What are the stories only you can tell?

Sometimes we don't recognize the value and uniqueness of our own lives. Just as we don’t really know what we look like—photographs flatten our faces, and in a mirror, we’re backwards—we may not see what gifts we possess. For someone who wants to move others, any powerful, formative experience, however painful it may have been in the living, is a gift. 

Here's one example of using such a gift. Let's say a mother dies, leaving behind a young daughter. When she's old enough, this surviving daughter can make use of her understanding by exploring her history in autobiographical writing. She can explore it in a nonfiction work based on interviews with other daughters whose mothers died while they were young. She can explore it in a fictional character's life, whether that character is a surviving daughter, an early-dying mother, a husband, anyone else influenced by the situation, or all of the above. Or she can use her emotional knowledge to show, in fiction, someone else's grief--perhaps that of a little girl whose teacher has died, or a man whose wife has left him.

The development of a story is fairly instinctual, but it comes from places we already occupy, from parts of living that move us. I didn't understand this—not fully, anyway—until my junior year of high school. Students were asked to choose an author and a novel to write about in depth. There were two women on the list of 25 authors—Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. I chose Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway. I also read diaries, letters, and several biographies on her.

What I found amazed me. The novel contained direct references to things that had happened to her and included thoughts she'd written in diaries and letters. This was so unlike how novels had been taught to me in school—as these arbitrary, magical creations that arose inexplicably in geniuses. No. Fiction, and anything of meaning, proceeds directly from the experiences and thoughts of our particular assemblages of flesh and bones. 

I got another bit of understanding a decade later, when I read an interview with novelist Dorothy Allison in Poets and Writers magazine. She said something like this: If you're not at the edge of what you can tolerate emotionally while writing, you haven't found your material yet. 
 
I realized then that I had to face a feature of my early life. My parents lost a child to a genetic disease shortly before I was born. I emerged into a grieving family. I might have ended up having the same disease; they didn’t know till I was nearly a year old that I would live.

I interviewed my parents, because I’d heard only a few sentences about my sister in my first three-plus decades of life. I read about the disease. I made a lot of things up. By now, I’ve written about a hundred pages of a fictionalized version of this material. And some things I experienced by doing this helped me portray the attachment of the unwed mother in my novel, Lilli de Jong, to her baby, who she is at risk of losing.

Now I know that this and other facets of my life are not just "things that happened to happen," things I need to get past, as if that were possible. We can't get past the things that constitute who we are. But we can spin them into gold. 

Your voice and your understandings are unique. What sorts of people and places and events can you describe because of what life has given you? What are the stories only you can tell?

Motherhood Around the World

I grew up with a world-traveling, feminist mom, an artist, who loved me deeply. I was raised with a great concern for sexism, for families, and for women’s stories. The novel I’ve written, Lilli de Jong (out May 16 from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), takes place in 1883 Philadelphia. In it, I created a world in which mothers’ concerns are paramount and a mother’s wish to keep her “bastard” child pits her against prejudice and inequality. What women routinely do in pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, and the nurturing of helpless humans, all the while fighting the diminishment of our work, ourselves, and our children, deserves a great deal more support and respect. I wrote this novel in the form of a diary of a courageous woman partly in order to make people feel these struggles up close. I hope this will make readers more compassionate toward mothers and children. Mothers suffer too much in an unjust world to love their children and to meet their needs. Perhaps like you, I want this to change.

All that said, I hope the novel speaks for itself. Its focus on an unwed mother’s pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, love for her infant, and struggle amid sexism and prejudice—from her point of view—is unusual, if not revolutionary, in fiction. Lilli de Jong persists because trying to protect and nourish her child is what a loving mother will do, regardless of the costs. But there should not be so many costs.

 

A Hebrew Edition

An Israeli publisher, Sefer Lakol, will be translating my novel into Hebrew and releasing it in paperback. This was the first foreign-rights sale for me. I can't wait to hold the book in my hands, see the jacket, and open the book to find an entirely different alphabet. Thank you, Sefer Lakol.