An interview by Sheila Bender of Writing It Real:
I am pleased to post this interview with author Jan Vallone…It is always a pleasure to correspond with authors about their experience, process, hopes, desires, disappointments and successes and Jan’s descriptions of herself as a goal oriented new writer will resonate for many.
Sheila: Jan, your memoir taps into subjects and memories and psychological patterns I certainly experienced as a child growing up on the East Coast in the 1950’s and becoming a 1972 transplant to Seattle. I so much understand the power of fathers who wanted to see us succeed on their terms and of mothers whose sense of themselves was conditioned by needing to be subservient helpmates to their husbands even as they were exercising their intellect and talents in the larger world. I resonated with the way this makes one unsure of one’s own steps in marriage and parenting and vocational choices. What compelled you to write your memoir?
Jan: I knew from the beginning the story I wanted to write. My story would be a memoir exploring how loss and disappointment shape the people we become. As I’d aged, I’d become aware that pain helps develop the best parts of ourselves—at least if we allow it to—and that we can use our hardship to make possible something good. For much of my life, I’d been miserable, wanting to please—especially my father, bosses and husband—and never feeling success. Then I fell into teaching, which felt like a gift for my old age, the first thing I ever did well. And I knew that if I’d accomplished anything good for my students it was because I’d suffered the exact disappointments I had. So I wanted to focus on vocation, to examine how a person—more specifically a woman—comes to know what she’s on the earth to do. And I wanted to consider what impedes and facilitates finding a vocation, especially—as you point out—parents, spouses and gender—but also children, ethnicity, religion, community, hardship and luck.
Sheila: You are throughout the book talking about events in your childhood, events over the course of your marriage and adoption of two children and events in your major career changes. What did you have to consider as you created a timeline for the memoir? How did you deal with ways to keep the reader unconfused about shifts in time?
Jan: When I became a high school teacher, I taught Ursula Hegi’s Floating in My Mother’s Palm, a semi-autobiographical novel. I love that book, so much that I used to tell my students that I wished I could have written it myself. Not only do I love the story and writing, but the structure as well. It’s narrated in the first person and consists of a series of stories told un-chronologically. Each chapter is a pivotal episode from the narrator’s life that could stand on its own—each with a conflict, resolution and step towards wisdom. But taken all together, they tell a story beyond themselves. I admired the puzzle of it all, and the way it mimics the manner in which many of us come to understand life—in fits and starts, with steps forward, backward and in circles. So, in my memoir, I wanted to emulate that structure, knowing that writing a book like Floating would be a significant challenge for a novice like me. To do it, I’d have to answer several questions: Which stories from my life best linked to vocation? Which scenes and bits of learning belonged in a particular story? How would I unify and order stories that bounced in place and time and maintain the reader’s bearings?
The first answer to my questions came simply from my heart. In thinking about what to put into the stories and what to leave out, I decided that although the memoir would embrace my family, it would not be about them. I would not exploit them. The book would touch them only insofar as they affected my discovery of vocation. The answers on form came from trial and error—from my multiple attempts to structure and restructure the memoir—and by taking cues from my favorite books. To give the reader footholds in time, each of the chapters is dated, like those in Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, another memoir of stories not told chronologically. But the stories are not in random order. To give the manuscript direction, each story raises a question not answered in that story but in one that shortly follows, as do those in Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Denise Levertov’s Tesserae. To unify the stories, I included various motifs that run across them—colored glass and candles—like Floating’s water and stones, Suck City’s rafts and alcohol, Running’s jungle plants and fauna and Tesserae’s fragments and mosaics. And to keep the reader focused on vocation, I included several epigraphs dealing with finding a calling—verses from the New Testament and Ethics of the Jewish Fathers—like the epigraphs that Barbara Grizzuti Harrison used to apprise her reader of the focus of each long and meandering chapter of her book An Accidental Autobiography.
Sheila: You write very personally about your husband and children and yourself. You show yourself having difficult thoughts about marriage and parenting. This takes courage. Did you have qualms about publishing these descriptions and thoughts? Did your family members object or wonder about the impact of what you were writing? How has it turned out?
Jan: Although I did hesitate at times about including certain descriptions and thoughts, I knew that, at its heart, the memoir is a love story, and I hoped that if I was true to that love, and honest about how love manifests itself, not only with sweetness and sureness but with disappointments and doubts as well, my family, friends and students would see my love for them clearly in the book. For the most part they have. In fact, no one has complained about the big stuff, like my portrayals of anger or arguments. I hope that is because I tried to portray in the book what I try to do in real life—analyze how I have contributed to a fracas, attempt to understand the other person’s perspective and acknowledge my own fault…As I wrote the memoir, I automatically changed the name, and occasionally the physical description, of anyone I felt might feel uncomfortable about being in the memoir. Everyone else I asked. The names and physical descriptions of my immediate family members, though, are accurate.
Sheila: I know you not only came to teaching after a career in law, but that you eventually attended an MFA program in Creative Writing. Where did you study and how did you find the course of study?
Jan: I attended Goddard College’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program in Port Townsend, Washington. It’s a four-semester, rigorous program for people who’d like to live their lives and improve their writing at the same time—ideal for people like me who have family, work or other personal commitments and who want to improve their writing in the way that most writers work—on their own. Each semester begins with an eight-day residency at Fort Worden. During the residency, students meet individually and in small groups with a faculty advisor to discuss their creative work and develop a study plan and bibliography for the semester. They also participate in what I found to be an inspiring, diverse and supportive community of peers who together attend keynote speeches, student and faculty readings, workshops on craft and literature and master classes. After each residency is over, and for the remainder of the semester, students mail packets of work to their advisor at three-week intervals and receive extended comments in return. Most students are assigned two advisors during the program, one for the first two semesters and another for the last two.
I enjoyed Goddard from the start. The very first book on my reading list—Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay—suggested improvements I could make in my writing. The introduction was especially helpful. It provided an excellent framework for understanding the goals, form and style of the personal essay, stressing the importance of honesty, confession, conversational tone and muted self-deprecation. Lopate helped me understand what honest writing entailed: acknowledging in the writing contradictions within the self. For the first time I understood what a long-ago professor had meant when he said he found my writing dishonest: in my pre-Goddard writing, I’d purged contradictions and headed straight to grand realizations and magical resolutions. At Goddard, I realized that I needed to stop doing that, and found abundant exemplars on my reading list. Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Mark Doty’s Firebird, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Janet Frame’s An Autobiography, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, and Elie Wiesel’s Night, were all memoirs in which the narrator struggled for insight. Each of them took two steps back for every step forward, and each time wisdom dawned, it was clouded by confusion and doubt.
In working on the stories for my manuscript, I wrestled with combining reflection and narrative effectively. Many of the memoirs on my reading list—Diane Ackerman’s, Cultivating Delight, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s An Accidental Autobiography, Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk and Rafael Campo’s The Desire to Heal—consisted largely of reflection rather than scenes, and so did my first attempts at memoir. But while the reflection of those authors seemed wise, poignant and subtle, mine seemed corny, hackneyed and didactic. During my time at Goddard, I tried to address this in several ways. At one point, I attempted to mimic Gerry Albarelli’s minimalist Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva by cutting all reflection and writing exclusively scene. The result seemed vacuous and flat. Next, I took cues from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love and Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man by inserting internal dialogue where reflection might have been. This made the writing seem clumsy and complicated point of view. Then, after reading Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, I considered quitting writing altogether; Gornick is so gifted at pinpointing her characters’ hidden motivations and mind-games that I saw no room in the writing world for a reflection hack like me. Later, as Mark Doty did in Firebird, I structured reflection as questions. I felt somewhat comfortable with this; it avoided providing facile answers to life’s complicated quandaries. In the end, I settled on a combination of all the techniques I’d tried, but I still struggle with reflection. I fear the fatal faux pas—a dishonest happy ending or lawyerly argument.
While at Goddard, I also grappled with tense. At first I wrote entirely in the past tense, and my first advisor thought it flat. She suggested I put flashbacks in the present tense and leave most of the rest in the past. This was a challenge for me. I struggled with it for two semesters. I had difficulty pinpointing when now was so I could logically allocate tenses. Taking one clause at a time, I tried to determine which clauses consisted of the adult me giving backstory, which consisted of the child me reliving the past and which consisted of the adult me speaking in the present. Then, I buried the shifts in dialogue or fragments—as Susan Minot did in Monkeys and Jeffrey Eugenides did in Middlesex—putting backstory into the past, relived experiences into the present and now moments into the present. But no matter what I did, the shifts read awkwardly to me—having been taught since kindergarten never to shift tenses like that, I couldn’t retrain my ear. I found relief in my third semester when my second advisor told me she too thought my tense shifting clumsy. That was my cue to finally give up; it just wasn’t for me. Gladly, I reworked my memoir, putting most segments into the past.
My grandest goal for Goddard was to delawyerize my writing, which is difficult to do after spending 18 years practicing law. My advisors, both poets, helped me tremendously with this. To achieve the intimate tone of a memoirist I had to drop my lawyer vocabulary and textbook grammar. I had to learn to write as I speak. For the first time in decades, I purged my howevers and therefores. For the first time in my life, I incorporated sentence fragments, replaced semicolons with dashes and began sentences with but, or and and. I also reduced repetition and parallelism. This was difficult for me. In legal writing, repetition and parallelism are required; they prevent judges from wrongly concluding that a document means to say something different in one place than in another by using different words. Repetition and parallelism were so ingrained in my writing that I was oblivious to them. Both my advisors helped me hear that overused repetition and parallelism strike non-lawyers like gavels to the head.
Early on, my advisor pointed out that my work was often “OD”, her acronym for overdone. This problem too likely stemmed from legal writing. A lawyer’s job is to persuade, intimidate, control and leave nothing to the reader to imagine or infer. Lawyers won’t choose just one example when many are available and they won’t choose simple when they can choose bombastic. Like most lawyers’ writing, mine was crammed with examples, definitions and explanations, in multiples of three. And wherever black might do, my choice was ebony. Both of my advisors showed me my habits were weakening my writing; they were burdening my non-legal readers into overload and squelching their greatest joy: freedom to imagine and infer. So I worked to simplify my writing and improve its lyricism. I sought to choose the one best descriptor or most concrete noun or verb and eliminate all words that didn’t contribute to meaning or move the story along. I removed redundant phrases, like actively engaged, took out needless adverbs like clearly, got rid of wordy phrases like the fact that and deleted clichés. I tried to model my writing after the lyrical examples on my Goddard reading list. My favorites were the memoirs of poets, such as Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Denise Levertov’s Tesserae, Rafael Campo’s The Desire to Heal and June Jordan’s, Soldier, all of which read like poetry.
While I worked at Goddard, there were times insecurity hampered me. In my previous education, comments were limited to grades, and I’d always had the discipline to ensure my grade was A. But Goddard awarded no grades; my advisors provided written comments, and while I received the thoughtful guidance I’d hoped for—actually far more—there were no gold stars. With no clear markers of success, I assumed myself a failure and was desperate for a signal that this assumption was wrong. I hardly breathed while waiting for comments, and when they came, I scrutinized each word. Did good really mean good? Somehow it sounded bad, though not as bad as fine. Certainly very good was better, but not as good as excellent.
Needing to know where I stood, I put myself to the test. During my first and second semesters, I submitted pieces to Goddard’s literary journal. Both times my pieces were rejected. This set off the reverberating question: What am I doing in a program in which I can’t succeed? How can I justify the expense?
During my second Goddard semester, my self-esteem hit an all-time low when I read one of my pieces at a workshop. I chose a memoir about teaching at the yeshiva, and when I finished reading, I wasn’t allowed to speak as the group critiqued my work. I wound up crying. The comments bounced for an hour and seemed more about my teaching style, or about how I should have acted in the story, or about how I should have treated students, than they did about the writing. Still, I wasn’t permitted to explain the yeshiva’s singularity or that the piece was part of a longer work that would hopefully clarify things. Most hurtful were the comments of one member of the group. He’d been late and entirely missed the reading, yet felt free to join the fray. That day I resolved to quit Goddard. I vowed to quit writing for good. I even sealed my resolution with a ritual: I threw a coin—representing my writing aspirations—into nearby Puget Sound.
But I didn’t drop out of Goddard. My manuscript kept drawing me and I realized I needed to finish it, despite its questionable quality. I enjoyed working to improve it, even if it never reached good. Time moved quickly when I wrote. Writing seemed a healing act. So I learned from writing my memoir that writing has a value in and of itself, that I didn’t need approval to do it, and that I was stronger and more tenacious than I’d formerly thought.
Sheila: I notice that the publisher for your book specializes in work about Italian Americans. How did you find this press? What recommendations do you have for those writing memoir when they search for a home for their book?
Jan: When I first began to look for a publisher, I learned that, unlike small presses, most large, well-established presses won’t accept manuscripts except through agents; they say so in their submission guidelines. I also read that finding an agent in today’s market is nearly impossible, especially for unknown writers like me. So I decided to follow a two-prong publication strategy for my memoir: I would write to 100 agents and 50 small presses, and if I found nothing, I would give up. With input from several writer friends, I composed a query letter, then researched agents and small presses online through Poets & Writers, Agent Query and other websites. In the course of doing so, I learned that most agents don’t respond to queries, even those who say they are soliciting them, and that small presses often cater to very specific groups of writers, such as women over 60, gay and lesbian writers, Asian, Latino or African-American writers, Evangelical writers or Jewish writers—groups that didn’t include me. So as my rejection tally approached 40, I began to fear that I’d never find an agent and I began to joke (painfully) that I needed to find a small publisher who catered to Italian American female x-lawyers who had quit law to pursue their dreams. And that’s exactly who I found—but not by writing a query. Instead, at a cocktail party, a friend of mine met and mentioned my memoir to someone she described as an energetic, intelligent young Italophile who had left her law practice to open a small publishing company—Gemelli Press—focused on books relating to Italy. So I emailed that woman…and she read, loved and published my memoir.