Mira Ptacin is a Maine-based writer whose work has been featured in Guernica, New York Magazine, McSweeney’s, and more. She is also the founder, curator, host, and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction, a reading series and storytelling collective in Manhattan, and (soon) Maine. Currently, she teaches memoir writing at the Maine Correctional Facility, which is Maine’s only women’s prison. She was the 2014 recipient of the Maine Literary Award.
Her memoir, Poor Your Soul, out in January from Soho Press, is a book that skillfully braids her family’s story of immigration, adoption, and loss, with the author’s experience of unexpected pregnancy and loss. It is much more than a book about loss, however—it examines the intricate threads of family, how our histories get woven into tapestries, and how to rebuild when it feels hopeless. It is a story of becoming, of renewal, of life.
Ptacin and I chatted over email about her book, writing, and motherhood.
The Rumpus: This is such a powerful story, and a very intense one; what was the impetus for putting this down on paper? Was there one single thing?
Mira Ptacin: The events of the main narrative of Poor Your Soul took place during the summer between my first and second year of graduate school, where I’d been working on a totally different project: my MFA thesis, which was to be a nonfiction book about the murder of undocumented immigrants working in an erotic/exotic massage parlor in my hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan (Cereal City, USA). Just when I arrived at the point to spread out my research and begin composing, I got pregnant, and soon after lost the baby, and soon after, got married. Just like that. And when summer ended and school started up again, I tried to go back to writing about the murder at the massage parlor but every time I sat down to write, the silence of the room actually became so distracting, deafening, and disorienting with the confusion and anguish and bewilderment that I was feeling after my sudden pregnancy and its violent end that I just couldn’t not write about it. Just like I couldn’t not think about it. I couldn’t avoid my grief, and needed to own what had happened and find the meaning in it. It was like stubbornly a heavy elephant in my mind and refused to move or get out of the way. I had no choice but to stop writing about the massage parlor and started writing my own story.
Until then, I’d always avoided memoir and was pretty adamant against being a navel gazer, but I realized that this was one of those times when navel gazing was not a bad thing—that it wasn’t just important, but I could use my story to connect with others, make them feel less alone, and make my loss into a piece of art. The process was just like sculpting a piece of clay into a statue: slapping down my raw, unfiltered feelings, the ugly wet, honest, and messy thoughts going through my head so shortly after the event had happened. By looking at it all, I could confront what was in my head, look at it, explore it, get it out of my system. The next step was to sculpt the clay, but to first just look at all the material in front of me. I had to just look at it, marinate in the events in order to find meaning and the essence of it. Not to mix metaphors (okay, to mix metaphors), but this stage of things was like staring at those Magic Illusion posters: you relax your eyes, expect nothing, don’t try to look for anything in particular, perhaps even look slightly away from the poster, and if done correctly, eventually a 3D image pops out at you if you. The “truth” just kind of shows up. And once I had that “truth” (call it what you will: a thesis, a summary, the moral of the story, etc.) and it was real and pure and true, I held on to it and let it guide my editing and revisions, my pace, my tone, and so forth. Once I finished the book, I felt like that event was the past, and that I’d in some ways put a tombstone on it, rather than run from it.
Poor Your Soul took less than a year to write. But took nearly eight years to get published by a publisher. During those eight years, and through all those rejections, I became more and more determined to not only get the book published, but to make sure the publisher wasn’t going to shelve it under “feminist” or “political” sections of the bookstore. A handful of publishers turned the book down because they said they didn’t know how to market a book about abortion. But Poor Your Soul is not just a book about abortion. There is an event in the book that is an abortion, or a termination of a pregnancy, but still, this isn’t just a feminist or political book, exactly the same way stories about death or sex aren’t just to be shelved in the feminist or political sections of the bookstore. I feel blessed to have found a publisher who gets the book, and knows it’s important: it is one person’s story that explains how one person came to make a decision that was right for them. It doesn’t generalize women, or abortions. And we need to let voices and stories be heard, rather than run from them because they’re “taboo” or “political.” Andrew and I felt very alone and polarized after losing the baby, like it wasn’t something people wanted to talk about or hear about, and we were sort of left to deal with things on our own. I can empathize that pregnancy, whether it’s successful or not, is so very traumatic, so isolating, so profound and baffling that it needs to be a safe topic, a supported topic and experience. A mother needs to feel safe and supported and important. We need to provide comfort and support and empathy, not isolation. In writing this book, I hoped to not only heal myself, but to provide companionship and support to other people who have experienced a similar loss. After all, even if we do not have children, we are all born from a mother. And by sharing our stories, we can evoke empathy in other people, and understanding.
Rumpus: How/why did you choose to braid the two stories (that of your daughter, and that of your brother)? Was it an idea from the start?
Ptacin: In its earlier drafts, I focused only on the story of my pregnancy. The book was short and muscular. But I kept coming across threads that traced back to my childhood, and in studying them (and being encouraged to expand the breadth of the memoir by an editor-friend), I dove into my past, like, my youth, and found that childhood events led to other events that led to other events that led to other events that influenced my decisions and behaviors and thoughts behind the main narrative of Poor Your Soul. And by digging deeper, by having the story be more than just what was on the page (or the main thread), I could make the story three-dimensional, not superficial.
Rumpus: Women are often labeled “confessional” when we tell the stories of our lives or share anything remotely personal. How do you feel about this label, and would you call your book “confessional?”
Ptacin: That word rarely comes to mind to me when I think about memoirs (that are good) or my own book. In my memoir, I don’t think I’m confessing to anything. Rather, I come to an understanding of my recent past and my childhood, how the latter influences how I am where I am, and I own it. I suppose I hope my memoir isn’t thought of as confessional, but more of a declaration. I try to make sense of the truth, my truth. I think mediocre memoirs, by both men and women or whomever, don’t do what good writing should do: they should be well-crafted and have something somewhat profound yet universal that it says. I’m a big fan of thesis statements, or story questions. There is nothing new under the sun, just a new way of looking at it or telling it and understanding it. A good memoir shows one person’s way of making sense of things, whether things are traumatic or dull.
Rumpus: Who or what inspires you as a woman, a writer, a mother?
Ptacin: Human injustice, ignorance, lack of empathy. Generalizations and stereotypes. Apathy infuriates me, as do prejudice and self-righteousness. I try to change minds to be more peaceful, loving, empathetic when I report, or write essays or long-form narrative. On a more positive note, my curiosity and creativity is charged by a handful of things: my family inspires me. Successful people inspire me. I get my story ideas from talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to, from walking around and snooping, from overhearing conversations, from small newspapers or specialized publications/magazines. I love dogs. I love walking around graveyards (we have several on the island where I live)—I like to sit in them and just think. I like to write stories about the daily life stuff we tend not to think about—like how things work (like pregnancy in prison), or a subculture I never knew about (which is the topic of my next book: mediums and spiritualists in Northern Maine.)
I’m not going to write another memoir; I consider my genre “creative nonfiction” and my beat “the uterus and the American Dream.” This is kind of the lens with which I see the world.
Rumpus: Has being a writer influenced you as a mother, or vice versa?
Ptacin: After raising a two-year old and an infant successfully (so far; they’re healthy and happy and, to my knowledge, not damaged), I feel like I can do anything. After writing a book and not giving up until it found a publisher, I feel like anything is possible.
But the most profound to me is my experience of motherhood. Motherhood requires so much care, not just of another child, but also of the self. You have no time for ego because your personal time is so fleeting. So every choice must be genuine: is this good for my kids’ growth and development as a human? Is it good for mine? If not, you move on. Motherhood has influenced the way I see the world: I now look outside myself more than I ever have. I see the world that my son and daughter have come into and will inherit. And this has caused me to see things that aren’t right and focus on them more rather than turning inward and being passive about it. Writing is my tool, my sword, and I can use that to make a difference in the world, rather than bring attention to myself. Everything I do, everything I commit to, since I have so little free time, must be worth it and good for my family and me. So since I’ve become a mother, my choices are more genuine (or at least most of them are).
When I was single, I wrote during my own time, when inspiration struck, and my motives were all over the map, and sometimes my need for validity influenced my reason for writing. This is not the case anymore. Also, I can’t write for free anymore. I have to take care of a family, do my part. When I became a mother, shit got real. At the same time, the result of my hard work as a mother continues to blow my mind: I grew two humans, and fed them with my own body. The bottom line, really, is that I would do anything for my children. I’ve never loved anything more, or more purely. My family trumps my writing ambitions, but so far I can balance motherhood and writing. It just requires discipline and good timing. Also, after becoming a mother, I take the reception of my writing less seriously.
What else? After becoming a mother, I respect mothers more. My awareness of the value of a woman’s instinct has changed profoundly. Mothers are responsible for keeping a human alive, growing it, feeding it, teaching it. Being the caregiver of another human and sharing that responsibility with a loving, hardworking, good person (my husband Andrew) has made me realize how good I have it. I have a roof over my head. We have food and an income and a nonviolent environment. Our kids are healthy and happy. I’m very grateful.
Rumpus: In your book, you talk about being in an MFA program, you talk about being a writer—what advice would you give to other writers?
Ptacin: Omit needless words. Talk your story out. Have a thesis statement or a story question. Be genuine and take your time, but be disciplined and dig deep. Learn to read like a writer. Don’t be trendy. Don’t assume anyone owes you anything, but don’t give up. Hang around with all kinds of people. Say thank you to your mentors and pay it forward. Write something that doesn’t have an expiration date. Know your audience, but chose your imaginary audience that will make you write your best. Take care of your health. Live life as a person, not just as a writer. When you have an idea, write it down. No, but really, do write it down. Watch movies with the subtitles on. Marry a structural engineer or architect: they have stable minds and can help you with the structure of your story. Spend time outdoors often. Live where you want to live. Read The Elements of Style often. Be kind.