Interview with Jeannine Ouellette, Author of The Part That Burns

Interview by Amy Eaton

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About the Book:

Book Cover: The Part That BurnsYou can tear a thing apart and tape it back together, and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way. In her fiercely beautiful memoir, Jeannine Ouellette recollects fragments of her life and arranges them elliptically to witness each piece as torn and whole, as something more than itself.

Caught between the dramatic landscapes of Lake Superior and Casper Mountain, between her stepfather’s groping and her mother’s erratic behavior, Ouellette lives for the day she can become a mother herself and create her own sheltering family. But she cannot know how the visceral reality of both birth and babies will pull her back into the body she long ago abandoned, revealing new layers of pain and desire, and forcing her to choose between her idealistic vision of perfect marriage and motherhood, and the birthright of her own awakening flesh, unruly and alive.

The Part That Burns is a story about the tenacity of family roots, the formidable undertow of trauma, and the rebellious and persistent yearning of human beings for love from each other. (Spilt/Lip Press)

Headshot: Jeannine OuelletteAbout the Author: Jeannine Ouellette is the author of The Part That Burns, a memoir in fragments. Her work has appeared in CalyxNarrativeNorth American ReviewMasters ReviewTupelo QuarterlyWriter’s Chronicle, among others, and in several anthologies including Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men and Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. Her work has been supported by Millay Colony for the Arts and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts.  She teaches writing through the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or her website.

Amy Eaton: I’m so smitten with this book! I actually started following you on social media after I read the essay you wrote with your daughter. I thought, oh my God, this is exactly the stuff that I am working on and thinking about myself right nowthese ideas about cellular memory and epigenetics. And here you are, digging into exactly the same kind of topic. I was so excited to see somebody else working on the same thing!

Jeannine Ouellette: Thank you so much! Are you working on a book, Amy?

AE: I am, for like, 7,000 years now.

JO:(Laughs) Believe me, I know the feeling.

AE: That’s really nice to hear. Is this your first book?

JO: It’s my first literary book. I’ve been writing—I’m 52—and I’ve been writing professionally in some way, shape, or form since my early 20s.

AE:  Well, to start things off, I love the stuff you wrote about cellular memory.  As I was reading your book, I’d get so enmeshed in it, and then I’d just get overwhelmed and I’d have to put it down for a couple days, and then I’d pick it back up, and read another whole chunk, and then it’d be like, ahhh too much, I gotta take a break. It just hit me so profoundly, and so, so deeply.  I’m probably going to tear up. (tears up) Don’t mind me. It’s so beautifully done.

I also wanted to talk about how you decided on the structure of it? I was taking a look at the first piece. You have almost the entire book in that very first piece, “Four Dogs, Maybe Five.” And then you go back and dig in and dig in and dig in, and then you pull us forward in time, then you take us back in time, and you just keep on unearthing these new stories. How did you find that arc?  Another thing I wanted to ask is why do you call the book a memoir in fragments, rather than a memoir in essays? Did you always know it was going to be a full book? Or did it start as something else entirely?

JO: Such good questions. To the one about structure, I think of an interview in The Millions with Lidia Yuknavitch, about The Chronology of Water. The interviewer asked about the order of the fragments, how Lidia figured it out. And Lidia said something like, Oh, my editor did that. She put them in order on the floor of her house. I would never have put them in the order they’re in now. I couldn’t see that! I love that anecdote, because it’s so honest, you know? She’s like, I couldn’t figure it out!

For me, finding the right shape for my book was a long process. I went into grad school at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) on the fiction track. All my writing experience was nonfiction, from journalism—I used to cover school board meetings and stuff like that—to profiles and what we would now call new journalism, or narrative journalism, and lots of personal essay. I wanted to learn something I didn’t already know. I had a novel in progress—one I worked on during my first two semesters and am returning to now. But I was also, during that first year of grad school, writing on the side some of the creative nonfiction that now appears in The Part That Burns.

These creative nonfiction (CNF) pieces were about my younger years, centered on my stepfather and his sexual abuse during my early childhood—the way that abuse spun out and affected every aspect of my life, including my relationship with my mother, with men, and most of all with my own body, in excruciating ways that took me decades to understand. Ways I only began to understand at all once I became a mother.

I was submitting those pieces for publication, winning some contests, gaining some traction with them. Then right before my third semester, I met an advisor at VCFA, Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows. It’s a beautiful book which, although published as a novel, is 98% true according to Richard. But he won’t say which 2% isn’t. Richard is super brilliant and I wanted to work with him. But I intuited from being in his workshop that he might resonate more with my creative nonfiction than with my novel. I thought, I’m gonna shift gears from the novel and focus solely on this other stuff I’ve been writing. That’s when I started to see it as a potential book.

Something else happened around that time, too. I had applied to the Tin House winter workshop in 2016, specifically because Dorothy Allison would be teaching, and she’s one of my heroes. But the piece I applied with got accepted for publication before the workshop started. It’s in the memoir now—the chapter called Baby Girl. Anyway, I contacted Lance who directs the workshops at Tin House and asked if I could submit something else, since it felt silly to workshop a piece about to be published.

My request was approved, which meant that when I came home from my VCFA winter residency in January, I had just a couple of weeks to write a whole new essay, 20 pages or something, before leaving for Tin House. I remember hunkering down and just bursting into tears. I said to my husband, “I don’t want to go to this workshop. Why did I do this to myself?”  But I soldiered through, and what I cranked out was “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” the first and longest piece in my memoir. And Dorothy Allison—have you ever met her?

AE: No.

JO: I just love her. I mean, I could never teach the way she teaches—she will look someone right in the eye and say, ‘This is boring. I need you to write a sentence that makes me care.’  A lot of times I don’t like that in a workshop leader, but from her, it’s just so who she is and it totally works. And she really, really liked “Four Dogs, Maybe Five.” When I had my one-on-one with her she asked if I was working on a book and I said, ‘Yes, but it’s all just disparate pieces right now.’

She said, ‘Yeah, that’s how I wrote Bastard. That’s how it works. That’s what you do.’ There was something about sitting at a table with Dorothy, having her respect my work. That’s when I knew I was going to shift gears. I worked with Richard McCann my next semester, then Sue William Silverman after that. And I came out of VCFA with this finished memoir manuscript.

Of course, it’s way different now—almost unrecognizably different. Back then it was longer. It had way more vignettes in it, too, all of them fairly short because I had taken apart the longer essays and rearranged them into smaller parts. I started sending that manuscript out when I graduated. Agents would say, I just love this, but there’s not a clear narrative arc. I’m not sure I could sell it. The narrative arc was always the question. And I had been warned in grad school, don’t write something episodic—some faculty were strongly against that. But I love fragmented work. Have you ever read We the Animals by Justin Torres?

AE: No.

JO: Oh, it’s so beautiful. I knew I wanted to make something like that. But, after that consistent feedback from agents I respected, I thought, well, maybe I can rewrite this with a traditional narrative arc. I spent a year doing that. And a couple of agents who’d been interested were willing to look again, but it still didn’t quite make the cut.

Jeannine Ouellette in orange top

Author Jeannine Ouellette

I had to ask myself then, what’s the book that I want to write? Because I was trying to make it conform to something. I had to ask myself, do I love it better fragmented, and if I do, am I better off honoring that and sending it out myself, un-agented, to smaller presses?

I realized I didn’t want to take three or five years to find an agent, who then maybe couldn’t sell it, and then have to start over. Maybe that would make sense for a different project, one less urgent and more traditionally saleable, but not this one. It’s like what you said —I’ve been writing this book my entire life. I wanted to publish it with people who respected it for what it was.

So, I started over again by taking all those linked essays I’d published during and after grad school, plus of course material that hadn’t been published yet, and arranged them more or less as they were. Some pieces were really short, some were longer. I decided it was an interesting arrangement. I sent it out that way, and heard back with an offer from Split/Lip really fast.

When Split/Lip accepts a project, they give you feedback from the readers who vet the manuscripts, which is nice. That feedback gave me a view into why they wanted it. And one of the consistent messages was about structure. They liked the way it looped and revisited certain events from later vantage points in time without necessarily repeating. I felt like, wow, I don’t think I can take credit for that. I really downplayed it. I told my husband, ‘I didn’t make that structure, I just threw these pieces in there.’

But that’s not really true.

The truth is that those pieces were always working in conversation with each other and I knew that from the start, which is why I made the book in the first place. My editor, Kristine Langley Mahler—who’s also now the publisher at Split/Lip—suggested one major change, which was to switch the order of the first two pieces—put “Four Dogs” first and “Tumbleweeds” second.  Which I think was brilliant, because while both of these pieces cover the whole arc in their different ways, “Four Dogs” does it much more thoroughly.

AE: Yeah.

JO: The other thing that happened after it was accepted for publication—and God bless Kristine’s heart, because I’ve been an editor long enough that I do not like to be the problem writer—I added about 15,000 words.

AE: (laughing)

JO: Yeah, I know, thank you for laughing because you get it. Some of that added length was in the form of new pieces. But it was also a major expansion of “Four Dogs,” which felt necessary. You know, we do things as writers to conform to conventions. “Four Dogs” in the original manuscript I submitted was between five- and six-thousand words.

AE: “Four Dogs” was between five and six thousand words?

JO: It used to be.

AE: Oh wow!

JO: It was published that way in Proximity. It won second place in their essay contest. It had a word count limit, as journals do.

AE: Yeah, I know.

JO: Right? That’s what I was editing toward—the word limit for many journals.

AE: Mmm-hmmm.

JO: But for the book, there were foundational things that had to be established if later events were to feel earned. In the essay version, those later things didn’t exist on the page, because the essay wasn’t a part of something bigger and more expansive.

AE: That is just wild. I mean, I’m thinking about that piece, because I actually did skim that piece over again, after I read the book. And the whole book is right there. And to imagine that you could have gotten that down to five or six thousand words. Wow, what did that look like? I’m gonna have to go find your prize-winning essay!

JO:  Yeah, you can find it on the web at Proximity. When I look at it now, I think it’s very skeletal. The book version moves more slowly, especially as the later sections of the essay get more complex. So, to your original question, the word fragments feels right. I told Kristine that some of the pieces feel like essays, but some are more like photo captions. I don’t think Rock on Bone, the very last little piece in the book, is an essay, for example. And the essays themselves, almost all are fragmented in some way. So, fragments felt truer. That’s how I wrote most of those pieces, arranging fragments to make a whole.

There’s also one story we added during revision that I’ve never written before, which is the running away to Mexico story. I just could never write it. There’s too much about it that’s completely unbelievable. If you knew me, you would understand that I can barely find my way around my own block.

AE: (Laughing)

JO: Truly! I think it is a form of directional dyslexia that is PTSD related, you know, like when you just don’t live in your body.

AE: My mom has that. She can’t find her way out of a paper bag.

JO: My husband is so kind and patient. We’ll be walking out of a building and, Amy, every single time I go the wrong way. He’ll say, “Oh, honey, we’re actually this way.” And I’ll just laugh at myself. But he is a little bit careful not to make too much fun of me. My daughter, Lillie, said to me one day after they started to drive, they said, “Mom, you’ve been driving to South High for twelve years now. And I used to think it was normal that every time you would say ‘Now which way do I turn? Which lane do I get in here?’ Now I know that’s not how it is for most people.” And I was like, right, yeah. That’s true. (laughs) That’s me. So, the idea that I could get myself all the way from St. Paul to Cuernavaca in one piece!

AE: It’s a crazy story.

JO: It’s a super creepy story, and then to find out that the woman I was looking for wasn’t there anymore. I’m friends with her daughters on Facebook now. They know about this story and they remember me.

AE: The chutzpah of thinking, I’m just gonna go find this woman who told me she’d be there for me. I’m gonna figure out how to get to this place in Mexico even though I don’t know where it is.

JO: I was 16 years old. I think now, who does that?  Yeah, I can barely believe it’s true. I’ve never been able to write it. Which is why I skimmed over it in the original manuscript. But during revision my editor said, ‘You need to write this story.’ She wanted it pulled out of “Four Dogs” as its own piece—“Trace a Path”—because “Four Dogs” was already so long and this wasn’t really a part of “Four Dogs.” So, we made it into something else.

AE: You said this was your first literary book. Can you say more on that?

JO: Well, I had my first daughter when I was 22. We were young, money was tight, so everything I published was for pay—journalism and other writing for hire. Some educational books. There was one thing, a children’s picture book about my daughter Sophie, that I really loved—that was thrilling. But I didn’t have the capacity to finish something like this until my kids were grown. I was also teaching full time until my youngest entered high school ten years ago. Then I made a switch and began working at the University of Minnesota as a writer and editor. It’s a radically different energy than teaching full time. The other thing happened when I left teaching—do you know Waldorf education?

AE: Yes, I do.

 JO: Okay, well I taught in a Waldorf school, which is very consuming. I didn’t realize the degree to which all of my creative energy was going into it. Only when I left the Waldorf school did I start focusing more on creative writing, and offering writing workshops and retreats and classes on my own. I founded a little writing program called Elephant Rock. And the first retreat I did was a week-long event over summer solstice, one that (until the pandemic) I did every year, in Wisconsin at a place called Stout’s Island.

AE: This sounds really, really great!

JO: It is! It’s this tiny island—a bunch of little cabins and the lodge. No roads, you get there on a ferry. It’s amazing! Mind you, I had never led anything like this retreat before—but I had all these years of taking Waldorf classes on trips. So, I had the organizational and communication skills—and somehow I just thought I can do this, you know?  I also thought, the worst that can happen is nobody will sign up and then I won’t do it. The lodge was very flexible, and everything just aligned to make it possible.

So, what happened is this woman’s daughter signed her up. And the daughter asked me, ‘I see on your website there are no refunds.’ Which was true—I was just kind of stealing boilerplate language from other similar retreats. And it made sense to me, you can’t really do refunds on these things, because you usually can’t refill the spot or get your own money back. People need to make a commitment and not change their mind at the last minute. So I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the policy.’ And she said, ‘I’m just wondering if there’s, you know, any exceptions because I’m signing my mom up for this and she has stage IV breast cancer and might not be able to travel. We just can’t know for sure, but your retreat is on her bucket list.’

AE:  Oh wow…

JO: Yeah… And I’m sitting in my living room with total imposter syndrome. I’m thinking, my retreat cannot be on your mom’s bucket list. Like, you know, I’m not…no. I’m just like a regular dumb person, like, this is not…. But I took a breath, and I said, ‘Oh, you know what? If she can’t come, we’ll figure it out. I’ll either refund it or you can switch the registration to somebody else. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry, you can do this without fear.’

So, she registered her mom—her name was Mary Ann—and she was able to attend. But after flying and driving and ferrying to the island, she was exhausted. I always meet the writers as they arrive, I like to be waiting so they can feel everything’s gonna be okay. You’re here now. It’s gonna be okay. And when Mary Ann came up the stairs from the landing…I felt that little bit of fear you have when you’re right up close to somebody who’s…you just know, oh, you’re really sick. Then during the retreat, she bounced back quite a bit. She participated in everything, all the writing, all the yoga—I include yoga on my retreats—and Mary Ann was having a really important time. She wrote this amazing piece while on the island.

And as the week went on, I got this idea that we should culminate the retreat, culminate this energy we’d created with a summer solstice leap into the lake. Because you have to leap back into your life after a thing like that. I put it out there to the writers, this dock jump. I said, ‘Nobody should feel forced to do this. But let’s all go down to the dock and we’ll just line up and those who feel compelled to jump, great! And if you want to cheer everybody else on, that’s important too,’ et cetera, et cetera.

So, I put this idea out there. But I had absolutely zero intention of doing it myself. I’m not a good swimmer. I don’t love lake swimming. I don’t love swimming. I had no intention of jumping off that dock. That was the irony.

Well, we got down there, and I figured I’d just hang back, say I needed to take the picture, make up some plausible reason not to jump. Then along comes Mary Ann in her swimming suit, tumors visible, raring to go. I said, ‘Mary Ann, are you doing the jump?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah! I’m doing the jump!’ And something inside of me…it was one of those profound life moments. I thought to myself, What are you doing? Why would you hold back, like, why not just do it? I immediately changed course and did the jump. And in the photos, Mary Ann is way up higher than all of us, you know, she’s like, way out above us all in the air.

People jumping off a dock into the water

Photo: Jeannine Ouellette

Mary Ann died a few months after that retreat. And right then I made the decision to apply to grad school. I said, I’m setting a goal. I will finish my book by my 50th birthday. I said to myself, I can’t control the publication part of it, but I will finish this book. Marianne was in her 40s, as I was, and I knew I could not keep putting my writing to the side.

AE: I think it’s hard when you’re a woman, and you’ve got some sort of baby, whether it’s an actual person in your life, or a career or a project. To be able to take that time and say, No, I can focus on myself, especially when you hit those years in your 40s. I’m just a couple years older than you. So, I hear you loud and clear. I gave myself a deadline to have a first draft done by the Ides of March this year. And then the pandemic hit, and I was close, and then I looked at it and I was like, ughhh! What is this? I’ll dig back in, but the pandemic has just thrown everything for a loop.  

JO: It sure has. It’s not an awesome time to be putting a book out either, but it is what it is.

AE: Yeah. It’s ultimately, well, what are you doing this for? And I feel like, you know, for me – my own story – I feel like I’ve been waiting to write this story since I was a teenager. I’ve been lurking and watching my own family dynamics, all my life. And then as an adult, kind of even staying outside myself watching my own story unfold. And I feel like, if I don’t ever get this down, nobody will.

 My best friend was diagnosed with stage IV cancer five years ago. And that is such a shake-up. Nobody’s guaranteed anything.

JO: No, we’re not. My work at the U has taught me this. I came into my position through a doctor who hired me as a collaborative writer for his book. He was—he died three years ago—but he was a world-renowned expert on long-term care and aging. So, a lot of the work that I did for him was around aging. For one project, I did somewhere between thirty-five and fifty interviews with retirees, mostly academics. The series was about retirement, originally, but came to be about so much more. Like living history profiles. I learned so much, Amy, about what it means to get older—the regrets some people have and other people don’t have. By and large, these were people who lived fully until their last day. They understood what I was learning and what Dr. Kane really believed himself too, and what you’re saying—nobody’s guaranteed anything. But we don’t acknowledge death in our culture. We live as if we’re never going to die, when what we need to do is live as if time is finite. By refusing to acknowledge the inevitability of death, we rob ourselves of opportunity.

When I first started doing those interviews, I’d  say to my husband, ‘So, we’ve got about thirty good years left.’ At first, he hated that. He’d get genuinely upset and say, ‘Stop that!  Maybe you want to think like that, but I don’t.’ I’d say, ‘Honey, you know, it’s just the truth. You’re going to be in your mid 80s in thirty years. What’s that going to look like? I mean, why pretend that that’s not gonna happen?’ So all this fed into it, too. Like, I’ve gotta do this.

AE: Yeah. Yeah, you did.  And I’ve still got so much to ask about. I’ll just toss some stuff out and you pick what you want to answer. Again, I love the whole stuff about the cellular memory. There’s so much trauma in the book and the way it is handled is so deftly donethere aren’t any punches pulled. Perhaps because so much of it is pulled through that child mindlike, the narrator’s worried about the teachers finding out what she’s really like, meanwhile her mother is kicking her out of the family. It’s just a stab in the heart. Being able to write through that and be able to survive writing through that kind of memory and that kind of trauma. There’s a part of me that wonders, where do you find the resilience to do that? I think so many other writers are grappling with that same issue. And the child’s voice tapping into that young person’s voice is so gorgeously done. See, now I’m at the part where I’m just gushing….

A lot of memoirists or creative nonfiction writers will talk about when your memories are scattered, when you have lived through trauma, how do you trust your memory? How do you know what to pick and choose, and how are you able to glom on to the things that you can report back as what you what you feel are really the truth, and stand by them in a way that you feel comfortable with that feels honest and true?

And then, for a lot of creative nonfiction writers, when you’re writing about things that are so difficult and familial, there’s always the question about how does your family respond?  I’m curious to know what the experience of writing that piece with your daughter was like for the both of you. (sighs) So I just threw a whole bunch of questions at you. Pick what you like!

JO: I do want to say something about the book and writing about trauma and in particular, my stepfather. I had tried to write about that from the moment I ever started to write—especially after my first baby was born. But the writing was awful. I was a good enough writer already to know that. I didn’t know how to write about these painful things. That’s why Dorothy Allison’s book Bastard Out of Carolina blew my world open—because I thought, okay, so this is how you do it. I still couldn’t do it myself. But I could see oh, look what she did.

For me, there was a very specific turning point for being able to write this stuff. I actually centered my graduating lecture at VCFA on trauma writing, and wrote an essay for Cleaver Magazine on the same topic. The method that broke things open came from a three-week workshop I did in 2009, the year before I left Waldorf teaching. It was led by a poet and master Waldorf teacher named Paul Matthews. He’s British, and super brilliant. I know, I keep saying that about certain people, but some people just are. He was also hilarious. He had us doing these writing exercises that were ridiculous. In large part, they were based on constraints.

AE:  Mmm-hmm.

JO:  Until then I had practiced a style of writing I knew was effective. I got feedback that it was effective. One of my biggest strengths as a writer, prior to 2009, was that I could strike a chord of melancholy, use language and images, that, for lack of a more elegant way to put this, would make people cry when they weren’t expecting it. I believe it was because there was something always underneath what I was writing—which was the thing I wasn’t writing.

When I studied with Paul I learned these ridiculous things—one exercise wasn’t even writing. It’s called The Interrupter, and is basically improv. You get a partner and take turns trying to tell a story while the other person interrupts and contradicts you.

My son was going through a rough patch at the time—I was worried about him—and he’d also recently broken his collarbone. I was trying to tell about it, spinning my usual melancholy yarn, and my partner was like, No, he didn’t. No, it’s not. Something about that just threw me off. I started laughing and the story became something totally unplanned and it felt great, like busting out of a cage.  I came out of that workshop knowing I needed to use those kinds of exercises. I needed to allow for more levity, less repetition of what I already knew how to do. So that was my way in.

The first time I wrote anything about my early life, life before age 18, was in a memoir class in 2010. The assignment was to write something specifically about childhood. My worst nightmare. I was like, I don’t write about that. But as I brainstormed, I thought, how would Paul Matthews do this? I needed one of his exercises. So, I kind of made one up, though I know now it’s not uncommon. Essentially you just write word for word from some other piece of writing, replacing the words with your own.

I used Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood—I think chapter four. It starts something like: The boys were changing. And I just replaced that with My sister was changing. Sentence for sentence, I kept doing that until I didn’t need to anymore. What happened is that opening with my sister put my narrator into a child’s world, instead of focusing on the adults. It’s the adult who looks back saying, these were some really serious things that were going on. But the child wasn’t saying that. And that changed everything.

Interestingly, too, my younger sister is probably the person most excited about this work. It has been healing, she says, because while there’s a lot of this that’s familiar to her, there’s a lot she doesn’t remember clearly and couldn’t make sense of on her own.

AE: She’s a lot younger than you?

JO: Six years younger. For her, it only got harder after I left [home]. Narrative is healing, so it meant something to her, this story made of things she’s had to carry her whole life without being fully able to understand them. Her father doesn’t come off as a hero in the book, obviously, being a serial abuser, but she’s fine with that because she knows it’s true. He did what he did. But other decisions related to my family were hard and still are. My mom struggles with this work, which I understand, but also lament, because although it’s about hard things, those things happened. This book for me is a healthy way of putting that version of the past to rest, and I wish she could see it that way. I think of how T Kira Madden’s mom has cheered on The Tribe of Fatherless Girls, for example.

There were also events and characters I had to omit for the sake of people I love. I had to write a disclaimer because I’ve collapsed certain characters, made my two sisters into one. Those were hard decisions.

AE: That’s fascinating. One of the things that really slowed me down when I started getting serious about writing was my favorite auntI have five aunts. And my family history is almost akin to putting me in your daughter’s spot. My mother’s family history was just filled with abuse. And she has five sisters. And then my grandmother’s as well. So, it’s generational.

JO: Yeah.

AE: And then, of course, I have my own abuse stories, but, but those were things I kept from my mother because I didn’t want to stir up any discomfort for her.

JO: Same with my daughter until, you know…

AE: My mom and I still don’t talk about that much. But my aunt was my favorite aunt. She was my maid of honor at my wedding. And we were like (crosses fingers).  I had a piece about my grandmother dying. And for some unknown reason, the entire family converged while my grandmother was dying of cancer. She managed to get the entire family: daughters, grandkids, great grandkids, everybody converged in this little town in Maine. And, I wound up writing an essay about it. I’m also a performer and I revamped it as a live performance in a festival and when my aunt found out about it, she wrote me this curt note saying, stop writing about my life.

JO: Oooh.

AE: Because there was stuff in the piece that backtracked to stories I’d been told and things I remembered and back and forth between memory and family legend and that final gathering event…

JO:  Yeah.

AE: I wrote her back, saying, I’m not writing about your life. I’m writing about my life. And she responded, ‘If you’re still performing this, stop.’ Basically, do not do your next show. It wound up severing the relationship.

JO: Like with your aunt, sometimes reactions, good or bad, come from places or directions you’re not expecting. After my mom moved us out to Wyoming, we didn’t interact much with anyone. We grew up in isolation. But my mother’s extended family has supported this work—her siblings, my cousins. We’ve all reconnected through social media in recent years.

When “Four Dogs” came out, I got messages and emails and even personal notes in the mail from my aunts and uncles and cousins. One of my older cousins messaged me on Facebook saying, You know, we always knew that Mike was, how did she put it? It was kind of harsh. I can’t remember the words but something like, Everyone knew Mike was doing stuff to you girls, but nobody knew what to do. She remembered the adults all talking about it. But what could she do, as a teenager in Duluth? The whole extended family kind of knew what was going on, which is not unusual.

AE: Not unusual at all.

JO: My dad knew, too. That’s not really in the book, but later, when I was crumbling emotionally and confronting my parents after my daughter was born, my dad more or less said, Oh, yeah, we knew what Mike was doing. So, apparently everybody knew. Not just my mom, although learning that she knew was the most impactful, and the only part of this “turning a blind eye” that I include in the book, which maybe is not fair, but her blind eye hit the hardest, by far. But the degree to which other people were aware makes it easier for me to publish this book.

I did change some names of people in my mom’s extended family. I also said, in my disclaimer—because my mom’s stories are really colorful, and I don’t know what’s true and what’s not—that I’m relaying family folklore, as it was told to me without being able to verify the details. I don’t know who this cousin was, who supposedly filed his eye teeth to points! I just know I heard it over and over. Or the part about sawing the house in half. These stories made an impression on me as a kid, as you can imagine. I wanted them in the book. My dad says a house really did get sawn in half, but I can’t verify this stuff. I don’t know.

AE: I had my first piece published about two years ago, and that in itself was just so nerve racking. My mom wound up reading it and has still not said a word about it to me.

JO: Really?

AE: Yeah. And she comes out looking pretty good. My mom is gay, her ex-girlfriend doesn’t look so great in that piece.

JO: Oh, yeah.

AE: But it’s also about how my mom really chose her partners over me consistently. Still does. That’s not in there, but, you know, certainly throughout my childhood my mom consistently chose her partner over me. Her current girlfriend wrote me a really nice note, but my mom said nothing. She was excited until I told her I was going to post a link to it and she asked if people from our hometown were going to see it. I told her that I didn’t know if people would or if they’d comment.  We have some crossovers in our friends.

JO: Yeah.

AE: I felt like it became all about, ‘was she the perfect mother?’ and she was not.

JO: Mm hmm.

AE:  She had her moments. She had good moments. She had bad ones. You know, everybody does.

JO: Nobody’s the perfect mother. It’s so complicated, but I’ve forgiven my mom. There’s a lot that’s not in the book—a lot more violence. Bloody stuff. But like you already said, there’s so much trauma already. Decisions had to be made about what was feasible to include.

AE: That’s the difference between therapy and art, too.

JO: Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t all fit in there. My little sister would say, Well, what about this, or what about that? And I couldn’t get it in there. So, there’s a lot that’s missing. But, with my mom, I’m at peace. I’ve forgiven her, but I’m not not going to publish the book, just because she isn’t entirely comfortable with it. I’ve reached out to her about it but she hasn’t responded. And she didn’t like the essays that were first published in journals. So, that’s hard. But she knows about it, and we’re in communication about other things. It could be worse.

AE: There are lots of people like me out here that really, really need to read what you have written. I know there are. It’s such a beautiful book. It’s that quote “your words are the exact size of the hole in somebody else’s heart.” You know, that quote? It’s very true for this book, for me.

JO: It just means—really—a whole lot to hear that when you’ve been working on a book pretty much your whole life. That’s what I wanted. If that can happen, if this book can just be that for even one person, it’s enough.

AE:  Yeah, it’s gonna be more than one.

JO:  You asked about the essay with my daughter.

AE: Yes.

JO:  I wanted to answer that, because it’s really special how it came to be. It started in the fall of 2018, when I was really wrecked about something I was going through with my older daughter. There wasn’t much room to be wrecked, though, because—life.

My younger daughter Lillie had just come home from China, where they’d been living for a couple of years. And they brought their partner—Lillie uses they/ them pronouns—they brought their partner home from China to live at home with my husband and me. So, we have this young couple, one of whom is acclimating to a new country and a new family all at the same time, and I needed to be a mom, do all the things. But I was also very sad. And Lillie was, too, because the situation with their sister also involved them. But I was sadder. Because I’m the mom.

Anyway, seeing my sadness, Lillie did this incredible thing. They said, Mom, we need to write something together. They knew that writing would be my medicine. And we’d both recently read a really beautiful essay—I think it was in Guernica. I can’t remember, but it was about rape. Not rape itself—the aftermath of rape. And we both felt there was something powerful about the way the essay dwelled entirely in the after—like how long is the shadow of trauma? Does it reach into future generations?

We were interested in this epigenetic theme. For years already, Lillie had been saying, “Mom, it’s so weird how you’ve had all these traumatic experiences, and I haven’t, but I’ve still sort of sought out certain hard things.” Meaning, certain self-destructive experiences. So, what is that? You know? My kids were not raised in an abusive home. What is this? Part of it is just being a woman in this culture, there’s no doubt about that. We know. But there’s this idea of epigenetic trauma, epigenetic PTSD even. Lillie and I wanted to explore that in an essay.

Jeannine Ouellette and daughter Lillie

Photo: Jeannine Ouellette and Lillie

Our method was to get up in the morning, have our coffee, and set a timer for 20 minutes and just start writing. The one clear agreement we made was, I write your story, you write mine. During our first writing session, we both hit between four and five hundred words. We said, Well, are we going to show it to each other? That was the big question. Or do we just keep going? We both have a similar temperament, and were like, I want to see it!

AE: (Laughs)

JO: We did that timed writing most mornings for—I don’t know how many days or weeks. And each time we’d read our pieces aloud to each other. We just kept going that way until it got pretty big—4000 words, somewhere in there. It started to feel like we had what we needed, the raw material was there, but we had to figure out what to do with it next. How it would become something understandable on the page.

The task of splicing fell to me. But first we had a grammatical decision to make. I had written in the second person, addressing Lillie directly as you this, and you that—but Lillie had written in the third person, my mama and she. Ultimately, I felt it should stay the way it was. Later, another writer said to me, and I didn’t do this on purpose—but she said, ‘It establishes your roles, you know, the mother is speaking to the daughter.’

The mother is also doing this thing where she’s kind of revising—because the daughter is telling about things she herself didn’t experience, things that happened before she was born. And the mother is saying,’Well, it was kind of like that, but also it was actually this other way.’ The mother, though, is describing things she was present for—maybe not in the room, of course—but present. It was an incredible experience to write with Lillie this way.

The stories that Lillie told about Arif and her debate coach, I knew already. But it was still powerful to relive them through writing. When you’re illuminating something for the page, it becomes more precise and evocative. I had to revisit and question—well, did I do the right thing? You know, in the moment, was I present enough? Was I guiding the way that I should have been? You know, I can’t say for sure. I don’t know.

AE: Yeah. It’s always a mother’s haunting questions.

JO: Haunting.

AE: I hear you. Hard. It’s a gorgeous essay.

JO: It was such a real pleasure to create that with Lillie, to go through that whole process. It changed a little bit for the book—not significantly, but a little bit. Everything changed at least a little. And Lillie went through the entire manuscript, including the additional 15,000 words. It was an excruciating process, that final layer of revision. But such a joy to create with Lillie.

AE: That’s pretty incredible to be able to share that with your child.

JO: Yeah. And to share a process that was fun, even though you’re writing about things that aren’t fun. Lillie studied early childhood development in college, so that question of how we become who we are is constant. One time we were in a yoga class together and Lillie leaned over during Shavasana and said, “Mom, I just want to thank you for being so careful when you were pregnant with me.”

AE: Ohhh…

JO: They were learning about fetal development. Lillie is very attuned to these things. So it was a joy. But with regard to writing about hard things, I learned working with Paul that playfulness really changes my relationship with the work and with the stories. When I was writing “Tumbleweeds,” the second essay in the book, I gave myself certain constraints—like, I had to include a jackalope and the botanical nature of tumbleweeds, the inauguration speech of Jimmy Carter. Those subheads were all assignments I gave myself. The mating habits of the meadow lark. I had to work those things in, like a puzzle. It was hard, but fun.

As I as writing that piece, I was telling my husband about it because I knew it was going somewhere. This is the piece that Joyce Carol Oates eventually selected in the december contest. I told my husband, ‘It’s weird because I’m so back in that time, and it’s all very vivid and disturbing, but the actual writing is fun. Which feels almost wrong. Like, it shouldn’t be fun to write about incest. But I’m having fun.’ Fun was not available when I was trying to write about these things in my twenties. Trying to write about my mom, or trying to write about my stepdad, or my dad, for that matter. There was absolutely no fun in it back then. That’s not to say it’s not still exhausting, even now. It is, it’s emotionally exhausting. It takes a toll to go so deep into that time of my life. But it was also vital and integrating. In so many ways.

AE: It was just such a treat to get to meet you and talk to you. I mean, just such a treat.

JO: Well, it’s an honor. It’s a big deal to be in a writing community where you have support and interest in your work. I’m really grateful. I’m hoping to see your book in the future. Wishing you luck and fortitude!

AE: Thank you!

Meet the Contributor

Headshot: Amy Eaton with CatAmy Eaton is a writer, performer, director and arts educator in Chicago. She is a two-time presenter at HippoCamp:A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and her work has appeared in The Coachella Review and Mulberry Literary.  She has performed live lit with Write Club Chicago, MissSpoken, Tellin’Tales Theatre among others. She is currently directing storyteller Lily Be in her one woman show, What are You, Lily Be?  at the 2021 Fillet of Solo. She is currently at work on a memoir …. STILL. Connect with Amy on Twitter.

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