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May 17, 2022

A Masterclass in Writing and Living with Abigail Thomas

A Masterclass in Writing and Living with Abigail Thomas

Paul talks with the NYT-bestselling memoirist and teacher, Abigail Thomas. Her memoir, Safekeeping (2000), is a marvel of technical innovation, enviable humor, and just plain old heart. She’s clear-sighted about her own failings, as well as other people’s, but she never seems to judge anyone.


Paul talks with the NYT-bestselling memoirist and teacher, Abigail Thomas. Her memoir, Safekeeping (2000), is a marvel of technical innovation, enviable humor, and just plain old heart. She’s clear-sighted about her own failings, as well as other people’s, but she never seems to judge anyone.

In this episode Abigail Thomas shares the backstory of how she came to write Safekeeping, how the memoir was initially turned down by all the editors the book was sent, except for one. 

The interview is something of a masterclass on writing memoir as Thomas also talks about:

  • How to shape an experimental or “mosaic” memoir like hers
  • How to own what you don’t remember
  • Her favorite writing exercise (hint: it’s 2 pages about…)
  • How to stop getting hung up by chronology in memoir
  • Writing memoir vs. "tattling"
  • How to create distance in memoir

Abigail Thomas, the daughter of renowned science writer Lewis Thomas, is the author of three works of fiction: Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas.

Her memoir, A Three Dog Life, was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. She is also author of Safekeeping and What Comes Next and How to Like it (memoirs), as well as Thinking About Memoir.

Discussed in this episode:

 “Getting Started” (essay): https://www.abigailthomas.net/getting-started/

Safekeeping (memoir)

What Comes Next and How to Like it (memoir)

Forthcoming Untitled Memoir published by the Golden Notebook bookstore, Woodstock, NY

Credits:

This episode was edited by Paul Zakrzewski and produced by Magpie Audio Productions. Theme music  is "The Stone Mansion" by BlueDot Productions.

Transcript

[00:00:01]

[music]

[show preview ,Abigail Thomas]: If you're taking a moment or a memory, it's so much simpler than fiction because you don't have to dress it up. They don't have to put on their good clothes. You just simply get it down exactly as you remember it and then leave.

[show intro, Paul]: Welcome to "The Book I Had to Write." This is the podcast where I talk to authors about their most compelling stories and why these journeys matter to anyone who wants to publish.

Say a close friend of yours, your second husband actually has died. You haven't been together for years, and in your grief, you suddenly find yourself writing scenes from your life.

They pour out of you.

Some of them are just a few pages, some are just a paragraph or two. You find yourself experimenting. You jump back and forth in time. Sometimes you write in first person, other times in third. You shift back and forth between present, and past tense, and so on.

How would you pull that book together, and how might your approach actually help open doors for lots of other writers?

In this episode, I talk to Abigail Thomas. Her memoir, "Safekeeping," came out in 2000, and I think it's fair to call it a masterpiece. Part of what makes it so remarkable I think is Abby's warmth and compassion. She's so clear-sighted about her own failings as well as other people's, but she keeps her sense of humor, and she never seems to judge anyone.

You can find that same humor and compassion in her other books too. She's written two other memoirs, three books of fiction, and a guide for writers called "Thinking About Memoir."

Abby is 80 now. She spent a lot of her time as a writer thinking about the relationships closest to her. Near the end of the interview, you'll hear Abby reference her friend, Chuck.

That would be Chuck Verrill. He was best known as a literary agent for people like Stephen King, but their decades-long friendship is the centerpiece of her memoir, "What Comes Next and How to Like It." Verrill died this January at age 82.

We started things off by talking about "Safekeeping." Her essay, "Getting Started," tells the story behind this book. You can find that on her website abigailthomas.net.

[music fade]

[interview]

Paul: So, partly, what I wanted to do was talk about "Safekeeping," partly because it's just the story of how it came about I think is really instructive. It actually helped inspire this podcast, "The Book I Had to Write."

Abigail: Good.

Paul: Yeah. Well, the essay, yeah, "Getting Started," I think, you know, you tell the story of scribbling these short sections, or scenes, or vignettes, and this was in the wake of a close friend's passing, your second husband. And I'm wondering if you could tell that story a bit of just how you found yourself starting to write these pieces.

Abigail: Well, I don't know how I found myself starting to write these pieces. He died... I think the first one I wrote might have even been apple cake. I don't know. All I know is that these little pieces came like popcorn out of me. I couldn't stop.

One thing led to another, and I just kept writing, and writing, and writing. And after a while, I thought, "Well, gee, these are a lot of pages here." And I had thought the book would end when he died. And then I realized, "But I'm not dead. There's more here to do."

And the editor I'd had at Algonquin for three books of fiction who's a wonderful editor wanted me to turn it into a novel. She didn't like... I mean, it's in first person, and second person, and third person. There's no chronological order, although I hope it makes a kind of emotional sense. And she wanted me to write a novel.

But my life hasn't been lived like a novel. My life has been lived like a series of moments, you know. I didn't want anywhere to hide, you know. You write a novel, then you can do all kinds of fancy footwork. But if you're taking a moment or a memory, it's so much simpler than fiction because you don't have to dress it up. They don't have to put on their good clothes. You just simply get it down exactly as you remember it and then leave, you know. You're distilling, not decorating.

And it's so interesting what pops into your head. I mean, sometimes it's something that's just happened, sometimes it's a freestanding memory that has no before or after, just a freestanding memory. And I didn't want to write a novel. I wanted it to feel the way my life had felt, which is a series of moments, you know. Some of them are horrifying, and terrible, and upsetting, and some of them were just purely hilarious.

That's how I did it, and everybody turned it down, except Robin Desser at Knopf because she saw something possible. And it wasn't finished, you know. I had about 90 pages, and she began by asking me questions. I mean, she would say, "Could you add one more detail about that piece where your father's eating cake?" And I could. Every question she asked, I immediately knew the answer and put it in.

It's harder for me unless somebody asks me the right question. You know, when you've written something and you read it aloud to yourself, and your voice goes dead, you know, either there's something hiding that you don't wanna deal with, or it's just plain boring, or there's something missing. And I'm very good at cutting. But when I need to figure out what is this one last thing I need to do, there's one more thing here and I don't know what it... That'll take me weeks to get.

Paul: To figure out that. Yeah.

Abigail: Yeah.

Paul: So you guys went back and forth, and that helped to shape the book a bit.

Abigail: Well, it helped to write the book. Shaping the book, that was hard, putting it in some kind of disorder. I think when you're writing memoir and you don't know really quite how to put it together, if you think of it in three sections, it's usually... Usually, three sections works. I don't know why.

Paul: What are those three sections when you think of them?

Abigail: Well, for A Three Dog... For "Safekeeping," I think it was before and then mortality, and then the rest of my life, which I can't remember what I called that. But, I mean, not Robin and me, but Chuck and I, and I think my daughter, Catherine, just put on the floor three lines and what would go where. And I think the book starts... I think the first section contains both the present, the past, and the future.

Paul: I mean, that sounds right to me too. The emotional center is your second husband, but it does feel like you telescope back and forth.

Abigail: I go back and forth. Yeah, yeah, before I knew you. I'm remembering the time just before I knew you and then I knew you, and then you died. You can start with everything. If you do this in fragments, and I think that's the popular word these days, short pieces, you can really move almost anywhere from anywhere. You can go from... I don't know how else to put that. It eventually will make a kind of sense to you, but you have to write what you have to write. If something catches your eye, or keeps cropping up, or coming out of nowhere, write it down. Write everything down that interests you or obsesses you, and don't stop. Eventually, it will begin to make a kind of sense.

Paul: And would you say that that's the core of this kind of book? I have to write idea, but if...

Abigail: Oh, God, yes, yes. If you have to write, you have to write, and whatever it is. And the next interesting thing I like to say often shows up in disguise. I mean, if there's a peculiar shade of blue and it's giving you a funny thing, write it down. If a bug wanders across, it will begin to make sense. But everything that interests you or keeps coming back to you, write it, write it, write the moments.

Paul: I mean, you're a longtime, as we just talked, a longtime teacher of other writers, other memoir writers. When they are stuck or you feel like their worker is lacking urgency, is this the advice that you're giving them?

Abigail: That's the advice that I give them, but I also give them assignments, or they've got something to work with. You know, I was looking back in an old diary, and in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner, I was writing about was this sentence, "This is a lie I've told before."

So that is an assignment I give now all my incoming students, two pages of...it used to be the first assignment I gave was to take... And this popped into my head when I was crossing 110th in Broadway 100 years ago, "Take any 10 years of your life, reduce them to 2 pages, and every sentence has to be 3 words long, not 4, not 5."

It can be a fragment, obviously, but it can't be a fragment which put together with the next one and makes a sentence like, "I went out to the store." One of the most memorable was, "He was cute. I was clueless. It seemed right." [laughs]

The nice thing about the three-word sentence is there's nowhere to hide. You can't hide behind a sapling. You're gonna give something up, you know.

Paul: When I was researching this interview, I was looking on Amazon and I saw someone who was actually talking about "Safekeeping," and referred to you as the mistress of white space.

Abigail: Yeah. I'll tell you one other really interesting thing. What you don't remember is as interesting as what you do remember. So if there's something you don't remember, say so. "I don't remember what we talked about, but..." You know, one of the other assignments I'd give is write down nine things you don't remember starting with, "I don't remember," followed by nine things you do remember. And sometimes what you don't remember sets off the memory, you know. It's just... Anyway, if you don't remember something and it's important, say so.

Paul: It's like you're tricking your brain into it.

Abigail: Well, sometimes it's just important to say, "I don't remember how this happened. I don't remember why I said this. I don't remember why I did it. I don't remember..." It isn't the same as whitespace, but I can promise you that what you don't remember is every bit as interesting as what you do if you say so.

[music break]

[Abigail reading from her book] She's a writer and she teaches writing. Well, not teaches writing because you can't do that, but you can certainly locate the interesting. You can go over the page with sandpapered fingertips and say, "Here, what's really going on here?" And if you're lucky, the writer blushes and says, "Oh, I thought I could just skip over that part," which means you have discovered a gold mine and you say, "No, sorry. You're gonna have to write it." She gives assignments so nobody has to face the blank page alone with the whole blue sky to choose from. "Write two pages," she says, "in which somebody can't stop apologizing, two pages in which somebody kills something with a shoe, two pages containing a French horn and ear infection and a limp, describe somebody by what they can't take their eyes off, two pages, two pages in which someone is inappropriately dressed for the occasion," and so forth. Nothing goes to waste.

[00:14:01]

[music]

[00:14:17]

Paul: You know, the section I had to read regarding your students and that there are places where they wanna gloss over, can you talk a bit about that experience? I'm sure it comes up a lot in your workshops.

Abigail: I mean, I used to sandpaper fingertips because that's how safecrackers open the safe, and if you go over, you can usually tell when someone is headed somewhere and then turns around, and comes back, or goes over to the left when they were clearly going this way, but it was clearly gonna be something they didn't want to write about.

The trick is if there's something that you have been hiding even from yourself and you don't wanna look at it, all of its power comes from the dark. You can bring that up and in the light, it's still something you'd rather not look at, but it's finite. It has edges, and it loses the power. And once you write it... The other thing is the more vulnerable you make yourself, the stronger you become. That's just true. Did I answer it?

Paul: Yeah. Then nothing is wasted this way.

Abigail: Nothing is wasted. You need to write about the stuff you don't wanna write about. I'm not sure it should be the point of the book.

Paul: You have to find a side door.

Abigail: You have to find a side door, and it isn't therapy. Writing isn't therapy. But if you're truthful, and honest, and write what you need to write, it has the effect of you've made something out of it separate from yourself, you've revealed things to yourself about yourself, and it's a way of forgiving yourself, you know, and others. But if there's something you wanna write, you just have to write all the time and it doesn't have to be necessarily anything you think is gonna go anywhere. Just bits and pieces, bits and pieces.

Paul: You've also written that, "I'm bored by chronology."

Abigail: Oh, God.

Paul: You don't even believe in chronology.

Abigail: No, I don't believe. I don't believe in chronology. And the older you get, the more you don't believe in chronology or even time. What is it? I mean, I'm at the age now where I live entirely in the moment. Sometimes the moment is a good one, sometimes it's a more interesting one, but that's where I am. I never think about the future. I do have memories, and I write about them because I wrote somewhere, "You discover that the past is every bit as unpredictable as the future." And for me, the future is behind me. You know, I don't have... I just have now.

Paul: Do you feel like your students get hung up by chronology?

Abigail: Not mine, but I think people do. Some stories need to be told chronologically. "The Glass Castle," that needed to be a chronological story.

Paul: What do you feel like separates a story that needs to be told chronologically by one that doesn't?

Abigail: Well, I will confess that I have a poor memory, except for the things I remember. So putting them in chronological order makes very little sense to me. It's why this now? Why am I thinking of this now? Why this memory? Write it down. You'll find out why. The trick is not to boss them around, you know. Just let them come, and they will.

Paul: I guess this is a companion question to that, which is when I've worked with people in the past, the fact they don't remember things seems to trip them up. I don't remember that and how can I write this?

Abigail: Then write you don't remember. "I don't remember." I mean, what kinds of things are you thinking of?

Paul: It seems to come up out of this fear that somehow you won't. I don't know. Actually, I don't wanna surmise why people get hung up on this. So it may not be that interesting a question.

Abigail: Well, it is an interesting question. It's only interesting because I really do think that what you don't remember belongs in there, because in the course of writing this, you may begin to remember, or you may begin to remember why you don't remember. But it is interesting for the reader to know that the writer is at least honest enough to say, "I don't remember why I did this. I don't remember what came before," because it's so human. I mean...

Paul: And that makes us want to read someone. They're being vulnerable and real.

Abigail: Yeah. And I think the worst thing you can have if you're writing memoir is absolutely photographic memory so that you remember absolutely everything because you can't tell then what stands out, you know. It becomes just a monotone of this happened, and then I had a sandwich, and I had peanut butter, and then I put jelly in it, and then I took a bite, and I put it back. If you're writing memoir and you're leaving something out that you don't want anybody to know, who are you fooling? You know, what's the point? What are you writing memoir for? Make a story. Make it fiction.

Paul: Which is what your editor originally wanted, it looks like.

Abigail: Yes. But my life hasn't been lived like a novel or as somebody once said a very bad novel. It's been lived in a series of moments that I both cherish and I'm ashamed of, or have been laughing my ass off, or great difficulty, you know. It was a very difficult time, and you have to write about it, and why.

Paul: Do you feel looking back that you've always been more of a memoirist, a novelist that somehow memoir resonates for you more?

Abigail: Well, I am now. And most of the stories I wrote were drawn from my life. I mean, I was using my life, but I've made it fiction. When I first started to write, and I didn't start till I was 48 or 49, I wanted to write about having had to get... The only claim to fame I had was that I got pregnant in Bryn Mawr when I was freshman and I got kicked out, and never went back to college.

And I wanted to write about that, and I wanted to write about that marriage, which was both of us were... I mean, he was 19 and I was 18. And we had no idea how to... We were either incredibly polite, or we were fighting. And I started to write about a night I remembered, and we had a really big fight. I was stirring the beginnings of baked Indian pudding and he came, and we had a big fight. So I wrote that down. It was four pages. It was exactly as I remembered, and I read it over, and I go, "This isn't writing. This is tattling."

And I realized, in order to write about that situation where two young people have to get married, I'd have to throw myself a curve. I'd have to make a real change and I did. I made me in love with my husband, which I didn't remember being, and then I made him in love with somebody else. And then the story picked up and walked off on its own, and it was fiction.

Paul: So I wanted to shift gears a bit and then ask you, what do you feel was the result of having published "Safekeeping," kind of finding this amazing memoir with a new form? I've yet to encounter another memoir that, you know, toggles back and forth with point of view, and tense, and jumbled chronology in quite the way that yours does. Was there a result that you can look back to in terms of having published this, either for yourself or, you know, the public?

Abigail: Well, one of the things that people objected to was that I wrote both in the first person, and the third person, and the second person. There were things I wrote in the third person because I was no longer the person I was writing about, or I needed distance.

If you're having trouble writing something, try writing it in the third person. It may not remain the third person, but sometimes a third person knows more than the first person does. And it's a good... So I learned that, and I wasn't really thinking about it when I wrote it.

There were just pieces that I just couldn't do it in the first person. I got addicted. I'm a junkie for memoir. And then when my husband got hurt, I had to write about that so I wouldn't lose my mind. And I wrote about that as it was happening. I don't know. I'm just not interested in reading fiction or writing fiction anymore. Life is so interesting.

Paul: And you feel like that was probably a result of all these great insights that you had from writing "Safekeeping," it sounds like.

Abigail: Yes. Yeah. And you can do anything you want as long as it works. There's no rules. I mean, if I'd gone to college and I'd heard about Dan Harmon, narrative arc, and all that shit, I don't think I'd ever written a word if somebody would be looking over my... I didn't have enough time anyway thinking, "Who do you think you are?" But I'm interested in what is happening around me. I'm interested in what's going through me. I'm just interested in daily life, you know, just my dogs, getting old, which is so much better than being young. You can tell your students it's much better to be 80 than it is to be 25. It's so much simpler.

Paul: That's a fact.

Abigail: All the shit you used to care about, you just don't give a shit anymore.

Paul: You've mentioned a couple times to me now that there's a small book.

Abigail: Yeah. There's a little book, there's a little book.

Paul: Can you say anything about that?

Abigail: Well, I think what it turned out to be is a book about... I think the only thing holding it together is that an old woman is writing it and it's an old woman who really likes to be old. Yeah, it starts out, I'm about to turn 80, and then there's the pandemic, and we're all inside. And I am so appalled. I can't write about politics, but I can allude to them.

So there's a year of having to be home and then we're suddenly out the door again. I can't really explain it. It's a memoir. It's about just what I notice, and it's just the same as the other ones, except it's different, you know. It was rather funny.

Paul: Do you work, I mean, in the way that you did with Safekeeping? It sounds like you work quite closely with your Knopf editor. Is that a kind of relationship that you still have with editors?

Abigail: What Comes Next and How to Like it really was just I got it done. I would show things to Chuck [Verrill], and I would show things to Catherine. And if Chuck liked it, I knew it was good. And if he said something else or made another suggestion, I trusted him. That is sort of more chronological than anything because it starts with...

It's about a friendship and then there's a whole that is blown through the friendship. And then there is the way we became friends again. And we did it simply by, "Okay. We're going to have dinner. We're gonna hate every minute of it. We're gonna have dinner. It doesn't work, okay, we're gonna do it again and again." And pretty soon, the reason we had become friends in the first place was the reason we became friends again. I remember when I said to Chuck, "Okay. You write it. You write your half of this. You write how come we became such good friends." So he sent me two sentences. "She was funny. So was I."

Paul: That's in the book, I think. I kinda remember.

Abigail: I know and I just loved it. And it was exactly right. I give three workshops. I give one Monday, one Tuesday, and one Thursday. And the Thursday workshop is for people with cancer, from whom I've learned more about how to live than life. That's the one workshop I never skipped. I don't know why I'm bringing that up right now.

Paul: Tell me about that workshop.

Abigail: It's very hard to write about it. I wrote about it a little bit I think in What Comes Next and How to Like it. It's hard to write about it because there's so many losses, and I can't write about it. I can't write about that, and I don't know why, except that I can't find the words for it.

Paul: Abby, I wanna thank you so much for making the time.

Abigail: Oh, God. I hope some of this has been useful. Just write.

Paul: That's the advice.

Abigail: Just write. It doesn't have to make any sense at first.

Paul: You know, you have done more than I think any other writer that I can think of in terms of helping me really think through and shift how I do memoir. I've loved memoir for a long time, but I think your approach just has really kind of liberated the way I write. So I just... I wanna thank you for that.

Abigail: Well, I'm so glad. Thank you. That's the nicest thing a writer can hear. It's just the nicest thing a writer can hear.

[music]

[show outro] You've been listening to "The Book I Had to Write." I'm Paul Zakrzewski. I've been talking with writer and teacher, Abigail Thomas. If you enjoyed the show, then I hope you'll subscribe in Apple Podcasts. I'm always grateful for reviews and for sharing the show with friends. To get a transcript of this and every episode delivered to your inbox, sign up at thebookihadtowrite.com/subscribe.

In addition to transcripts, I'll send you information about upcoming episodes plus special offers available only to email subscribers. If you're working on your own book you have to write or you wanna get started, maybe I can help. Find out more about me and my book coaching at thebookIhadtowrite.com/coaching. That's thebookIhadtowrite.com/coaching.

And thanks for listening.