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Fresh Air Fail: What Happens When Personal Writing Draws a Spotlight

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Last summer I wrote and The Rumpus subsequently published a piece called “Knocked Over: On Biology, Magical Thinking, and Choice,” an essay on my then-recent experience of first finding myself accidentally pregnant and then miscarrying at seven weeks. I’m not a personal essayist by temperament or track record, and writing something so intimate and raw was unusual. But in an election season that saw women’s bodies—and the babies that can come from them—recklessly smashed around as part of some misogynistic game of political handball, it felt urgent.

Apparently I was not alone. The essay struck a nerve with readers, and for a few days in early September, it seemed to go viral, taking over my friends’ Facebook feeds and eventually winding up on MetaFilter. I was stunned, and overwhelmed by the feedback I received. Women (and some excellent men) wrote to me publicly and privately to say thank you, and to share their own hard experiences with reproductive choice. I got lovely notes from writers I admired. I was asked to contribute the piece to an anthology of writing on women’s rights. And I was invited to be a guest on Fresh Air.

Now, when you’re a writer—or any sort of creative artist—and you are struggling to find your audience, to be seen and heard through the static, to make even some bitty mark on the world, you do not say no when Terry Gross comes calling. Fresh Air, with a daily audience of 4.5 million public radio listeners, is the platinum ring of publicity—the platform to end all platforms, at least in the NPR-friendly corner of the culture.

So, despite some reservations, I said yes. I went down to WBEZ (Chicago’s public radio station) and sat in a studio with a local producer and a set of headphones and talked for just under an hour with Terry Gross, in her studio in Philadelphia, about what it was like to accidentally get pregnant, to freak out, to try and figure out what to do, and then to have a miscarriage.

It was a disaster. I was nervous, inarticulate, and defensive. I realized, around minute five, that there was a vast chasm between writing about something so very personal and talking about it with someone who I did not know and was, no matter how gentle, totally intimidating. After the fact I likened it to a really awkward, inappropriately intimate job interview. I did not sleep all night and when, the next day, the producer e-mailed to say that, yeah, that didn’t go so well and we’re not going to be able to use it, I felt nothing but a pure wash of relief.

That was months ago, but it got me thinking about the challenges of personal writing, something I’ve, for the most part, shied away from as a writer but that I’m lately finding resonant as a reader. Why can personal writing be so gratifying, and yet also so terribly scary—or destructive? What’s the peculiar challenge for women in writing about painful/shameful subjects such as sex and power? How does the expectation that a writer should be brand-building, across platforms, 24/7, affect the separation of a work of art from its marketing? How much information is too much information? Can it ever be more powerful—or at least self-protective—to hold something back?

When I was writing “Knocked Over,” I turned for advice to my good friend Zoe Zolbrod. (I turned to her for advice when I was pregnant, too.) Author of the great novel Currency, Zoe is now working on a memoir about childhood sexual abuse and has a lot more experience than me at turning complicated personal experience into something fit for public consumption. I realized, after the Fresh Air fail, that I was far more articulate when sorting through all this stuff with Zoe than on my own—or with Terry Gross. So I asked her to join me here.

***

Martha Bayne: Hey, Zoe! I guess I should start by saying thank you, for your help getting “Knocked Over” published, and for all your editorial suggestions along the way. I remember in August, when I was writing the piece, you kept pushing me to go deeper, to reveal more about my “emotional journey.” And I didn’t want to, for a variety of reasons. I’m okay with what I held back from the essay, but clearly this initial resistance returned, with a vengeance, during the interview, as Terry Gross seemed far more interested in discussing my emotional journey than, say, Todd Akin, or the disastrous state of maternity coverage for individual health insurance holders, and I was not prepared. In retrospect I wonder if I was doing myself a disservice by not going farther down that road in the first place. Thoughts?

Zoe Zolbrod: I remember before the interview, to the extent that you were prepping, you were prepping statistics on reproductive health, not prepping how to turn your emotional journey into nuggets of radio-friendly story. I guess in part that was your journalist self kicking into gear, but it also seemed a way to make the story not about you anymore. Before the interview, you also mentioned worries about becoming a spokesperson for casual sex—you were concerned that a platform as large as Fresh Air might bring you to the attention of Fox News or other right-wing pundits who would shame you and hold you up as a symbol, à la Sandra Fluke. So to some extent, you were taking a defensive posture even before you sat down at the mic to be asked about how it felt to get pregnant when you were single and forty-four—you were anticipating the ways you could be viewed for talking frankly about sex.

We’ve talked some about the line between being brave—or taking action in the face of risk, which so many of the essay’s readers complimented you for—and being fearless, conducting yourself as if there were no consequences, which was the adjective you felt was more apt. Would you say that you were no longer feeling fearless when you talked to Terry Gross? And if so, what prompted the change?

Bayne: That’s probably true. I don’t think fearlessness means acting without regard to consequences, but more just forging ahead in the face of unknown consequences. (Whereas bravery is like running into a burning building. You know what you’re getting into.) I did not feel fearless sitting in that studio; I felt strangled by every word coming out of my mouth, wondering how each one would be judged.

This may have been because I was worried (however improbably) about somehow landing on Rush Limbaugh’s radar, but also at that point I was already revising my own inner monologue. The interview happened a month after the essay was posted, which was itself only six weeks or so after the events that prompted it. One of the things that people responded to so strongly about the essay was its emotional immediacy. But I wasn’t there anymore; my “emotional journey” had continued to carry me on down the road, to a place where I was still trying to get the lay of the land. I was feeling a different kind of sadness, and tasting a whole new flavor of anger.

Zolbrod: Once you put a story in writing, especially when it’s actually read as widely as your essay was, it fixes something that is still unfolding. You end up having to impersonate yourself.

Bayne: Right. So here I am, trying to channel the voice of this person from late August, in October, and feeling like a fraud. Of course, that trapped-in-amber quality is true of any piece of writing—it exists out of time, but is at the same time a product of a particular moment, and authors have to figure out how to live with the disconnect. Just ask anyone (like you!) who’s gone out to promote a book written years ago. But it’s really jarring when the subject matter is all this very intimate, mucky, still-evolving stuff. I’m interested in how you’ve dealt with this, in that unlike me, your memoir is about—in large part—events that happened a long time ago, not last month. Do you think having the benefit of time makes the story you’re telling more fixed?

Zolbrod: Not really, because that’s not how I’m approaching the material. I’m definitely not looking back in tranquility at traumas of my childhood. My book, as it exists right now, consists of roughly three through lines. One from my early childhood, which included sexual abuse; one from my adolescence onward, as I cast the story of what happened to me in different ways as I figure out my identity; and one that’s very current, where I’m writing, often from the point of view of a parent, about things that happened last month as well as how the past appears now, when more recent events have me interrogating my interpretations. In a way, I’m dealing on the page with what you dealt with in Terry Gross’s hot seat—including facing feelings of anger and of being a fraud. But of course, the big difference is that as a writer rather than an interviewee, I’m more in control of this process, however raw the subject matter.

You’ve mentioned that there’s a Journalism 101 trope that says something like “no good story ever started with the word ‘I.’” The analogous idea when it comes to memoir seems to be that you shouldn’t publish writing done as therapy or you shouldn’t be writing about events you’ve not completely processed. When it comes to my own project, I seem to be rejecting those ideas to some degree. Still, they get at the tension that can exist between what’s good for the work and what’s good for the author.

Bayne: That’s a good point. I have a knee-jerk aversion to calling “Knocked Over” therapy, but as everything was happening I was definitely taking notes as a way of both documenting this confusing experience—both the external events and my own emotional response—and of trying to make sense of it. So, perhaps the process may have been therapeutic? But I’d hope the form and context that this raw material eventually took on lifted it into a more universal place. I mean, I did not publish my journal, god forbid. I do wonder, though, what would have happened if I’d waited a bit longer to turn those journal entries into an essay. Even a month later it might have been a very different piece. Whether it would have been better or worse, we’ll never know.

Zolbrod: That sort of gets back to your question about whether you did yourself a disservice in terms of what you held back in “Knocked Over.” I think insofar as we’re talking about the work, the answer is clear. “Knocked Over” turned out beautifully, and it had enormous resonance for people—I mean, I had multiple people who had read your essay coming up to me because of my association with you, telling me their stories of reproductive messiness that they were now inspired, and perhaps for a long time had been desperate, to tell.  The balance in what you pulled off in the end seems just right.

But perhaps your question about whether you did yourself a disservice has more to do with you personally, as you continue to work through the effects of that watershed couple months. It’s interesting that after the awkward interview with Terry Gross, when you felt like, to some extent, your privacy was being invaded, your question is whether you should have held less back originally. I would think your experience might have led you to wonder why you had put so much out there in the first place—although in all our conversations, I’ve never heard you second-guess your decision to publish the essay. So when you ask if you were doing yourself a disservice in not going deeper into your own psychology or into the full complexity of the situation, are you really asking more generally about personal writing in general? What would have a satisfying conversation with Terry Gross looked like to you—what would it have covered?

Bayne: Well, one key thing that I forgot is that to a large degree, these interviews function as a stand-in for the story itself. So you’re being asked to re-tell the story you already told on paper, for those who don’t know it, rather than have a conversation that builds on the existing information. I remember subconsciously chafing against this at the time, thinking, Why is she asking me these dumb questions? But I blame myself completely for that part.

I also think, at that moment, I was more interested in the response to the essay and what it said about the cultural/political moment we were in, which was just wound up to this crazy-making point in terms of reproductive rights and women’s sexuality as the election season got more and more heated. The piece was very personal, but at the conclusion it jumps from the personal to the public sphere and that’s what I was more interested in, at least in terms of a topic for public discussion.

It’s funny—I went back and asked my old editor about that trope about not starting with “I,” and she interprets it more as just open-778_640a push to get writers to try harder to find a good lede. I just thoroughly internalized it as a proscription against personal writing during the years I was working at a newspaper. But even before that, thinking back to Maxine [the zine Zolbrod and Bayne co-published in the late '90s], you were the one mining personal experience and relationships; I was writing book reviews or, like, pseudointellectual think pieces. I don’t know if I’m repressed or just an unusually private person, but I’ve just never been super comfortable talking about sex or other culturally taboo subjects in a public forum. So “Knocked Over” is an outlier.

But nowadays, when writers are supposed to be putting it all out there, building a platform and owning their own “brand,” blah blah blah, I guess I’ve had to reassess my boundaries. We’re all, to some degree, crafting these public personas, through blogs and social media. As writers we’re told we need to be selling ourselves constantly—but how to do that without compromising your privacy or making yourself unpleasantly vulnerable is a challenge.

This is maybe a generational thing? I look at younger writers raised on the Internet and I’m sometimes left speechless by their oversharing. In principle I really, really want to support their right to own their own experiences, in all their often-messy, evolving, incompletely processed glory. I do believe that can be empowering, and I do believe that the collective power of shared individual stories is both personally liberating and a really amazing tool for social change. But I fear for them! I think that there can also be great power in holding information close, especially for women, because intimate writing can expose them to all sorts of personal and professional dangers.

Zolbrod: It’s hard for me to hear you (or anyone; it’s a concern often voiced) say you fear for women writing freely and not get my hackles up, not react as if girls are being told to stay home rather than go out alone because there might be somebody waiting to rape them, especially if they’re wearing that sexy outfit. I mean, if there’s an editor out there encouraging a female writer to pen something about her boobs or her three-way, and ignoring her queries about community banking initiatives, the empowering choice is probably to refuse to go down that road. If one is not compelled to write personal narratives, one shouldn’t feel forced to by the trends of the day or by expectations of gender. But in my world—admittedly one far away from editors at moneymaking trade houses or click-hungry web sites—those situations are pretty hypothetical. I’ve never gotten the impression that the first-person nonfiction writers that I’m interested in—Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Kate Zambreno, and Stephen Elliot come to mind immediately— are writing because of feeling external pressure to do so. I’ve got to believe that the best writing in any genre results from the writer’s deep relationship to the material, not from a market pressure.

But I do agree that there are professional dangers in self-exposure. Look at Melissa Petro, who lost her job as a teacher after her writing exposed her as a former sex worker. And on Kate Zambreno’s brilliant blog, she’s mentioned worries that her online presence might be making her less hirable. So few of us make any kind of living off creative writing—even writing that can be labeled “salacious”; I have a hunch that that’s a myth—we have to be conscious about the ways in which what we publish can jeopardize our ability to earn money elsewhere. That’s a real consideration.

And then there’s the lack of respect for writing deemed confessional. For a while, when people asked me what I was working on, it was difficult for me to say, “A memoir about the times I told about my childhood sexual assault.” There were various reasons for this, but one of them was that I could imagine the eye rolls, the of-course-you-are’s. My own commitment to what I was doing had to become bigger than my internalized fears of what others would think. That’s feeling empowering to me right now, but again, I’m sitting at the control panel. I don’t know how it might feel to have the book actually published and out in the world. Can you talk more about the power there could be for you in holding personal information close, in not letting it go?

Bayne: I think on the mundane-but-critical level of actually making a living, if your professional identity is not built on revelatory personal writing it is entirely possible that personal information can, if not damage your career, run it a bit off-track. I mean, my situation is pretty low stakes, but, as you know, I’ve spent a lot of the last five years on a project that sits far outside the indie lit world of The Rumpus. But it’s something I’ve worked very hard on, and I’ve got this whole sideline now as an authority on soup and food and community building. I joked on Twitter last fall that I didn’t want to become the expert on soup and miscarriages, that it was going to confuse my brand. But I was sort of serious. And, more recently, an acquaintance and writer who I respect a lot advised me not to write about how I fucked up my probably one chance ever to get on Fresh Air. That holding one’s own failure up to the light is a bad idea, because for women it’s so easy for some acknowledged weakness to be turned against us professionally. She did not think this would help me down the road.

So that’s the practical concern. But, also, in the essay I talked a bit about unreliable narrators and unresolved conflict, and in that vein I have this weird, intellectual interest in the idea of the untold story. If it’s untold, is it still a story? I don’t really have the theoretical framework to talk well about this, but I find myself having this urge to defend not-telling.

Maybe I’m just contrary, because of course a story not told doesn’t get to live in the world as a story, but maybe, in the world of nonfiction at least, there are other factors that trump the demands of narrative, or of empowerment. I was at an AWP panel on women and the literary marketplace, and one of the panelists—the cofounder of VIDA—referenced this Audre Lorde quote: “Your silence will not protect you.” And everyone nodded and clapped and I did, too, but I also thought, But, wait, sometimes it does—whether it protects you from judgment or from something more heinous. We’re so quick to hail writers who dig into complicated, intimate material as “brave” or “fearless,” but that doesn’t mean those who choose not to go there, for whatever reason, are cowardly, or fearful.

Zolbrod: Well, I agree, but I don’t think that’s a danger. As a culture we don’t punish or chastise the person who didn’t rush into the burning building because she realized she might die if she did. When we call one writer brave, we’re not calling another writer fearful. There are many other accolades that can be bestowed upon writing—brilliant, imaginative, authoritative. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Amazon reviews aren’t filled with proclamations of her cowardice.

But there are a unique set of risks that come along with personal writing, as we’ve both acknowledged here. When I say I feel a pressure not to write about sexual material, I’m talking about my desire to avoid the harsh personal judgments that so often accompany such disclosures and my worry that I’ll make myself unacceptable to the mainstream, most importantly to the corporate educational publishers that I earn a living from. I’m also worried about lawsuits and about hurting people and damaging my relationships, and in particular the effect a book like this could have on my kids, how they’ll feel about it. But I feel an internal pressure to be the author of my own experience, to frame it. I feel a pressure or a compulsion to write what I’m writing. And I guess that pressure is what gives me the hubris to think the book might be good, or that it’s important that I do this work. It’s that pressure that makes me write despite my fear of the consequences.

But perhaps the fight not to submit to my inner pressure would be the more noble one—which might be what you’re saying. If not the word “brave,” certainly the word “stoic” or ”kind” could be applied to the decision to stay quiet to protect one’s family. I think it gets back to taking the measure of our own selves. The reckoning has to happen within us. We have to know why we’re writing what we are, why we’re including certain material and leaving some out.

And even before that, it just comes down to impulse. You’re right that you and I have leaned towards different writing genres since forever. The way I make sense of things is through narrative that’s often personal, and the way you make sense of things is through research and exposition. Neither is objectively better or worse, right? We’re both trying to get at meaning, or knowledge, or some kind of truth.

Bayne: To pull up something from the memory-hole, I remember when I first started working at an alt weekly, I was very green and badly wanted to prove myself, and there was a story about crazy local politics that I wanted to write. And I researched and I interviewed people and I wrote and rewrote this ten thousand-word feature and, looking back on it now, it was just a godawful mess. I had no idea what I was doing, and no idea how to make it better and, for reasons that I now know had very little to do with me, I couldn’t get any help from the editor assigned to it. He just wrote me off. And I never tried to do anything like that again. I went off into arts and culture coverage, and food, and essays, and all that, and that all worked out okay in the end but…I may I still have a little chip on my shoulder, a feeling that writing about politics or “issues” is more legitimate, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Also, outside the thoughtful, well-curated world of The Rumpus and other outlets like this, there’s so much bad personal writing out there! I’m thinking of that Elizabeth Wurtzel piece in New York Magazine in January. It was such a case study in how not to write an essay—rambling, alternately self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. But here it is in this major NYC weekly; that’s what defines personal writing for the mainstream. Poor Elizabeth Gilbert—I found myself doing this the other day: someone was knocking Eat, Pray, Love, and I was all, “But she was a real journalist before she did that!” And then I hated myself for making the distinction. She’s just a writer—and a very good one, actually. So I am part of the problem.

I feel like I’ve gotten very far afield—and that, like during the Fresh Air interview, I’ve wandered onto some muddy ground and I’ve found myself trying to defend a position I’m not one hundred percent committed to, and revealing some uncomfortable things about myself in the process. Hmm.

Zolbrod: Well, we’re ending up talking about genre, but I think the impetus for this conversation was at least as much about where publicity and the writing itself falls on the fuzzy Venn diagram. I mean, whatever your general disinclination towards memoir, you did write this particular personal essay and you had no regrets about it, and you felt like you couldn’t say no when Terry Gross called, but in the end you didn’t want to answer questions about the emotions and events surrounding your unplanned pregnancy when asked in front of millions of people at the moment you were scheduled to do so. There’s a big difference between those two things, as you noted.

You have a friend who does media training who told you—too late!—that you should have called her for some tips before you had your interview. Perhaps the crux of this conversation is just that media training is a thing to be availed of. Honesty and urgency might be hallmarks of powerful writing, but when dealing with the media, when you’re not the one in charge of the presentation, polished and predicable might go much farther, a hot versus cool thing.

If Terry Gross called you again, what would you say? What would you do differently? Do you listen to the conversations she has with other guests—especially authors—with a different ear now?

Bayne: Definitely. I think that media coaching, or at least some better effort to structure and polish my own responses, would have been a great help. I mean, powerfully honest and urgent writing is rarely a first draft; it is revised and edited and honed and thus made paradoxically more raw and honest. The idea that a conversation audible to 4.5 million listeners is somehow off-the-cuff is a fiction; it’s a performance, and I should have treated it as such. (In my defense, I was perhaps overconfident, as I was used to being interviewed at that point. But only on the subject of soup, not my sex life.)

To pull up another AWP anecdote, a woman at a different panel, on memoir that engages with political issues, mentioned her discomfort with being urged by her publisher to become more of an activist/spokesperson on the issues that informed her book, which was about her son’s suicide after coming home from Iraq. And my heart sort of broke for her. Because, here you are and you’ve created this work of very personal art that (hopefully) speaks eloquently to the topic at hand—in her case, gun control and the lack of mental health care for Iraq War contractors. But these days you can’t leave it at that. You have to go out and do interviews and publicity. So the trick, which I assume media coaching could help with, is to learn how to say, “I think the work speaks for itself,” in a way that’s not defensive or rude or shuts down the conversation.  There’s no shame in that, and in that sense I think holding back can be more powerful than going out and inarticulately defending it in the public sphere.


Martha Bayne is a writer and editor based in Chicago. In addition to serving as co-editor of the Sunday Rumpus, she is a senior editor with Belt Magazine, a company member with Theater Oobleck, and author of Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time (Agate, 2011), a narrative cookbook drawn from the long-running community meal project she organizes at Chicago's Hideout bar. Her features and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago, Bookforum, the Baffler, Belt, the Rumpus, and the Chicago Reader. For more go here and here; find her on Twitter @marthabayne. More from this author →