Sarah Viren is the author of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize-winning essay collection Mine. Each essay in this collection considers ownership or perceived ownership. Viren writes about her hands, her wife, her name, her children. In her very personal narratives, she weaves in outside lives and voices:
I know I have a habit of that: latching on to the lives of strangers and using them to try to understand my own life. I watch people in airports, I read classifieds, I eavesdrop when the opportunity arises.
Viren reminds us that where there is ownership, there is also loss. She tells the reader at the end of the collection: “Everything I have owned has since been lost. Even my memories are not the same.”
We spoke recently about structuring essay collections, the move from objective reporting to personal writing, and learning to let go.
The Rumpus: Mine is such an intricately, and uniquely, designed essay collection. What was your process of writing this book like? At what point did you begin to weave the essays around the “mine” theme? Did the exploration of this theme change the essays you had already written or did they fit in organically?
Sarah Viren: I think of putting together a collection as similar to starting a new essay. There is this sense at first of a conversation you can’t quite hear, of everything hanging together in some way you’ve yet to see clearly or, like Anne Carson says in one of my favorite quotes, which is about towns, but feels like it’s about writing: “Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow, my pear, your winter.” And so you have to play and move things around and think it all through and go for a run or take a shower (my two favorite places to think) until suddenly it all clicks.
For me, the “clicking” for this book pivoted between two essays: “My Murderer’s Futon” and “My Wife” (originally published online as “How to Unmarry Your Wife”). “My Murderer’s Futon” was about how the most of random of belongings—a cheap, used futon—could tie my life to another life, bridging the distance between our stories and forging some sort of connection, however tenuous. And “How to Unmarry Your Wife” was about how something as random as geography could erase a more legal form of connection between two people, a marriage. And so in thinking about those two essays, I started considering all the other things and people and ideas I considered mine, and how precious but capricious they are, how little control we have over what is ours in the end, but also how much they shape us by pretending to belong to us. And in thinking about that, I started to see how a lot of my other essays also spoke to that question—”My Namesake,” for instance, and “My Choice”—and then once I had that unifying idea, or question, rather, I began to write new essays that responded to that question, and so most of the essays at the end of the book are ones I wrote after I already had the concept of “mine” fixed in place in my brain.
I’ll also say that one aspect of the word “mine” that I really loved, and one reason I finally settled on that as the title for this collection, is that it’s a word that easily changes meaning depending on usage. I mostly relied on it as a form of the possessive, but I also liked that it could be a verb—and such an apt verb for the act of essaying—and also that it works as a noun, a noun representing this deep dark place in the earth where our resources are kept, but also where they’re plundered. There’s a danger to the word that I find really rich and exciting.
Rumpus: In your essay “My Language” you include a scene with your wife, Marta, where you are talking about how out of control it can feel to spend a lot of time socializing in a language that is not your mother tongue. In this scene, Marta says, “You have to enjoy the lack of control.” When I read that line it made me wonder if that wisdom might also apply to other aspects of your life, for example your transition from journalistic writing where your goal was to get it right and find the hard facts to personal essay writing where it much more out of control. Was that process a form of learning to enjoy the lack of control?
Viren: Oh man. I’m not sure I’ve learned that lesson even now, but I keep it as a goal. It’s a struggle that I think all of us writers have: to give in to the lack of control. It’s especially hard when you have a project in mind, and you have a sense of how you want it to go, and that part of your brain just wants to play the conductor. And yet, if you’d just step back a bit, there’s often someone in the back of the pit (if we can stick with this metaphor) whose riffing a few notes and who, if you let her continue, might create something beyond beautiful, and so much more surprising than what you had planned. I’m reminded in writing that of my younger daughter’s music class and how there’s always one moment when they bring out a bucket of instruments and just let all the toddlers go crazy with sound. Kids suck on tambourines and wear drums on their heads and bang triangles with bands of bells and it’s kind of horrifying, but also really joyful, and I think letting yourself have a moment like that at the start of each writing day, or at least every once and awhile, is super important. That doesn’t mean I take my own advice, but I really do aim for that. And I read writers who would inspire me to go to that space, writers like Yiyun Li, Rachel Yoder, Ander Monson, and so many others.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process with the essay, “My Story”? In this essay you directly enter into a dialogue about subjectivity versus fact and the messy process of telling stories about people whom we love. You lay bare the discrepancies between your version, your memory, and your sister’s perspective. What was your writing process like for this essay?
Viren: That essay was by far the hardest one in the book to write. It started off as a rather traditional essay about my sister and our relationship and everything that happened after we both had kids, but then I showed it to my sister once the book got accepted for publication, and she was super angry. She told me so much of it was wrong and that I didn’t have the right to tell her story. And we had this long back and forth where I tried to understand her perspective and she tried to communicate to me what she meant, and at some point I realized she was right. The way I’d told the story at first was flawed because in deciding to tell a straight narrative, a linear retelling of the past, I was giving myself all the narrative authority, all the control over the truth of things when, really, how can we ever tell an objective truth when it comes to shared memories and a collective past? So I told my sister I would rewrite the essay and send her what I wrote for her to consider. And when I sent her that radical revision, which is what appears in the book, even though it still includes some of the same material from the first essay, she she thought it was incredible and she thanked me for hearing her. I don’t think anything I’ve written has ever felt quite as honest as that essay, and it’s in large part because of that dialogue we had.
Rumpus: You worked for years as a newspaper journalist and in that trade your personal opinion and your own personal life were not supposed to be a part of your writing at all. In personal essays, the author’s personal life is the very well from which the inspiration for the essay is drawn. What was your transition from journalism to personal essay writing like? Did you have to retrain yourself to write the personal?
Viren: I know a lot of journalists do struggle when they move from so-called objective reporting to more personal writing, but that didn’t happen to me. In fact, I instantly felt liberated when I started writing with the “I.” It just felt a lot more truthful, which seems like a contradiction, but actually makes lot of sense to me. We aren’t objective people. We’re totally and unforgivably subjective. And when I was a journalist, each time I filed a new story, written as if I didn’t have opinions about the subject, I felt like I was lying just a little bit. This is not meant to critique newspaper journalism in general, because that work is important, and most journalists are really good at divorcing their “I” from the stories they report. But I’m just not built that way. My wife sometimes says I’m compulsively personal, and it’s true.
I have a new essay coming out soon about how when we were living in West Texas, I couldn’t seem to stop coming out to my hairdressers, and after I’d come out, they’d always start asking me about how my wife and I had kids, and I’d tell them all the details, because, well, it seemed important to share that story, even though every time I did it drained me, because it was clear the hairdressers saw me as a bit of a freak. And then afterwards, I’d tell my wife about it, and she’d always be baffled. “Why do you keep telling them all that?” she asked me. I never really had an answer for that except to say that I think personal stories are important, and it’s hard for me to pretend mine doesn’t exist, especially when I feel some sort of pressure to keep it under wraps.
But, also, I’ll say that I believe that not telling your story is also a version of telling your story. Yiyun Li says something to that effect in her essay collection, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. She writes, “A writer can deny she is autobiographical. But what is revealed and what is concealed expose equally.” The first time I read that I felt really emboldened, because it’s true that those of us who write with a strong “I,” with so much of our personal lives, are not really all that more forthcoming. It’s just our tactic as writers trying to get at the meat of something.