, how to begin a trajectory that launches your life into the direction you want it to go—the sister question, perhaps, of “What kind of person do I want to be?” How do you feel that this piece, and this event in your life, addresses that question?
You’ve defined the central issues of the piece—why did I make this life-changing decision against my better judgment, and where was I going to go from there? I would never dismiss this seeming wrong turn as a mistake; it shaped my life, my self-knowledge and subsequent decisions, profoundly. I’ve taken other “wrong turns” since then, of course, but for the most part I’ve made decisions, sometimes difficult ones, that were true to myself. In this piece, I didn’t aim to tell the whole story, but instead to try to capture that crucial moment in between taking that wrong turn and figuring out my path, those weird, scary moments when I felt like I’d given up on my life.
Rosalea’s sounds like a very strange—and not particularly romantic—place, and Marc thinking that the Lily Tomlin Room was going to be a “fun” choice for your honeymoon highlights his personality. That choice, on his part, seems to be one of the many gestures of his that show his kind of sweet, bizarre earnestness. Was there ever a point that you were able to relax at Rosalea’s? Have you ever returned there?
Marc had a wonderful eye for irony and quirkiness and absurdity, something that enriches and informs my life to this day. But yeah, at 20, already uncertain about what I was doing, this place just reinforced my doubts and my sense that I was living someone else’s life. We were only at Rosalea’s for a couple of days, and I have never returned—in fact, after decades of tension between the owner and the very conservative town, I believe the hotel was demolished a couple of years ago.
“Honeymoon Reservations” doesn’t provide readers with a definitive “ending” to your relationship with Marc, which allows us to focus on the arguably greater, overarching story: your complex journey to a kind of self-freedom and self-trust, and how this lives on in your daughter. You write, “You will be OK, I want to say, but maybe [my younger self] really did save me, in ways I can’t fully fathom.” Did you consciously leave out the details of your and Marc’s separation, as well as whether or not you maintained a friendship afterwards, to let the less tangible effects of your relationship ripple out? Would you say this is an example of the great balance of what to include vs. omit that so distinguishes nonfiction writing?
I originally wrote a draft of a memoir that told the whole story of the marriage, chronologically starting with childhood events that contributed to my decision, but it just wasn’t working. Writing it helped me to see the connections between events in my life and helped me to understand them more fully, but I just couldn’t find the story’s shape, a way to make it relevant to a larger audience outside of myself. Then my friend Anna said, “Why not break it down into individual essays?” and that launched me in a new direction. I actually wrote what I now think will be the last piece first; what I now think is the fourth piece was second, etc. So by the time I wrote this piece, which is the opening essay of twelve or thirteen, I knew that I didn’t have to encompass the whole story, but just figure out where the beginning was. At what point was I hopelessly entangled in a conflict that I wasn’t sure I could make my way out of, at what point did I start to ask the questions that became the driving forces of these essays? I felt that it was important to focus in on that rather than try to tell the whole story at once.
Your essay contains a fair amount of dialogue. What is your process for composing dialogue from conversations that took place long ago and that you may not remember well? Is it an approximation of what was actually said? Do you ever ask the other people who were involved to help you remember?
I’ve always kept journals, written brief scenes after emotionally charged exchanges, and done exercises to try to recreate what people said and did. To some extent, even recording something right after it happened, it’s always a fiction, because you can really only approximate reality, including people’s actual words. In this case, I didn’t ask Marc to help me remember—but for the five years of our marriage and since then, we told the story of our honeymoon and some of the things we said and did, so these particular details became entrenched in my mind.
You present multiple images that have a surreality to them, from the Bosch to the Skipper doll that grows breasts to the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room and the Jesus bathroom. Was this intended for this specific piece, to accentuate the particular weirdness and discomfort of the storyline? Or is surrealism common in your work?
This particular experience is one of the ones that made me a creative nonfiction writer. When I tried writing about Rosalea’s Hotel in fiction, this strange place sounded like something designed to take on some sort of symbolic weight. It was important that this was a real place (though it also worked well to accentuate the weirdness and discomfort of the experience and consequently the storyline.) My sense of absurdity and fascination with realities that you just can’t make up often makes it into my work, though in different ways.
Conversely, the old photographs you included seem to ground the piece in extreme realism and exact place and time. Did they help you compose the piece, or did you return to them after you had finished writing it? Do you find visual cues help in writing memoir? Do they affect or alter your memories of certain events?
The photos came later, after I realized there were a lot of references to artwork and photographs, and I wanted a sense of an odd wedding album without the photos you’d normally expect. I find it very useful, though, to look at photographs in order to jog my memory about events and, sometimes, to gain insights that hadn’t occurred to me when looking carefully at the details in a photograph.
You close the essay with a vivid and powerful image of a book being submerged in water, and that image seems to perfectly sum up the themes of your piece, of the blurriness of the future, of trying to live a life proceeding by steps while never actually having the ability to know what’s coming. Was that image in your head from the beginning, or did it come to you as you wrote and revised? What is your typical revision process?
I had actually forgotten that I’d dropped the book into the water until I was writing that scene, but details like that came back to me during the early draft. I see revision as a process of mining the accidents that happen in the early drafts, the details I’d forgotten or hadn’t paid attention to in real life, of examining those things further to explore their meaning and resonance. I tend to resist the process of writing the rough draft but love the process of revision, of going back into the material and shaping sentences and paragraphs and details and carving out the overall shape of the story.
What are you working on now?
I just published a novel, Following Disasters, in the fall, and would like to return to more fiction. But right now I’m finishing up this collection of essays that examines my marriage and what led to it through the lens of various metaphors (a cockroach infestation, before-and-after weight loss ads) and structures (a women’s magazine quiz, a how-to essay on overcoming nasal spray addiction, notes for a Bible Study class). My daughter is the age I was when I first met my ex-husband, and that may be part of the impetus for returning to this material now.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask our contributors: what is your favorite, or most memorable, workshop experience?
I learned a ton in the workshops I took as an undergraduate and graduate student, and I continue to learn from the inspiring and challenging students in workshops that I teach in the Spalding MFA program. A couple of years ago, my colleague Roy Hoffman and I team-taught a workshop on writing about food, travel, and the arts. One day, we took a field trip to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, then wrote about it. Each person wrote something entirely different: about the sculpture, the trees, the class system that is echoed among the dead. One wrote a serious piece about family history, another a hilarious reflection on people’s names. One did an investigation of the elaborate monument known as “Jesus is My Swingset,” a tribute to a child who died—which actually, now that I think of it, would rival Rosalea’s Hotel as a setting for a story or essay.