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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is the essays editor for Longreads. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

My Puppy, Myself

Photo by Jason Diamond

At Curbed, Jason Diamond reflects on the early, difficult days with Max, the anxious rescue dog he and his wife adopted shortly after they were married. For a while, Max and his alpha attitude toward other dogs caused trouble between his owners and their neighbors in their Brooklyn apartment building. Looking back, Diamond understands where Max’s anxieties came from and realizes how much they were, and are, alike.

Max had a hard life before we adopted him as an adult. It was clear from his constant fear and anxiety that a previous owner had neglected and abused him. At three, he had no commands or socialization. It took months for us to get him to learn “sit,” even with training classes. If I had to guess, he was rarely, if ever, walked with a leash.

And he has no idea how to interact. He cries, whimpers, and sometimes growls, making other dog owners think maybe letting my dog meet theirs isn’t the hottest idea. From Max’s perspective, he must meet every other dog. Every butt not smelled is a missed opportunity. And when I stop to talk with somebody? Max gives me maybe 30 seconds, and then unleashes a series of barks that are the loudest I’ve heard from a smaller dog that isn’t a beagle.

My dog can be terrible, but when you take a dog that somebody else didn’t want into your home, you’re offering your open heart to the baggage that comes with them. And I guess, in a lot of ways, he’s just like me. His enemies are mine. And unfortunately, we’d made more than our fair share in our neighborhood.

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When Musical Theater Is Also a Kind of Therapy

Photo of cast members Ashton Bianchi, Kirsten McConnell, and Ethan Kaufman by Zak Krevitt

At Topic, Isaac Butler has a feature on a youth theater production of the 2006 rock musical Spring Awakening in rehearsals at Barclay Performing Arts in West Boca Raton — near the city of Parkland — including some kids who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and were present during the shooting.

The show, which is about young people in 19th-century Germany discovering their sexuality, provides these traumatized actors a way to explore and express their complicated emotions, and realize they are not alone in their experiences as teens.

In interview after interview, the adolescents I talked to told me how important the musical had become to them since the shooting. “It’s helping me to heal because it’s helping me say my feelings and express myself without having to do so in front of people I’m not comfortable with,” says Ethan Kaufman, 15. A Stoneman Douglas student, Ethan has stayed away from politics in the shooting’s aftermath because he’s had to “recuperate,” in his words. “But I’m really proud of them,” he says of his more politically active castmates. He hopes that when the community comes to the show, they’ll see “that kids are humans too. There comes a point where you have to let us experience the world for what it is—otherwise, when it does hit us, it will hit us way harder than it would if we were prepared for it.”

Sawyer Garrity, who plays the doomed Wendla, says the show is about “what happens when parents don’t teach their teens what the world is actually like.” At first, she felt lost in the role of Wendla, a character she imagined herself as worlds apart from. But ultimately, she says, “I realized that I am a lot like her. She’s just a girl who wants to go about her life, have a nice, normal life. She just wants to make the people in her life happy—and then, all of a sudden, everything comes crashing down on her quicker than she can possibly understand.”

Spring Awakening will be performed May 2 and 6 at the Boca Black Box theater.

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You Can’t ‘Never Forget’ the Holocaust if You Haven’t Learned About It

Like so many kids raised Jewish, I learned about the Holocaust again and again, year after year — in regular school, in religious school, and from my family.

After hearing the refrain “Never again!” nearly every time the slaughter of six million Jews was mentioned, I assumed this was a catastrophic tragedy everyone knew about and no one could ever possibly forget — and therefore, history would never repeat.

Now, here we are with a racist, anti-semitic president whose election and positions have emboldened white supremacists and Nazis to come out of the woodwork and commit hate crimes. According to the New York Times, in 2017, anti-semitic incidents surged by 57 percent. And today — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the paper is reporting on a study by Claims Conference: The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that shows American knowledge about the Holocaust is at an all-time low — particularly among millennials.

In the article, titled “Holocaust is Fading from Memory, Survey Finds,” Maggie Astor writes:

A survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.

One antidote to our national amnesia seems to be the capturing and sharing of the remaining 400,000 survivors’ stories.

Holocaust remembrance advocates and educators, who agree that no book, film or traditional exhibition can compare to the voice of a survivor, dread the day when none are left to tell their stories.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington collects comment cards from many visitors before they leave, and they underscore that “no educational experience that anyone has coming through here has as much of an impact as hearing from a survivor directly,” said Kristine Donly, interim director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum, who sat on the board that developed the survey.

And so, across the country and around the world, museums and memorials are looking for ways to tell the witnesses’ stories once the witnesses are gone.

Nothing communicates the reality of something so unimaginably horrible like seeing the faces and names, and hearing the narratives, of those subjected to it. I can attest to that; despite my lifelong immersion in Holocaust education — plus college courses in Holocaust literature, plays and films, and a visit to Dachau in my 20s — nothing made it as real for me as accidentally learning last year that my grandfather’s brother, Alberto DeBotton, was rescued on April 13th, 1945, on a train from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt.

I never knew about this because of a legacy of estrangement in my family. I don’t know whether my grandfather and the rest of his family even knew about Alberto’s experience in a concentration camps, because of “bad blood” and silence between them. Last year, when I was researching my mother’s side of the family on Ancestry.com, the site surprised me with a “clue” about Alberto, which led me to articles and a book, A Train Near Magdeburg by Matthew Rozell, about the famous American rescue mission that apparently saved his life.

I’m doing some research, hoping to learn more about Alberto and the roughly 66,000 other Jews from Thessaloniki, or Salonika as my Sephardic ancestors called it, who were murdered. But the Nazis destroyed all the vital information on the Jews there, making research nearly impossible — and contributing to the dangerous global disease of Holocaust amnesia.

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Our Bodies, Our Selves

At Medium, Hunger: A Memoir of My Body author Roxane Gay created Unruly Bodies, an excellent pop-up magazine, to be delivered in installments over four Tuesdays in April — “a month-long magazine exploring our ever-changing relationship with our bodies,” she writes in the introduction. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do — to create a space for writers I respect and admire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about unruly bodies and what it means to be human.”

She tapped a diverse group of 24 writers to contribute. This first edition features an introduction by Gay, and essays by Randa Jarrar, Kiese Laymon, Matthew Salesses, Keah Brown, S. Bear Bergman, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Writers to be featured in the next three editions: Carmen Maria Machado, chelsea g. summers, Kaveh Akbar, Terese Mailhot, Casey Hannan, Samantha Irby, Tracy Lynne Oliver, Kelly Davio, Brian Oliu, Mike Copperman, Danielle Evans, Jennine Capó Crucet, Megan Carpentier, Kima Jones, the writer known as Your Fat Friend, Gabrielle Bellot, Mensah Demary, and larissa pham.

In creating Unruly Bodies, Gay was influenced by her experience after publishing Hunger. Readers reacted in ways that were intrusive, inappropriate, and hurtful. Unsolicited (and unqualified), they offered diet and exercise advice. They judged her. They insulted her.

I wrote about my body and strangers, with both good and bad intentions, generally missed the point of what I had to say. They viewed my body as a problem to be solved, as something they could discuss and debate. But I put myself out there. I wrote the story of my body so what could I do but grit my teeth and get through it?

After getting through it, she was inspired to ask others to write about their experiences living — in one way or another — outside the straight, cis, thin, white mainstream.

I first began thinking of the body as unruly after reading Hanne Blank’s collection Unruly Appetites. It was such a provocative, honest phrasing, this acknowledgment that the things we most want and crave are rarely easily ruled or disciplined. The bodies harboring our unruly appetites are unruly in and of themselves — they are as weak and fallible as they are strong. In many ways, our bodies are completely unknowable, but oh, how we try to master our unruly bodies, nonetheless.

When Medium approached me to curate a pop-up magazine, I knew exactly what I wanted to do — to create a space for writers I respect and admire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about unruly bodies and what it means to be human. I asked twenty-four talented writers to respond to the same prompt: what does it mean to live in an unruly body? Each writer interpreted this prompt in a unique way and offered up a small wonder.

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The Year of the Jumpsuit

For me, 2018 has been the year of the jumpsuit. In January I acquired two, and have worn one or the other nearly every day. (I’m wearing one as I write this! I even got one for my husband.)

I hadn’t processed my affinity for these gender-neutral, utilitarian coveralls until I read Heather Radke‘s essay for The Paris Review about JUMPSUIT, a political art project by The Rational Dress Society’s Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer.

Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer aim to call attention to the ills of late capitalism — and to “make America rational again” — by manufacturing non-gendered, nearly shapeless jumpsuits, and encouraging people to wear them to the exclusion of all other attire.

In reporting on the project, Radke spends three weeks in a jumpsuit, and finds a surprising freedom in this particular fashion — or, anti-fashion — dictum. I relate completely.

The next morning, as I walk to work, I realize that it’s the first time in years, maybe decades, that I am wearing such loose-fitting clothing in public. Sure, I’ll wear a baggy sweater or a swing dress, but there is always a bit of Lycra or a constricting band in there somewhere — a pair of tights or skinny jeans, a too-tight sleeve or an uncomfortable armpit. Abigail and Maura tell me that clothing companies make everything tight and stretchy so they can make fewer sizes — it’s cheaper to cut three sizes than six.

As I walk up the stairs to my office, no fabric grips my skin, and I feel unencumbered. Although I have been worried about how I look, the truth is I’ve never felt less fat. The garment does not constantly remind me of my girth; it does not threaten to bust at the seams if I move too quickly or eat too much. I’m not just thwarting the tyranny of capitalism — I’m thwarting the tyranny of tightness.

Several women compliment me on the first day — “I love your coveralls!” one coworker shouts casually across the room. Two others tell me that while they think I look great, the garment would never work on their body. It’s a constant refrain I’ll hear during my time in the jumpsuit. We all seem to think our bodies are impossible — too fat or thin, too long a torso or too thick a waist — to be accommodated.

Not choosing an outfit really does save time. But more than time, it saves a kind of emotional labor that I hadn’t realized I was doing. I spent so much time wondering, What should I wear? The answer seemed to lie in discerning what other people would expect, how I could impress them, what would look cool. But after a beat of contemplation, I’d remember I already knew what I was going to wear. I was going to wear a jumpsuit. I could move on to other things. I began to sleep in a little later. I actually sat down to eat breakfast and got some reading in before heading off to work. But the real freedom came from not starting every day thinking about all the problems with my body or my wardrobe.

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When Financial Privilege is Mistakenly Assumed

At The Rumpus, Narratively deputy editor Lilly Dancyger has an essay I strongly identify with.

In her piece — excerpted from Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, a new anthology edited by Michelle Tea — Dancyger writes about dealing with people’s mistaken assumptions about the economics of her upbringing. A high-school dropout who later worked her way through college and graduate school, Dancyger grew up poor — the daughter of a single mother who was a recovering heroin addict. In New York City media circles, people tend to make comments indicating they assume she comes from financial privilege.

I’ve had similar experiences, growing up adjacent to money while not having much. I was surrounded by cousins and step-family who had much more, giving people around me the impression that I was living a much more comfortable life than I was. I felt I couldn’t speak up about their misconceptions, or the financial and power differentials within my family life. There was never a right moment to say, “No, no — I worked three jobs to put myself through college while she had the benefit of a trust fund.”

Here, Dancyger proudly sets her record straight. After attending a media industry event where people’s comments make her realize she “passes” as privileged, she reflects on her struggle to put herself through school and succeed in publishing.

Now I pass. I’ve made it. So why do I feel so queasy? Why did I have the urge to defend myself at that networking event, to tell the people around me, “I’m not one of you!”

The usual narrative about the scrappy working-class kid who pulls herself up is that she’s supposed to be embarrassed about where she comes from. She’s supposed to work hard to keep up the illusion, to convince her peers that she, too, went to sleepaway summer camps and lived in college dorms. When she passes, she has succeeded.

But I don’t want to blend in. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never treated waitstaff or security guards or bus drivers like they’re not there, that I relate to them more than I do to most of my peers. I’m proud of the fact that I dropped out of high school, and not just because I still managed to go on to get an Ivy League graduate degree, but because I knew what was best for me at the age of just fourteen, and I had the courage to do it.

I don’t feel ashamed of my history, I feel ashamed of letting it be erased.

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Looking Back On the Last Housing Bubble From the Precipice of the Next One

(Getty)

I could have used a trigger warning for Ryan Dezember’s recent Wall Street Journal essay commemorating the 10th anniversary of the bursting of the housing bubble.

Dezember writes about getting stuck for more than a decade with a deeply devalued house he’d bought on the Alabama Gulf Coast at a speculator’s price during the market’s peak in 2005.

My husband and I had a similar experience. Around the same time, we paid asking price for a house in Rosendale, New York, a depressed town in the Hudson Valley, after our lower offer was rejected. “Rosendale is really coming up now,” the owner argued. Two years later, the bubble burst, and Chase cut off the home equity line of credit we’d been using to renovate, saying we were now under water. In their opinion, our house was worth about 30 percent less than what we owed on it.

Due to the recession, we had less work, our incomes dropped, and the price of oil soared, making it hard for us to heat the house and pay the mortgage. We tried taking in a tenant, but for a variety of reasons, that was only workable for a month. We looked into ways to convert the house into a two-family so it would bring in income, but that would have meant borrowing money on credit cards to hopefully, maybe make some money. Eventually, we rented the whole place out and moved to an apartment in nearby Kingston.

Dezember’s experience was much more dramatic and painful than ours: His marriage fell apart, ours is intact; his renters used the place as a drug depot, while ours are actually about to buy our house (we close next Thursday!). And our home’s value has healthily rebounded to the point that we’re not losing too much of what we put into the place.

Now we find ourselves looking for a new home to buy in suddenly-chic Kingston, where we’ve been renting for four years, and where prices have quickly come to feel artificially inflated. We worry we’re about to buy into yet another housing bubble. How long before this one bursts? Dezember writes:

At a staff meeting last summer, my editors at the Journal put out a call for stories to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the housing crash. One colleague pitched a story about young Wall Street types who viewed the crisis as a historical event. Such a story would have never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, the housing crisis had ended just a few weeks earlier.

About 2.5 million American homes are still worth less than their mortgage debt, according to estimates by CoreLogic . That is about double what it should be in an otherwise healthy market, said Frank Nothaft, CoreLogic’s chief economist.

Those of us who have emerged from underwater missed the chance to buy low. Home prices in many markets now exceed their 2006 peaks.

Investors such as Mr. Schwarzman who amassed thousands of houses to rent have bet more than $40 billion wagering that the crisis was so traumatic for people like me, and so destructive to our finances, that we’ll be renters forever. They may be right.

At a wedding I attended recently, I met a real-estate broker who touted the riches to be made by buying units in the glassy residential towers popping up along the waterfront in Brooklyn, where I live. No matter how slapdash the construction, she said, prices have only one direction to go.

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It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Consent’ Is

It’s amazing how the #MeToo movement has so quickly reframed our understanding of so many old things — books, movies, culture, news stories, scandals. I’ve been waiting for an updated interpretation of what was once problematically known as “the Lewinsky affair,” and I was so thrilled this week to see it coming to us from Monica Lewinsky herself.

In a personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the 20th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky reconsiders her relationship with Clinton — 27 years her senior — through the lens of 2018, and realizes that given their power differential, the word “consensual” might not have perfectly applied.

Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)

Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)

But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)

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The Truth About Writing Fiction From Your Life

Elisa Albert and Emily Gould talk with Longreads Essays Editor Sari Botton about the decisions involved in writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Kingston, NY on Sunday, February 11th, 2018.

Sari Botton | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4300 words)

I’ve been working on a few different book projects for years — okay, decades — without yet publishing. There are many, many reasons it’s been taking me so long, but one of them is that I keep vacillating between memoir and fiction.

In the early 90s I dabbled in MFA programs, focusing on fiction. What I began writing in those days was somewhat based on my own experiences, yet also very made-up.

Then in the mid-90s, after I dropped out of two different programs in succession, books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club appeared and sparked a memoir boom. As a reader I became a nonfiction junkie. As a writer, I switched gears, started publishing personal essays…and then spent a lot of time freaking out about upsetting people by writing the truth — or my version of it, anyway.

These days I go back and forth, working on both memoir and somewhat autobiographical fiction, and spend a lot of time debating the merits of each with other writers.

On Sunday, February 11th, I turned to two of my favorite authors, Elisa Albert and Emily Gould, for their take on this. I sat down with them at Rough Draft Bar and Books in Kingston, New York, for a conversation ranging from the choices around writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings, to the differences — mechanically-speaking and otherwise — between memoir and “autofiction.”

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Below you can listen to the audio — including Albert reading a passage from After Birth, and Gould reading a passage from Friendship, plus a Q&A with the audience.

* * *

Sari Botton: Elsewhere, both of you have talked a lot about, and written about, writing fiction from your life. I’ve been intrigued, and I thought that other people would want to hear about this too. So, is there a difference in your mind, either one of you, between straight up fiction and fiction that does have autobiographical elements, and what would be the difference?

Elisa Albert: We could do like a one word answer on the count of three, yes, or no. I don’t think there’s a difference. I think it’s like a spectrum, you know? Like a continuum, if you will. We are all bound by the limits of consciousness such as it is. Unless we alter our consciousness, but even altered consciousness is consciousness. It exists, you know? I mean, I can’t get into the physics too deeply, but even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. Or the one you, the eternal you, the shared collective you.

Emily Gould: Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. No aliens are going to show up at the temp agency where Bev [a character in Friendship] is going to have her interview. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. This book is actually so made up. And it’s actually really frustrating sometimes when people are like, “Oh, so what was it like for you when …” [name of my best friend] “decided to have a baby after getting pregnant after a one night stand?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because that didn’t happen in my actual life.”

At the same time I want credit for being such an imaginative person, but then I look at any individual page of this book, and I’m like, well, yes, I did eat at that restaurant, and have basically that exact same interaction. But you know, then it became fictionalized. And we both have also written a lot of nonfiction, and think there is a shining line in my mind between the two forms.

Botton: You’ve both also written a fair amount of essay and memoir, and so people recognize certain things from your lives, which they can project on to your books, saying it’s totally just your life. But now you’re calling it a novel.

Albert: Change the names and there you go.

Botton: Right, exactly. But a lot of other novelists choose to completely invent worlds and that’s not what you’re doing, so it’s an interesting choice. Emily, I read something that you wrote about where the choice started. That you were having a hard time after writing a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever. That after that you were having a hard time writing in the first person. Do you want to talk a little bit about that shift?

Gould: Oh sure. Yeah. In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. It just started as a sort of thought exercise, and now this is something that I tell my students.

I’m teaching fiction now, and students come to me all the time and say things like, “I’m just so sick of myself. I’m sick of my perspective. I’m sick of all of my thoughts about everything. I’m sick of my themes. All of my fellow people in this workshop have heard the same story from me a thousand times already, and they’re sick of my shtick too. What can I do to break out of the aspects of me that I’m so bored with?” And I just tell them, “You’re stuck with you. I’m sorry.” They haven’t perfected head transplants yet, so we’re all stuck with ourselves.

But what you can do is just shift your lens. Try a new form even if it’s something that you’re really bad at. Draw a comic book even if you can’t draw at all. Switch point of view, like I did. Write a song or a poem about the stuff that you usually write about instead of just doing whatever it is that you usually do. It sounds so goofy, and 101, but it really works. You can pull the wool over your own eyes. You really can lie to yourself and trick your brain.

Even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. — Elisa Albert

Botton: So once you start writing about yourself, or write your story in the third person … although, Elisa, After Birth is in the first person, right?

Albert: Yeah. Because my first novel was in the third person, and I found it was the same thing anyway. Everybody still was kind of like, Oh, well, it’s just you, obviously.

Gould: Which is so weird because you didn’t die of brain cancer.

Albert: Right, I know. The narrator of my first book dies of a brain tumor at the end of the book, so I don’t know how that could be autobiographical. I mean, I think ultimately it’s a compliment. It has to be a compliment, you know? Because what people are saying when they’re sort of assuming those things or projecting, or whatever, is that you have created a world that is so visceral and immediate and convincing that oh, of course it’s you. You know? So you’ve done what you set out to do then. I mean, I wouldn’t want to write a book where people reading it would think, like, geez, this shit’s totally invented. You know?

And the other thing is a novel, anything you write, but a novel especially, just the scope of it, it has to be an obsession. So even if you’re obsessed with 17th century Germany, that’s your obsession, and there are deep-rooted ways in which that’s very autobiographical even though obviously you weren’t there in your current form. So whatever it is, it has to be an obsession. You can’t spend years working on something if you’re not obsessed. So even if it’s not about you, it is encompassing your deep need to think about, look at, explore something.

Botton: So then once you’ve started writing, either in the third or first person — but deciding that it’s fiction — how do you then take the elements of your life and make them into something that isn’t your life? That becomes another story, more than just your life? How do you make that leap? Or does it start with, like, I have this particular story I want to tell?

Albert: Lorrie Moore said in her amazing story, “How to Become a Writer,” which is in the second person, and is very autobiographical, that “it’s like recombinant DNA.” You change one little strand of something, and then watch how that ripples out. Then it’s a very different story suddenly. I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. That’s now where my obsession lies, so I’m going to use that. I don’t give a shit.

So that’s autobiographical. I mean, this person is not like me in many, many other ways, but I know that origin story, so I can make use of it. It would be wasteful otherwise. I would be wasting my energy. I’d be reinventing the wheel. I have a pretty deep identification as somebody who was raised in a really religious household. I’m not interested in reinventing that at this point. That’s not what I’m looking at. So that’s a given. I’m going to use that. That’s there. I’m fluent in that, you know?

Botton: That frees you, then, to create the other aspects of the story.

Albert: The things I’m kind of obsessed with looking at or turning over or flipping around or inverting or whatever, that’s what I’m going to spend these years doing. And I don’t have to then waste my energy on the other elements because, you know, maybe in a different book those elements might need tweaking, but yeah. It’s like butterfly wings, right? Like, tsunami on the other side of the globe because, like, one little movement here.

The narrator of After Birth — her mother is dead. My mother’s not dead. She has an unnecessary surgical birth that was like super inhumane and traumatic. That didn’t happen to me. She’s an academic. I’m not an academic. Whatever. But, see, then we get into this weird thing where I’m like, see! Whatever.

Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. ‘Friendship’ is actually so made up. — Emily Gould

Gould: I’m sure this is something that you guys definitely all already thought about before, but I find myself thinking about writing fiction sometimes in terms of almost like method acting a little bit. Like, you can take an emotional experience that you’ve had and transmute it into another form. I’ve never experienced a shattering romantic betrayal, which is one of the things that I write about in Friendship. Yet. But I have experienced betrayal on a deep level in a relationship, but just not, like fucking someone else. You know?

So I was able to use that emotional experience and turn it into something else, the same way that I imagine actors do. I don’t know. I’m a terrible actress, so I actually don’t know how that works. But that’s what people talk about in “The Actor Prepares,” which I totally read in drama class.

Botton: That’s so funny. An article came up in my world today, in my social media world, with a title like “Apply acting techniques to your writing.”

Albert: People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay?

Botton: That’s a good way of putting it. When I emailed you guys and was asking like, “Are we talking about autofiction?” Emily, you were like, “Well, I don’t write autofiction.” And then Chloe Caldwell [who had to bow out of the event] was like, “I write autofiction.” It’s a really hard thing to get a handle on. What exactly is autofiction? Emily, I know that you’re a big fan of Chris Kraus, and her stuff kind of falls into that category, maybe? So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about what it is and why it isn’t what you’re doing.

Gould:  Well, I mean, the most straightforward, I think, contemporary example of autofiction that probably the most people in this room have read, just based on the bestseller list is Knausgård. Has anyone read any of those My Struggles? All of the struggles? Yeah, there were a lot of them. But what he does, I think, is — it’s just this amazingly super detailed tracking the movements of his own consciousness thing, but filling in the gaps in his memory with imaginative detail, I assume, and that’s what makes it a novel rather than a diary. So, for example, there’s a famous scene at the end of the first My Struggle volume that’s just this virtuosic scene where he is cleaning out his disaster alcoholic, hoarder, dead father’s house for days on end. Just like, you’re there. You are in the house, smelling the smells, moving the specific objects from room to room with him, like almost in real time, for as long as it takes. That, to me, is autofiction. That form. And that’s just so, so different from what either of us have done, even though we have written about characters who are our same ages who have our same hair colors.

Botton: I was also thinking about Lisa Halliday’s new book, Asymmetry.

Gould: Ooh, yeah, that one’s good.

Botton: It’s about a relationship with a Philip Roth-like character. That’s part of it. And the author did have a relationship with Philip Roth, and she was interviewed in the Times and she talks about how she uses the basic details from her life to just kind of set up the universe, and then she makes a story and works from there.

Albert: Well, then there’s the idea that, is there such a thing as nonfiction? You know, its arguable. Even if you’re trying to write a memoir, somebody else who was there might have a very different memoir.

Gould: I think there are formal distinctions that we just have to make. It’s like the difference between painting oils or painting watercolors or something? And for some reason that’s really important to me to draw those distinctions. And I also have incredibly strong feelings about “nonfiction” that is written without faith, you know? Like A Million Little Pieces-style stuff. That bugs me.

I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. — Elisa Albert

Albert: Well that was written as a novel.

Gould: Oh, but published as a memoir.

Albert: Right.

Gould: So then we’re also talking about market forces and marketing categories informing what gets called fiction and what gets nonfiction. But we don’t have to bring commerce into this room tonight.

Albert: Let’s not bring the market into this.

Gould: We can just keep this in the lofty realm of art for now.

Albert: But you know that old line about how if you say it’s a memoir, they’ll say you made it all up, and if you say it’s fiction, they’ll say every word is true.

Botton: I was just going to say that. Yeah, so then why does somebody write autofiction as opposed to a memoir? It’s so close.

Gould: It’s not. It’s totally different!

Botton: It is? Okay.

Gould: Yeah, like a memoir has all these imaginative story elements and structures, and autofiction is really about living inside someone else’s mind, no matter how boring it gets there. It’s really trying to just transport you into someone else’s consciousness, which to me is like a super fascinating, trippy experience.

Albert: Done well, it’s, like, the best.

Gould: It’s transcendent when it’s done well. When it’s done badly, of course, it’s as boring as being someone boring is. And that’s just a world away from what we do as memoirists. Which is so much to do with eliding the boring part of the story and getting into the propulsive part of the narrative. That’s the craft of memoir. Sorry that I’m like, Duh, Sari.

Botton: That’s okay. I’m here to learn. But I have writers in my studio who talk to me all the time about what to do with what their writing. They are writing stuff that feels like memoir, but they want to explore different outcomes. I’ve been sharing Michelle Tea’s The Black Wave with people. There’s magical realism in there. I just love the way she goes from stuff that is so recognizable to, like, she’s just out there in another world. And so, I can never specifically know what is the best way for anybody to go, and this is kind of what this conversation came out of. I’m really trying to always get a handle on what are the differences. And I guess for different writers, it’s different things.

In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. — Emily Gould

Once upon a time, everything was called a novel. There wasn’t the memoir category, and people wrote stories from their lives and called them novels, and so it got more confusing actually when the memoir genre got added. But I think for you, you’re very clearly writing fiction.

Albert: Well, I think I’d be out of material pretty quick. I mean, stories from our lives can be really interesting, and many of us have lived intense lives, but there’s only so much of it. Whereas, if you’re willing to sort of go off on little digressions and make up little details and see how that spins out, and bring your perspective to bear on things that are not your experience. Or try to inhabit somebody else’s perspective on something that maybe you have experienced, you have endless material. Then there’s just no end to it.

I think I would get bored. I mean, I write nonfiction sometimes, but it’s not as fun for me. It’s like a good muscle to exercise, but it’s like that playfulness, that kind of mischievous kind like, what can happen? What could I get away with? What if I push it this way?

Gould: Whereas, I feel like actually for me, nonfiction is where I started, and it’s my comfort zone, and fiction is a lot harder, and it comes a lot less easily. It is this arduous process whereas, it just is easier to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something memoiristic for me, at least. Whereas to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something fictional is just … My shitty first drafts of fiction are like so shitty. I think also there’s the hard, cold, horrible reality that just because something comes more easily to you doesn’t meant it’s good. God, that’s sad.

Botton: I mostly write nonfiction, memoir, essay. But I dabble in fiction. I started graduate school to write fiction. I published one short story on a website, which had autobiographical underpinnings, but also a lot of made up shit. But I started writing something like a year ago, and I was having so much fun doing it, but when I went back to it, I had to keep reminding myself — and it was also based on a character similar to me — but I had to keep reminding myself of the rules of this universe that this person lives in. That this person’s boyfriend is 18 years older and Italian. Having to orient myself again and again in this fictional world, I find hard. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t something worth putting more time and effort toward and trying harder at, but for me it’s like a harder exercise to remember the rules of the universe I’ve created. Do you ever run into that?

Albert: Sometimes. I mean, like, plot mostly. Just to be like, okay, this happened, this happened. I can sort of hang out in a voice for a long time, but then to just keep the facts straight. But that’s administrative stuff, you know? A couple index cards.

Gould: Yeah. Those aren’t structural things, so if you’re thinking of it like a physical project? Like if you’re building something, that’s more like — the rules of the universe stuff you can always straighten out at the end in the same way that if you’re renovating a house, you can fix up the door frames and the windows. I don’t know anything about this metaphor.

Albert: It’s like curtains.

Gould: I’m going to stop. Yeah, it’s like you’re going to put in furniture and decorate and the wall paper and stuff, and that’s like the fun stuff that you do at the end. Also, copy editors will do some of it for you. And good line editors. Friendship was written a long time ago in my life, and I had never been pregnant. And now I’ve been pregnant a bunch, and I think the character who gets pregnant in Friendship was pregnant in the first draft, like the draft that sold, for like 11 months. Like an elephant. And no one caught it. A copy editor caught it. It was like, oops. And all I had to do was change some details about the weather, and it was fine, you know?

But that’s the kind of thing that — if you get bogged down in that stuff in the first draft, you’re going to prevent yourself from ever moving forward.

People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay? — Elisa Albert

Botton: One of my obsessions that I’ve written a lot about, and interviewed people a lot about, and I’ve interviewed both of you about, is people getting pissed off at you for what you’ve written that has to do with them. And sometimes, when I’m working on memoir and afraid of people being mad at me, I think, All right, I’m just going to change my name. That’s one solution. The other is, All right, I’m totally going to fictionalize, and it will be more fun. But they’re still going to recognize themselves. Is this something that you run into or care about, or does fiction solve that?

Albert: I don’t think fiction solves it. People just tend to then pick out people who are not remotely related to them and be offended by stuff that they’re imagining might have something to do with them. I don’t tend to have a lot of people in my life who I need to protect that way. That’s been a long process, but I find it useful to have pretty honest relationships so that anyone I actually have in my life is a) not somebody I’m going to feel the need to fucking burn in literature, and b) not somebody who’s going to come at what I’m doing with a narcissistic vengeance. But that takes time, and not everybody has the luxury of narrowing down their intimate circle in such a way. But it’s served me pretty well so far.

Botton: I think, Emily, you’ve had a different experience, at least with memoir, yeah.

Gould: Well, yeah, there are definitely sacrifices involved in being honest always, for anyone. Not just writers, I think. And like Elisa, I think the list of people whose opinions I give a fuck about at all has been winnowed down over the course of my life from like, you know when I was in my 20s, it was like everyone. And now it’s just people I care about. So yeah, I think this has always been really hard for me, and it continues to be hard for me. I definitely don’t have all the answers about it at all, but like the tattoo on Sari’s arm says, there comes a point when it becomes harder for the flower to stay in the bud than it is to bloom. I’m paraphrasing her tattoo badly, sorry.

So, it’s like you choose between two different kinds of pain, right? It’s like the pain of keeping whatever it is inside versus the pain that you’re going contend with when you have to deal with the consequences of having written your story. And it’s a personal choice.

Botton: Incidentally, Emily was my tattoula. You know, like a doula. She went with me. She brought me gluten-free cookies so I wouldn’t faint.

Gould: It’s really important to eat before and after you get a tattoo.

Botton: And for those of you who can’t see, my tattoo, I recently learned, does not quote who I thought it did. So, yes. It’s that quote that you see on mugs and candles. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Usually it says it’s by Anaïs Nin, and it is very much not, which is fine.

Albert: Are you going to edit it on the tattoo?

Botton: I didn’t attribute.

Albert: Oh.

Botton: It’s actually a woman [a playwright now] who was a publicist in California for an adult ed college in the 70s. She’d put that on a press release to encourage adults to go back to school. So, go back to school. That’s what we’re doing here. Yeah, so. I still like it.

Gould:  Me too. It’s great!

Botton:  It’s a good one, right?

Gould Yeah.

Botton: And then I got cherry blossoms on my other arm, so we’re all blossomed out here. I actually interviewed that woman. One of these days I’ll write about it…

Audio:

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Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different, and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot. She has taught at Columbia’s School of the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, and is currently Visiting Writer at Bennington College.  She lives in upstate New York with her family.

Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, Friendship, and the forthcoming Perfect Tunes. With Ruth Curry, she runs Emily Books, which sells and publishes books by women as an imprint of Coffee House Press. She is a contributor to Bookforum and The Cut. She teaches writing in New York City, where she lives with her family.

Sari Botton is the Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY  and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.

Recording by Brian Macaluso of Clandestine Productions. Event sponsored by Kingston Writers’ Studio.