Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #43 featured nonfiction writer Lauren Mauldin. Here’s what Lauren had to say about writing through loss and addiction, her experience as an MFA student, how maintaining a blog helped find her voice, and more…
What compelled you to write “Keto Crash”? What do you hope people take away from it?
I’ve struggled my entire life with finding a balance between loving myself and not obsessing over things like carbs while also occasionally eating a vegetable and striving for overall health. Usually, I feel like I can be successful at things when I put the effort in, but controlling my unruly body has been a lifelong struggle. The essay is a deep dive into moments of my life as I look for what caused this angst. And of course, there are no simple answers.
I hope readers who have similar struggles will realize that they’re not alone. Someone can feel horrible about themselves, but the person sitting next to them might wish they could be that size or look that way. Appearances only tell so much. Many of us struggle.
You’ve also written about loss and addiction—lots of hard, personal issues in your work. How do you navigate revealing the intimate moments of your own life?
The gift of nonfiction is the ability to share human experience through story. I find that when I’m most uncomfortable writing my emotional truth, the work has the biggest reaction with readers. That kind of feedback makes it easier to share vulnerable moments, but it’s never easy. I’ll write anything for a stranger, but it’s much harder when the people who see me every day read these pieces. Still, I push through because I’ve read so much nonfiction from daring, seemingly fearless authors that made me feel seen in my own little bubble. If I can give recognition to someone struggling by writing about my own hodgepodge existence, it’s worth any personal discomfort.
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished a memoir, Animalistic, about losing my husband to an accidental opioid drug overdose. It’s the messy journey of becoming a widow at 30 years-old. I find support in all sorts of animals while I try to understand how my idyllic life was obliterated by addiction. More recently, I’ve started a second book about growing up as a self-proclaimed “Horse Girl.”
Speaking of that loss—and horseback riding—you have a blog where you’ve written about those things as well. Has feedback from readers there helped fuel your book projects? How has the blog helped you develop an audience for your work?
I started blogging when I was a teenager, and have certainly put lots of melodramatic drabble out on the internet that should never be considered literature. These days I mostly use it as a space to track progress on my baby horse, but blogging has been extremely influential in my work. It’s helped me sharpen my voice, and provided a platform to experiment with different ideas and content. Several chapters in my memoir originally started off as rudimentary blog posts.
Above all else, the blog has shown me how much readers love a flawed narrator. In social media, there’s this huge pressure to maintain a perfect front to the world. But that’s exhausting. I’m so over it. The day after my husband died, I wrote about what happened without any subtleties. I was so shattered by that loss. Hiding the details surrounding it wasn’t an option. Whether I’m struggling with body image, addiction, loss or even trying to train a young Thoroughbred, my blog readers have shown me that vulnerability, honesty and definitely some humor do the most for captivating an audience.
You’re blog editor for The Plaid Horse magazine, and addiction and suicide show up in articles there, too. Can you give us some insight into that process…perhaps how editorial decisions are made, how that work fits in with your other writing, etc.?
I’m so fortunate to be a part of The Plaid Horse team. We’re a diverse group of equestrians with different motivations and passions that drive us. Instead of focusing solely on competition, the publisher, Piper Klemm, has created a space for us to connect the equestrian industry to larger issues. Since I’ve never been a fancy, elite equestrian like some in the sport, I try to write to a broader audience about the emotional experience that is horses.
When I have an idea about a topic that might be a little outside the normal equestrian conversation, like mental health, I pitch the concept to my publisher. When we’re on the same page, we run the piece online first to gauge audience interaction. Often times these larger concepts that don’t necessarily feel related to horses at first touch members of our community, and they respond in droves. Being fortunate to write to a large audience through The Plaid Horse, I get to see what kind of conversations people are craving in the media that they read on a daily basis.
Before I started writing for the magazine, I regarded horses as a privileged hobby without any relevance to the rest of the world. Of course, it still is ridiculously privileged, but horses connect people in unique ways. I look at the relationship differently now, and it is great inspiration for the second memoir that I’m working on now.
You’re currently in an MFA program. Why did you decide to take this path as a writer? What have you gained through the MFA program?
Truthfully? My husband died, my life fell apart, and I was like, “Oh well, let’s see if anyone wants to pay me to go to school.”
As an undergraduate, I minored in creative writing and looked up to the MFA students at North Carolina State University. I wanted to be just like them, but that degree felt further and further away as I moved into the corporate workforce to follow a very traditional life trajectory. After my husband passed away, I realized that all of my “safe” choices didn’t protect me from complete heartbreak. So, I sent off a slew of applications to funded programs and figured something would work out if it was meant to be. I ended up at UC Riverside, and have just finished my MFA in creative nonfiction. UCR introduced me to amazing faculty and peers. While I’m also blessed to have a writing family outside of academia in Austin, studying with such a diverse group of writers has helped me more than I ever could have predicted.
Really though, the biggest gift of the MFA has been to trust myself as a writer. I took a huge jump out of my comfort zone in corporate online marketing to move halfway across the country and try to set my placard out as a professional writer. Graduate school taught me to sharpen my instinct for what’s working (and what isn’t), and develop my own process. I can’t point to a single person or technique at UCR that’s been a magic fix for my writing, but this is a far better outcome. Because now I can take the tools I’ve learned, mesh them with my work, and continue to grow after the degree is finished.
You likely know that our name refers to the spring mud season in New England, the time when the hidden labor of creation is done, before it comes to fruition. What do you appreciate about mud season, personally or artistically?
Writers seem to live in a perpetual mud season. We spend all of this time with our work, and even when the toil of production is finished there’s a long process before it breaks ground to a public readership—if it ever does. I always joke that I’m a typical Type-A, workaholic Capricorn. Waiting is hard for me. I’m not primed to love mud season, but there’s a sort of magic when you’re on the eve of something. Anything can happen. I try to hold that moment in my hands and give myself permission to dream a little before I’m brought back down to the reality of whatever comes next.
What writers inspire you? Who do you go back to again and again?
David Sedaris taught me to love nonfiction. I still think he’s the master of perfecting the line between dark humor and darkness, and will never stop returning to his early essays. Emily Rapp Black, Helen MacDonald, and Paul Lisicky have done some of the best writing on grief that I’ve found. They gave me permission to complicate the narrative. I’ve worked a lot with Susan Straight on my memoir, and she has more passion for the craft of writing than anyone I’ve ever met. If you spend ten minutes with her, you’ll walk away with at least five great book suggestions and enough enthusiasm to finish that daunting chapter or finally revise a scene that’s been bugging you. I’m really excited about her memoir, In The Country of Women, that’s coming out this summer.