INTERVIEW: Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, author of Tell Me Everything Thing You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life

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Book Cover: Tell Me Everything You Don't RememberI picked up Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life at the recommendation of a friend, and once I started reading it, I ignored all my assigned tasks for the day and did nothing else but read. (And snack, of course. I’m not a robot.) I had to leave the house right as I arrived at the final chapter, so I bought the audio book so I could finish it in the car—I couldn’t bear to wait. It’s a wonderful book about so many things—memory, relationships, family, and rebuilding oneself and one’s entire life, with a bonus of learning some science and medical history as well.

About the Book:

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee woke up with a headache on the morning of December 31, 2006. By that afternoon, she saw the world—quite literally—upside down. By New Year’s Day, she was unable to form a coherent sentence. And after hours in the ER, days in the hospital, and multiple questions and tests, her doctors informed her that she had had a stroke.

For months afterward, Lee outsourced her memories to a journal, taking diligent notes to compensate for the thoughts she could no longer hold on to. It is from these notes that she has constructed this frank and compelling memoir. In a precise and captivating narrative, Lee navigates fearlessly between chronologies, weaving her childhood humiliations and joys together with the story of the early days of her marriage; and then later, in painstaking, painful, and unflinching detail, the account of her stroke and every upset—temporary or permanent—that it caused. (excerpted from Goodreads)

About the Author: Born in New York City, Christine earned her undergraduate degree at University of California Berkeley and her MFA at Mills College. She has been awarded a residency at Hedgebrook, and her pieces have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and placed in competitions such as the Poets and Writers’ Magazine Writers Exchange Contest, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and others. She is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA program and an Editor at The Rumpus.

Her honest writer bio:

Christine works at a dining room table at which no one actually eats surrounded by piles of teaching materials and student papers that need constant grading and she writes with a needy geriatric wiener dog who smells like corn chip Fritos on her lap and another needy wiener dog with feral survival tendencies who is up to no good somewhere in the kitchen. She should be running and exercising, but instead she is baking cookies and eating them. By herself. In front of her laptop. Trying to revise her novel. She is very pale. Find her online at Twitter or her website.

Lara Lillibridge: I loved your book. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about how the trauma of the pandemic is affecting people’s memories. And you wrote about homophone switching, which is something that I have done constantly since the start pandemic. For example you wrote:

“I ode it to myself. The struggle was not fare.”

And it was interesting because I went to an AWP panel this year called Dysfluent Writers Speak. And one of the presenters talked about the poetry that they found through their nontraditional speech.

And I feel like sometimes when we switch these words, we come up with something unintentionally poetic, like when you meant, ‘I owed it to myself,’ and it came out ‘I ode it to myself,’ I saw that as the possibility of an interesting poetic tangent. So I wondered if the way that language comes to you now has changed your writing? Or if you’ve fallen into any of that sort of accidental poetry, from just having the wrong words come out?

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee: Well, I think, first of all, that’s a very artful way to frame when we misspeak, so kudos to that panel. And also gratitude to that panel for framing these mistakes as art, and for pointing out that they can become art.

I didn’t even think of it that way before you pointed it out. I think that trauma definitely affects the brain and mind—the brain and mind are two different things—and  when the brain can’t make sense of something, the mind takes over with stories.

Now, I can’t speak as an authority to aphasia, which is the literal misplacement of words. I’m not a neurologist, and I don’t deeply know the science behind it, nor do I have a dissection of a brain to know exactly where that occurs. But I personally think that aphasia is linked to the mind making up stories.

I think when we’re traumatized, the brain can’t make sense of the trauma. For instance, we can’t make sense of this pandemic—we can’t. And when something happens to our bodies our brains can’t make sense of what’s happening because it itself is affected. The brain can’t diagnose itself. So then the mind takes over and makes up these stories.

And that’s where, for instance, anxiety comes from. That’s where depression comes from. When the mind is just like, ‘I’m going to make up these narratives for you, because all of this that’s happening is just too much for the brain to comprehend.’

So I think that the mind is telling us a new way to think or look at things, and there is a parallel between that and illness and trauma, where we become a new person afterwards. We’re one person before trauma happens, and afterwards, it may be tempting to go back to the old self. Everyone during the pandemic right now is like, ‘Can we go back?’ And we never can, but we can go to a new future.

And right now, everybody’s mind is grappling with that, because we don’t know what the future looks like. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of helplessness. But I think that hopefully, language will lead the way. Because we’re also finding new language to navigate this pandemic. So the mind is an amazing thing. I think the brain is amazing, but the mind is amazing, too. And I find this happening a lot with people surviving trauma. Does that make sense?

LL: Thank you for that. That makes a lot of sense. You know, you wrote about stories—about when you had no memories, some of your friends told you stories to hopefully reawake the storytelling part of your brain. And you also wrote about basically telling your brain that writing is essential—that this is what we’re going to focus on—math is not essential right now, but writing is what’s going to save us. And, you know, that whole idea of stories being intrinsic to who we are, and how we process the world, I think is just really fascinating.

CL: Yeah. I’m a mom now, and I find that when I want to teach my daughter a lesson, I communicate them in the format of stories. I like to envision that providing her lessons within stories will also help in her teenage years. She’s more receptive when they’re framed within a story. Because I think that stories hit the mind and brain emotionally. And one thing I learned is that, you know, I had a 15 minute short term memory for a while, but the things that I remember from those very early days of recovery are the things that I processed through the emotional center of my brain and mind.

That’s why when we’re little, we remember the snippets of memories that are either incredibly joyful, incredibly horrible, or incredibly impactful in one way or another, because those memories are processed through the emotional center, and they stay with us longer. Which is why I think writing is so important. And storytelling is so important. Because the world can read all these facts in the newspapers. But until we as writers tell a story about them and present what has happened in the world or in our lives, which is intrinsically the world, through a narrative, they may not impact people emotionally.

Author Photo: Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

LL: You have a quote I wrote down that goes along with that perfectly:

 The goal is to write a story that enters emotional memory. To make it so readers will remember your story and your writing, because you have struck something in their heart until it reverberates in their mind.

And that, to me is exactly why I write. I think stories are best way for people to develop empathy for other people, and to also understand themselves. I feel like books are a mirror and a window, as they say.

Another thing I found so interesting about your book is that—you know at every creative nonfiction conference I’ve ever gone to people talk about the fallibility of memory and how we can’t always trust our memories, how they’re reconstructions of stories we’ve been told over and over and filled in with our imaginations when we don’t remember in a way that we don’t even realize we’ve edited the memory, or that what we think we remember, we often don’t.

But you wrote something different.

This is why, even though we have so few memories from early childhood, we do retain a few of them—the ones that strike at us in the deepest places, the places of fear and love and exhilaration. These are the memories that never leave us.

And you wrote about how even though you couldn’t retrieve all of your memories immediately, they were still informing you and became part of your intuition. And you wrote not knowing someone’s name, but just sort of getting a feeling that that person should be called Molly (or whatever their name was) and you were generally right. 

But this idea of trusting our intuition—I found that to be unlike anything I’ve ever read about memory, and so fascinating. Can you speak more about that?

CL: Yeah, I think that we get gaslit so much throughout our lives, especially women. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is that really how it happened?’ And BIPOC people are constantly told, ‘that’s not really what happened, you’re just imagining things, that wasn’t that bad.’

But our emotional memories are incredibly accurate. You know, how we feel is how we feel. And no one can ever deny us that. I was in therapy for over 20 years, but at some point in my therapy—somewhere in the middle—I had to really learn how to talk to people in a way so that I could be heard. I’d spent so much of my life in service of others and in service of other people’s goals, subjugating my own, such that I never learned to articulate what it was I wanted. And I remember learning that if I tell people how I feel, they couldn’t say no. If you say, ‘what you said was demeaning.’

LL: They argue with you.

CL: Yeah. And as opposed to me saying, ‘I felt demeaned.’

I feel like emotions are the truest things we have. And emotional memories speak to that. Memory isn’t really that reliable—I mean, this interview is being recorded, because we know we can’t remember every single word. But you and I will always remember the tenor of our conversation, the rapport, how safe we felt, how comfortable we are. And the general feeling of what it was to talk to each other. And that is true. And that’s what most of us most writers are writing towards, you know?

LL: Yeah.

CL: Memoirists are totally obsessed with recording accuracy. I mean, there’s James Frey, who completely made things up. That’s another story, right? If he had written a memoir about how confused he felt, and how he felt like he was living another life that would have been accurate. So yeah, we can debate this all we want, but I think it’s a very patriarchal notion, to say, ‘what are the facts?’ And to gaslight people on the accuracy of whether there were five people in the room or six people in the room.

LL: Right.

CL: Emotional memory is the most important thing—that is actually hearkening back to the last question. Emotion is the thing that is the story. The story is the emotional truth you’re revealing. The facts are important. But the emotional truth is the most important.

LL:  And that’s the universality of our stories. That’s why I read memoir, to feel that connection to another’s humanity. We have all suffered in different ways, but this person maybe has a way out of it that I can learn from.

I was told when I first started writing that every memoir is a story of redemption or overcoming. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, because I think a lot of writing is processing, and sometimes the ending of ‘I don’t know’ is a valid ending, particularly in essays. But certainly a lot of stories are stories about overcoming something. And one thing that I thought was really cool is that your memoir does not resolve in the predictable female happy ending of ‘I fell in love again and I lived happily ever after.’

You allude to Mr. Paddington, which is the best name ever for the record, and that you found happiness again after divorce, but you resist that sort of female narrative of ‘a man made me better and I lived happily ever after.’ I don’t know if you did that intentionally or not, but I personally appreciated that that wasn’t the way that you chose to make your happy ending.

CL: Yes, I was very purposeful in not centering a marriage plot; the reality is that being coupled wasn’t the thing that made me happy. I don’t know if it’s the audience or publishing or what, but there is this huge pressure in memoir to have that sort of resolution, I think, because it’s perceived that  what the audience wants is a very tidy ending.

I think that’s why a lot of illness memoirs are more about the recovery than the diagnosis, or all the things that inform that recovery. I definitely defied that expectation. I wasn’t like, ‘oh, and then the next day I walked and then the next day, I was able to run’ and all that because the reality didn’t play out like that for me.

The context of this memoir is that I wrote it in the midst of a divorce process that lasted for years.

LL: Oh, wow.

CL: Yeah, that in itself was a big trauma. But we fared well—we’re all alive and getting along today. And I am writing another memoir about that stage of my life as it pertains to my urban farm, and how my urban farm informed the way I reframed my life. I definitely was moving away from patriarchy at that point, because it hadn’t worked for me. It doesn’t work for a lot of people—I don’t even think that it works for men. I was investigating matriarchy, and other frameworks of living and other power frameworks.

While I was writing Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, I was in this very dark place, and I was trying to figure out how to tell my story for the first time ever, without framing it around my husband, or his desires and all of that. So that memoir was an act of rebellion.

And, you know, I happen to be with a partner—Mr. Paddington and I are still together today. He very much eschews the patriarchy as best as he can. And as he learns, he eschews it more and more. I mean, he was the one that said after my husband left me, ‘you know, it’s time to rethink your writing name.’ I’d published a few pieces under my married name, and he brought this up very early—I hadn’t even thought of changing my name. He said, ‘I need to tell you that you need to reconsider what name you publish under.’ I asked a few friends. And the feedback I got was, ‘yeah, change it and never look back.’ And so you know, those were some of the first steps I took in rebellion and in defining myself, and that memoir is very much about that transformation.

LL: Well, I have 8,000 things to ask now. So first of all, I would never have guessed that you were going through a very long drawn out, painful divorce. I mean, you did write about it being painful. But you wrote so carefully, and with such respect about him—you really wrote about him without any vengeance. I’m divorced, and I’ve written about my ex-husband and because I also have children, I tried to be very careful about what they will read me say about their father. And I thought about that more than I thought about his feelings, right? Because as mothers, we kind of view the world through our kids in a lot of ways.

And I really admired how you were I thought very gracious to your ex, but now that you’ve said that it was such a long process, I think that must have been incredibly hard for you to do.

But you wrote about writing this book as a way to deal with the trauma of divorce, and you wrote,

Each time I have overcome a trauma, it was by facing, in some way, the trauma proceeding it. But this book—this book made me look at everything, and it has made me come to terms with the things that happened. It made me hold everything close. My daughter. My memories. My marriage. My mind. My brain. My body. The life before. The life after. What they mean. What they meant. It made me sit with my entire life.

And I thought that was so beautiful, and it struck me so pointedly because people always ask when you say write a memoir, ‘was it really good therapy for you?’ And it’s not therapy. And then other people ask about, ‘how do you write about family? And how do you deal with the fallout from it?’  And basically, it’s all the same question from different angles about the risk and rewards of writing memoir. 

I felt that writing a book changed me in ways I didn’t anticipate. And it made me stronger and more proud of myself. And I don’t know if you had a similar kind of experience with the process of writing, and if you could speak about the idea of overcoming one trauma by processing another?

CL:  I was gracious towards my ex for the same reasons you were—I wrote that book, I write everything, for my daughter. I really worried about how motherhood would affect my writing. I think women worry about that. A lot of women were saying, ‘Oh, it’s fine, you’re going to write more than ever while pregnant.’ I wrote nothing while pregnant. But then after she was born, I had this urgent need to tell stories and write stuff down. I had never had a concrete audience in mind until my daughter was born.

And of course, when my husband left me I was completely bereft, because he had been my entire life. And suddenly I had to really focus on myself; it was then that writing came to the forefront.

But, you know, the one person I protect is my daughter. And by proxy, there is this respect for her father, because he’s a part of her. I think I told Scott Simon something similar on NPR, because he also commented that I wrote so graciously about my ex, and Scott Simon was like, ‘What’s up with that?’

Was I under Stockholm Syndrome with my response? Because the answer I provided was that the way I look at my ex is as someone who remembered the old me. And who saw me as the prior Christine, the pre-stroke Christine, who is extremely aggressive, very goal oriented, less process oriented, just a complete gunner. Extremely extroverted and social. I am not extroverted and don’t try to be social now. And so whenever I mourn my old self, all I have to do is talk to my ex. And I think that’s true for a lot of people, whether or not they had an illness or not.

There are times where we’re like, ‘I miss the old me,’ or ‘what was I like?’ and all we have to do is pick up the phone and talk to somebody who used to know us, or with whom we were intimate a while ago. And so that person knows that snapshot of you. So for that he’s an incredible resource. But, you know, I think that writing that book helped me process a lot of those feelings, even though I was really holding back on the page when it comes to the divorce itself.

I am convinced that writing a book changes your brain—all these neural pathways are being formed. Basically writing a book is like running a marathon as opposed to a short sprint. And when you do that your muscles change, so why wouldn’t your brain? And in the course of writing this book, I learned that my stroke was informing how I was navigating the end of my marriage, and that I had gone through something pretty bad and came back. And I was like, if I came back from that, I can come back from this. I learned that there is a new self that emerges and fighting that new self is counterproductive.

And so halfway through writing it I found it to be an incredibly gratifying positive act, because it helped me unpack a lot. And I had not found a fitting time to write about my stroke—I wrote my memoir over seven years after my stroke. I’d tried multiple times to even write an essay about it over the years, and I couldn’t. It just felt like a really boring documentation of what happened—when you talk about emotional memory versus fact-based memory—I had a diary and all of that, and I could just narrate what happened. But when I wrote that memoir in the context of my husband of 18 years leaving me, it suddenly had emotional resonance. And then I was able to tell this story, because there was a connection to the future, and to the past, and I was suddenly able to write a narrative that I felt would resonate.

LL: You were originally a fiction writer—that was what your MFA was focused on, but from a craft perspective, I felt that your book was so influenced by poetry. I don’t know if you think of yourself as a poet at all, but the rhythm and the variety of sentence structure…you have places we have sentences that are just like a few words and that are very clipped and then you have others filled with repetition, like this one,

Our home filled with material goods made of wood made of fabric made of glass made of steel made of wool, and the garage with a new car made of metal made of fiberglass made of glass made of leather.

It’s so lyrical and beautiful in the repetition and rhythm. And then you have sections that flow into a stream of consciousness. At another point, you wrote,

I’d fought off pain with an attempt to control all things—with obsession and compulsion. With ongoing thoughts and anxieties and then rituals to fend off the anxieties and thoughts: did I wash all the doorknobs did I bring my gloves did I bring my Purell please hug me instead of shaking my hand oh yes I am a hugger but not because I want to be close to you but because I don’t want to touch your hands because everything around me is so irreparably stained and I am stained and I cannot get myself clean enough and the world is so full of hurt and confusion and it is touching me and I cannot get myself away from the world so I will clean all the germs off my body where is my Hibiclens soap why is nothing perfect everything is so out of my control everything is teetering.

And that to me is this immersion in feeling, and that’s what my thoughts are like, that’s what my anxiety is like, so I could totally see myself in it. But in terms of just structure, I thought it was interesting how you use these poetic tools. And I was just curious how that came to be? Did that just emerge naturally, and this was just organically how the story came out, or, were you a poet at some other point in time?

CL: Well, thank you for that. I’m often called a spare writer. I didn’t realize I was a spare writer until after the book came out,  and so many people called it spare prose. I always feel like I’m too wordy. But I think that sometimes we are not the thing that we think we are. I was also so worried that this book would become self-pitying. And my editor really reassured me it’s definitely not at all, even though it was the thing that I was most worried about.

I actually started out as a poet. I was not a good poet. You know, I wrote poetry for most of my college years. I owe a lot to my mentor Robert Hass, with whom I took classes at Berkeley. And I think that I am very conscious of sentence length and varying sentence length and all of that. Mostly, I just hope that readers won’t be bored. I thought, if I vary the sentence length then maybe it’ll catch them off guard and they won’t be bored. It’s all these little craft tricks I use to fend off my own insecurities. But yeah, I am very conscious of craft as I write.

I think that this book is informed by both my fiction background as well as my beginnings in poetry. I think I’m a really weird nonfiction writer as a result. They called it ‘very literary nonfiction.’ And I’m not really sure what that means, except that it might be unusual. But thank you for that. I don’t really have much to say because you just now made me conscious of it. I’m hearing it for the first time now and I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that my language is even a strength.’ Because I’m supposedly spare.

LL:  I think that my weird writing is my best writing, so I can relate to that. And I do think that as writers, we all dread the reader that puts our book down halfway through and never picks it up again. We’re always trying to just keep people’s attention, keep them interested. There’s so much boring backstory in life, that it becomes a challenge.

I want to talk to you about identity for a minute here. You wrote,

 Also, my brother and I were raised to survive wars. It was the thesis statement of our upbringing.

which is such a cool sentence, speaking of language. But I was just struck by how much you were aware in the writing of how not just your childhood, but your parents’ history played into forming who you were, and how that affected you in terms of your stroke.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the world wants to put us in a box, you know, like, this is a book about a stroke, or this is a book about ___. And your book is about so much more. Right?

Like, it’s about being the child of parents who lived through war, it’s about divorce, it’s about a stroke, it’s about silencing yourself. And then there’s these shadows of other trauma that’s mentioned, but not delved deeply into. And I’m really sort of interested in the conversation about how we, as a society are always trying to reduce people, and always trying to fit people into a box. And I don’t know if  you felt pigeon-holed in your publishing experience, but I certainly felt that your book was so multifaceted and really looked at so much more than just one thing.

CL: I think that, you know, I fear that. I think that a lot of categorization is the result of merchandising, right? Where will it go on the shelf at the bookstore?

LL: Exactly.

CL: It’s best to ignore the business end of things as we’re writing something. It truly is so toxic to the process. I’m glad you saw it as this multifaceted thing. I think a lot of people have wanted me to just write about my illness. But my experience was unique because of who I was. And I wish that more illness memoirs and other memoirists would tell us who they are and how their reactions were informed by their past, like Cheryl Strayed with Wild did—she talks about her childhood as it pertains to how she’s dealing with her mother’s death, and then as it pertains to how she’s navigating the Pacific Crest Trail. And I think that to a certain extent, I think that there aren’t as many BIPOC voices and so we do get pigeonholed.

A reader might feel really uncomfortable hearing about racial identity and identity politics as it pertains to less racially specific topics like illness or addiction. But you know, that’s how I was informed. Like, if I was raised a different way, I would have navigated my recovery completely differently. I wasn’t always kind to myself in my recovery, because I was taught that vulnerability shouldn’t be treated with kindness. And it was something that I had to learn—to treat myself with kindness and to regard vulnerability as a very good thing, even as a component of strength.

That was also one of the lessons I learned from this incredibly big setback in my life. And I wouldn’t have learned that had I had very supportive parents—I mean, my parents were supportive—but I’m talking about the possibility of parents who supported tenderness and parents who hadn’t suffered hardship themselves, and who weren’t fear-based in their parenting decisions.

LL: I mean, your father had a perforated intestine or something and wouldn’t go to the hospital and wanted to drive himself there.

CL: And he did! He drove to the hospital and then nearly slammed into the wall when they finally parked because he was just overcome with pain. But that’s what he did. And that was a bragging point in our family. It wasn’t a tragic story. It was a story of pride. In another family, that would be a story about stupidity, right? Somebody would have said, ‘Oh, my gosh, are you serious?’ or somebody would have critiqued it, but not in our household.

LL: So then, of course, when everything turns sideways and you’re outside that hardware store, you’re not going to think of that as something to make a big deal over, right? There’s no way that is something worth paying attention unless you’re bleeding out.

CL: Yeah, I was treating myself like the emergency room did where the only thing that gets paid attention to is the gunshot wound, right? Not the person with a hidden brain bleed, who’s not bleeding externally.

LL: And when you first went to the hospital, they completely ignored you. And you had to leave and go to another one, right?

CL: Yes.

LL: And, you know, there’s so much that I’ve read about how difficult people live longer, because they argue and they fight for themselves, and they complain. Whereas nice people, particularly I think women, we get the message that to be nice means to not put our needs first and to not complain and to not draw attention to ourselves in those sort of situations. But your husband at the time fought for you. He stood up and said, ‘No, we’re not going to put up with this.’ And I think maybe men sometimes have an easier time of that.

CL: Yeah, I’m the hugest advocate for my friends—I am the friend you want to take to the emergency room with you, because I’ll be a bulldog for you. But when it comes to my own pain, even to this day, I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.

You know, I think also that as kids we as girls are taught that we have to present a certain way. And we’re trained to just support other people. I hope that the next generation is not so much like that. But yes, I mean, it took us days to go to the emergency room. But then when we got there, my then-husband was a total advocate. But at the same time, I was extremely brain damaged, and barely could speak at that point. So it would have been impossible for me to advocate for myself.

We also went to a hospital nearby that was not a nice, suburban, shiny new hospital. And it is where gunshot wounds go, and so they had a different lens on my situation. So we went to a different hospital in a much nicer neighborhood—a much nicer facility, where there was nobody in line and where there are a lot of elderly folks. And it turns out they have one of the biggest stroke units around here.

LL: Wow.

CL: Yeah. And so I was admitted immediately. We sat down, filled out a third of the form or whatever—I barely remember. My then-husband told me a lot of this stuff and he filled in the my memory gaps—sometimes we have to rely on others for our memory. And then I was admitted immediately. So it’s just kind of like it’s a combination of my brain damage, patriarchal upbringing, and our area—maybe if I’d gone to that second hospital first I would have just been admitted, and there wouldn’t have been a story to tell, because there would have been no challenge to me and my health, but that’s kind of also how we learn things in life.

When we go up against something, then we learn something about society, and insights into the people that we’re with. My ex is extremely supportive. Like he really prioritizes his career and stuff, and that’s good for him. But then, you know, when it’s crunch time, he’s really good at being an asshole.

LL: That’s great. Sometimes you need an asshole to advocate for you.

When you when you wrote about being left behind on walks, and hiking and throwing up and all these things. And then you write about going on this walk with Mr. Paddington, who just decides, ‘okay, let’s walk backwards’. And I totally loved him for that.

That was a moment where I hoped this person would come around later in the book, because he won me over with that, because it was like, let’s just change the narrative, let’s just do something different. Let’s use our muscles differently. And that ability to get out of the tension of the moment and do something different is, I think, a really kind of creative thinking that we don’t see much of.

CL: Yeah, it was a genius maneuver. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, really?’ And all of a sudden,our feet hurt less, because we were putting pressure on different parts of our feet and different parts  of our body. It’s sort of an allegory for how we navigate trauma and navigate setbacks, right?  Like you can still move forward, but you will be moving forward differently. Look at the issue from a different perspective, approach it from a different direction. And there’s always some sort of solution to get you to where you want to be.

LL: You wrote about how your brain itself took over functions that it hadn’t previously done. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that after the stroke you had a dead spot in your brain, but your brain just sort of went around that area. That was something I didn’t know brains could do.

CL: Yeah, it’s neuroplasticity. I don’t think we learned it growing up, because it’s a fairly new discovery. But that’s what the brain does is it builds around these spots.

LL: What I thought was so uplifting about that is that so often I feel like there is a narrative says that once you’re damaged, or once you’re wounded, you’re going to be scarred for life. And your book was such a real proof that that’s not true. Right? Like you might be different for life, but not necessarily broken.

And, you know, you would go into these backstories on medicine or on mold, that I thought was really interesting, and also a way to sort of shift what was perhaps going a very what could be a long and depressing section into a ‘let’s look at the interesting sides of this’ and to engage the intellect, the curiosity, of the reader.  I thought that was really interesting as a craft element as well.

CL: Yeah, I did that because I was sick of talking about myself. I thought, I have to break this up because talking about my medications and how they affected me is just, like you said, extremely depressing. Like just going in several times a week to get my blood drawn. And I looked like an IV drug user with tracks on my arms and stuff like that. And how do you make going in to get your blood drawn super interesting?

Also, I’m a very big science nerd. So I thought, ‘Oh, well, good, I’m going to go do some research and nerd out on cows, and the discovery of certain medicine based on cows getting sick or not.’ I often tell my students to figure out new ways and new perspectives and components of their memoir. Talk to the people around you and something might come up, but do some research, and something might come up there as well.

And that’s really important too, because if we want to talk about the topic of memory, and play with facts versus emotional resonance, it’s a way to play with it, you know, incorporate that research into your emotional narrative, instead of the other way around. So it’s also kind of turning things on its side.

LL: And, yeah, it’s a way to step out of yourself. And, actually, speaking of stepping out of yourself, I wanted to talk to you about the concept of the protagonist or narrator as separate from the writer. They talk about that in writing classes all the time, but it took me a long time to kind of wrap my head around when I was getting my MFA. And you’re the only person I know who actually addressed it in the memoir.

You were talking in this part of the book about reading Slaughterhouse-Five, and how Kurt Vonnegut created a character to embody his trauma. And you were talking about creating a character. You wrote,

I too have created a character to embody the trauma. The person on these pages is the character Christine. The person telling you this story is the narrator Christine. And the person behind all this is me, Christine.

 And I think that is such an important concept, but one that I think a lot of young writers struggle with. Can you talk about that?

CL:  I’m a huge structure nerd. When I teach classes, I really focus on structure and the craft elements of structure. And I even have a lecture on that, that I really love to share. But, you know, the first time I came across structure was this wonderful essay or article written by Frederick Reiken in in Writers’ Chronicle, sometime in the mid-aughts actually, called, “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge.” And from that, I gained this incredible awareness of POV and the separation of author, narrative and character.

I think in memoir, it’s really easy to make those converge. And you don’t want them to converge. For instance, in memoir, you are the author and you are the narrator, and you are the character, at least in memoir first person. And it’s really important to separate those, first of all, as you’re writing it, to set your narrative in a set time, because if your narrative shifts in time, then your reader gets very confused.

I think that it is very common for memoirists to write their first draft in present tense, right? First of all, because of the memory thing, where many memoirists want to get every fact down. And it’s easier to recall facts when it is written in first person present tense, because it’s just the sequence of things. But what happens then is that in your subsequent drafts, your author and narrator may converge as the narrator doesn’t stay set in time as in the first draft. Time shifts, for example, if it’s taking you five years to write it. Where is that narrator in time?

In subsequent drafts, I always tell people, when you get to the end, you’ll know where the narrative is supposed to be. You have to have a firm vision of what that narrator is going through as they’re telling the story. In workshop, there’s a lot of feedback, like, ‘why is this story being told?’ And that question really speaks to the question, ‘where is the narrator in time?’

You don’t even have to say what the narrator is going through. But there needs to be that implicit knowledge from the author about the inciting incident for telling the story. And so all this workshop feedback about content is usually referring to the author/narrator/character divergence. I think this happens more often in fiction than memoir, but the narrator and character can also converge.

When your characters are in dialogue, and they’re doing a lot of exposition as opposed to revealing the character’s personality and voice, it’s because the character is doing the narrator’s work. And so the narrator really needs to step up and do more of the heavy lifting of narrating all that exposition.

It comes up all the time in workshop; where is the narrator? Why isn’t the narrator doing this work? What if the narrator does the work? What would the character then say? And who is this character? So I was extremely firmly aware of that while writing the memoir. I happened to write it very fast. I wrote the memoir in a year from start to finish, mostly because I had a book proposal that was extremely well thought out. And so I had a very firm idea of where the narrator was, and that really helped in telling that story.

I hope I answered your question because I can nerd out about this all day.

LL: No, that was actually really cool. I’d always heard the piece about the character on the page being different from the writer. But the idea of the narrator as the third component—like perhaps that’s a fiction element that memoirists don’t necessarily think of. Because I’ve heard about, you know, the split perspective of the older wiser narrator and the  younger or child protagonist or whatever, but not as that third perspective.

CL: One of the key elements of memoir is curating your life while being truthful. You don’t want to leave out huge chunks that actually are relevant. When I was a child, I always asked my dad, ‘why on TV shows do they never go to the bathroom?’ And he’d laugh and say that is a good question. But that’s curation.

LL: Right? Because so much of life is really boring, to be honest with you—you know, the day to day life, the passage of time.  If we were to write that all not only would our books be 800 pages long, but they would not be all that interesting, or relevant.

What is so what are you working on now? Are you still teaching?

CL: I am taking a break from teaching thank goodness. I mean, props to all the educators who had to fare through the pandemic. I actually took a break starting the semester the pandemic began. So I haven’t had to do any remote teaching but I sometimes do online classes.

But mostly I have been working on another book, a memoir about urban farming and what I’ve learned about power structures as they pertain to my life, and to the way I live about patriarchy, matriarchy, and mutual aid. So I’ve been working on that. And then of course, my forever project—my novel.

LL: I loved your essay on husbanding the bees, and the derivation of the word husband and the reclaiming of that as a woman. I can see how those pieces could be explored together.

CL: Yeah, when I wanted to start an urban farm, my then-husband laughed and then said no way. And I started really unpacking that. I mean, there were obvious reasons why he just didn’t want a wild garden, like I do now. But then I’m also like, why didn’t I fight for it? Why wasn’t it that important? And in unpacking that, and then all the nerding out I did about propagation and animal husbandry, I started really learning more, not only about what my garden taught me, but why I was doing it in the first place. You know, like, of all the projects in the world why did I choose an urban farm?

LL: I look forward to following that journey.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.

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