This recent debut tugged on my heartstrings so much they looked like a game of Cat’s Cradle by the time I finished reading it. In her resplendent memoir, Joy Enough, Sarah McColl explores the spaces joy and grief occupy, and how their coexistence can unearth a strength that has previously remained undiscovered.
Cataloging the impending loss of her mother and the concurrent dissolution of her marriage, McColl emerges with a triumphant testament to two women who find beauty in the ordinary and joy in the memories we often file away under miscellaneous. McColl’s pithy and jocose depiction of her mother roots itself in the reader’s heart and gives impetus to the author’s ability to, as she notes, “get on with it—the rest of the story, every tangible desire these two women can have.” It’s not so much a story of love and loss as much as it is a story of everything in between.
Recently, Sarah McColl and I sat down to talk about her approach to writing a memoir centered around her mother, what’s she learned about herself while writing it, and advice that will resonate with anyone who’s ever wondered if they had a story worth telling.
The Rumpus: What is one thing you’ve learned about yourself after writing this book?
Sarah McColl: My whole life I’ve worried I’m lazy. I like to sleep in. I’m not into working crazy-long hours. I like a cocktail at five o’clock. I thought I was, like Tim Kreider in his wonderful essay, “The Busy Trap,” the laziest ambitious person I knew. But a lazy person can’t write a book. There are so many things we tell ourselves on refrain about what kind of people we are—things other people have told us about ourselves that we took too much to heart. I’m shy or I’m a people-pleaser or whatever. So in a larger sense, something I learned writing this book is to question and reject those inherited or applied definitions of self that other people have given me. They were wrong. Turns out I’m not lazy at all.
Rumpus: You described yourself as a “cosmic orphan” as a result of your mother’s passing, that you felt “like a moon whose planet has fallen out of orbit.” Has writing Joy Enough offered you a sense of trajectory again?
McColl: What a beautiful question. Yes, it really has. When I was writing Joy Enough, I felt I had lost all my orientation points: my mom, my husband, my job, my sense of where I was going in my life. It was extremely disorienting. It was also very freeing. What do you do when everything falls apart? Anything you want. Through the process of writing, and reorganizing my life and time around writing, I ceased—just to ride this metaphor out—being a satellite in my life. I became a planet. Here we are almost five years later and I live in a different city, I’m in love again, I have a different job (or, like, seven different jobs), and I have this book in which my mother is so alive. And the book, writing the book, to one degree or another brought each of those things into my life. This trajectory feels like one that I am actively creating.
Rumpus: You detail a number of vivid, personal memories. How did you decide which ones to include, and which ones to omit?
McColl: I think we all have certain memories that figure large in our minds, and a lot of mine seemed to relate directly to themes in the book. So memories where I felt really alive and present in my body as a child, or moments with my mother as I was beginning to think about and be preoccupied by women’s beauty, or moments of really deep pleasure, whether I was swimming in the ocean or falling in love or eating ripe tomatoes or discovering sex—all of those seemed relevant to the book. Of course when I was writing, I don’t know what my “themes” were, so I simply wrote the memories I think about over and over, the ones that meant something to me, the ones that have really stuck. And then down the road I started asking myself what the threads were that were holding all of these memories together—okay, so this book is about being a woman and pleasure and the body and motherhood, etcetera—and any outliers, like, say, a memory about a family camping trip, didn’t make the cut.
Rumpus: How much has this book changed—in terms of which memories you’ve chosen to recount (or didn’t)—since the first draft?
McColl: The hardest thing for me is structure. I would write these moments and scenes and memories that were important to me in the story about me and my mother, or in the story about me in my marriage, or in the story about my childhood. That was the “easy” part. What changed through the drafts was the sequencing of these moments into a cohesive structure. I have a tendency to skip what seems boring or inconsequential to me. I hate writing that feels like moving furniture, where you’re just trying to get a body into a place so the next thing can happen. But sometimes you really need those in-between moments or context. So whereas some writers might be paring down their material in one draft or another, I was usually adding material, filling in gaps so the reader wouldn’t be disoriented. The number one most distracting thing for a reader, my editor told me, is distraction. So even when it was in her hands, after already going through many drafts, it still needed some expositional details.
Rumpus: What are some challenges you’ve faced writing this book, and how did you overcome them?
McColl: A big one, for a long time, was the voice that says, “Who cares?” Literally everyone’s mother dies. This happens to literally everyone. There was nothing extraordinary about my story. The only extraordinary thing, I thought, was my mother, and she was extraordinary in ways our zing-bang culture would find pretty ordinary. She made people feel seen. She enjoyed her body. She thought whatever kind of mothering you were doing, if the kids were fed and safe and loved, you should probably give yourself a pat on the back and a bubble bath because you were doing better than you thought.
I remember sitting with Afaa Michael Weaver when he was the visiting writer at Vermont Studio Center. He had read some pages of my manuscript, and he said a couple things to me in that conversation that were so important to me. First, he said, “These are poems. You’re a poet.” I thought there was something interesting in the way I was telling an ordinary story, so that meant a lot to me. But still I was all hand-wringy and apologetic like, “Well, I’m interested in the trivial, and the ordinary, the mundane…” And he said, “No. You’ve been taught because you’re a woman the things you’re interested in are trivial and mundane. They are not. Trust that if you are interested in something others will be interested, too.”
So much of what I’ve learned about writing in the past five years is about trusting my own brain, my own instincts. My belief in my writing has grown a lot in that time. I came to think I had something interesting to say about something important. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to see the value of my own writing, but I guess it takes as long as it takes.
Rumpus: You write that you sometimes wonder if “[you] are brittle, too, that the ordinaries of the world that others seem to bear with such grace and forbearance is enough to crush [you].” How have things changed for you since you’ve discovered the strength you previously thought you didn’t possess?
McColl: I’m growing into the idea that it’s okay to be moved by the brutality and beauty of the world, even in its ordinariness. I’m growing into the idea, more generally, that however I am in response to that world—brittle, resilient, whatever—is fine. It’s okay to be wrecked by the world, and it’s okay to be awed by it. Without that, what is there to write about? They’re the Mary Oliver instructions for life: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” That’s what I’m up to anyway.
Rumpus: Your mother seemed like someone who found the joy and beauty in the ordinary: “branches of bittersweet in the snow. The copper kettle on to boil… go ahead, wink with a stranger at the cash register.” Do you derive the same type of joy from the moments we often gloss over?
McColl: My mother taught me to take my pleasure where I can find it and make my own when there’s none offered. That was one of her geniuses and something she was generous with—she gave people this sense of permission to enjoy themselves, their bodies, their lives. Relax! You’re doing a good job. I remember her telling me that one important job of a parent is to teach their children a sense of self-reliance and competence, and I see now how her sense of pleasure is squarely in that philosophy. There’s a real sense of personal autonomy in being able to make a ceremony out of buying a cup of coffee or throwing together a cozy dinner with a bag of lentils and a ham bone. There is an incredible sense of personal power when you can create your own happiness with very little.
Rumpus: What’s next in the not-too-distant future for you? Any projects you can give us a glimpse into?
McColl: The other night as I was falling asleep, I remembered a project I’ve worked on and off on over the last year-and-a-bit and it came to me in that hazy falling asleep mind that I’d like to put it out as a chapbook. I’d love to collaborate more in general; I love the solo-ness of writing, but I get such a creative jolt from riffing with others. I’d love to run a small workshop on the Eastside of Los Angeles, and I’m thinking of launching a newsletter. I want to write more songs. So I’m putting it out there: illustrators and visual artists for a chapbook, writing collaborators, workshop participants, newsletter subscribers—hit me up. And I’m writing a novel, but that’s all I’ll say about that.