The Assay Interviews: Susan Olding
May 16, 2011
May 16, 2011
Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, won the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award, and was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared widely in Canada and the United States, and she is the recipient of several prizes and awards, including the Edna Award from The New Quarterly, the Brenda Ueland Prize for Literary Nonfiction, and the Prairie FireCreative Nonfiction Contest. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she’s currently working on a novel and a second book of essays.
About Pathologies: In these fifteen searingly honest personal essays, Susan Olding takes us on an unforgettable journey into the complex heart of being human. Each essay dissects an aspect of Olding’s life experience—from her vexed relationship with her father to her tricky dealings with her female peers; from her work as a counsellor and teacher to her persistent desire, despite struggles with infertility, to have children of her own. In a suite of essays forming the emotional climax of the book, Olding bravely recounts the adoption of her daughter, Maia, from an orphanage in China, and tells us the story of Maia’s difficult adaptation to the unfamiliar state of being loved.
Written with as much lyricism, detail, and artfulness as the best short stories, the essays in Pathologies provide all the pleasures of fiction combined with the enrichment derived from the careful presentation of fact.
Julija Šukys: Pathologies spans the greater part of your life. We read about your childhood and adolescence, a difficult relationship with your parents, and then the narrative settles into the subjects of mothering and writing. It feels like a life’s work. Is that so?
Susan Olding: It often felt like a life’s work. It took me about a decade to write it! But I hope I have a few more years—and more books—before I die.
I’m not a quick writer, and essays tend to demand steeping time. It’s enormously frustrating at times.
You take the title from your father’s profession. In the epigraph to the book you give two different meanings for the word: one has to do with the study and diagnosis of illness; the other (more surprising) is pathology as the study of passions and emotions. The word “pathology” contains within it the root “logos” (word). I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the links you see between a love for words, illness, and passion.
My love of words is an infectious passion? Well…I hope it’s infectious, at any rate!
Talk a little about the process of how the book came about.
The idea for the book came in a flash of intuition. I work at the Queen’s University Writing Centre. In one of the tutoring rooms there used to be an old copy of the OED. Waiting for a student to appear for her appointment one day, I opened the dictionary on a whim to the definitions you mention above. The metaphorical possibilities immediately struck me, and the idea for the book was born. I would put my own life and experiences under the microscope, as it were, to discover what might result from that experiment.
I had already written the first two essays. The rest came afterwards. But because it took so long to write, and because the essays are tied to life events, by the end I had included pieces that I literally could not have imagined at the project’s start. I also cast aside some of my initial ideas. So ultimately the process felt quite organic.
I later learned that this is how Montaigne’s work came together. It accreted. When he began his project, he knew only that he would use himself as subject, would question himself, would “roll about” in himself. But he didn’t know what shape his thoughts would take until he was finished writing.
By the end, he had invented a new form. I didn’t invent; I’m his lucky inheritor. But it often felt as if I were inventing, because initially, I didn’t have many contemporary models, especially in Canada. I had read and loved Virginia Woolf’s essays, and Orwell’s, and many other classics of the genre. But I hadn’t thought of them as essays, per se—I was just reading anything and everything by authors that I loved, which is what I tended to do back then.
I’d also read, and loved, the work of some contemporary American practitioners of the form—Richard Rodriguez, Adrienne Rich, Gretel Erlich, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker. And I’d loved Berger, and Benjamin, and Camus. But when I started to send out my own work, nobody in Canada seemed to be publishing literary essays. Not by unknown writers, at any rate. Since then, there’s been an explosion of creative nonfiction in the literary journals. But in the late 90s, the only place I could think to send my work in Canada was Event, during their annual nonfiction contest. I was lucky enough to be chosen a winner of one of those contests, for the first piece in the book, “Pathology,” and that gave me the encouragement I needed to continue.
There’s an anxiety that I felt traced through the book almost from the very beginning: namely, the right to write. It’s a question that I too struggle with. Indeed, perhaps anyone who writes about real people, especially loved ones, must grapple with a fear of exploitation or overstepping boundaries. At one point you ask if writing lives is “a gift or a lie,” and about the danger of “flattening” characters in nonfiction. I’m interested to know more about these ideas.
In some sense I had to write my way into permission to write. And that was a slow and painstaking process.
One barrier was the fear that writing itself was self-indulgent. Shouldn’t I be doing more important and socially useful things? And writing about myself, which for some peculiar reason I seemed to need to do, seemed even more self-indulgent.
The title of Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? lodged in my brain. Pathologies is my answer, I guess. Writing it has banished that voice, the one that told me I had no right to write at all.
For I discovered something in the process: it’s impossible to write well about anything, including and perhaps especially about the self, without humility. Anyone who aspires to art writes in the service of the work, not the self. So writing well is the best defence.
As for the second issue—the fear of flattening or misrepresenting or hurting or exploiting others—that arose very early in the project. I remember when I finished the first piece, about my relationship with my dad, I showed it to two friends who happen to be sisters. One is a writer, and one a psychiatrist. The first friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you must publish it.” The second friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you can’t publish it.”
What a perfect illustration of the different attitudes I’ve since encountered, both in others and within myself!
I don’t think it really matters what genre we choose. People have been just as hurt by fictional portrayals as by their appearance in narrative journalism as by their appearance in memoirs and personal essays and poems. So this question should occur to every writer.
And in the end, I don’t think there are any easy answers. We’re social beings. Our lives intersect with others. So if we write, inevitably we include others in what we write, unless we’re hermits, and even then we would probably include remembered or fantasized others.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to acknowledge the risks. To consider the power we hold, and what it might mean to our subjects to find themselves depicted as we have depicted them. To ask ourselves how we might feel, to find ourselves depicted that way—although that’s tricky, because I think as writers we’re generally sensitive to point of view and to shifting or layered narrative perspectives that might not be apparent to more naïve readers.
In the case of memoir, I think we also need to consider the truth. Naturally, there will be differences in how different people perceive and remember a situation, but if you claim that your mother regularly beat you when in fact she was meeker than a lamb and never raised so much as an apron string, that’s a breach of your reader’s trust as well as your mother’s. An extreme and easy example—but in the last few years, we’ve seen far wilder claims—and they give memoir a bad name.
But here’s the wrinkle: It’s entirely possible for someone to experience a meek mother as a monster. And that is humanly interesting. But the story isn’t about the monster mother, or even about that it is like to have a monster mother. The story is about how it is possible to experience a meek parent as a monster. It should be an exploration, not a melodrama.
The thing is…explorations are never simple. And people are sometimes threatened by complex stories. They want the simple version. The simple version is familiar.
Not only are we threatened by complicated stories, but we also struggle to express them. It’s much easier to tell (and sell) a beginning-middle-and-happily-ever-after narrative about How I Lived with My Monster Mother than it is to tell the story of your evolving feelings and your changing perceptions of your fairly ordinary mother, who turns out not to have been quite the monster that you initially thought.
But it’s literature’s responsibility and privilege and glory to tell these complicated stories and to explore messy truths—the kind that many of us run away from in our day-to-day lives. And ideally, in order to prevent simple narratives from driving out complex narratives, we need to find ways to incorporate our own self-doubts and confusions into the work. The essay is a perfect form for that.
One of the most instructive aspects of this book for me was the story of your daughter’s adoption. This was an international adoption, and you describe travelling to China to meet your child for the first time. But because this book spans such a large segment of your life, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, we follow you and Maia for several years as you struggle and work through the reverberations of what it means to have started life in the way that your daughter did (you describe the neglect and abandonment she was subjected to in the first ten months of life). Perhaps you could talk about the decision (if that’s what it was) to present Maia’s arrival into your life not simply as a happy ending, but, I suppose as a new chapter.
I like that phrase, “a new chapter.”
And you’re right, I did make a decision not to stop at the “happy ending” of adoption. This goes back to my answer to your earlier question. Having lived for a few years with our daughter, I felt the dominant narratives about adoption were overly simple. (Perhaps this applies to all parenting narratives, to some degree, especially narratives about the early years of parenthood.)
Anyway, I didn’t see our family or families like us represented in anything I read in the media or in the children’s books or even in the novels I had seen up until then. Typically, adoption is either sentimentalized as an answer to everyone’s prayers, or it is dismissed as an inferior way to form a family. I wanted to tell one story of what it is really like in all its messy wonder.
The anxiety of writing about others, and especially your daughter Maia, comes to the fore in the essay “Mama’s Voices.” This is such a strong piece of writing for so many reasons.
Thank you! And thanks also to Fiona Tinwei Lam, (http://fionalam.net/) who encouraged me to write this piece. She and her co-editors had already accepted a proposal for a completely different piece to be included in Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood, but when she heard the story about my experience at a writing conference, she urged me to switch tracks and write about that instead.
Julija Šukys: You describe leaving Maia for the first time– it’s not an easy thing to do, but necessary and desirable for your work. There, after having received positive feedback regarding an essay you’ve written about Maia, you decide to change course and run with the idea of writing a book about your relationship with her. When you workshop this idea, you find yourself harshly criticized by fellow writers and even a revered memoirist and mentor, who compares your project with her own unsavoury idea of writing a book about a pedophile. I recognized so many of my own anxieties and experiences in this piece. Please talk a little about your view and experience of writing and mothering. How did becoming a mother change your relationship to writing?
Susan Olding: In the short term, it made it a lot harder to get any work done!
But over time, it has been the greatest thing possible for my writing life. First, because our daughter brings enormous joy into our lives, and joy begets joy. Also, at times she’s been a muse. And she has taught me so much about myself and my limits, and also about creativity. She’s profluent and spontaneous in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such deep pleasure to share her in her quicksilver spirit. I’m so grateful to be her mother.
You point to how writing about one’s own life is sometimes seen as unseemly, solipsistic, narcissistic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. What, in your view, is the piece that sets successful autobiographical writing apart?
Successful autobiographical writing invites readers to draw comparisons to their own experience; it prompts and provides occasion for a kind of deep reflection that may be increasingly rare in our fragmented lives, and reminds us of where we stand in a historical or cultural context. Somehow, it affirms the possibility of making meaning. So it’s all about the author—and yet not about the author, at all! Strange paradox.
How does this work? Subtext, subtext, subtext. Language and structure create this subtext. Which is why Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” counsels that it is “no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless…you…know how to write.”
Adam Gopnick claims that the memoir and personal essay are actually the least self-indulgent of genres. You can’t get away with flourishes or padding if you are writing about yourself.
You have changed some of the names in the book and have retained others, like Maia’s. How do you decide when to do this? Do you allow the people you write about any veto power?
My decisions about retaining or changing names weren’t terribly systematic. I went with my gut.
I asked the people I’m closest to—my husband and my daughter. Of course I knew there was no way to get anything like “informed consent” from an eight year old, but Maia knew generally that I had written about our struggles, and her decision to go by her own name seemed consistent with her character. Right now she is pre-teen shy, and would probably balk, but in general she is a very open person and always has been.
I also asked several friends. Most chose to go under their own names but a few preferred to remain anonymous. I respected their wishes.
I changed students’ names and a few identifying features so they wouldn’t be recognizable and their privacy would be preserved. These people didn’t know I was writing about them; it didn’t seem fair to identify them by name; nor, for that matter, did it seem necessary.
As for my parents, I felt their privacy was already protected to some degree (among strangers) because I don’t share their surname. For extra protection, I changed their first names.
I gave veto power only once, to my brother, for “On Separation,” the piece about my sister-in-law, and I also asked him if I should change her name. He generously allowed me to publish and encouraged me to retain her name because he felt she would have liked that.
Do you still worry about hurting those you write about?
Of course! Although “worry” probably isn’t the right word. I hope I won’t hurt those I write about. And I do my best to prevent that. But I have in fact hurt people that I’ve written about, and suspect I may do so again. And ultimately, I’m loyal to the work.
I want to touch on the issues of critique and courage. I found the description of your devastation and confusion in the face of you peers’ criticisms very moving. The workshop participants (fellow writers) told you that it would be unfair to write about your daughter, and that you risked ruining her life by doing so. After sometime, you came to the conclusion that, despite their objections, you had to or wanted to write about her anyway. I think that this essay tells some deep truths about the writing process: both about how vulnerable writers are, but also how fierce. Even when we are racked with self-doubt, every writer who manages to bring a big project like a book to fruition also needs to have a rock-hard belief in the value what she does. How has that moment of doubt, after you received such criticism for your plans to write about your daughter, shaped your subsequent work and way of thinking?
Such a good question.
The simple answer is that I have not written the book that I proposed to write at the conference. Because in a way—and this is the hardest thing to acknowledge—that teacher was right! It wasn’t the right time to write a book about Maia.
Not because I might ruin her life. Not because it would say something awful about me as a person if I chose to write it. But because I wasn’t ready. And on some level, I recognized this at the time, and my recognition made my peers’ objections and the teacher’s objections cut more deeply. For the fact is, if I had been ready, nothing they said would have stopped me.
I may never be ready. Strangely, perhaps, that possibility doesn’t bother me. The need to write that particular book has passed. I have sometimes mourned other “lost” books—the novel that I set aside 100 pages in, the book of poems that I didn’t manage to finish. But I don’t mourn the book about Maia.
Having said all that, although I may not have written a whole book, I did write about my daughter. And I published what I wrote. So in that sense, I ignored what my critics said. I also wrote about the conference itself. Did I say writing well was the best defence? It’s also the best revenge. [Insert evil chuckle.]
Seriously, though—I hope there’s enough irony in “Mama’s Voices” to suggest that while my hurt was real, and to some degree justified, I also see humour in the situation. The essay includes a parallel narrative about Lana Turner, queen of the melodrama. I had my own little melodrama going on in that workshop!
But “fierce” is such a great word; we really do have to be fierce. People will tell us that what we’re doing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or that we’re not good at it, or that it isn’t worth doing. And usually, we’re advised to ignore these critical voices. But I don’t believe we can ignore them. Or at least I can’t ignore them, so I’ve made necessity a virtue.
I say we need to learn to listen, for blanket criticisms can disguise meaningful objections, and we need to cultivate enough humility to recognize when that’s the case. At the same time, we need to hang on to some sense of the worth of what we’re doing. And we need to trust our own inner vision, and constantly measure our work against our felt sense of the beautiful and the true.
“My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,” said Keats— “and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”
But it’s an incredibly delicate balance—to remain open to critique while at the same time holding fast to the essential value of what we are doing. The test I sometimes use: Would I want to read this? If not, then I shouldn’t foist it on others. If yes, then I need to keep working on it until I get it right.
Last question: your form is the essay. Conventional wisdom in the writing/publishing community says that essays don’t sell and that the form is unsexy. Tell me about how you came to be an essayist, and what you think the form has to offer.
Conventional wisdom is right; essays don’t sell! At least they don’t sell when the author is an unknown writer. I was thrilled when Melanie Little at Freehand took a chance on this collection.
But why don’t essays sell? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s even a lie. Because they do sell, in anthologies. Look at how well the Dropped Threads series (and others) have done. Most of the pieces in those anthologies are essays of one kind or another, although typically they are less deeply exploratory than the best writing in the genre. Still, readers love them. And readers also continue to respond to classic essays by Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and many more. So the form is very much alive, even if writers can’t make a living from it.
Is the essay my form? Actually, I write fiction and poetry, too. It’s just that, in general, I’ve been less satisfied with my work in those genres and haven’t published as much of it (see above). But you’re onto something, because I think I’m an essayist by temperament and inclination. A born questioner and self-questioner.
It’s arguable, but the essay may be our most intimate form. Reading one is a bit like reading a letter from a friend, and in fact, some people believe that Montaigne began writing his essays because he could no longer converse with a dear friend who had succumbed to the plague. Essays can be playful or deeply serious (or both at once); they can be concise or expansive; they can be lyrical or logical. Always, they invite the reader to share in an exploration of some kind. You never know where you’ll end up when you set out, or what you’ll see, but you do know that the author will show and tell, and you will think and feel, that no part of you will be left behind or set aside.
I love the form. I loved it long before I knew its name. That may not sound sexy to publishers, but it sure sounds sexy to me!
Visit Susan Olding’s site here.
This interview originally appeared at www.julijasukys.com