A Story That Won’t Behave: Talking with Molly Wizenberg
“I’d wanted so much to have a story that behaved, but instead I have a self,” writes Molly Wizenberg toward the end of her searching new memoir, The Fixed Stars. The misbehaving story in question begins with the most mundane of catalysts: a jury summons. While on jury duty, Wizenberg develops a crush that causes her to question her sexuality and eventually ends her marriage to a man. A vexing question emerges: who is she, when everything she knows about herself can change?
For Wizenberg, this question also implicates the stories about herself that she’s previously written into being. The discovery of this desire, she worries, “seems to undo all the [stories] that came before, the ones people have come to know me by.” The Fixed Stars leans hard into her kaleidoscopic reality, on all the parts that constitute a self: writer, cis woman, mother, ex-wife, daughter, partner, lover. Painstakingly, Wizenberg draws on childhood memory, adult experience, and the work of other writers to process her own transformations. The book’s collage-like parts bring complexity and fullness to the author’s earned home in the mutability of self. But, crucially, change is a lesson she refuses to fetishize, instead dwelling in its ambiguity and awkwardness.
The book gets its title from Wizenberg’s gorgeous clarifying metaphor: the dynamic nature of the constellations. It’s used in ways that are poetic, curious, humorous, and deadly earnest, qualities of Wizenberg’s prose that readers familiar with her work will recognize. Wizenberg began her career in food writing; her popular blog, Orangette, won a James Beard award in 2015. She has penned two earlier memoirs with recipes, both anchored to home cooking and restaurants. Though it’s distinct from her food writing, The Fixed Stars glints with a sensory precision and self-awareness honed by years of thinking about her life through cooking and eating.
I spoke with Wizenberg over the phone about The Fixed Stars, forthcoming on August 4 from Abrams Press. We discussed writing about the self and sexuality, writing responsibly and honestly about loved ones, and how Wizenberg’s food writing informed the writing process for this memoir.
The Rumpus: Your book traces a transformation. How did you know when to begin it?
Molly Wizenberg: My decision to actually sit down and start writing the book in earnest, in September of 2017, was a really conscious one. I didn’t know what this book was going to look like, but I knew what the question was, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way before about a project. I had experienced something that made me question the truth of everything I had written about myself before, or at least its completeness. This question kept coming back up: how is it possible that I didn’t know this about myself? Is it even possible? Or is my homophobia so thoroughly internalized that I’ve been blind to it?
All along—through developing this crush, deciding what to do about it, opening my marriage, leaving my marriage, ending my first relationship with a woman, falling in love with a different person—I was grappling with how to integrate this shift into the person that I had written myself into being. Writing is, for me, primarily a tool for thinking. I struggle to be interested in writing if there is not some sort of problem I’m trying to solve. So I knew I wanted to spend some real time with this question, and I knew I wanted to learn from other writers in the process of thinking through it.
I have always been someone who reads every day, but I read like a maniac during the years when I was separating from my ex-husband and this project was unfolding. I had a tremendous desire to see if there were other people like me and what stories they told.
Rumpus: The structure of your book is mostly chronological, unfolding as you experienced it, collaged with detours into memories and other writers’ perspectives. How did you balance drawing on this external material with building a visceral, personal narrative?
Wizenberg: I had to remind myself over and over again that I had to write the experiences as I experienced them, and to not insert any knowledge that I had gained since then, because that wasn’t what it felt like to actually live it. In fiction, you get to see a character change—hopefully—into a different character in the end. But I was writing while being that different character. I had to shut out a lot of the things that I had learned along the way so that I could represent myself as I had truthfully been.
Rumpus: Did you always know that you wanted the book to unfold more or less chronologically, starting with the fateful jury summons when you meet Nora?
Wizenberg: The jury duty section was the very first thing I wrote. It felt so urgent and so alive. I had been out of my relationship with the Nora character for a year at that point, yet that story had so much energy and was still mind-blowing to me. It was exhilarating to go back into that scene and live there for a few weeks. So I started there.
I also knew from the beginning, like I said, that I wanted to draw in voices from the writers I was reading. I wanted to give them all credit for what they were showing me. So about two months into working on this book, I sat down and wrote an eleven-page document in Scrivener that I called “my list of fragments.” It was a list of every scene, thought, or excerpt I had read to that point. I went through and took each fragment and made it its own Scrivener file—my binder had hundreds of files—and then I slowly wrote through them.
Some fell away and some wound up expanding or leading to other things I hadn’t thought of. But Scrivener allowed me to hang on to all of these fragments and dip into them whenever I wanted. That really helped me create the vignette feeling that I wanted the book to have.
Rumpus: In the book, you describe fixed stars as a widely accepted myth—an analogy for a fixed family or a fixed self. In fact, you write, stars move and constellations morph with perspective. How did you find this dynamic, elegant metaphor?
Wizenberg: A lot of us know maybe one or two constellations, but I’d never paid that much attention to them until around the time of my separation. Suddenly I was much more aware of them, I think because I was living alone, and now I was the one taking the dog out after dark.
I’d been circling around the idea that we base the markers of a “good” adult life on things that require a lot of constancy—our partners, how we solidify these relationships, our jobs, even the idea that I grew up with: that I would have one job for my whole life. The truth is, very few of us actually wind up staying married to the same person or doing the same job our whole lives. Yet I think we still define ourselves to such a profound degree by these things. I found myself wondering, How do I trust myself again, when I know that everything that I make can be unmade and when I am still learning really unsettling things about how changeable I am?
My friend and podcast co-host Matthew Amster-Burton—who was the midwife for this book in many ways—gave me the term “the fixed stars,” which I was not familiar with. It led me down a wonderful rabbit hole, learning about why we call most of the stars in the sky “the fixed stars” and why that is erroneous. That led me to think about the self and human will and motivation. It all happened very synergistically.
Rumpus: Your project feels explicitly connected to a defense of the memoir as a genre. You use an epigraph by Garth Greenwell, from his story “The Frog King,” which includes the sentence, “I was grateful for that, too, the commonness of my feeling.” Did you have to come through the process of writing to feel that you were justified in doing it?
Wizenberg: I felt very aware of how lucky I was to get to write this book, because there are plenty of queer writers out there who are not getting the opportunity to publish. I felt that I needed to make sure I had done my homework and understood whose work I had benefited from and whose fight I had benefited from. Particularly in the beginning, I felt like a real interloper in writing about queerness. I felt that I needed to earn the right to do it.
At the same time, I felt that I needed to write this book, because when I was coming out and divorcing, there wasn’t a book that felt like it spoke specifically to my experience. Maybe if there had been I wouldn’t have felt the drive to write it. Maybe somebody would have been able to answer for me the questions that I needed answered.
When I’m out in the world, I look like a straight Seattle mom, and I know that’s how most people perceive me. But my relationship with my partner is so queer, and they have helped me give myself permission to be whatever I am in that. And that, in turn, helped me to write this book.
I feel most a part of a queer community when I am reading queer writers—much, much more so than when I am at a Pride parade. It felt so good and necessary to steep myself in queer stories, queer writing, and queer thinking, and also such a thrill to get the opportunity to be in conversation through writing with those voices.
Rumpus: Has your relationship to writing has changed over the course of working on this?
Wizenberg: I started my career as a blogger writing about food, and the food writing that I was steeped in at the time had a certain calm and neatly tied-up quality to it. Even the writers who wrote about difficult emotions or wrote sensuous, even sexy, food writing—even M.F.K. Fisher who wrote about very real human life and emotion and struggle—even then, there was something delicate and palatable about it. I am a real people-pleaser, and so, as much as I don’t think of myself as a super warm, sweet person, that is the person who’s always come out of me through my writing. What I knew about food writing, and certainly what I knew about being a female blogger, really reinforced that drive in me, at the time, to have my writing be palatable and acceptable.
I have no illusions about my desire to continue to please people, or to have my work resonate. But at the same time, the things I found within myself in the process of writing this book were often ugly to me, even monstrous at times, certainly not what I thought people would want for me or my family. And I didn’t want to flinch from those things.
I’m still the same person that I always was. But there was something incredibly galvanizing about finding and being able to name a certain queerness in myself and finding language for that, and not wanting to apologize for it.
Rumpus: This is such a visual, sensory, immediate book. How do you access memory to write your scenes?
Wizenberg: The places in this book where I feel most proud are places where the writing is very much linked to what I learned from writing about food. Food was this very specific, tangible thing that I could use almost like a crowbar to pry open a story, or a character, or a moment. This is something I love to teach—how we can take one specific sense memory, something very discreet and small, like a flavor, or music, or birdsong, and use it to build a room where you can go hang out and look around and watch a former version of yourself.
In thinking about the moments where I needed to slow down the horizontal movement of this story and stay in one period of time a little bit longer, to bring the reader into what it felt like to be in that moment, I used those tools. In writing about a panic attack, I reconstructed the bathroom for myself where it happened. I knelt back there in front of the toilet and remembered what rug was on the floor in front of the sink. Those moments where I could linger were so gratifying to me as a writer.
Rumpus: Many, if not most, of these scenes involve other people, and sometimes they’re extremely intimate. How did you approach writing about people who are very much in your life, like your partner, your daughter, and your ex-husband?
Wizenberg: My ex-husband Brandon and my spouse Ash were both tremendous supports to me as I wrote this book. With their help, I managed to get away and stay at the home of an acquaintance for a total of a month in 2019 to work on this book. That required a lot of extra parenting from Brandon and from Ash.
Brandon knew what I was writing and never asked to see it. I felt like there were definitely some parts of the book where I was going to have to say things about him that were true, that made him not look great, and I felt nervous about that, particularly in writing the postpartum depression sections. I wanted to write it fairly, and that required that I write exactly what happened, no matter how it made either of us look, then trusting that I could sort it out later. I don’t know any other way to go about it. A mutual friend of ours, who is a really good reader, also read the first draft, because I wanted to make sure I was never being mean. I gave the manuscript to Brandon when it was on its second draft, and he was really gracious and graceful in his response and didn’t ask me to change anything.
As for Ash, that was tricky in a different way, because over the course of our relationship, Ash has had top surgery and has come to use they/them pronouns exclusively. I felt that to really do justice to what was important to say about our relationship, I needed to put some of those conversations and moments in there. I had Ash a bit more involved in helping me finish the first draft to make sure what I had written about them was okay.
As far as my daughter June goes, I really tried to keep it limited, and there’s only one time when you hear her speak. I felt that there was no way she could consciously give me permission to write about her in any great detail, so I needed to limit the degree to which I represented her.
I really hope that it comes across in the book that I tried to never assume what anyone else was thinking. Ever.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk about the ending of the book, when you bring in a web animation of the Orion constellation distorting over time. There are clear scenes that begin the book, but you decide to end much differently.
Wizenberg: There was no final event in my own narrative that would close it. Ash and I got engaged while I was writing the book, but this was never going to be a story that would end with a wedding. This was not a book about our relationship; this was a book about my self. And so it felt really natural to me to end the book less on the physical plane and more on the plane of thoughts. It allowed me to not make it tidier than I wanted it to be.
I remember the day when I first learned in my own body that maybe Brandon and I don’t have to like each other very much anymore. We don’t hate each other. We’re not antagonistic. But it’s okay if we’re not best friends. It’s okay if he drives me crazy. That actually is what family is. I didn’t want to make it any tidier than that. I didn’t want to make it any more upbeat than that. Because I think that’s kind of amazing, that we have these effective ties to people who have helped make us who we are, but they may not be for us.
I didn’t want to wrap the book up any more neatly than my own life actually felt. I also didn’t want to end it with some sort of embrace of the messiness of change, which I also don’t feel. I don’t feel rah-rah about it. I don’t feel like I’ve come out of this wanting to preach about it. I wanted to leave you where I feel like I am most days, which is okay with myself. And I think that’s a lot. It doesn’t have to be fireworks or drama. It’s so much simpler than that, but also so much more interesting.
Photograph of Molly Wizenberg by Dorothée Brand.