Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber
In Morgan Baker’s debut memoir, Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes (Ten 16 Press; May 2023) we follow the author as she wrestles with a whole bunch of goodbyes at once: her oldest daughter is leaving home for college and the ten puppies from the family’s first ever litter are ready to be adopted into their forever homes. Morgan finds herself unexpectedly floundering and sinks into a deep depression as she faces a shift in her identity from devoted mom to unfettered, independent woman. Can she accept that her own individuality and future are worth living for? Eventually with Spray, the puppies’ mother, showing her how to let go, and with the love from her family, Morgan lifts herself back up and adjusts to her new reality.
I know Morgan through writing groups we both belong to, so when I heard her book was coming out, I jumped at the opportunity to dive deeper into her story and writing process. My first impression was that reading Emptying the Nest felt a lot like having a long and intense conversation with a best friend. I pictured us at a grown-up sleepover: there we would be in our jammies, feet up on the coffee table, sharing a bottle of wine, and devouring an entire chocolate cake while we talked into the night.
Maybe it was her technique of letting me inside her thoughts that made me feel like I knew her that well. So many times, I found myself nodding in agreement with her sardonic and often irrational self-criticisms. Even though Emptying the Nest is Morgan’s unique story, her candid portrayal of all the obstacles she faced (thoughts included) helps the reader connect with her and the universal struggle of how to hang on to identity in the midst of change. When Morgan triumphs in the end, we are glad for her and hopeful for ourselves. Funny and heart breaking, Morgan’s story is an honest and endearing portrayal of one woman’s acceptance of change, demonstrating for anyone facing similar circumstances that it is possible to get better at goodbyes.
Morgan and I talked about all of this and more just a few weeks before Emptying the Nest debuted on May 2, 2023. What follows are the pared-down highlights of our all-night (not really) gab fest.
Michèle Dawson Haber: Congratulations, Morgan on publishing your debut memoir. I laughed. I cried. I exclaimed. It was such an enjoyable read and relatable on so many levels.
Morgan Baker: Well, let me say thank you for reading it and for this opportunity to talk with you about it.
MDH: It is clear to the reader from the opening line, “I suck at goodbyes,” that this is going to be a voice-driven memoir. Searching for the best words to describe your voice I come up with honest, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and funny.
Did this come naturally to you, or did you have to nurture your writing voice until it matured into the one that now charms and captivates the reader from the very start of your book?
MB: My voice has evolved over time. I think that all my experience writing essays and teaching brought me to a place where I do sound more like me. Finding your voice comes with self-confidence and experience. I don’t think this is what I sounded like a long time ago. It was much more forced. Sometimes I would read my sentences and think, “Who writes like this?” They sounded academic, which was not what I was going for. So, I’m very happy to hear you say this.
MDH: So, you were able to relax into the writing as you gained confidence?
MB: Yeah, and this book took a long time to write. I definitely think I’m more present in the book now than I was when I first started it. The longer I wrote it, or the longer it sat while I didn’t write, it was mulling. I think many people don’t understand how much writing is done in the shower, or walking, or even when you think you’re not thinking about it. Life happens and it influences your work. In the beginning, I kept more of a distance, both in terms of the writing style and in terms of what I shared. Then there came a point where I just thought, “Who the hell cares?” and I became more confident in how I thought other people would react to what and how I was sharing.
“I think many people don’t understand how much writing is done in the shower, or walking, or even when you think you’re not thinking about it.” — Morgan Baker
MDH: Will you tell me more about the lifecycle of this book? How long did it take you and how did it change over time?
MB: The book started in 2010 as a blog. I blogged about breeding our dog and raising puppies and my surprise about how I related to the mother of the pups, Spray. And then the puppies were adopted out, my daughter Maggie left, and I crashed and burned. It was probably a year and a half after I had come out of my depression that I thought that maybe I could take some of the blog and build it into something. So, the story I first wrote was about the puppies and the conflict between me and my husband, Matt, about whether or not we should breed. But it wasn’t the right book. I put it away for three years and said to myself that it would never see the light of day.
Then in 2020 I took the Rebirth Your Book virtual retreat with Allison K. Williams and Dinty Moore and decided to use the opportunity to work on the manuscript again. It helped me realize that the story wasn’t really about the puppies, but more about me getting used to this new part of my life without my kids at home. When it was done, I tried over and over again with agents, and I would get those responses like, “It’s nice, but…” And then I remembered that I had published an excerpt in a 2015 anthology, Done Darkness edited by Pam Parker, which I completely forgot about. So, I contacted the publisher, and they said, “we want it.”
MDH: The events of your narrative take place a number of years ago, and it is clear by the end that you undergo a change, becoming a different person than the Morgan we meet in the early years. Was it hard to inhabit that different self and convey it authentically on the page, or did you write this memoir in the moment and not as the person you are now looking back?
MB: I actually think it’s a really good question. Some of it I wrote right in the moment, but not all. For the part where I’m depressed, I really skimmed the surface, and it was Alison K. Williams who said, “You need to go deeper.” Doing that was hard. Just recently I had to proof it and when I got to that part, I was like, “Nope, not going there, I’m just going to skim it.” I was really surprised by this. I did have to force myself, though. But my husband and youngest daughter won’t read it again. They say that they’ve lived through it and that’s enough.
MDH: The structural choice to weave together your story of coming to terms with your daughters leaving home to start their own lives with the story of Spray, your Portuguese Water Dog, and her litter of ten puppies was inventive and poignant. You skillfully contrast the physical and emotional challenges of motherhood and launching your children (and pups) into the world. At what point in the writing process did you realize that your relationship with your dogs had so much to teach you about what you were going through?
MB: It arose out of writing the blog. I watched how easy it was for Spray to leave her puppies and go out and play, and I couldn’t help but compare that with how I was feeling as a mother. I devoted myself to my kids and rarely took time out for me, and if I did, I felt guilty. Spray did not.
The original draft had a goodbye for every single puppy. I cut a lot of puppy. I finally realized that all I needed was one or two goodbyes which would stand in for all of them.
MDH: That’s super interesting. So much about writing a memoir is figuring out what you can safely leave out without compromising the story that you’re telling.
MB: That’s so true.
MDH: In addition to the main theme of adjusting to life without your two daughters at home, you write about other difficult and harrowing experiences in Emptying the Nest, such as your daughter and husband’s life-threatening food allergies and your younger daughter’s mental health struggles. Were all these equally hard to write about or was one especially challenging?
MB: Writing about Matt’s episode when he nearly died from eating cross-contaminated food at a restaurant was definitely hard. I wrote that pretty soon after it happened, so that wasn’t an instance where I had to remind myself how it unfolded. I really wanted to write about the allergy stuff because it’s important that the world knows about these things. A lot of people still don’t get how serious these conditions are. Someone on a plane will become all indignant and ask, “Why can’t I eat peanuts?” Well, the answer is, “because somebody’s going to die!” So, I wrote about the allergy stuff and the mental health stuff as a way to process it, but also to say to readers, “Hey, this is going on in the world.” I would like to have a role in changing the narrative, because I’m not the only one who was affected by this.
MDH: You are fully into the writing life—you teach, you conduct private classes, and you are also managing editor for a web magazine. Did this full immersion help you to get the memoir done or did it hinder you?
MB: I would say both. I love my job and I love teaching, but working as much as I was working did not leave me with a lot of room to do my own writing. For years I was also a freelance feature writer for a number of Boston-area newspapers. Just as I was slowing down my feature writing, the founder of The Bucket called me and wanted me on board for this new web magazine. It was the perfect time—I was about to turn sixty and the magazine was for people my age who wanted to reduce or eliminate deathbed regrets.
I was able to take my experience as a journalistic feature writer and editor for my students and mush them together. I can say that despite all the things pulling me away from my own writing, what I did professionally also helped inform it. Sometimes I would listen to what I was telling my students and remind myself, “This goes for you too, Morgan!” Or a student would say something that totally shifted my thinking and allowed me to approach whatever I was working on from a completely different perspective. And so, to answer your question, it’s really both.
MDH: A lot of people wonder about the impact of telling a story that provides close and personal details about the lives of your nuclear family. Were these conversations you had before starting the book? Without telling me what they were, did you construct any boundaries or red lines for yourself as the writing progressed?
MB: Thank you, I really appreciate you giving me permission to stay silent on some things, that’s important. For all writers of memoir there are lines we won’t cross. In my case, I initially wrote without thinking about that, I tried not to edit myself. This is what everybody tells you to do. Then, at some point, I did share it with my family. It was a big ask for them to read it several times. Without getting into specifics, they also grew and were more willing to share.
MDH: So, you asked at the right time?
MB: Yes, and they definitely had complete veto power. For some writers getting their story out is really important and the fallout is just part of the process. That’s fine, that’s good for them. But that wasn’t who I was. My relationship with my kids, my husband, and two fathers was important to me. They’re people I love.
MDH: We see sometimes in popular media articles advice about how to navigate difficult or unfamiliar social situations. For example, advice on what to say or not to say to someone who is grieving, or guidance on whether it is acceptable to ask questions about a person’s physical disability. Do we in society need more education on how to talk to or interact with a friend or a relative who is depressed? You write that your friends’ pep talks and “me too’s” didn’t get through to you. Recognizing, of course, that everyone is different, can you talk about what kinds of things would have helped you and what you want your readers to learn from your experience?
MB: In the best of all possible worlds, it would be really nice if people who were depressed felt that the world would listen to them and not judge them. When there is a death, the person grieving often just wants somebody to hold their hand. The whole stigma around mental illness is huge, but I do think things are changing. The pandemic pushed this change, because it created an increase in mental health problems—I’ve seen it in my classrooms. I think people are more willing to talk about it now in a way that they weren’t before. When I was depressed, I hid it from other people and myself. It is hard to admit how crappy you feel, and to put that on other people.
When I think about what my husband Matt did, I think about the reassurance and the continuity he provided. I could depend on him; I knew he wasn’t going to go anywhere. He’d say, “I’ve got you,” and he would sit on the couch and hold me.
MDH: So, he projected confidence that you would come out the other side and that he was going to see you through it no matter how long it took?
MDH: What else do people need to know about how to support a friend or family member who’s going through what you went through?
MB: I would say don’t try to minimalize what the depressed person is feeling, or say, “I know how you feel, I had a bad day too.” Probably, you have no idea how they feel. Do say, “I’m your friend, I want to be here for you, and I’m here to listen.” And if your friend says things that can’t possibly be true, or are misguided , just say, “I hope you can hear yourself and I hope you realize that we all love you.” This isn’t easy to do. I think a lot of people jump in because they want to fix things. They can’t bear to sit silently, and so they say things like, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”
MDH: Which you don’t believe in that moment.
MB: Yeah, I think the depressed person just needs people to figuratively and literally hold their hand, and say, “I’m here and I’m not going to leave.”
MDH: I love that, that’s the perfect answer. Thank you for that. Let’s talk now about the sources of your inspiration. What other memoirists have influenced your writing and why?
MB: First and foremost, Abigail Thomas. Her book Three Dog Life inspired me so much in the way that she wrote about her husband’s accident, illness, and her dogs. When I read it, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to do!”
But the first memoir I ever read was Russel Baker’s, Growing Up. That’s when I realized I wanted to write a memoir. Another influence was this tiny little book by Joe Blair called By the Iowa Sea. When I was struggling with structure and couldn’t figure out how to construct a narrative that didn’t go from beginning to end, Blair showed me that I could write in what I call “chunks.” While he went from scene to scene, he also jumped time and place, and it was just fine. I employed the same technique in Emptying the Nest—I jump around, and I repeat myself, but I think it works.
Then there was Meredith Hall. She wrote a memoir called, Without a Map, which I loved because of her honesty and the scenes she chose to share. I could keep going, but that’s probably enough!
MDH: Do you have another book in you? What’s next?
MB: So, when I shoved Emptying the Nest in a drawer, I went to Hawaii for a year with Matt and while I was there, I took an online class with Abigail Thomas. I wrote an essay about walking my dog to the beach every day at 5:30 in the morning to watch the sunrise. I ended up writing a lot about Hawaii. I’d also earlier written a lot of essays about different parts of my life on Martha’s Vineyard, which had been an incredibly important place for me when my parents got divorced. So, I have all these essays set in two different places, and I’m trying to come up with a way of sort of mushing them together. I have some ideas about how to do that and I’m actually really excited about it.
Apart from that, I just have to say that I’m really grateful. I’m grateful that I am healthy, I’m grateful for my family, and I’m grateful to the writing community that I’ve fallen into. I have writing friends now all over the place and also around the corner. It’s really fun. I’m just really very grateful.
MDH: Morgan, thanks so much for speaking with me. It’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know you through your writing. Your message is an important one that I hope gets to those who need to hear it.
Morgan Baker is an essayist and feature writer. Her memoir, “Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes” is out this month and is available here. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, The Brevity Nonfiction Blog, The Boston Parents’ Paper, Cognoscenti, The Bark, Motherwell, and multiple alumni magazines and anthologies. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor at thebucket.com. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, or at https://www.bymorganbaker.com.