Voices on Addiction: A Conversation with Lilly Dancyger
I’d first read Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space last summer, and rereading it in advance of our conversation revealed new layers of what I’d loved the first time around. As someone who, like Lilly’s parents, struggled with addiction, I had so much empathy for her parents and their struggles.
The beauty of Dancyger’s memoir is how well she balances empathy with examination. She is unafraid to look at uncomfortable truths, allowing them without erasing the beauty, the art, and the love. Negative Space is a coming-of-age story. It’s an investigation toward understanding the father Dancyger lost. It’s a requiem for an artist, a father, an imperfect man. And it’s a reckoning of the grief, love, and anger that can exist alongside one another. It’s a human story. Dancyger’s father, Joe Schactman, is revealed, not just through the memories of those who knew him but through his art. The images provide a framework for the journey, both for the daughter telling the story and for the reader.
Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor at Catapult and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. She’s the editor of Burn It Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger from Seal Press, named one of the “most recommended books of the season” by Literary Hub. She is the founder and host of Memoir Monday, a weekly newsletter and quarterly reading series co-curated by Narratively, The Rumpus, Guernica, Granta, Literary Hub, and Catapult, featuring the best memoir writers of today. Her writing has been published by The Rumpus, Longreads, the Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. She lives in New York City.
The Rumpus: At a certain point, as a memoirist myself, I knew I had to write my memoir before I could move forward with other stories. Did this happen to you? And if it did, at what point? Did you know that you had to write this book?
Lilly Dancyger: In the beginning, I knew I was writing a book, but I thought I was writing a book about my father. I wanted this to be an homage to him and a monograph of his work. I was thinking of it as an archive. I wanted to preserve and share his artwork and tell his story. But the more I kept digging into the story, it just kept circling back to me and my grief, and an anger that I hadn’t known was there.
It became more and more apparent that I was writing a memoir. I resisted that at first, thinking, no, it’s not about me; that’s not the point. The feedback I got from everyone who read drafts, over and over, was, “we want more of you on the page, more of your story; that’s what makes it interesting.” So, I call myself a reluctant memoirist. I couldn’t ignore this. I had to finish what I started and get this out into the world before I could have the mental space to tackle something new.
Rumpus: You write about workshopping with Lidia Yuknavitch. While in her workshop, she had you write a list of your core metaphors, which you realized, were really your father’s. Then you have this amazing epiphany. You write, “by weaving this time traveling spell of the story of my father, I was not just decoding his symbols, I was inheriting them.”
It got me thinking about what we inherit from the families we come from, not just the mythology but the wounds, too. And we would be different people without them. What do you feel you inherited from your family and, particularly your father, that has informed who you are as a writer?
Dancyger: I thought about that a lot in this process and realized how much I had inherited from him, not just in terms of the way I look at the world, but also in the ways I push back. He was very much about making his own rules, which didn’t always work out for him, though it often worked well for him as an artist. Sometimes he held onto iconoclastic ideals so tightly that it ended up getting in his own way. This idea of selling yourself as an artist was beneath him, which I get on an emotional level, this idea that I want to do the work and let it speak for itself. But I also understand that’s not how it works. If you want to get your work out into the world and have people see or read it, depending on your medium, you must play the game, even if by your own rules. It’s about finding the middle ground.
Rumpus: That’s interesting what you say about holding on to those ideals so tightly. I’ve seen that with people who operate outside of societal norms to the point that they’re more boxed in than they would be if they operated within those societal norms.
Dancyger: And so focused on rejecting the norms that they’ve boxed themselves into a corner anyway.
Rumpus: I love that you included images of your father’s artwork in the book. You mentioned that before you knew this was a memoir, you thought of it being more of a monograph of your father’s work. How important was it for you to have his artwork included?
Dancyger: I think this book probably could have come out years ago if I had been willing to budge on that. It made this a challenging project to get out into the world because there aren’t many art-book memoirs out there. I was sticking to my guns on that point, much like my father.
Rumpus: I found the images so integral to the way that you uncover your truth about who your father was. That’s your entry point.
Dancyger: Yes. Along the way, I got some friendly encouragement to make this a straightforward memoir about growing up in the shadow of addiction. But that was not compelling to me. For me, the story is in conversation with the art. I would have rather shelved the project than taken the images out.
Rumpus: Beyond growing up in the shadow of addiction, it’s a memoir about discovery, and the clues are in the artwork. I can’t imagine the book without the artwork.
Your father made his sculptures out of found objects. To some extent, I think that’s what we do with memoir and even with fiction writing. A part of what we do is we take “found objects” and create a story out of them. Have you ever thought of writing that way, how it comes together from the metaphorical objects we find in life?
Dancyger: Definitely. I really felt that parallel in the process of writing this book. The story’s through-line was a bit of a struggle to come to because I had all these little bits of the story. I had to turn them into something connected. It was very tactile, literally. I found myself printing stuff out and cutting it up. At one point, I covered all the wall space in the long hallway of my apartment with these scraps of paper. I remembered my father in his studio, which was organized to him, but it looked like a nightmare of a mess to anybody else, just full of trash and junk and dirt and rust. Yet, he knew where everything was.
Rumpus: That’s so much like an early draft. I get that from your writing, that you are a very tactile writer.
Dancyger: Yeah, I think that’s true. My mother’s a clothing designer, so I grew up with her creativity, too. When I was a teenager, I started making my own clothes, borrowing/stealing scraps of fabric from her, and using her sewing machine. She always wanted to show me how to do it, teach me how to make patterns. I resisted. I would wrap the fabric around myself, pin it, shape something around my body, and then take it off. She would say, “God, you make clothes like the daughter of a sculptor.” I think that’s how I write, too.
Rumpus: I first came to know you as your editor, and then you became mine. Having worked as an editor affected the writing and editing process of my book. How did your own experience as an editor affect the writing, and then going through the editing process?
Dancyger: I learned how to write while writing this book. I spent my entire twenties writing this book. As I became more skilled as a writer, I saw what needed to be fixed. A big part of that was I was also working as an editor. I was learning about how stories function and how to shape a narrative. I always tried to trick myself into reading my own work as if it were somebody else’s work, putting it away for a little while so that I could get a bit of distance. Then I’d come back and try to read it as if I didn’t write it, to look at it as an editor. Sometimes that doesn’t entirely work.
Rumpus: I think that once I had editing experience, I was much more willing to take editorial suggestions, always willing to try them to see if they work.
Dancyger: Yes, you understand the editor really is on your side, trying to make it better, not just to make it their way.
Rumpus: In the book, you write, “I knew that if I kept digging, I would have to look directly at my father’s addiction. If I really wanted to know him better, I couldn’t gloss over the ugliest parts—but that didn’t mean I had to run straight into the darkest bramble. My father’s addiction was never the first thing I thought of when I thought of him, never the first thing I told people about him, and I didn’t want it to be the first thing I filled in the details of, either.”
I appreciated this so much because it’s challenging to write about addiction, particularly other peoples’ addictions. Were you aware of that as you were writing, or is it something that came through in the editing?
Dancyger: Both. I’d grown up with it just in the background, and we didn’t really talk about it that much. My mom got clean, and my dad died. Then that was it. We didn’t really talk about the drugs. In the beginning stages, I had to force myself to look right at it and then pull back and cut away stuff that might have felt salacious. Then push to go deeper. It was a lot of back and forth.
I set out to write about my father, but a lot of the story ended up being about my mother and dealing with how I’ve had a double standard for my parents. I thought of my father as this saintly character who was cut down in his prime, and I blamed my mom for a lot. Much of the process was also finding empathy for my mother.
In some drafts, I realized I was tiptoeing, being too gentle. I realized I was afraid of sounding angry, so I had to push it further and say, “Okay, be honest, you are angry, so don’t pretend you’re not. Put it on the page.”
Rumpus: Both of those can be true—you can be angry at your mom and still have immense empathy for her.
You convey so well the changing lenses through which you viewed your parents. When we are kids and young adults, it’s hard to understand that our parents didn’t cease to be human, with human pasts and flaws and wounds, when they became parents. I got the sense of how clear that became to you. I think that time and age increase empathy. Ideally, that empathy also extends to ourselves. Do you think that you experienced increased empathy toward young Lilly through writing this book?
Dancyger: Definitely. Writing about my teenage self was like writing a separate character. I had to do some of the same pushing deeper that I did with writing about my parents to understand why I was so angry. Why was I looking for trouble with so much determination? My father died when I was twelve. When I was fourteen, I started going off the rails and getting into all kinds of trouble. I didn’t really connect the two at the time. I just thought, oh, I’m a teenager now. Now looking back, I understand that all that acting out was grief and anger and fear. I found a lot more empathy for myself.
Rumpus: What do you think that teenage Lilly would think about your book and about the life that you have now?
Dancyger: I think she’d be psyched that a book exists. I started wanting to write from a pretty young age. I knew I wanted to write about my own life, even though I didn’t really know what memoir was. I think she would be impressed with the book but would probably think that I am kind of a sellout as a person—I live on the Upper West Side and I own a J. Crew blazer. But that’s okay. I’d tell her to get over herself a little bit.
I had this weird experience a couple of years ago walking through the park in the East Village. When I see groups of crusty punks, I still always scan their faces, thinking they’re going to be people I know. I assume I’m going to see my friends there. I was looking at these kids who were half my age, and I smiled at them, like, “Hey, what’s up?” Then I looked down and realized I was wearing mom jeans and Nike sneakers. They probably thought I was some fucking yuppie, thinking, why is this woman looking at us? It was a weird disconnect. And I just had to laugh. That crusty punk girl is still in there. She just doesn’t look like that anymore.
Rumpus: What do you hope that people will feel or understand after reading the book?
Dancyger: A lot of it is just wanting people to understand how many things can be true at once. Back to your question of writing about addiction with empathy, my father looked like a junkie. He was strung out and stole things from people who loved him. It’s easy to write somebody like that off. He was also brilliant and loving and hilarious and a wonderful, amazing person. People sometimes have a hard time understanding that all those qualities can exist in a person at the same time.
Photograph of Lilly Dancyger by Soomin Dancyger.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.