LUMINA’s Adrianna Robertson recently conducted an interview with Mira Ptacin. What follows are Adrianna’s thoughts on the interview, and the interview itself.
Mira Ptacin agreed to do an interview even though she was on the verge of two births: her first memoir, Poor Your Soul—and her first daughter, Simone. Not to mention, she was about to embark on a book tour, with newborn in tow. However, I think it helped that I was asking on behalf of LUMINA and Sarah Lawrence, a place held near and dear to her heart. She is an alum of the graduate writing program and we are a small, close community. Though only knowing one another through social media and email, I was struck by Mira’s warmth and inclination to consider me one of her family. And, I’ll admit I felt the same, perhaps partially due to Sarah Lawrence, but more so because we are women (and writers) and I tend to think that implies we are “in this together.” What follows is our email conversation, in which we covered everything from the challenges of writing female pain and getting it published, to how women are less like flowers and more like Carhartt pants.
Adrianna: Can you start by talking about how one writes about painful personal experience? I guess more specifically I am wondering how you would get into a mindset— or emotional or psychological space, for writing about this type of deep loss/pain?
Mira: The act of writing, for me, isn’t something I’d describe as a pleasant experience; it is without question something I must do. Sure, seeing my name in print is nice, nice reviews are nice. Having people tell me they like or are moved by my writing is nice. But the actual process of creating doesn’t always feel good to me, any more than running does, unless I’m utterly present and in the moment. Or perhaps masochism is my thing: I like to run. I live on an island in Maine in the winter. I commute by boat. I’m a writer, which means piercing rejections are kind of my jam. But when it comes to Poor Your Soul, getting in the mindset, or the emotional space of the content of the story, wasn’t difficult. I started writing this book—the main narrative—nearly as it was happening. The writing was the wake of the events, literally. The events of the main narrative happened in 2008 and I finished the main narrative in 2008; I was writing in the wake of the events about the events. I couldn’t write about anything else. Not only was I exporting my emotions and nearly cleaning them out, I didn’t dissect them or tidy them, they just came out raw and unfiltered. This also allows the reader to feel what it feels like to go through grief.
And actually, I’d hate to have written this memoir now, eight years later. Not only would my perspective have changed, but I’d hate to dip back into that painful time. I’m not sure if I could.
Adrianna: While we are on the subject, will you discuss what specific challenges you think women writing memoir face?
Mira: I think it’s assumed our memoirs are about soft things. That “feminine” is a delicate word; therefore our stories are delicate about delicate things. But women are not like flowers. Women are more like Carhartt pants. Every day and since always, we’ve woken up to be considered the inferior sex. Every day we face oppression, sexism, violence.
Also, I think memoirists are thought of having to have lived long or full or at least tragic lives to deserve to write their memoir. I hated it when people, in response to what I was writing about, would say things like, “How can you write a memoir? You’re only 28!” Or, “What do you even know?” As Mary Karr wrote: “Memoir done right is an art. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page…[rather] you’re reshaping the past’s meaning.”
And what you write about can be anything. It’s just up to the writer to dig deep and find the meaning.
Adrianna: I am so glad you made this point that “memoir done right is art”. I read in an interview you did recently with Joan Silverman (Portland Press Herald) that you didn’t want to write a memoir because you didn’t want to navel-gaze. I really appreciated that in relation to this, you made the point that there is craft involved in memoir-writing. Do you expect to have to field comments about how you (or female writers in general) are simply interested in writing about their feelings? And, if so, how will you answer to such comments?
Mira: I think feelings and communicated feelings are so vital to ones vitality! One would have to have the heart of a Nazi to live in this world without feelings. And even then, I am sure they’d still have emotions. So to explore ones feelings, then put them into words as genuinely as possible—without censorship or fear of being “weird”—I think this is what allows one to connect with so many readers. I think readers read my book to find companionship, not so much for entertainment. However, I wrote most of my book in scene, and laced in the thoughts I was having—unfiltered—as these scenes were playing out. I didn’t edit my feelings, my grief, my joy, my confusion, my sorrow. So my feelings were raw, not pretty . . . but they were real. To know oneself, to get to know oneself, is an act of extreme bravery and courage. Also, by sharing myself, I think I make others feel safe about doing the same, about being flawed, and then, fearless—human.
Adrianna: This touches upon something else I have been thinking lot about recently—why our culture is one that urges us (women, especially) to move on from their pain as quickly as possible. There seems to be no space for dealing with this pain—or to “dwell” in it as one must in order to confront it— that isn’t considered indulgent, gratuitous, or just plain depressing to the general public (as an aside, this angers me because it feels distinctly like just another attempt to suppress the validity of our narratives). However, you address this head on at the end of Poor Your Soul: “The question isn’t: When will I stop grieving? The question is: How do you keep on living? And I believe the answer is: You accept your sadness. You sink into it.” Was it one of your goals with this book to make a statement about the validity of “sinking into” your sadness/grief? Or to go a step farther, do you feel that you are a voice for other women—encouraging them to make space for their sadness and subsequently make space (in our culture) for their own personal narrative of pain?
Mira: YES. And YES. I think it’s incredibly valuable and important for us to not hide from grief, or to assume it will go away once we go through the DSM stages of grief. I didn’t follow that checklist, and I thought there was something wrong with me. It made me feel worse. But once I allowed myself to accept grief rather than run from it, I began to heal because I began to learn how to live with it. And one thing I think I can do with my grief is put it out there so others will feel comfortable doing the same, and feel like they’re supported and still part of the “family” that we are all a part of. Though, it isn’t easy to do and there is a delicate balance. You don’t want it to become your identity, but you also don’t want to keep it inside and let it pickle. This is where art can be a form of therapy. Plus, you don’t have to pay a therapist for it.
Adrianna: Yes, and it also seems to be about wanting others—those who are reading and critiquing to understand that it isn’t your identity. It’s a only a part of it and the artist part of you is what allows you to create something from it. I also read that you did get a lot of pushback from publishers because in the end, they saw this is as a book about abortion—and therefore, difficult to publish. What were your initial reactions to this? How did you deal with the obstacles to publication?
Mira: “We don’t know how to market a book about abortion.” “The death of the brother and the abortion didn’t tie together magically enough for me.” Those are the two that stuck with me. Rejections like that made me angry and sad. Back then, I felt that being published would make everything better, like I needed to be validated, like the pain and sadness had to be for something. Eventually, this energy became more of my crusade, because the more I fought for my book and shared my story, the more women started coming out of the woodwork, saying they’d lost a child, too, that they’d had an abortion. When I lost Lilly, I couldn’t find any books (other than books shelved in the self-help shelves) that offered friendship or companionship about the loss of a child, or abortion. So my crusade was to get this book published so that other women who needed a voice or companion would have one, and they wouldn’t feel isolated or shamed. This kept me pushing. I was rejected by all publishers. My agent put down the project. But I kept going. For years, I was sending the book out on my own. Eight years passed. Then one day, I got an email from Mark Doten at Soho Press asking me to call him. I thought he just wanted to let me down gently over the phone because I was so accustomed to rejection. But the opposite happened, and Soho published my story on January 12th, 2016. When the answer “no” doesn’t make any sense, you keep going until you get the answer that does make sense.
Adrianna: I love that—and the way it reflects the perseverance you exhibit in the book. For me, this is such a deeply moving book because it so accurately relays the contradictions of human experience, and in particular loss. And, you write with such honesty—I found myself all at once wincing, blinking back tears, and then laughing. How is that for an introduction into discussing craft (?), which is where I thought we would go now. I became particularly interested in the way you approached memory. My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 15. You are speaking in a different register and the intimacy is palpable. Here, you actually address your (deceased) brother, Jules. You discuss the inherent fallibility of memory. However, in keeping with human contradiction, you also say (to Jules) “My memories of you are a special kind of truth”. And then a bit later, you declare “Here’s a memory…” and what follows is so firmly rooted in the definitive. While writing, were you thinking more about presenting memory as fact or as simply one version of the truth?
Mira: I don’t think there is such thing as one single truth. There is a spectrum. And this is how I interpreted and remembered things. I was as genuine and pure as I possibly could be with my motives. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I wanted to tell a story of my life’s past events. Real life isn’t a story. Art helps you make it one. I do have a disclaimer at the beginning of my book that reads: This is a story of my truth. In some instances, I have changed names of individuals and places in order to maintain anonymity, and I have recreated events, locales, and conversations based on my memory of them. But in doing any altering, it was only to make this story even more true. The book is not a transcription of a security camera’s recordings. It’s a memoir. What is the actuality? It’s my version of the events. No one should fault me for my memory, my experience, or my interpretation.
Adrianna: I am also interested in the way time works in Poor Your Soul— the past and the present blend into each other. You switch back and forth with such ease and so seamlessly that it’s almost impossible to realize that one could exist without the other. Was this in an effort to suggest that it is indeed impossible to separate ourselves from our past? That our memories are woven into who we are? Also you “play” with time further when in various instances throughout the book, you reference the future in a scene that is now in the past. For example, “After the hospital, we will drive to my home, where Mom has organized our wedding reception dinner…My parents will be glowing; there will be lots of champagne and toasts…” Can you talk about your decisions concerning time and what you wanted the book to accomplish in regards to this?
Mira: I chose to write the majority of this in present tense to make it feel alive, and as if it were happening on the page in real time so the reader could be next to me and in it, almost like this were the show Quantum Leap (Do you remember that one?). I also wrote ahead of time, letting the reader know what will happen next without having to develop a whole new scene and set of rules and transition into it. I didn’t want to write in past tense because I didn’t want to seal it in a container. I think this would have killed the rawness of the story. It would have felt more fabricated and sentimental rather than real and unflinching.
Adrianna: I do remember Quantum Leap! And, I think you accomplished just this—the reader is with you and the events are fluid and alive, despite being in the past. To switch gears—and because I just want someone to tell me definitively how to do it—how do you balance writing and motherhood?
Mira: I prioritize harmony over productivity. Right now, I have a rocker in my office and my daughter is sleeping, so I can get work done. But once she’s up, I let go of my wants and tend to her, and I do so peacefully because I love her so damn much. She came with me on my book tour and she was only about 9 weeks old. But this wasn’t very difficult. She was small and strapped to my chest, plus, we got to focus more on each other than if I were home. I have two dogs, two kids, and a husband who works on the mainland. My family lives far away and I don’t have a whole lot of help here. So I do things in spurts. I’m a great multi-tasker. We are minimalists, in terms of material goods, because it makes it easier to live in this house—less to clean up, less to fuss about, fix, or be distracted by. Also, sleep is important to me, and my husband and I go to bed around 8:30 or 9 p.m. every night! When it’s time to write (I’m working on a new book project right now), part of y process is to just think about what I want to write and write in my head, then quickly put it all down once I have a second, which doesn’t happen often. Being a good mom comes first. Being a good writer is something I can work on with everything I do. Being a good person is everything all the time. Also, I’m really tenacious and determined and STUBBORN. This makes me quite disciplined. Before I had kids, I could spend hours and hours on a single paragraph. Now I can’t, but now, after working on my craft for years, I can just write quickly. It’s kind of like playing the piano: first, you practice your scales slowly and over and over and over again. Then, after years, you get to a point where you can just roll with it. You can play jazz, and you can improvise your scales. You sit down at the piano and tear it up. This is kind of where I am in my writing career, but I know it’s temporary because I want to keep learning, keep practicing, and continue to improve and grow as a writer. But now, with kids, I just have to accept how it is and just roll with things, and find a way to still write with those short bits of time that I have. And that can allow me to still make good art, just different art.
Adrianna: I love Maine for so many reasons and I’m jealous you get to live there. What do you love about Maine?
Mira: It’s a timeless place. It’s a sacred place. It’s not trendy. It’s friendly. It’s beautiful and it’s quiet. Nature wins here. In Maine, I don’t feel judged or pressured. I mean, our state motto is “The Way Life Should Be.” I live on a small island populated with approximately 600 people, all incredibly different from one another. We are a strong community that looks out for one another, and also believes in solitude and the woods. My kids go to the woods every day. They visit the ocean every day. My dogs run in the woods almost every day (one of our dogs has a GPS tracker on his collar, so if he takes off in the woods after a herd of deer, we can find him eventually.) In Maine, we live closer to and more in sync with nature and her ways. This is what I need to thrive.
Adrianna: You are incredibly inspiring to me as a writer, mother and woman. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Mira: You are more than just a writer. You’re a human and have responsibilities, but as a writer, consider it your duty to make the world a better place. Hold yourself accountable. Pitch it. Check your ego at the door. Be savvy. Have friends who aren’t just writers. Be patient. Be persistent. Work on your craft and continue to blossom. Read like a writer. Spend a lot of time at your local library. Say THANK YOU. Pay it forward. Befriend other writers, but not to get things from them. Keep your mind and body healthy. Study the industry but not to your own detriment and don’t stop being original. Don’t follow trends. Don’t be afraid to show the world who you really are. You don’t have to be loud to be someone. Be timeless. Be honest. Never give up unless you want to. And be kind.
Adrianna: Thanks, Mira—for your time and attention to my questions. I’m so looking forward to your next book and I hope to chat with you again.