Our nonfiction reader Alexandra Carroll recently had this exchange with Rachel Veroff, our Issue #34 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, authors who inspire her, and the importance of generosity in writing nonfiction.
What compelled you to write “Everything Presses In”?
I mean, to be honest, this essay has its origins in my rock-bottom moment with alcoholism. I was doing awful things like falling asleep on the subway going home and waking up in Coney Island. I was showing up at my boyfriend(-at-the-time)’s house at odd hours, crying. I was trying to erase myself—obliterate myself. This essay is pieced together from the wild thoughts I was jotting in my notebook at the time—the in-between moments of that time. I wrote because I did not know how else to get myself out of there.
What do you hope readers take away from your essay?
Lately I am in love with the idea that great writing does not come from people, it happens when writers let themselves be conduits for truths that are already out there in the world. That is why memoir as a genre can be so cathartic. Stories are cures. In order to be effective, of course, stories need to be crafted with the right balance of control and other various elements. But first-person, bare-all writing can really help people who are struggling to say the same things themselves. So with this essay—which was terrifying for me to finish and put out into the world—I hope it will help readers whose lives have also been affected by addiction.
There’s a lot of talk about truth and disclosure of truth in creative nonfiction/personal writing. What’s your perspective on this topic? What advice do you have for creative nonfiction writers who are walking the line between disclosing truths that impact others and withholding the fullness of truth to protect others and/or themselves from a critical audience?
This is actually a lot of questions wrapped into one, so I will focus on one lesson that I learned in the process of writing this particular essay. Essayists and memoirists have a huge responsibility to tell the truth. Except that, in personal writing, there will never be a fact-checker to come along and confirm you’ve accurately described a thing like fear—how fear can creep up on you like a slow asphyxiation. Or shame. You are accountable to yourself only—and to the page, and to the reader, and (maybe) to God. When you are dealing with emotionally complicated subject matter (in this case, a disintegrating friendship), telling the truth means mining your deepest psychic reserves—and finding the courage to be as honest as you can. Sometimes this means looking your own worst shortcomings in the face, which can be brutal. Other times, it means extending generosity to the flawed characters in your life. Even people who have hurt you: you have a responsibility to represent those relationships and interactions with as much big-heartedness and understanding as you can. That is actually something I wish I had done a better job of in this essay.
Ultimately, though, I think that truthful writing stands on its own. Writing that holds little barbs of spitefulness about past injuries will never manage to get up and sing. But if you work those barbs out—and it takes genuine, hard spiritual labor to do this—you know you are doing good writing. Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club is a good example of how to write about people who have done incomprehensible things to you.
One theme you explore in “Everything Presses In” is friendship. What did you learn about the concept of friendship from the process of writing this essay? How has thinking about friendship shaped your work?
Friendship is complicated. Many of my favorite people in life can be hard to be friends with. I am hard to be friends with, sometimes, too. And so are you. That is why generosity is a good rule of thumb, always, in how we approach our relationships—as well as in how we write about other people. You can have a best friend when you’re 25, who is not your best friend when you’re 30, but then (who knows!), by the time you’re both 35, you will be living glorious ex-pat lives in Milan or Tokyo, and this friendship will have grown into something entirely new. Richer, more complex. The kind of friendship you cannot imagine for yourself when you are still a dumb kid and drinking yourself into oblivion every day. That is why it is important to treat people as right as you can, even when you are not sure that they deserve it. Even when all evidence seems to point to the conclusion that they do not, in fact, deserve it. You can never guess what will change.
This same rule of generosity applies to writing, too. It plays into the larger conversation about the responsibility of writers. Memoirists have a contract to tell the truth, yes, but we should also commit ourselves to telling stories that offer more than just our pain. Stories should provide comfort and understanding—and grace. That is a lesson to remember, moving forward. For me, the next time I feel compelled to write about someone who wronged me, I will probably sit with the material longer, as long as I need, in order to ultimately tell it in a way that pardons the wrongdoer. And heals. Because if a difficult character is really worth writing about (and all people worth writing about are difficult), they deserve to be represented with care and thoughtfulness. The same care that you would summon for a friend.
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?
This essay is a compilation of hazy, incomplete memories because that was the most accurate way I could reflect my experience of addiction. This was simply how my mind was working at the time, so that was how it came out of me. All first-person writing is subjective, though. As long as the writer is honest about the narrative choices they are making—representing their story in terms of: “This is to the best of my memory,” or, “My memories of that night might be tinted by the fact that I was in the middle of falling in love…”—What I mean by that is: if the writer’s voice is coming from a place of authority, readers will be more willing to forgive smudges in memory and go along for the ride.
In your essay, you state that “[w]riting is what will save [you].” What role does writing play in your sobriety? How might others look to writing as a means of supporting themselves through their life challenges?
So, as I write this, I have just finished reading The Recovering by Leslie Jamison, which is stunning. This book is also about the relationship between drinking and writing, and sobriety and writing. It talks about how Jamison’s own sobriety has been hugely buoyed by her involvement with the organization Alcoholics Anonymous. I do not know how much you know about AA, but basically it’s meetings—people getting together and telling stories. They tell their most embarrassing stories and the stories that don’t make sense. And everyone just nods along supportively because, most of the time, we identify. There is a chapter near the end of Jamison’s book called “Chorus,” which makes so much sense to me. The chorus is the part of a song that gets repeated. It’s the part you know by heart, but you keep singing it anyway. Together. Repetition and togetherness is the essence of sobriety, too. Because here’s the thing: sobriety does not get easier. Nobody ever wakes up one day, suddenly happier, healthier, and better at life—for the rest of life. That’s absurd. But if you keep singing, and keep reading, keep writing, keep meeting, keep showing up for your friends—you’ll get through it. And you might even help some nice people along the way.
Your website includes your reading list from the past several years. What authors most inspire you? What type of authors do you return to again and again?
Haha, I love that you looked at that page on my website—I’ve thought about deleting it so many times. But I do think that it is meaningful for us to keep logs of what we’re reading. Sometimes I will go on a binge of reading one particular author, or about one specific topic. My reasons for doing that won’t become clear until years later. A friend wrote to me recently that she was looking at my “Reading Log” and noticed each year had a theme: in 2014, I was reading adventure books. The next year was heartbreak. The next was drinking. So really, I don’t know. I am still in the middle of deciding my tastes. One of my all-time favorite writers is Renata Adler, though. And Lidia Yuknavitch. And Leslie Jamison.
Where is your favorite place to write? Do you have a designated writing space?
I write at work, to be honest. I am lucky to have a desk job where I’m able to squeeze in a few hours of my own writing every day, as long as I am also available to answer the phone and so on. My employer is a writer, too, so he kind of approves. It’s not how I imagined I would be spending my writing time when I was younger and dreaming of moving to New York, but it seems to work. I also have a little desk at home (for late nights and Sunday mornings), and I also like going to coffee shops. I like the anonymity of coffee shops and libraries. When you’re just a nobody with your latté and your computer. I love that.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Maybe this is embarrassing, but I used to be in love with this guy, and I wrote him a lot of letters. This was when I was living abroad and traveling a lot. Then one day he called me up and yelled at me—he said that I should do better. I needed to stop writing letters and start writing for real. It had not occurred to me that I could even do that. Not until this guy yelled it at me. Honestly, I think he thought my letters were annoying.
Since Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask: what’s your best/worst experience of them?
I love workshops, and I think every serious writer should do them. In fact, the essay you are interviewing me about had its origins in a workshop. This was around the same time that I was losing my mind with the really bad drinking—I somehow managed to sign myself up for a night class with the journalist Alex Mar. I’d pinned so many vulnerable feelings into doing well in that class. I was a wreck, but I always showed up. I did okay in the class. Mostly, it was a supportive environment, and I felt encouraged to keep writing. On the other hand, my worst experience in a workshop is always when someone doesn’t take it seriously and doesn’t read people’s work properly. That’s annoying because it’s disrespectful. Lazy reading is not a great use of anybody’s time.
Your bio mentions that you are working on a novel. What differences do you notice between writing a novel and writing a nonfiction essay?
This is a great question, and I will probably have a better answer when I am done writing the novel. Writing a novel is an insane, ambitious, masochistic endeavor. Maybe the shorter essays and articles by successful novelists are a way of procrastinating. Or else you are working out some difficult ideas, which will emerge later, in a more evolved form, in your more mature work. For me, absolutely: addiction and addictive thinking (the way drunk prose can be sometimes very lyric prose)—this plays a role in my novel. On the question of choosing to write fiction or nonfiction—this is a puzzle I see a lot of early fiction writers struggle with. Nonfiction is easier in the sense that, even if it is not beautifully written, readers can still learn something, because it was true. Bad fiction is the worst. It has no value. But I think that writers who have that impulse to embellish, to imagine alternate scenarios, to build worlds—these writers will find a way to make their fiction work.
What can you share with us about your novel?
My novel is inspired by the years I lived in France as an ESL teacher, in my early twenties. It is about two young women on a summer road trip. They are driving through small villages, talking about young women things. I’ve been calling it my digital-age Sun Also Rises—I guess because these characters (who I love to pieces, they are great characters!)—these girls are headed nowhere good. The book is about intoxication…(ha): falling in love, and surrendering to that. Getting lost in a foreign language and culture. Drinking. Friendship. Voyages. There are also some dystopian elements and themes playing on racial tensions between French and Arab communities. I hope it will be good.