Author Sonja Livingston is a poet at heart; so it is no surprise that her tales of growing up poor as one of seven children brought up by a single mother are written in comparatively short bursts – much like human memory itself.
Ghostbread won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Award for Nonfiction, and Livingston’s poems and essays also received honors. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including the Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, AGNI, and others.
Lori: How was it that you went from extreme poverty and a childhood fraught with uncertainty to being an author and professor?
Sonja: That’s a question I wish I could answer. I worry that if I say I beat the odds by going to college and working hard, it will sound like I’m taking credit, when, in fact, dumb luck and circumstance play a tremendous part in both poverty and success. Many kids in poor families are incredibly smart, talented and/or hardworking, but still can’t push past the larger barriers that poverty puts up. That said, education and work did play a part. As did not having children, which freed up the time and energy to continue my education and pursue my interests.
I’ll also add that my mother loved art and learning, always appreciating the world around us, and trying to make something beautiful from whatever she had on hand. In this way, we were rich. We went bird watching, planted gardens, made up games and stories. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, because much of it is ugly, but learning to live without a working television or a closetful of clothes—even electricity or food at times—required that we become resourceful. The moving around so much honed my skills as an observer, especially of people. All of this shaped me as a writer.
I wish I could say that once I knew I wanted to write, I became a free spirit who lived by the ocean writing poetry and trusting in the universe to provide for my physical needs, but the truth is that, based on my past, I was very practical and didn’t even embrace writing until I had a career and house and retirement account. Only then did I allow myself writing workshops and eventually, a return to school for an MFA—all of which led to writing a book and my current position as a creative writing professor.
Even as I type these words, it feels like I haven’t quite answered the question. The truth is that most of the big changes in my life have been multi-layered, with transitions taking place over long stretches of time and under the surface of things.
“… writing about memories that plague us can be wonderfully helpful.” – Livingston
How has writing this memoir helped you…or not? Were there past childhood issues that plagued you that you just had to write about them?
It makes sense that I should say ‘yes, writing this memoir helped me’ because writing about memories that plague us can be wonderfully helpful. But I wasn’t writing for therapeutic reasons. I’d been in counseling on and off, and had a group of friends that specialized in self-analysis and talking—in fact, I sometimes think I talked my way through my twenties. Also, the graduate program I attended to become a counselor required a great deal of self-awareness—so while I didn’t talk much about the details of growing up poor, not much actually plagued me, at least not in any traumatic way.
That said, some sections of the book were harder to write than others. Some came less naturally, or had to be forced to make the material function as a whole—I might have left high school out completely, for instance. But, in general, the memories arose and I wrote to them. And while I often felt sad or joyful or haunted while revisiting all those people and places from the past, the writing was more about the writing than about my need to be unburdened.
It’s a benefit, the catharsis that can come from writing, but it’s a danger too—as a memoirist, especially, I have to go beyond the mere sharing of memories and to exploration and discovery of what that memory has to offer beyond personal disclosure.
You are an assistant professor in the MFA program at University of Memphis. What do your students think of your success?
It depends which student you ask!
My students in Memphis are wonderful. The undergraduates are often amazed to learn the power of writing their personal stories and the many of ways of making their work engaging and meaningful to others. Most of them are natural storytellers, who are simply learning to transition their material to the page. Most of my graduate (MFA) students are already skilled writers learning to practice and hone their craft as they work on book-length projects. It’s important for them to see and believe from their professors’ experience that projects can be completed, that, with work and commitment, books can be written and published and matter in the world.
“…memoir is simply writing based on memory that’s crafted as literature.” – Livingston
What does “memoir” mean to you? There’s always been such debate about its definition.
To me, memoir is simply writing based on memory that’s crafted as literature. In other words, a writer not only shares her memories, but takes the time and care to write them in such a way that others will want to read and/or which helps readers to think or feel something important as a result of reading the work.
The debate tends to arise over whether memory is reliable and whether memoirists should make things up. It seems clear to me that memoirists shouldn’t make anything up (otherwise, it’s not memoir!) —it might be fiction influenced by memory or even mostly memory, but, as I say, it’s pretty clear cut (to me anyway) that once you veer from memory and experience to a conscious decision to fabricate, you have something else.
Without a doubt, memory is flawed, but beautifully and importantly so. I don’t worry about whether my memoires would hold up in a court of law. I don’t think people want to read a transcript of anyone’s life, no matter how fascinating—but to be able to read another’s perceptions of their lives and the world around them is a powerful way to connect with other times and places, and to even expand our understanding of our own lives.
You have a new book Queen of the Fall due out next year. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Actually, the book probably does a better job of answering the first question about moving from childhood (and poverty) to adulthood (and writing) better than I did!
Queen of the Fall uses memory to explore my experiences of as a girl and young woman. I write about girls from my old neighborhood and girls I worked with as a counselor, as well as feminine icons such as Susan B. Anthony and Eve and the Virgin Mary to explore issues such as beauty, pleasure, fertility, creativity and loss. That sounds like a lot, but the central questions are what it means to be a woman, and how to manage the sorrow that accompanies being human.
Any differences between writing the second book as compared to the first? Is it easier? More pressure? Less?
Even before Ghostbread was published, I was convinced that I was done writing about my own life. I’d already put plenty out there and had little left to say. I focused on poetry instead, and while I wrote plenty of poems, after a year or so, I found myself returning to personal essays. One essay came, then another. The essays tended to be rooted in different material than early childhood, though there are certain issues and memories I return to time and again. So, it turns out, that after saying I was done with nonfiction, I began writing up an essay storm. Besides Queen of the Fall, I’m finishing another book of essays inspired by the lives of little known historic women.
Okay, so I just realized that I haven’t actually answered the question. I’d say the second book feels a bit easier. I’m more confident, knowledgeable and realistic about publishing. And while I appreciate when people respond favorably to my work, I understand that not everyone connects to everything, so I tend not to feel pressured in that way.
There’s certainly pressure to publish as a professor. That said, one of the benefits of keeping my livelihood and writing separate for many years is that writing was and is about more than job security. I trust that what I need and want to write will arise in time. Grace Paley has a quote: There is a long time in me between knowing and telling. I’m not sure how she meant it, but it feels right to me as a writer, not only in meaning, but in tone—the acceptance and trust in the process. We’re taking things in all the time, absorbing what we experience and letting it churn around inside, all while living our lives. I find that when I’m patient and trusting and ready with my pen (or keystrokes), the writing (the knowing and telling) eventually comes.
All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t feel overly pressured. It’s not that I’m not prone to pressure, believe me, I feel stressed just choosing wine for a party or failing to turn fast enough for the car behind me or about not having read all the right books. But writing is one of the rare areas of my life that feels ‘larger’ than the everyday world and all its zany pressures, which is why, more than anything, I return to it.[boxer set=”lori-myers”]