My Unsentimental Education follows writer Debra Monroe’s life from the small town of Spooner, Wisconsin, through bad marriages and bad boyfriends; through her improbable experience with higher education; and through a handful of states and universities. She’s now a 57-year-old happily married faculty member at Texas State University’s MFA program, about to see her daughter off to college. Her “novelish memoir,” as one reviewer described it, explores feminist thought and the complications of social class displacement. It’s funny. It provides insight into the individual’s shifting place in the midst of change. And it makes you squirm with that mix of empathy and vicarious identification that only a memoir can deliver. The book was released on October 1st, and an excerpt has been featured at Longreads.
Monroe has published a pair of essays connected to themes in her memoir. At Salon, she describes her decades-long habit of dating down due to the uncertainty of her social position as a woman with professional aspirations. “I didn’t get it,” she wrote, “that a few years of feminism wouldn’t undo centuries of convention about mating and dating, including the idea that men can date or marry women with less status, but when a woman does it’s a scandal, a secret.” In Kirkus Reviews, she laments the “recovery memoir’s dominance” of the genre. These two themes provided our main topics of discussion in this interview.
Monroe’s first book, a short story collection entitled Source of Trouble, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 1990. My Unsentimental Education is her sixth book and second memoir. Our conversation took place in Monroe’s home in Austin, Texas.
The Rumpus: I want to start with this wonderful essay you wrote for Kirkus Reviews. In it, you talk about a narrowing of the genre of memoir into accounts of overcoming trauma. You explored the consequences of this shift, but I wanted to ask you about the causes. Do you think it’s the need for everything to be bite-sized now, with so many essays appearing online first and needing to be quickly digestible?
Debra Monroe: The online articles always have lurid subtitles, too. I’ve had to fight against my short essays being framed as, “I was so naïve or mistaken, and I’m still getting over it.” I’m amused by my past, not stricken. And you make such a good point about the Internet. Historians will look back on this era and how the Internet changed what we value, what we consider art, the way we think, the way we define what it means to be human. In Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling describes the changes that occurred between about 1850 and 1920, due to the Industrial Revolution and the resulting migration of people from small communities to relative anonymity in cities. Because of that paradigm shift, ideas about what it means to be an individual underwent a transformation that leeched into all areas. Art, psychology, history, plot shapes, marriage, gender. The Internet makes for a similar paradigm shift. So to answer your question, has the Internet shortened what people want to read and made us more interested in clickbait headlines? Yes. Because what is the Internet except a stream of short bits of text vying for our most prurient curiosity as well as our more measured and intelligent curiosity?
Rumpus: It’s also a matter of space, right? It seems like we’re unwilling to grant the kind of space that it takes to dive deep into a subject. In your essay, you mentioned Stop-Time and The Boys of My Youth as exemplary books, and they’re both books that, like yours, explore themes more complicated than “trauma happened.” It seems like we don’t want to give that kind of space to someone who is A) not already famous or B) doesn’t have some kind of flashy hook to draw you in.
Monroe: I agree. My former agent died quite suddenly when I was starting this book, and I was interviewing new agents, and I talked with one about The Boys of My Youth as seminal, the best of the best. She said she loved The Boys of My Youth, but couldn’t sell it in today’s market. Can you imagine? That is on every list of great creative nonfiction books. One of my rejection letters for this book said, “We’re not buying nonfiction books we can’t summarize in a phrase on the cover.” Yet one new trend I do like coming from mainstream publishers right now is memoirs tied to research that explores the narrator’s dilemma. A good example is David McLean’s The Answer to the Riddle Is Me. He took a malaria drug before he went on international travels and had full-scale amnesia. He had to put together a self based on what people told him about who he’d once been. His book is about that experience, but it’s also about what memory is, what a self is, how the brain works. It’s a great book on the emotional level, a human story.
Rumpus: It reminds me a lot of the storytelling we’re kind of drawn to through NPR and podcasts, stories told about big systems as we zoom in on one person.
Monroe: Yes. For me that’s the future for creative nonfiction, whether we mean essays or memoirs. Memoirs are going to be problematic sells for a while, though, because even if memoir means “based in memory,” right now, in the collective mind, memoir means “recovery.” I always knew this book was going to be a hard sell in New York because it’s literary, without a flashy concept, and most literary editors feel that memoirs have had their day—because we had so many all at once, most of them recovery memoirs. And the book was a hard sell because it can’t be summarized in a phrase in the way The Boys of My Youth or Stop-Time can’t be. When my agent and I started looking at small presses, I realized most small presses were not publishing memoir, because they don’t want to be associated with the genre that Mary Karr calls, half-facetiously, “literature’s trashy cousin.”
Rumpus: What, small literary presses aren’t interested in “exposé tell-all”?
Monroe: There was one small press that does memoirs. We submitted there and were told, “I published two really hard-hitting memoirs recently, and even they didn’t do well, so I don’t see how I can publish a book about a woman’s education.” I thought to myself, well, “hard-hitting” is not that interesting to me, not at all, and this isn’t a book about a woman’s education anyway. It’s about social class and gender. It speaks to anyone who’s changed social classes, or to any woman who has made that other leap of faith it takes to believe that women are entirely welcome in professions—in my case, not just academia but in writing—that, for centuries, belonged to men. Any of us who have left the social class we were born into know we can’t go home again, and we don’t fit in our new world either. It’s a lonely, estranging experience. And many women my age assumed, as I did, as an adolescent who saw Gloria Steinem on TV, that now we have our manifesto, and we’re on our way, no blowback. We had no idea it would be so complicated.
Rumpus: I guess it worked out with your career, but also in terms of publishing this book, which ended up as the first title in the Crux Literary Nonfiction Series at UGA Press.
Monroe: Yes. I feel fortunate. I admire the series editor John Griswold, who bought an essay from me before. I love his intelligence. I love his editing. And the University of Georgia Press is one of the most literature-oriented university presses in the country. I feel lucky as I think now, six books later, that I’ve written only what I’m interested in, not always what an editor or agent hoped I’d write.
Rumpus: You might not think about the market, but your title almost feels like a jab at the market. When was your title added?
Monroe: The title is a riff on Flaubert. My book was clearly going to encompass both my literal education and what Flaubert called a “sentimental” education—love, sex. And “unsentimental” is a word that comes up as positive descriptor in reviews for every book I’ve written, not airbrushed or smarmy but wry, ironic. The title was one the first things I thought of when this book seemed to beg to be written. I’d gotten a lot of good press with the last memoir, and wondered what I’d write next. In interviews for that book, two weirdly off-topic questions kept coming up. “Did you really stay single for thirty years?” People also wanted to know—since my previous memoir briefly touched on my childhood—how I got from my childhood to here. Those two questions had been rolling around in my head, and one day I realized the answer to both questions was one long answer, which became this book. I dated for over thirty years because I changed social classes so quickly, and my sense of who I was changed quickly, and therefore so did my sense of who I should be with. The title came early. So did the last two chapters. Then I had to track how my current life came to be, because the road from “there” to “here” was unlikely. That’s when I realized I was writing a book, not an essay.
Rumpus: But you start the book with this scene of you and one of your students on a bench at school, almost in the present. Was that something you added on later after you had written the rest of the memoir, or was that something that anchored you early?
Monroe: I knew that on some level the entire story had to begin in Spooner, when I was a kid. But who wants to read a book that starts with a kid’s experience? I knew I had to encapsulate the central conflict at the beginning in an adult way. So I asked myself, “What was a moment when it was clear my past and present had truly collided?” And I came up that moment in the prologue. I wrote it so the reader would enter the book with an adult perspective on an adult problem. I talk about prologues this way as a teacher, that they’re almost like movie trailers of the crisis to come, in this case when the rift between my private self and my public self—the old self from my childhood, and my new self as professor and author—became unsustainable. I started to think about when that split reached its breaking point.
Rumpus: A big theme in this book is how everybody has masks they put on for different roles, but the difference between your masks was acute, the difference between what was going on in your personal life and what you were trying accomplish professionally. Do you think the fact that you’re finally able to have a personal life that fits well with your professional life has in some way influenced your move to writing primarily nonfiction in the last five or so years?
Monroe: No. I started the other nonfiction book when I was still struggling with the central conflict of this book. In the previous memoir—about being a single mother, a white mother of a black child in a small town—there’s one chapter about three indistinguishably bad boyfriends, none of whom appear in this book. So, no. I started writing nonfiction because nonfiction is well-suited to subjects that, if you wrote them as fiction, people would say, “I don’t believe this. This is a little outlandish.”
Rumpus: Yeah, there’s a really great line in this book about how people don’t disappear in fiction, but they do in real life, in nonfiction.
Monroe: Right. This book covers extreme changes, extreme mistakes and recalibrations. And people do disappear in life, though not in fiction, unless that’s the major plot premise. People who had been major players in pivotal moments fell away, and I can’t find many of them, even on the Internet, where most people have a slight footprint. As I wrote the first half of the book, I began to think about narrative structure, which is part of memoir. I thought, “Wow, I do need to keep lost and vanished secondary characters, and lost and vanished settings, in the book until the very end. I do need to wrap them up in a crowded finale like you see in Victorian novels.” So I did this through memory and imagination. And that’s not made-up. I think about these vanished people and places all the time. I dream about them. Less so, since I wrote the book. That is one thing about writing about the past. Writing does seem to put uneasy memories to rest.
Rumpus: There’s a complicated relationship between memoir—reading or writing—and therapy or catharsis. When we’re trained to teach composition, it’s suggested we avoid having students write about personal experiences due to the difficulty of grading writing about trauma.
Monroe: That problem comes up a lot in teaching fiction as well, which is often emotionally autobiographical. Grading creative writing is always an ethical dilemma. But what you brought up about grading personal stories versus the research paper is of course a truly volatile issue in teaching memoir or the personal essay, because there’s no pretense that the narrator is a character. There’s an article in the American Scholar by Emily Fox Gordon called “Confessing and Confiding” and she writes about teaching a joint workshop with another creative nonfiction writer. Emily Fox Gordon is a fantastic writer. Here, she writes about teaching a class in which she’s talking about creative nonfiction as we’ve described it, the self in a historical and cultural context, with the retrospective older, wiser self sussing out forces that were causing the younger, naïve self to make unwise decisions. She was team-teaching with someone who was more “writing is for healing.” A student wrote about a traumatic experience, and the class started hugging this person, who was crying, and, as Emily Fox Gordon writes, she felt she’d lost control of the classroom. I teach creative nonfiction in the summer at conferences, which is a tense balancing act, where you gather strangers for a week, all of them writing personal stories. There’s frequently a moment where someone feels emotional about the past he or she is writing about. Acknowledging the writer’s personal connection to the content is key, but so is steering the discussion back to craft. I am kind, but I also say, “This is an important story, and to make it reach more people, let’s return to craft issues.”
Monroe: In universities, there’s more interest in it now than before. The first creative nonfiction I heard of came out of creative writing programs. I was about twenty-five years old, and I was blown away. That was in the ‘80s, but you didn’t see much of it. In the ‘90s I started seeing a lot of memoirs. They were so rich, so interesting. A turning point was Angela’s Ashes and The Liars’ Club, both of which I admire because they’re beautifully written and so interesting about history and context, as well as the narrator’s individual choices. They depict extreme trajectories, from a dysfunctional childhood in the case of Mary Karr, from extreme poverty in the case of McCourt. Then, within a few years, a glut of memoirs appeared, and some were great, yet some were merely a depiction of life lived in extremis, with no emphasis on literary quality or on the need to intelligently probe reasons, causes, the ways we are not just victims but also complicit in our mistakes.
Rumpus: Can you put your finger on what you dislike about a recovery or trauma memoir that doesn’t work for you? Do you think it’s the quality of the writing? The selection of the details? The point of telling? Narratorial voice?
Monroe: I object to a focus that’s purely psychological, therefore only about the self, without enough social or historical context. In Liar’s Club, Angela’s Ashes, Stop-Time, there’s a real sense of forces much bigger than the narrator’s willpower and psychotherapy and what the narrator wants. I like memoirs that are a little more anthropological as opposed to psychological.
Rumpus: Anthropological-wise, your book often deals with the impact of second-wave feminism on your experience. In that first scene, with the student on the bench, she’s asking for your advice.
Monroe: Career advice and “where to buy your shoes” advice, yes.
Rumpus: Right. You teach in a graduate writing program, which can be intimate. You get to know people over the course of three years. The prologue is clear that the scene at the bench is one you’ve experienced in many iterations. Can you tell me about having those conversations and how your experience intersects or diverges with the experiences of younger people with related doubts and questions?
Monroe: Those conversations happen even if you’re not teaching creative writing. They say, “I want to do this, but how?” The advice I give is, “Don’t think of your career as a plan or blueprint. Think of it as growing toward the most light. Keep your eyes open about where the best experiences are happening.” Everyone wants to see how someone else managed, defying odds. I just got a letter from a reader, a young woman who said, “Like you, I bury myself in work when my personal life isn’t going well. Hard work is a tranquilizer for me.” For her, my book affirmed her approach. Let’s face it, we all feel like imposters as we start careers. The way my experience diverges from the experiences of most people who might read this book is that my trajectory is slightly more extreme. It’s not as extreme as the one described in Angela’s Ashes, but I came from a place where education wasn’t expected, and I ended up in the idea-driven, so-called ivory tower. I also made more ridiculous mistakes.
In terms of gender and how students today might have different experiences than I did, many women today arrive at graduate programs with partners who moved for them to go to graduate school. That’s more common now. I did that just once, moved for my master’s degree with a husband who said, “Sure, sounds great.” He left me immediately. Like, immediately. As soon as he realized my time and attention were going to be taken up and he would be floundering to put together his own sense of identity. I guess the biggest difference between me and many of today’s female graduate students is that a lot of them were raised by mothers with careers, and they got college degrees studying with female professors. Both of those factors make the enterprise of educating yourself for a serious profession seem feasible.
Rumpus: I think the power dynamic between a writer or an academic and their spouse is a really resonant conversation right now, in terms of both work and financials. I don’t know if you remember, at the beginning of the year, a woman wrote a Salon article that got a lot of buzz about how authors rarely talk about the spouses or inheritances that help them make it financially.
Monroe: I don’t know a lot of writers, even writers who have been on the bestseller list for a few weeks, or writers who have gotten movie options, who can live on just their writing income. Once you break it down to the years it took to write the book, place it, promote it, and you pay the agent, pay the taxes, the annual income is not enough to live on comfortably. I do not have a starving artist inclination. I’m from the working class. I don’t feel creative unless I feel like my house is going to be there and I’m going to be fed. I can’t worry about money and write. Maybe some people can.
Rumpus: What else might have changed about being a woman writer, a woman in graduate school?
Monroe: There’s still sexism in the world, so there’s still sexism in publishing and in graduate school. But it is different. Now, it’s more coded and harder to detect. It was more explicit when I was in school. There were no rules against male professors asking out female students. The reverse didn’t happen since female professors were rare or nonexistent. Visiting writers came, 90% of them male, and some expected that a female student would materialize as his date for the visit. Once, I realized I was being set up this way. I thought I was being invited to meet the visiting writer for dinner in the same way that, today, we invite graduate students to meet visiting writers. I thought it was about my writing. I got to the dinner and I was the only student, the only woman, younger than everyone by at twenty-some years. Everyone looked pleased and happy except me. I turned around and went home. I never thought for a minute that the casting couch would be helpful. From my perspective, being a female graduate student and aspiring writer is clearly better now.
Rumpus: What about the professional strain of being a woman author with regard to her role in a family. Has that changed?
Monroe: I hope so. But, for me, given where and when I was raised, I don’t trust it. Right now, this is a busy time, having a book come out in the middle of a semester, my daughter applying to college. My husband has a great career, but he’s partly retired. He only works during legislative sessions. He’s “a good provider,” as I was taught to look for as a girl. But so am I. Right now, he’s taking up all the slack with regard to chores and parenting. The old me feels compelled to check in with him every day to see if he’s okay with the added work, traditionally women’s work. I thank him, and he’s like, “Stop! Stop!” That encapsulates the difference between me and some of the women I teach. I was raised by a housewife but saw second-wave feminism on TV. Many of my students—though not all of them, that’s for sure—were raised by mothers and father who both had careers.
Still, I know a few women younger than me who have careers and children, because women who want children have a biological deadline, and so the burgeoning career and burgeoning family happen at the same time. A few have said something like, “During dating, he was all about feminism. But now I have to ask him to help with the children, I have to ask him to help with the grocery shopping, I have to ask him to do the dishes, and every time he does, it’s like a favor. Where’s the feminist I married?” That’s theoretical feminism, not practical feminism. I don’t think we’re all where we need to be. I don’t know if we will be in my lifetime. Life is imperfect. But interesting.