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Thursday, August 27, 2009

this lovely life

Oh, what to say? How to begin? Vicki Forman’s memoir, This Lovely Life, is so close to my heart.

When I initially started reading Vicki’s blog, Speak Softly, I didn’t realize that Evan had been born prematurely. I was caught up in Vicki’s lovely writing and in her voice as an advocate for children with special needs. It wasn’t until I read her archives and her column at Literary Mama that I realized Evan was a surviving twin and had been born at 23-weeks.

23-weeks is on the cusp of viability. If you are not a preemie parent, you may gasp and shake your head, but it is difficult to imagine what this means. If you are a preemie parent or have spent time in a NICU, 23-weeks means something else: it means either death or months in the hospital—months of good days followed by devastating days. It means brain bleeds, retinopathy of prematurity, severely underdeveloped lungs.

The Lovely Life is one of the best motherhood memoirs I have read. It details the first years of Evan’s life, the ups and downs that Vicki and her husband, Cliff, lived through after the twins’ birth: Ellie’s death after four days and Evan’s intensely long and heartbreaking stay in two hospitals. It’s the story of how Vicki overcomes her grief and learns to love her son. It’s a story about a different side of motherhood, a story of how one woman learns to become a different kind of mother.

For preemie parents, this book is a must-read. My story is so different from Vicki’s. Stella was born at 32-weeks, and didn’t face the intense challenges that Evan and Ellie faced. But still, I have marked dozens of pages in The Lovely Life where I nodded my head in agreement, where I saw my own experiences and thoughts reflected on the page.

One of the things I respect so much about this book is the fact that Vicki does not sugarcoat anything. Vicki lays bear her emotions and is not afraid to let the messy stuff—the raw grief and sharp anger—onto the page.

Brett Lott has a wonderful essay called “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. (You can read a condensed version of his essay here.) In it, Lott says that to write successful creative nonfiction, you must: “be ruthlessly honest about how you see yourself in relation to others” and you “can’t be self-righteous or self-serving.”

Vicki is both ruthlessly honest and not at all self-serving. The ethical questions of how early is too early, and what kind of life is a life are in the book, in the details of Vicki’s story, but it’s clear that she is not writing with an agenda in mind.

Vicki graciously agreed to an e-mail interview, so I'm honored to have her here at Mother Words today:

Kate: Can you tell me a little about how you began writing the book?

Vicki: The book started as a series of journal entries I began a few weeks after the twins were born. I didn’t know at that point that I had a book, or that I would write a book about this experience, but I suspected I might and I knew that if I did, I would want to have a record of specific details from that time--things like what doctors said, or what I said in return.

I continued to keep that journal as Evan’s hospital course became increasingly complicated. In the end, the journal was about nineteen single-spaced pages that constituted the original backbone of the book. Some of those entries worked their way into the book. The rest became notes that helped me construct the narrative.

My first attempts to craft a story beyond those notes became the essay, “Coming to Samsara.” That piece was published in the Santa Monica Review and then reprinted in Suzanne Kamata’s anthology, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child With Special Needs. I’m a big believer in getting smaller sections of a longer work into print whenever possible: it allows a writer to keep going with the project, while also permitting pieces of the work to leave the house. That’s good for the writer, and good for the writing.

Kate: Your present “now” self is always close to the surface in This Lovely Life. You reference events and challenges that arise in the future and reflect on your emotional state at the time with your “now” sensibilities. I’m curious about whether this style arose organically for you or whether you made a conscious effort to craft this perspective into the story.

Vicki: The first drafts of the story were a straightforward, chronological telling. As I began to revise, I saw that I would need what you refer to as the “later” voice--one that I called my “reflective” voice—as a strategy for commenting on the events. It felt important to me to give the reader a sense that amidst all the hard news and setbacks we encountered, we had found a way to mend and heal as a family. I could only offer up that perspective by flashing forward with voice and point of voice, into that “later” person you so rightfully notice.

Kate: Your honesty is really breathtaking and so very brave. Was it difficult to get to a place where you could be this honest on the page?

Vicki: I’m laughing at the question, because in fact I had a sort of the opposite difficulty: I knew the material was tough and my feelings were quite honest, so I focused on making the tough stuff more bearable. I worked a lot on voice and narrative distance so that even if the facts and details were honest, the reader had something of a filter, via the narrator, for that honesty.

Above all, I knew that I did not want to elicit pity, because I’ve come to see that often explicit honesty can generate pity within the reader. So I tried to tell it like it was, but in a way where readers might recognize examples of honest feelings within themselves, but also understand that honesty can be processed, or incorporated, and amid the honesty life and perspective and good humor do go on.

Kate: What was the most challenging part of writing This Lovely Life?

Vicki: I had a rare kind of grace accompanying me during the writing, in which I felt very connected to the material, the goals of the book, its urgency and purpose. That sense of purpose and urgency carried me along so effectively that my typical writer doldrums (self-doubt, confusion, procrastination) were mostly pretty far away. I don’t know why the writing came to me the way it did, but I’m eternally grateful.

My biggest challenges came not in writing the book, oddly, but in selling it. When the book was done, I thought I had done a decent job. There was a narrative arc, and a cohesion, and the writing was more or less something I could feel proud about. Then my agent was unable to sell it.

We received the most heartbreaking rejections, with editors reporting that they loved the writing but had no idea how to market the book or find its audience. After a dozen or so of these, I withdrew the book from submission and told my agent I wanted to figure things out on my own. I had to regroup in a pretty fundamental way. The first decision I made was to submit to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. While I waited to hear, I began to proceed with other options, like small presses. Before I had to figure out my next steps, the book won the prize.

But not being able to sell the book shook my confidence in a way that had not happened in the actual writing, so that was an interesting twist for me, and reminded me too that writers have to be made of steel from start to finish. The job doesn’t end when the writing ends.

Kate: What would you tell other writers about this process?

Vicki: My path to publication was certainly not orthodox, nor would I recommend it, but for me, thankfully, it worked, presenting a once in a lifetime event that I don’t expect to repeat itself. Next time around, I’ll have to figure out how to convince an editor. That’s the way most writers do it, right?

Kate: I’m a very interested in the revision process. Between the time you won the Bakeless Prize and This Lovely Life was ready to go to print, your dear Evan died. Did his death affect how you reread and revised your manuscript? If so, how?

Vicki: I was scheduled to revise the book the summer of 2008, with a fall deadline. There were some scenes to include, and some deeper characterization to work on. Then my son died, and all bets were off. My editor told me to take all the time I needed, my friends offered to help in whatever way they could, and I simply felt my way, in my own good time, back to the writing.

The first change I made to the book was to add the epilogue, which I had drafted as my last piece (“Saying Goodbye”) for the column I wrote at the time for Literary Mama. After I wrote the epilogue I knew I could reapproach the book, that I had to, that my job wasn’t done and that as a writer I would have to find a way to do that job. It was not easy, but the book itself seemed to provide an actual physical solace and comfort. The phrase, “all we have are our words,” certainly took on a profound and resonant meaning for me.

Kate: Now that This Lovely Life is published, how does it feel to see your lives in print and have people react to your experiences? What are some of the responses you are getting?

Vicki: I like to say I wrote the book I wish had been there for me when I was going through these events. Now that the book is in print, I do find myself hearing from readers for whom this statement resonates. They recognize themselves in the events, the emotions, and the grief. Many of these emotions and reactions are in fact universal. And while I can see why mainstream publishing felt the story was too hard, it is unfortunately the case that grief and loss and death happen over and over in our culture, we just don’t get to read stories about it. We like happy endings, and miracles and so-called success. To put a face to a life like Evan’s, or to render honest feelings of imperfect motherhood like mine—it’s a gift for me as a writer to even approximate that goal.

Thank you, Vicki, for taking the time to answer these questions! Don’t forget that you can see Vicki in person on Thursday, September 24th at 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center in the Open Book in Minneapolis. I will be reading with Vicki and Kate St. Vincent Vogl. Free and open to the public!


Mary said...

What a great interview, Kate! I loved your questions and getting to hear more about Vicki's writing process.

Next month's event sounds terrific -- I do hope you will post about it afterward.

Sara said...

Oh, I wish I could be there.

kate hopper said...

Thanks, Mary! I'll definitely recap the reading.

Sara, I wish you could be here, as well!

The Blue Suitcase said...

Thanks for the terrific interview--though difficult indeed. What a story, behind such a story.