Writer’s Life: Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran

I’m pleased to introduce you to Meredith Maran, editor of the new collection, Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (And Others) in the Name of Literature.  I tore through this book, which (like the best memoirs) creates a personal connection between reader and writers. If you want to know more about some of your favorite writers (including Anne Lamott, Sue Monk Kidd, Kelly Corrigan…), get your hands on this gem. And now, get to know Meredith…

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer? 

The same energy that’s required when a kid is having a tantrum is required when my writer-mind is having a tantrum. Writing is a fine balance between experiencing your feelings and modulating and moderating them, so they can be turned into art. Raising kids is a similar process. You can have big emotions where your kids are concerned, but you can’t express them exactly as you feel them. You have to express them based on what’s good for your kids, not just good for your own need to vent.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

It’s very important to me where I write. As we speak, I’m outside in a garden. I built myself a writing studio and put up a hammock. I live in sunny, warm Los Angeles, and I’m outside most of the time while I’m writing. Its important to me that it’s peaceful and beautiful and also that I can’t see any chores that need doing while I’m writing.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Tell the truth. And hurt self and others as little as possible while doing it.

Who inspires you?

My first inspiration was the French memoirist Françoise Sagan. I read her memoir, Bonjour Tristesse, which means “Hello Sadness” when I was a young teenager. My parents had her book on their shelf. They told me not to read it so of course I did. It was inspiring to me because she was 17 or 18 when she wrote it, and it was so emotional and beautiful and I thought, that’s what I want to do.

What charity or community service are you passionate about? Why?

Whenever an issue comes up, you can find me demonstrating for peace, and equality. Day to day, bringing diverse voices into the book marketplace is my cause. I review a lot of books for a lot of different publications, and believe me, I don’t do it for the money. I’m in a position to be able to promote the work of writers of color, women, lesbians, gay men, overlooked writers and small presses, and doing that is my mitzvah, as we Jews say.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I just reviewed a memoir called The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky, a memoir of friendship and marriage. It’s stunning. I also reviewed the amazing novel Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I loved Jillian Lauren’s Everything You Ever Wanted and Claire Bidwell Smith’s The Rules of Inheritance. Thanks for asking!

Meredith Maran, a passionate reader and writer of memoirs, is the author of thirteen nonfiction books and the acclaimed 2012 novel, A Theory Of Small Earthquakes. Meredith also writes book reviews, essays, and features for newspapers and magazines including People, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and More. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith lives in a restored historic bungalow in Los Angeles, and on Twitter at @meredithmaran. Her next memoir, about starting over in Los Angeles, will be out from Blue Rider Press in 2017.

Why We Write About Ourselves on Amazon or IndieBound

MeredithMaran

Time traveling, to the present.

I know how to time travel. I do it all the time. Backwards: I see a spot on the sidewalk near my home and remember a morning more than a decade old, when I sat down, pregnant and exhausted, to wait out a three-year-old’s tantrum and cry my own tears. Forward: four more years until my firstborn goes to college.

Then what you want to do is close ranks.

You want to hold your growing children close, and you want to do more than freeze time, you want to push time backwards, squish them back to being almost 4 and 7, and not almost 11 and 14, and yourself not 46. 46! You want to hear only their giggles, not their fights. You want to hold the best moments, the photo of them jumping from bed to bed, the older son catching the younger, airborne and naked and laughing. You want to thread yourselves together, beads on a string — mother-father-son-son, the four of you only, connected and always.

And then you want to do the right thing. You want to say to the mother of the girl who is alone, I will take care of her, of course I will. She can join us, she can break our circle, let the beads fall off the string, rearrange them. And so you do, and you grieve for what you think you’ve lost. And you marvel at the new design, different, but not lesser. And you try to hold the present.

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he would gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes. Which he then did.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

IMG_0571

On Quitting, Committing, and Letting Go

Commitment. Responsibility. Perseverance. Quitting.

These are the words released from my pre-dawn dream into my first waking thoughts.

They are the words in the air this week, in the texts I’m receiving and sending other moms, in the hurried how-are-you’s in front of the Y before a half-baked workout.

Why are these words plaguing my subconscious? There are times when your child doesn’t want to keep doing what they’ve done. A team, a class, an instrument. And their simple plea to stop triggers a parental-tizzy in me because I don’t know what value to impart: Be tough and follow through, or be free and follow your desire. The older my children get, the more sand that fills the bottom of our 18-year timepiece, the more significance these value-laden moments carry.

We are in one of those times with our eldest. So I do what I always do: I scroll through my life to see if I can find a lesson somewhere, some way to connect to what he is feeling. I find one: my first week in college, a class I had registered for when I was still in high school, before I knew that no one in their right mind attends a seminar with 8 students (nowhere to hide) from 3 to 6pm on a Friday. I attended the first class thinking mostly of how much I didn’t want to be there, but telling myself that I was stuck with it because I wasn’t a quitter. Quitting was weak. Quitting was shameful. My heart sank further as the professor explained there would be 200 pages of reading each week. I wanted out so badly, but it didn’t fit my perception of who I wanted to be. And then, the miracle happened: he asked if anyone minded if he smoked during class. THIS was a reason I could justify! I walked out of class, not because I couldn’t work hard, I told myself, but because I refused to breathe second-hand smoke for three hours every week. Thank goodness, or I would have been miserable, missing a lot of what freshman year was about – the lead-in to the weekend (actually, that started Thursday). Was it the right decision? Who knows? It was a decision, and I don’t think it ruined me.

Sometimes there are good reasons for quitting. A bad relationship. An abusive boss. A profession that doesn’t fill your soul. I want my kids to be able to shift course if the signs point to better paths, to follow their gut.

And yet, I want them to stick with things when they get hard. I want them to honor commitments they make to themselves and other people, and to know how to buckle down. Life will get hard and they need to cultivate those inner resources to get to the other side.

What to do?

I ride my bike down to the bluffs, where I spent many teenage afternoons trying to make sense of things. I pass a young dad with long hair, walking with his 18-month-old daughter in his arms, the profound wordless companionship of a full-grown soul in a barely-grown body. They stop at a swing that someone hung from a giant eucalyptus. I used to be the one pushing my baby in that very swing.

It’s tempting to say that things were simpler back then. But that time is when my worrying-tendencies burst alive. When decisions about myself – take or drop the class—became decisions about my children. When every question – co-sleep or no, pacifier or no, pre-school or no—became a test of what kind of parent I was and what kind of human I would raise.

I turn my head from the father and daughter and look out toward the ocean. I gasp. It’s enormous. Even bigger today than yesterday, I swear it. And — hallelujah! — the power that transformed my teenage mountain-sized problems into grains of sand works again. It doesn’t give me the answer – commitment versus knowing when to say “I’m done” — but it does give me a transitory peace of knowing that everything will be fine, that what I decide won’t determine if my children become life-long quitters or masters of tenacity.

I decide that I will tell my budding adolescent all that I was thinking about, the yin and yang of yes or no, stay or go. I will give him my best advice, and I will trust him to figure it out.

There it is.

A quick scroll through my life-reel finds this legacy all over the place, the confidence born from being trusted to know the right path for me. I give thanks for that legacy to pass down, and for the familiar shiver of ocean-gazing-plus-writing-leads-to-an-answer alchemy that has sustained me since I was his age.

Resolution # 2: Find your heart’s calling, resist “prestige”

Yesterday morning I looked out on a winter’s day in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. My eyes absorbed the leaves, wet and drained of autumn pigment, clinging to skinny dark branches, refusing to fall. It was the kind of day that used to bring the lyrics of “California Dreamin’” to my lips when I was a freshman at Penn, far from my native habitat of Pacific Ocean sunsets. Yes, all the leaves are brown! Yes, the sky is gray! It’s all true! At eighteen years old, my future was unlimited. Every path was open.

Today, many significant reunions later, I’m “safe and warm in L.A.,” back to work, writing and lawyering and mom-ing.

And…checking e-mail, which sends me to Facebook, which leads me to a post by Maria PopovaHow to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love. Uh-oh.

It puts me in the same frame of mind as the couplet closing “The Summer Day” by poet Mary Oliver“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It taunts me. Such pressure! Am I living up to it?

As though he is in cahoots, my ten-year-old son (who has lamented that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up) asks me, “Mom, do you love your job?” I consider, and answer: “I love writing…I like being a lawyer.” I tell myself that’s pretty good.

Do you know what you are called to do, are you are doing it?

Do you feel that you are glimpsing it, standing at the edge of the cliff and sensing that what you seek is out there, if only you had the courage to leap?

Are you close enough, happy enough, and don’t need to rock the boat?

I am not a leaper; I am a baby stepper. I cringe my way into the ocean and have inched my way for years into the writer’s life, combining it with the lawyer’s (if it’s good enough for Scott Turow, etc…). But one particular wisdom in Popova’s article is for all of us, leapers and baby-steppers alike: Let go of the false prize of prestige.

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

….

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Prestige lurks and tempts: it is the esteemed career path, without the passion; the appointment to a high-falutin’ committee, without the interest. If the passion is not there, resist! Enlist the help of friends, if necessary. (I once asked my sister to shoot me if I applied to be a Law Review Editor. I knew I’d hate it, but I knew I was susceptible to its golden bauble, resume value.) I resisted on my own. No shots were fired.

What a way to enter the new year. Seek more of what moves you. Move closer to the joyful sound, the bracing splash, of your heart’s calling. Even if you have to inch your way toward it.

Dare to Dream, and Do

I turned on the computer with every good intention to go straight to my Word file and work on revising the book I mentioned yesterday.

Except, somehow, I ended up on Facebook.

It worked out, because a friend posted this.

Mary Oliver quote graphic

It reminded me of my post last week on perspective, and the words I attributed to Gloria Steinem, that she loves not knowing what comes next, because it might be wonderful.

And that’s what I wanted to say today. Yesterday, in the midst of my self-doubt-y mood that we all have from time to time, I carelessly referred to my book as being about “Recession and Moving and other good stuff.” That’s not quite right. That sounds so “ugh.” And I owe it to the book, and to you, to let you know that the book is very NOT ugh. It’s about choosing joy, taking risks, having fun, traveling with family, discovering new favorite places, rope swinging, and eating a hell of a lot of ice cream.

That’s what “other good stuff” means.

Writing the book has been so much fun because it lets me travel back to those places and feelings. Yesterday I was in the thick of an adrenaline rush from innertubing in the Delaware River in a rainstorm.

Delware River Tubing

Today I may be in New York’s Chinatown.

Chinatown

Tomorrow, who knows? It will probably involve ice cream.

Ben & Jerry's

I’m getting started right now. Today’s mantra? Close Facebook. Disconnect Firefox. Hunker down. Make this day one of dreaming and doing.

Dare to Kick Self-Doubt in the Shins

It’s early in the week for the self-doubt to start, but there it is. “This is garbage,” I sigh, caught in a second draft of a book about Recession, Moving, and other good times.

A novel, also unfinished, waits in a different file on my computer, taunting, “What am I, chopped liver? How many more years are you going to take to finish me?” Low blow, novel, low blow.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to shout down those voices, or as Kelly Corrigan says (so much better than I, darn you Kelly), to suspend your disbelief for as long as it takes to accomplish your dream, be it a start-up, a screenplay, or an Ironman.

A good mantra would be helpful here, but I’ll go with what comes to mind: “No time like the present.” And here we go. Back to dreaming.

For more “Confessions of Motherhood,” read Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, the best-selling collection of true stories. Read reviews.

Get Kindle here, or paperback at Amazon.com and select independent bookstores.

It Takes a Village, and Mine is Yummy

I’m noticing connections between parenting and writing this week. Both can be thankless pursuits. You do the work because you love it, or some days because you simply have to, but not because you expect rave reviews to come at the end.

Both can be solitary, like in those dark wee hours trying to comfort a painfully uncomfortable newborn, an all but faded memory to me now. And the solitude of writing is, for me, the antidote to the communal chaos of motherhood.

Both have intrinsic rewards, like hearing a perfect phrase in my head and simply transposing it to the page, or having my second-grader inexplicably wake up to a Mommy-phase, kisses included.  First Friday March 2013

Both take villages to make them work. Grandparents and sisters and friends offering fresh arms to rock a baby, or take them out to a movie; or those same grandparents, sisters and friends sharing the results of that solitary writing time.

Today I’m honored to have the latter kind of of support from the wonderful Jessica Heisen. Her food and photography blog, CopyCake Cook has some seriously tantalizing recipes and photos, and she’s sharing me as her featured artist of the month. Please check it out, and spend some time browsing her site. Whether you’re in the middle of a juicing frenzy (Christopher), freaking about what’s for dinner (me) or a richly chocolate mood (you know who you are), the gal does it all. I’m hoping to get some blogging tips from her, to take mine to the next level.

Yes, it takes a village. I give thanks for mine.