I Have to be Gentle with Myself: A Conversation with Sari Botton

By

Sari Botton is a keen observer of herself and others. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, she has edited two award-winning, bestselling anthologies, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. That curiosity and insight are on full display in her solo debut, the episodic memoir And You May Find Yourself…, a wide-ranging collection of pieces that can be read front-to-back or out of order.

I call the memoir “wide-ranging,” though that doesn’t capture the balancing act that Botton has accomplished. Here, Botton takes everything from intimate relationships to skiing to MFAs as her subject matter, yet every thread is delicately woven into a narrative that’s unified by Botton’s unforgettable voice and sharp eye for the phenomena that these seemingly disparate events illuminate.

Sari Botton is a writer and editor living in Kingston, NY. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She teaches creative nonfiction at Wilkes University, Catapult, and Bay Path University. She publishes the newsletters Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.

Going into our interview, I felt that I already knew Botton—not just her writerly preoccupations, but her way of speaking. I felt, in short, that I was getting ready to meet a friend. We had a warm conversation about divorce, show tunes, alternate lives, and more.

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The Rumpus: What did you first set out to accomplish in this book, and did your goals shift as you worked on it?

Sari Botton: The goals shifted many times over many years. It took me a really long time to produce this book, in part because I was paralyzed with fear and stalling. I had published some of the pieces—less than a third of them—on the Internet, mostly in places that I thought the people close to me wouldn’t find them, because that was the only way I could bear to do it. It was a great way to dip my toe into speaking out. Ultimately, my perspective changed, and every one of those previously published stories was updated and adjusted to reflect that new perspective.

The original vision for this book was that it was going to be called Adventures in Divorce, which is something that my mother said when my parents were splitting up. I was having such a hard time with it, so she put a positive spin on it, encouraging me to think of it as an adventure. I was just looking at a personal essay from Marie Claire that was published in 2000, and at the end, it says, “Sari Botton is working on a memoir called Adventures in Divorce.” To some extent, that title is alive within this book, because as a Gen Xer, I am a product of the seventies divorce boom.

So that thread is still in there, but it’s not the dominant thread. Instead, I realized that the throughline was how I kept changing myself throughout my life, which I think goes back to being a product of divorce in the seventies, because that fractured me. I became very unsure of myself, and the only way I could imagine getting along in this world was to study other people for how to seem normal. So, the larger overarching theme is this idea of mutability, of conformity, and the toggling I did between trying to conform and trying to accept myself as a nonconformist.

Rumpus: As a memoirist writing about conformity, you’re balancing an outward-looking and an inward-looking gaze. How did you manage these two gazes in the essays?

Botton: I was overly concerned with the outward for a very long time, and I think that’s part of what kept me from completing this book. At a certain point during isolation in 2020, I was alone with myself and my fear of writing, and I realized that I had to let go of the external view and get a draft that was just the internal. Then, in later drafts, I returned to the external—foremost, accounting for the culture that affected me, so it wasn’t just about me and my family.

It is so important, in essays and memoir, to find that you’re writing about something much bigger than you. You get to the place where it’s not about the people you’ve blamed. It’s so much bigger than you and them. You are all part of a culture.

First, I had to write the draft that was ugly, whiny, and victimy. In the next drafts, I took into account the broader picture and was able to forgive myself and the people I came from and get to the place where it was not just about them. It was about phenomena. That’s what makes a good memoir or essay, when you’re writing about phenomena.

Rumpus: Do you find that you need a certain distance from a subject to be able to observe its phenomena and enact forgiveness, to elevate the work from diary entry to essay?

Botton: First of all, you need that diary entry. It’s a stepping stone. Too often, people are discouraged from writing the diaristic version of what they’re going through. It’s part of the process. Whether you’re going to publish it now is another story. I encourage students to journal, to capture what they’re going through, so that when they go back, they can look at it through a different lens. You can’t do that without the journal entry, so get it down, but realize you’re probably not writing a personal essay you’re going to publish next week.

I’m a rulebreaker, and I don’t like to make hard and fast rules. But broadly, this is what my experience has been. I can’t say there’s a prescribed chronological amount of time that gives you the perspective you need. It’s different in every instance, but it helps to put things away for a while. I tell students not to rush. Even if someone else beats you to the subject, time will pass, and then it will be time for another essay on it, with your perspective that you’ve had time to synthesize and develop.

Rumpus: You’re a teacher, editor, and anthologist. How does your work with students and peers affect your process?

Botton: I learn a lot about my own tendencies from working with other writers on their work. I just love shaping other people’s work. It’s like a puzzle for me—taking someone else’s work and trying to retain their voice and their goals, while shaping it and helping the writer get out of their own way or remember the things that they might have forgotten that could inform the piece.

My favorite exercise is a timeline, in which you write down bullet points of every event in your life that happened just before and just after the story you’re telling. We all crystallize versions of the stories we tell, and we forget a lot of context. It’s so much fun for me to watch people re-remember their own stories and then make it a better piece. I really enjoy that work.

I also love collecting voices around a subject, and that is why I am an anthologist. I’m hoping to work on a proposal soon for an anthology that would be attached to Oldster Magazine, where I explore what it means to pass through time in the human body. My work as an anthologist draws on the part of me that’s always trying to find out what’s normal. As an anthologist, I get to ask, “What does this person think about leaving New York? And what about that person? How does this person do aging? How does this person feel about their gray hair?” I always want to know what everybody else is thinking, and that curiosity makes me a natural anthologist and magazine editor.

Rumpus: This book is not a craft book, but you do discuss craft and the writing life, including your somewhat uneasy relationship with MFAs and your day jobs. Do you have any alternate day job fantasies?

Botton: I think a lot about the writer-and-physician people, the Perry Klasses, the Siddhartha Mukherjees. There was a writer and children’s physician who took my workshop at Catapult, Mojgan Ghazirad, and an essay she worked on in my workshop and then I published on Longreads got into Best American Travel. I often think about that.

Sometimes I imagine the full picture of me in scrubs and Danskos, being an MRI technician and then coming home and writing. Somewhere in an alternate universe, MRI technician Sari exists. I already have the Danskos.

Rumpus: In this book, we get to see so many of the influences on who you are as a person, but also as a writer. One of those influences is showtunes—the music that you grew up with. Can you see that influence in your writing voice or your approach to storytelling?

Botton: Oh, yeah, just this weekend I was doing living room karaoke with a friend and singing “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, a musical that I don’t mention in the book. I do mention Free to Be…You and Me. Both musicals are storytelling, and they both had a tremendous impact on me. They’re about revealing vulnerability and pushing back against patriarchy and cultural standards. In “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” [from A Chorus Line] this dancer is talking about how she doesn’t have the right body, and that definitely resonated with me. Those two shows had a tremendous impact.

I also think a lot about the misogyny in show tunes, and someday I want to do a cabaret of misogynistic songs from shows that were popular in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. In Fiorello, there’s a song that goes, “I shall marry the very next man who asks me.” One of the lines is, “I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling just for the privilege of wearing his ring.” Then in “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof, “You heard he has a temper. He’ll beat you every night, but only when he’s sober, so you’re all right.” And from Carousel, “Something made him the way that he is, whether he’s false or true. And something gave him the things that are his. One of those things is you.” I grew up immersed in this music, and then at some point had an awakening about it. I toggled between two impulses: to listen to what these songs tell me and to recognize that is so fucked up. Maybe one day MRI technician Sari will show up in scrubs and Danskos and belt a few numbers.

Rumpus: Plus, with show tunes, you’re playing a part. There’s an earnestness there.

Botton: You’re embodying a character. A show tune is a monologue, which is a personal essay or a memoir.

Rumpus: In musicals, the songs have an interesting relationship to the actions that are happening between the songs, often giving us insight into what the characters are afraid to say out loud.

Botton: They’re often decision points. Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy” in Carousel is one of those moments. He finds out his partner is pregnant, and all these thoughts run through his head, until ultimately he decides to do crime to support his child. It’s a private moment shared publicly, which I love.

Rumpus: That reminds me of the balancing act that essay writing can be—of taking the public and then filtering it through the lens of the private, and vice versa.

Botton: Now I’m going to think of every essay I write and edit as a show tune.

Rumpus: In one of the pieces, you discuss bringing in a feng shui expert who asked how often you played the piano in your apartment. Your answer was, “Not enough,” and you realized you were holding yourself to an invisible standard. Has that lesson resonated within your writing life?

Botton: Very much. When I was working on the book, I had to find a balance between being diligent and sitting my ass down in the chair and getting it done, and not being a taskmaster who was constantly judging myself and saying, “You didn’t write enough today. You’re never going to finish this.” That is paralyzing. I knew this before, but I really learned it this time—that lowering my standards for quality, time, and word count in early drafts is the only way to get it done. I have to be gentle with myself. If I Pomodoro for five minutes, I can break myself out of the paralysis. After five minutes, I want to do more, and I’m racing the clock. The beautiful thing about racing a timer is you cannot have the writer and the editor in the room at the same time. You have to have the writer in the room for the drafting, and then you bring the editor in. The way to keep only the writer in the room is to race a timer. It’s the only way that works for me.

Rumpus: How much of the book was written during COVID-19?

Botton: Much of it. I had a situation where my job came to an end, I couldn’t get another job, so I just had to get it done. In a way, it was kind of perfect. I was isolated—too isolated, but I was isolated. The coworking space that I operated for writers in Kingston had to close, which took a huge emotional toll, but in a way, not having to take care of everybody else and not having to worry about other people was good for this book.

In the first months, my body was shaking at night. There were times where I thought, “Do I have COVID-19? Why is my nervous system doing this?” Like so many, I was feeling terrorized—by a virus, and by a government that doesn’t want to protect us from it, plus all the other just really intense stuff happening in our country and in the world. Somehow, though, I managed to override my state of terror and get it done.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask about your column Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me. What currently is your definition of a brave writer?

Botton: It has changed. I wrote a piece for Catapult about how much my perspective has shifted on what’s fair game in terms of writing about other people, and writing that column was a big part of that change, along with interviewing so many people. And over time, as an editor, I began to change my mind about what was okay for the writers I was working with to include in their pieces about other people. I started to think about ways of considering other perspectives. An assignment that I often give writers is to write a 250-word version of this story from the other person’s perspective.

I also had this experience at Longreads where these two women had discovered that they were both in exclusive relationships with the same man. Then they discovered there were five other women who believed they were in exclusive relationships with him. So there were seven women who thought their boyfriend was busy with other stuff, but he was busy with many other women. The two women got together and wrote this piece, and they got the other five women to participate. It was this enormous story we worked on. We went through fact checking, and then finally our fact checker said we should have our lawyers look at this.

The lawyers said, “You cannot publish this because this person, who happens to be litigious, can credibly sue for defamation of character, for invasion of privacy.” It was the year after #MeToo started, and there was a backlash in the courts, which we’re still seeing in the Depp v. Heard verdict, where there’s greater sympathy for the perpetrators, and it’s still really hard for women to speak out.

But more than that, what the Longreads issue made me realize was that there’s a thing called defamation of character, and there’s a thing called invasion of privacy. The perspective of the author is only one perspective. Plus, when you pull back and realize that what you’ve gone through with your family or exes is a phenomenon that you’re part of, and it’s not just them, you start to feel differently about calling them out.

I have pulled away entirely from the notion of using personal essay to call people out, unless you’re E. Jean Carroll calling out Donald Trump. That’s a different thing, and it’s totally valid. And by calling out all the men who hurt her over many years, she’s identifying a phenomenon. When you have so many doing the same thing, it’s a phenomenon.

I think the most important thing for an essayist is to get to the place where you can step back and see that it’s a phenomenon, and that is a kind of bravery. That is more potent to me than the bravery to stand up and call somebody out. It’s about having the bravery to step back and see the larger picture, and then be gentler with yourself and the people you’re talking about. Giving them the benefit of the doubt in certain places is the new bravery I embrace.

Rumpus: What’s feeding you as a writer and an artist and a person right now? Where are you finding joy or inspiration?

Botton: Singing, that’s one thing. It’s almost my birthday, and I’m going to have a karaoke party. For my book launch party, I hired a friend who is a pianist at Sid Gold’s Request Room. We had a karaoke party in my backyard.

 

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Author photo by Sylvie Rosokoff


Kate Finegan is a writer and editor living on Treaty Six territory in Saskatchewan after growing up in Tennessee. More from this author →