“When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world.”
No Relation (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)
The experiences that you share in No Relation are emotionally complex and deeply personal; what was the process of writing, editing, and eventually publishing such vulnerable material like for you?
I often share with my students a quote from Robert Olen Butler that directs an artist to “go into the white hot center” of themselves without flinching. When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world.
That is not to say it isn’t hard and scary! The week before No Relation was published I had a bit of a panic attack as it became real that I was putting this raw part of myself out there for everyone to see. Still, I am so grateful to all of the writers who have come before me who have been willing to do that. Writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Rachel Cusk. I wanted to contribute to that tradition in my small way. And what I have found is that when I am willing to be vulnerable as a writer, the reader is willing to go there with me. I’ve had many people reach out to say the book made them feel seen and that is a remarkable thing.
In “Memory” you write: “On Science Friday, Steve Ramirez of MIT explains how we think of memory like a tape recorder. We think we can replay it just as it happened. But it is not like that at all. He calls it a ‘reconstructive process.’ Every time we remember something we must recreate the memory and that can change it. He says that you might insert new knowledge into a memory” (23). No Relation seems to be deeply informed by this explanation of memory, even down to the structural mimicry of the way that memories return, not necessarily in chronological order. How did you decide upon the order of the essays in the book?
When I first started writing the book, I made a list of moments and memories that were particularly vivid and that kept returning to me. Then I took them one at a time and wrote an essay about each one. I knew the book wouldn’t exactly be in chronological order; as you mention, like memories, things from the past speak to each other in surprising ways. One memory seems connected to another, even if they were years apart. And I knew it was in the paring and the way one piece would play off of another that the power of such short moments would be felt. It was in the conversation the pieces were having with one another that I was going to be able to say what I wanted to say. However, the final order is something I played with a lot, moving a piece here or there to see how it might be read differently depending on what had come before it.
Also, I also knew that I was only one part of this story – that there were other people (James and the boys) who had their own version of what happened and their own way of remembering the events. I wanted to include a thread in the book about memory and the way we remember in order to acknowledge that this is the way I remember it, but it is not the only way of remembering it.
I found the essays about Octavia especially engaging. How did this connection come about? Was there research involved in the process of writing these essays in which you connect yourself to the historical figure of Octavia?
Research is an important part of my writing process. I notice something that confuses or interests me and then research that thing in order to understand more about my own reaction to it.
After I left James and the boys, I tried to find other people who had had similar experiences to help me understand and process my own. And what I discovered is that although there wasn’t a lot written about it, so many people had had some version of the experience. Also, I realized that it isn’t a new phenomenon. We like to think that the demise of the nuclear family is a modern fate, but it is not. While doing research, I read Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz. It explores how our modern conception of marriage and family (two people who fall in love and then have 2.5 kids) is really fairly new. I wanted to ensure some of that history ended up in the book. Then, Octavia captured my imagination. We hear so much about Antony and Cleopatra … and then there is Octavia at home caring for all their kids! It made me angry and where there is anger there is often something that needs to be said.
Something I’ve heard writing professors recently discuss is the difficulty of writing an ending. “In Town for Other Reasons” seems to be a very natural conclusion to your book. Was this the inevitable ending or was this something that you had to wrestle with?
Endings are difficult! They’re difficult because they are so important. The final moment can tell a reader how they should reflect back on everything else that has come before. If the final chord is off-key, the song feels unresolved. And I did struggle with the ending. As I mentioned, I moved pieces around a lot as I was deciding what the final order would be. “In Town for Other Reasons” was always towards the end, but not the final piece. I had been ending on pieces that were even a bit darker/heavier. One of my trusted readers suggested I move this one to the end, and it then made so much sense. The chord resolved.
Do you have any advice for new and aspiring writers of creative nonfiction?
Clearly I’m in the love with the flash form. Even if it isn’t your form, a practice of writing a short piece regularly (it doesn’t have to be every day – for many of us in our busy lives that is too much and then we just won’t do it at all) can train a writer to see the moments in their lives that are asking to be explored. It also is a great way to practice identifying and describing significant details – which details reveal the moment’s meaning?
Some of the best advice I received was to slow down. I felt like I had to hurry up and get my work out there. And with so many online spaces that need content, you can find ways to do that. But, if you are in a hurry, you may never discover the depth and beauty you are capable of. Writing in many ways is about reflection. Give yourself the space to do that.
Which writers (of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction) inspire you the most? Are there any particular writers whose work you would say influenced No Relation?
Certainly. I had written some flash pieces before, but hadn’t considered writing a whole book in the form until I read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, which is a memoir told in flash. I was so moved by the book and so taken with the style that I almost immediately felt that I wanted to write something similar. It ended up being a model for No Relation throughout the whole process.
I am inspired by so many writers … how does one choose? Recently, I’ve been inspired by Luis Alberto Urrea whose novel House of Broken Angels is playing with the line between fiction and nonfiction, something I’m always interested in. Megan Stielstra’s essay collection Once I Was Cool I return to when I want to think about variety in structure – also the essays are just really fun. Also, Rachel Cusk. Outline, the first book in her trilogy, I cannot stop talking about! And her memoir Aftermath is a great example of someone not flinching when they reach that white-hot center. I can feel my blood pressure rising just mentioning these books. When you look at a book just sitting there, it seems so docile. But there is so much power in there.
Paula Carter is the author of the flash memoir No Relation. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Based in Chicago, she is a part of the live lit community and is a company member with the storytelling group 2nd Story. She holds an M.F.A. from Indiana University, Bloomington and is currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University.