Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #4: Stephen Elliott

By

Even before a lending library copy of The Adderall Diaries arrived in my mailbox some time in the summer of 2009, I knew I’d be hooked. A colleague had recommended it, saying it was a gripping memoir that interwove threads of an edgy personal narrative and a murder trial. She was right. I plowed though the book in a day or two.

I found myself admiring so many aspects of Elliott’s writing. But what touched me most as a nervous wreck struggling with my own memoir was the simultaneously bold and compassionate way he handled writing about his father – kind of a brute, in both physical and emotional terms, who may or may not have once murdered a man.

There’s a scene toward the end of the book in which Elliott attempts to make peace with his father. Despite negligence and violence at his father’s hands during his teen years; despite his father letting him languish in group homes; despite decades of harsh verbal sparring between them; despite his father’s leaving negative reviews of his son’s books on Amazon and elsewhere, Elliott writes, “I realize that I love him and that my relationship with him is the most important one in my life.” Elliott meets with his father in Chicago and offers an olive branch, or more specifically, “a way for us to see that our memories are equally valid.”

“We all think we’re retaliating,” Elliott writes. “We all think our actions are justified by someone else’s actions. But actually we’re responsible for what we do.” While the conversation is less charged than many of their previous ones, his father is mostly unreceptive. “I’m always going to retaliate,” he promises his son before they part.

As a writer, I can only aspire to achieve, in equal measure, the kind of bravery with which Elliott writes about such painful relationships, and the even-handedness with which he treats the folks who get revealed in the process.

Elliott and I talked about all this one September day when he visited Albany, NY, where he was guest lecturing and giving a reading. As we sat down over coffee he said, “I guess I should talk at some point about how weird it is for me to be interviewed on the Rumpus.” But we never got to that.

***

The Rumpus: I want to start off talking about that passage in your book toward the end, where you go and you meet your father and you tell him that you realized that your relationship with him is the most important one in your life and that you love him. That scene makes me cry because I identify so much with it.

Stephen Elliott: In the process of writing my book I realized that I cared about my father, and I had to just take a stab at the happy ending. I just wanted to see him, and I was like, I am going to take some poison out of this relationship.

Rumpus: Unlike you, I am on regular speaking terms with my father, but it’s a difficult and kind of artificial relationship, and it keeps me from writing because if I write the truth – even if I’m not writing about him and it’s just about me – then I am revealing myself to not being who he thinks I am. I am realizing how much impact this relationship has on me. So I wanted to talk to you about how you realized that even though your relationship with your father is so difficult, you actually love him and that this is the most important relationship in your life.

Elliott: When I started writing the book, I did not feel that way. At that point, my father and I were not on speaking terms. We had not spoken in years and I was very angry at him and I was very upset with the things that he kept doing, like leaving bad reviews for my books on Amazon, and I just felt so constrained by this conflict that we had.  So it’s not like I started the book forgiving my father. It was probably through writing all those things and exploring them over that time period that I came to a better understanding of my relationship with him. And so to say it is the most important relationship of my life, well, it is fairly obvious, when you add it all up, what person have I spent the most time thinking about in my life? My father. What person in my life as impacted my decisions the most? Often not for the best, but the most, nonetheless.  My mother got sick when I was like eight years old and died when I was thirteen and she was so sick, she wasn’t really as impactful as she might have been. And my father is this abusive lover who gives and takes away affection and is completely unpredictable. So yes, of course, it is the most important relationship in my life. But also, how could I not love him? How could I not love someone who has been such a huge part of my life and had so much to do with who I am? And so I was engaged in twenty-five years of arguing with my father. Who else would I engage in twenty-five years of arguing with? And why would I engage with him, and respond, and listen – why would it matter…

Rumpus: If he didn’t matter to you?

Elliott: Right. I did not know when I started writing The Adderall Diaries that so much of it would be about my father and our intense dynamic, and I did not know the things I was going to find out and come to understand about our relationship. And that is a lot of what gives a narrative tension to the book – that I am exploring.  I am trying to figure things out, you know, so that is one of the things I figured out.  I did not start off knowing that, and so when you talk about writing about your father it’s like, you don’t know where you’re going. I talk about this all the time: you are not supposed to know where you are going when you start writing.

Rumpus: I totally don’t, because some of the better essays that I have published have wound up touching on him, but when I sat down to write them I didn’t think that he had anything to do with him.  Like this one where I thought I was just writing a story just about the book, The Rules, and how that way of treating people just doesn’t work. I had no idea when I sat down to write that at the heart of my feelings about that book was something about my relationship with my dad. Although, he gave me that book, so…

Elliott: You are so deeply conflicted over your relationship with your father. And I wonder sometimes, why is she so concerned about what her father thinks? You write and you try to be a good person and you make the effort, but there are still people who will not ever be pleased.  It is not like you can satisfy everybody, I mean if your father is a person who will not be happy no matter what you write. You just have to accept that at some point, you know?

Rumpus: On some level I think I do. It’s my intention to write about him compassionately. I feel like I have, but he’s been upset by things I’ve written about him, and so I feel like I owe it to him to be more careful. But I still do not think he will be flattered by anything I write about him.

Elliott: I think what you’re talking about is something really false, though.  Like there is a difference between trying to be compassionate to someone and actually feeling compassion for them.  Like you have to reconcile your feelings, you have get at a truth. If you are being artificially nice when you have conflict with your father, then you are not fully exploring it.  So if you go into that, if you really head into that storm, then you might figure out how you really feel, and then you might find real compassion in there – the kind of compassion that does not depend on approval.

Rumpus: Wow. That makes so much sense.

Elliott: You know, what you are looking for now is approval. You are like, “I’m going to write something that my father will not disapprove of,” but that does not have anything to do with how you feel. If you really explore how you feel, you might find real compassion, and it will not matter what he thinks of your writing.

Rumpus: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. I have had an inkling of that in the back of my mind. It’s this sense that if I were write more honestly and maybe risk disapproval – disownership, even – then I might come to a realer place with him. Maybe I would feel more like I had an honest relationship with him. And also, if I took those risks, it would make the writing more accessible and relatable.

Elliott: More vivid, more powerful. The reader can feel when you are lying, even if they are not really sure of what the lie is.  You might think you are telling the truth, but if you are being dishonest with yourself, you will pass on that dishonesty to the reader, and the reader will feel it. You know, you talk about owing your father compassion, but you do not believe that and neither do I.  It is not a ledger book with a balance.

Rumpus: I feel like there is some natural compassion for him.  I feel sorry for him. But also I think that there are things he does that I want to write about that come from a place of good intention but are just terribly misguided. There is something about the good intention that I want to come through. For example, my father handing me a copy of The Rules when I am thirty-five – this totally fucked up book about getting guys to like you by treating them like shit. But the intention was good. It was him saying, “I want you stop going out with fucked up guys; I want you to, be happy.” But as sweet as that intention seems to me as a writer, he is not going to be flattered by my portrayal of him as a sweet, misguided guy.

Elliott: There is no version of this that will make him happy. I think you just have to do the work of figuring out your own feelings. Right now it’s like you’re writing with one hand tied behind your back. And that’s the hand you write with.

Rumpus: You are so right. That’s a great analogy.

Elliott: Because you are writing and you are concerned with what your father is going to think about your writing, while you are writing it, and so you can’t.  You have got to go into the storm. The writing won’t get good unless it leads to, like, serious realizations about who you are and how you guys feels and about what the real genesis of your conflict is.

Rumpus: I probably can’t get there unless I –

Elliott: You have got to go toward it, but you cannot go toward it because you are writing and you are worried about what your father is going to think while you are writing it so you cannot make any progress and you can’t make those realizations that you need to make.

Rumpus: So many times I have thought, why can’t I just write something else? Like why can’t I just make some shit up?  I mean, there is other stuff in the word that interests me. I have observed relationships and I think that is interesting and I can make up a story about people who did this or that. But I feel as if I cannot change the channel. In The Adderall Diaries you write about feeling as if your sorrows and your experiences are just sitting there like a can of red paint and that you just have to use it. Do you still feel that way?

Elliott: I think there is like an urgency you are talking about. But what I am saying in The Adderall Diaries is like, you know, this is what I do. I write and I create art from my life.  It is not about right or wrong, it is just what I do. I think that is different from saying I have to do this. It’s almost like you are already making excuses – you’re saying, “You don’t understand. I have to do this.” Where with me, it’s more like, this is just what I do. If somebody gets hurt, it’s not like I want to hurt anybody, but this what I do, and if you are in my life, I will probably end up writing about you in some way. And you have every right to be offended by that, and I could apologize, later, but I know I am going to write about it. Why bother lying about that?

This is a little dangerous, but here goes. I had a relationship with someone that wasn’t moral. It was wrong. It involved a lot of lying and the first couple of times I felt guilty and then after a while I thought, If I really felt guilty, I would not be doing this. So it’s like, I was feeling bad about it to give myself the excuse I needed to do what I wanted.

Rumpus: So if you felt bad about it, that made it okay. Like, if you were suffering in some way, it justified doing it.

Elliott: Yeah, exactly. It’s okay because I feel bad about it. But I keep doing it. So it’s not like, “Okay I have to write it.” It’s, “This is what I do, and I have made peace with that.”  It’s morally ambiguous as far as I am concerned. There’s nothing noble about being a writer.  This is just what I do.  This how I have learned to get by in the world.  This is how I cope. This is how I process. This is how I understand things. This is how my memory functions. I do not know any other way, and it is too late now, and I do not really want to change it.

Rumpus: Yeah, one of the things I’ve heard you say a few times is that you acknowledge that you are in some ways betraying whomever you’re writing about. But you don’t not do it. I have been fascinated by that – that, on the one hand, you say, “I am going to do this,” and on the other, you say, “but I am going to acknowledge that what I am doing is kind of shitty.”

Elliott: Yeah. I try not to be shitty, though, you know? I mean, I try. I always hide identities unless I can’t.

Rumpus: Yeah, but sometimes you can’t hide people. Like you couldn’t hide who you dad was.

Elliott: Right. Those are the situations where you make the difficult decisions.  But either way, if I am going to write about someone, I try to write about them with kindness, and by that I mean I try to make very serious effort to understand their point of view.  To understand that if we are in a conflict, and I feel wronged by them, they probably feel wrong by me. You know, that you are not the victim. Realizing that nobody ever feels like they started it. Everybody thinks that they are reacting to something. I feel like I am reacting something, my father feels like he is reacting to something.  We all feel that way, and so try to understand those things and just get into the writing, where you just can’t fake it. Sometimes you just have to really go into it.  Here is this burning heat.  Here is this place where I just really dislike this person to the point where I can’t even write about them because the hatred is so strong, and just go into that.  Like, what is that about? And you have to be very skeptical of yourself.  You have to understand that the other person doesn’t think of himself as the monster. Nobody thinks of themselves as the monster.  So you try not think of them as monsters either. We are complicated. So you try and understand why another person might feel justified in what they are doing.

Also, understand that the quickest way to be wrong about somebody is to think you know their motives. If you think, “My dad did this for this reason or for that reason,” you are almost certainly wrong.  We don’t even know why we do things. Motives are impossible to really know.

Rumpus: Yeah, I get that, especially the idea that no one thinks they started it. I keep coming to that stalemate. My dad and I also come to the stalemate about whether it’s the past or the present we’re talking about. I remember you reading something about how your dad thinks that you are angry with him about the past, but you are really angry at him for –

Elliott: The present.

Rumpus: Yeah, the present. And I keep going around that one a million times with my father.  He’ll say, “You’re still not forgiving me for the divorce in 1976,” and I’ll say, “No, it’s about what you did last week, which happens to be same thing you did back then.” He doesn’t ever get it, and he thinks I do not understand him at all, either.

Elliott: But your problem is not him assigning motive to you – it’s you assigning motive to him.  It’s not him not understanding why you did something – it’s you not understand why he did something.  If you want to have a better grasp on the situation and write about this complicated thing, then like you have to put your effort toward understanding where where he is coming from.  Understanding that his truth is true to him. Like, he is not lying when he accuses you of being unforgiving.  Like that is how he feels, you know.  He is not making that up. So if you want to understand things, then it is not important that he understands why you are upset. It is actually much more important that you understand why he is upset, because that is where the information lies.  That is the information you do not currently have.  You’ve got the other information. The information you do not have – which is very hard to obtain in full – is: where is he coming from?  How could what he is saying be true and what I am saying also be true, and of course it is, because “true” is such a liquid thing.

Rumpus: There is a central story that I want to explore in my memoir.  My father and his sister do not speak. He disowned her in 1976, and my whole life, there have been two looming threats. One was that I was going to be disowned like his sister, and the other was that I would turn out like his sister, who is like 69 years old and impoverished and ill. She lives in alone a room in someone’s decrepit house.

Elliott: This is his sister?

Rumpus: Yeah.  She has been on and off welfare for many years. She was married once to an alcoholic who took all her money. She had a daughter with him who is a year younger than me – she’s 44 – and who ran away from home when she was fourteen to Alabama. From what I understand, she became a stripper and a sex worker, and had three kids with three different dads. And now she’s a grandmother. I’m pretty sure my aunt hasn’t met any of her grandkids because neither she nor her daughter can afford to travel. So, I have this idea that I want to go and bring my aunt to Alabama, reconnect with her and my cousin, find out what happened, why she’s always been sort of a mess – and if she even sees herself that way.

Elliott: So do that.

Rumpus: But I have always felt as if I am not allowed.  Because he disowned her, and disapproves of everything about her, I feel I am not allowed to know her.  And I am dying to go and spend time with her. I feel for her. It’s so sad to me – and scary – that she was cut off like that. And I want to see my cousin, who I haven’t seen since I was ten. And I want to help bring them together. And I know I will want to write about it. Ideally I would also love to talk to my father about it. But I know he will not want to, and I know that I run the risk in doing this of getting cut off and upsetting him. So I am terrified.

Elliott: I mean, why? It is like all of this is so obvious, you know what I mean? Like you have incredible fear of your father disowning you.  He is like forbidding you all this information. He wants to keep you in the dark and not let you find out some other truths, and you feel you are being kept from finding out who these people are, for fear of being cutoff and you do not even have any idea what you are going to find there.  You are forty-five years old and, like, you don’t get to talk to these people and find out about them? There’s like a movie here. Obviously you are going to find out everything from these people, but you are so terrified of your father. You just have to find out why you are so deeply terrified of your father disowning you. Because nothing of what you are saying makes that add up.  Nothing you have said explains the fear of him disowning you.  What happens when he disowns you? Does the earth come off its axis? If a person cannot have a relationship with you because of who you are, then you have to accept that.

Rumpus: Yeah, that’s my whole problem.

Elliott: Just like you cannot write a book that everybody likes, you cannot be a person that everybody likes. You cannot be an interesting person if you try to please everybody all the time.  This is something that Margaret Cho told me once, and she is all famous and it’s crass – it’s a crass way of thinking about life. She said, “If nobody is saying anything bad about you, you are not doing anything.”  And I know what she meant. You are forty-five and you are just this sweet person who does not want to make any waves, you know, and it is getting late. You do not get to go half-way.  No reader is interested in a book where the writer is trying to spare somebody’s feelings.

Rumpus: Right. Ouch.

Elliott: I mean, all those relationships you will be having with your aunt and your cousin and everybody else, you know, and things you could explore by yourself, you are too afraid to explore because you don’t want to make your father angry. Look at all these things that you are giving up. Even though you so clearly love him, you have to let go of trying to keep him from being angry. You have to do those things. And you have to let your father just be your father, and if he cannot deal, do not be the person making excuses. You do not have to respond to anything. You do not have to respond to everything, do not have to try talking your way out of it.  Just allow the person to be upset.

Rumpus: Let him have his feelings.

Elliott: Let them have their feelings, and go their own way, and let them come back around, or not. It’s like you’re being kept in this weird cage.  It’s just bizarre.

Rumpus: I feel like so much of my energy in life from childhood has been, you know, do I not embarrass my father.  Do not disgrace my father. For much of my life it kept me from being who I am.

Elliott: You have to find a way onto the high road.  Like, let him feel how he feels and live with it. You know, my father leaves bad reviews of my books on Amazon and I say, okay.  If that makes him happy, then that is fine.

Rumpus: But it doesn’t cripple you? It doesn’t give you writer’s block?  It doesn’t make you feel like –

Elliott: Not anymore.

Rumpus: But it did?

Elliott: It did.

Rumpus: What was it like before you got past it?

Elliott: When I was like twenty seven maybe, twenty eight, I just felt my father owed me a lot, you know.  He was a long way away from having paid his debt for the things he had done. I was actually wrong about that. I mean, how do you collect that debt? What does a son owe a father? What does a father owe a son? But I had all this resentment toward him. I remember one time he said to me, “You know a relationship can survive anything except contempt,” and I knew he was right, but I had a lot of contempt.

Rumpus: And did it come out in the writing?

Elliott: Yeah, I think you can see it in the writing, in this book I wrote about life in the group homes, A Life Without Consequences. The father always dies in my novels. And nobody shows up at the funeral. But I don’t actually think that was a problem.  I think what he really took offense to were the things I would say in interviews.  I would talk about group homes I grew up in, saying these are hard places and there is a lot of violence. I remember one time he said, “My neighbors think I am an abusive father because of the things they read about you,” and I thought, “Well, you were an abusive father.”  Like, the neighbors are right. So what do you want me to do about that?  But now I can see it from his side.

Rumpus: How did you get over that hump?

Elliott: Well, I went into the storm.  I wrote about it directly. What I had to write about was this crippling relationship, and this battle for my identity.  I had to really address what was happening. I had to write about that conflict specifically, write my way through it, try to understand it, and finally come to terms with the idea that my father and I can have different truths. It’s fine. I do not need his approval. I love him and I want him to be happy. But that does not mean I have to talk to him or respond to his messages.  It does not mean that I cannot write something that I want to write. He is seventy-three or seventy-four, seventy-five years old now. He is not going to change.  I do not need to change him, don’t need to convince him of anything. I just have to love him.  I just have to accept him and let him have his truth. And what you are focusing on– it sounds like you want to change your father. He is not going to change. And you have to love him and allow him to have his truth.

Rumpus: There is part of me that is also trying to get through to him and say, this is not so bad, what I am writing. I am not so bad.

Elliott: No. No. You have to stop. There is no getting through to him. The point of writing this is not getting through to your father. Your book is not a letter to him.  You cannot argue your side of the story, to me or to anybody else.  It is like you have to accept that there are multiple versions of reality and that people have different views on what happened. You have to let these contradictory truths exist and just love your father and live your life and let him do whatever he is going to do.  But do not let him impact your actions, or your image or your identity.

Rumpus: I feel like the book is going to be kind of meta – a lot about my finally giving myself permission to write the book.

Elliott: You know, you might have to write in circles. You might not be able to do it in a linear way because the glare might be too bright to go straight forward.

Rumpus: So, what is your relationship with your dad like now?

Elliott: I see my father when I am in Chicago.  He sends me emails from time to time. Occasionally we talk on the phone. If I am in Chicago I certainly stop by to say hello.

There was a moment, which I think happened because of the writing of The Adderall Diaries, where I just felt all that resentment toward him leave me. That was a moment where I realized that I do not want him to be unhappy. I want him to be happy. I hope for him to be happy. I do the things I do because they are what I do, but I do not do anything to actively make him unhappy. I do not get any pleasure from that, and yeah, you know, like, I love him.  I am not under any kind of like illusion that he was a good father, but really, who am I to judge?  It doesn’t matter. I feel like I am more concerned with, am I good a person.  Am I satisfied with the way I am living my life? This is more important to me than whether my father a good person.  That is not really relevant.  He’s just my father.  He is just who he is.  He is a difficult person and he is capable of giving what he is capable of giving and he is not capable of giving what he is not capable of giving.  We are never going to be that close. I will never have grown up with him, and not left home. There was so much distance between us for so long and at one point I did not speak to him for five years. You cannot undo that. You know this idea that it’s never too late? That’s bullshit. It’s always too late.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Order The Adderall Diaries from The Rumpus.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →