So I got to chat with Melissa Febos, over at The Rumpus…
So I got to chat with Melissa Febos, over at The Rumpus…
So I got to interview The Scientists author Marco Roth for my series on The Rumpus. Even more than most of my other column subjects, Marco knows the perils - and imperatives – of writing about family. He’s a member of the hyper-literary Roth/Roiphe clan, which includes novelist/memoirist Anne Roiphe, and autobiographical fiction writer Emily Carter, among others. As I spell out in the interview and in the preamble, there’s been a lot of overlap in the family members’ writing, and a lot of hurt feelings. But somehow they all continue to respect each other’s right to their versions of the truth, and they go on, staying in each other’s lives.
I had this conversation with Marco a few months ago, actually. Shortly after we spoke, though, Hurricane Sandy disrupted my family’s life, and, by association, mine. And then, related to that, tensions grew between my father and me. I couldn’t go near this topic for a while, and had to shelve this.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I reached the point where I found I had to step away from my relationship with my dad, at least for now. I won’t go into details here right now. I’m sad and conflicted, but I am also able to breathe in a way that I hadn’t been able to for a long time.
It might seem ironic that I took this step after interviewing someone who manages to keep family in his life despite whatever any of them write. But this has been building, and all fourteen of the interviews I’ve done, so far, have helped me along toward this - something that feels essential right now. (via emilygould)
Alright, this is going to be disgusting. You’ve been warned.
Anyway, I’ve been getting a bit braver in some the writing I’ve been doing privately. But even though I’m progressing, I find I can still only be so brave.
I have written a lot about my fear of revealing things about myself and people in my life through my work. This morning my internal tug of war around this – the urge to purge nearly as strong as the determination not to – reminded me of how I felt when I had a 48-hour stomach bug recently.
Several times in those two days, I had on overwhelming urge to throw up. My skin got clammy, the room spun slightly, and I started to heave. Better get to the bathroom, I thought. But if I did, then I’d have to let go and do the thing I hate most in the world. Throwing up is terrifying. You lose your balance. It’s hard to breathe. You are completely vulnerable and out of control. And it’s hard to know when it’s over. Just when you think you’re done, there’s another heave - another moment when it’s hard to breathe, when you think you could die, right there, on your knees in front of the toilet. But in most cases, afterward you feel better.
In each instance during my two-day affliction, I refused to bring myself anywhere near the bowl. Instead I vigilantly avoided thinking about purging, and alternated between deep and shallow breathing, as seemed fit, minute by minute. Again and again, I kept it down.
As the hours wore on, I regretted not giving in to the urge to just fucking release the bug. I was prolonging my own misery by holding onto it. Yet when a subsequent wave of nausea would overtake me, I’d resume basically doing Lamaze so I wouldn’t have to endure the horrors and indignities inherent in puking.
Back to writing. I think it’s Natalie Goldberg who makes the analogy of the importance of “vomiting on the page.” But the prospect of releasing certain ideas and stories is even scarier to me than retching, even though avoiding it is clearly keeping me uncomfortable for longer. I’m working on this…
Okay, I wasn’t there when Gwyneth Paltrow did or didn’t write her cook book, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness, but I have a hunch about what happened.
The way Julia Turshen is quoted in the New York Times, the detail with which she is introduced in the piece as someone who’s about to write a second book with Gwyneth after the success of the first, gives me the impression that Julia Moskin got it right, and Gwyneth’s denial that she had help is the same kind of bullshit I have had to deal with from one ghostwriting client or another.
It could be a problem of semantics. “Ghostwriter” is maybe used too broadly these days. Although I’m not sure what word would be agreeable to celebrities who want to give the impression - and believe, really - that they wrote their books all by themselves.
“Ghostwriter” is a misleading term. One client referred to me as a “memoir midwife,” and that feels pretty accurate. Sometimes it feels more akin to what I imagine being a surrogate mother is like. In the end, I am ultimately delivering someone else’s story, not my own creation. For that reason, I never put my name on anyone’s book. Instead, it’s usually in my contract that I get the first acknowledgement, and that it’s worded in such a way that people in publishing will know what my role was. It’s usually something like, “I’d like to thank Sari Botton for helping me find the words,” or for “helping me give voice to my thoughts.”
“Ghostwriter” gives people the idea that I have some kind of magical powers, that I’m able to read client’s minds or something, and then write their book using only my own words. But it’s nothing like that, at least not for me. In my work it’s rare for me to simply interview a person and then write their book using a whole different collection of words than they did. I do some of that, but more often I use many of the same words that came out of their mouths, just in a different order, surrounded by other words. I move whole pieces around for better storytelling. I remove boring expository chunks, and try to draw more interesting anecdotes from them to replace those.
I also get clients to “free write” bits for me, without worrying about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. Sometimes people reveal more when they are in a room by themselves, writing privately, than when they are sitting and talking with some liberal hippie their agent hired to help them write their book when they felt like they could totally have just done it themselves because they wrote that really great speech that all the other parents loved that one time. I find some clients also tend to remember and capture more details when they write things down and email them to me.
After they’ve written those pieces for me, I incorporate them with what came out of the transcriptions of our interviews. That synthesis is really hard work. Even if I were to use only words clients spoke and emailed to me, which is never the case, it would still be a really hard job putting those words together in way that yielded something readable and interesting.
So maybe Gwyneth uttered or typed every one of the words in her cook book. But I doubt strongly she put it all together without a great deal of Turshen’s help. No, fuck “help.” I doubt she did it without Turshen’s hard work.
At the very least, it seems to me the book was a collaboration between Turshen and Paltrow. But it’s probably in Turshen’s contract that she can’t claim to have worked on it. I hope she’s not penalized financially or otherwise for this potential breech of contract.
It’s shitty enough having Gwyneth publicly deny her work on the book. I know that feeling. It’s happened to me.
I guess I can see where celebrities - especially ones who went to fancy Manhattan private schools - would perceive a stigma in needing a ghostwriter. In the case of one of my clients, I’ve since realized she had this idea that if she admitted she had help with anything, she would be seen as incompetent.
I should have seen it coming the first time I interviewed her. We were talking in the living room about whether her son needed to be on a special diet. She said she didn’t have the wherewithal to get him to change the way he ate. There was no way she’d be able to get him to eat gluten-free. “Tonight, I’m making spaghetti for the whole family,” she said. “I can’t imagine what he’d do if he couldn’t have any of it.”
We wrapped up interviewing at about 6 pm, and then walked into the kitchen - where there was a woman in an apron, making spaghetti. “Oh my god,” I thought, “my client thinks she’s making spaghetti by having a servant do it.”
I remembered that incident when friends alerted me about my client saying in interviews that her ghostwriter was fired after the first chapter was unsatisfactory, that she wrote the whole thing all by herself in five weeks. As if! (Yup. She had a ghostwriter, too. Not me, though.)
I cried when I heard that. And then I thought about all the babysitters and nannies that in the book she denied having. I figured they were all having a good cry, too.
A few people have emailed me in response to my post, “Congratulations On Surviving Your Very Interesting Life.” For the most part, the reaction has been, “WTF!” although one person reported feeling conflicted about the whole which-is-more-respectable-novel-writing-or-memoir-writing debate.
I think it’s a stupid debate, one of the stupidest ever. They’re just two different genres. You can be a novelist and call yourself a writer, and you can be a memoirist/essayist and call yourself a writer. They are both writing.
They require different skills, although not entirely. And they appeal to different readers. I personally prefer memoirs. If I’m going to read fiction, I’m more likely to enjoy it if it’s pretty damn close to the author’s life, and heart. With some exceptions, that’s just the only way I can buy it. I have friends who write entirely dreamt up novels that receive great acclaim, and I honestly just can’t be moved by them. I trudge through them to be a good friend.
On a certain level, I can understand why someone who went to all the trouble of getting an MFA in fiction writing and then a Ph.D. in literature and then spent six or seven years writing a sweeping novel would take issue with some neurotic like me – who dropped out of two MFA programs and likes to ponder the meaning of life through the lens of her own experience – calling herself the same thing he calls himself. I haven’t achieved what he has achieved. I admire what he has achieved, and I am not vaguely interested in competing with him. I didn’t start the conversation.
But “writer” is a broad term. I’ve written a lot of shit in my life just to make a living - articles on cardiology and farm raised salmon and vegan shoes and whatever, and I’ve written gossip, the work I’m least proud of.
But I’ve also written a few things I am proud of. And pretty much other than a job in the local health food store in high school and college and a few temp jobs, I’ve made my living solely from writing since before I graduated from college. That’s, like, 26 years. And I will not call myself anything but a writer, because that’s what I am. Not a novelist. The Celebrated Novelist can distinguish himself from me that way, if he chooses. It’s an accurate distinction.
Recently, I met a Celebrated Novelist. He asked me whether I write fiction, too, and I said, no, non-fiction was my thing - more specifically memoir and essays.
“Oh, then you must have had a very interesting life,” he said more smugly than I was able to acknowledge internally in the moment. I realize I’m defended against noticing when people slight me, or condescend to me. It’s too painful to accept, at least as it’s happening. If I were to do that, I might reveal my displeasure with the slight, and some pain. I have issues with revealing displeasure and pain. I’m working on it.
The Celebrated Novelist tried to probe a little to find out what I might be writing about, but I deflected as best I could.
“You see, I didn’t have a very interesting life, so I don’t write about it,” he went on. There was a subtext of “Novel writing is a far superior endeavor - and achievement – to memoir writing.” I hate that shit. And I read waaaaay more memoirs than novels.
“You know, it’s not so much about having an interesting life,” I said, “as having an interesting or relatable perspective on common experiences in life.”
“Hmm,” he said, pretending to consider that thought. I could tell he wasn’t really considering it.
When the Celebrated Novelist had enough of the conversation, he said, “Well, congratulations on surviving your very interesting life!”
I said “Thank you,” but I think I meant “Fuck you.” I wish I’d said that instead.