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July 5, 2022

How Do You Write About Yourself and Others? with Sari Botton

How Do You Write About Yourself and Others? with Sari Botton

In this episode, I talk with writer and editor Sari Botton. Back around 2010, Sari started an interview series at The Rumpus called “Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me.” At the time, as a writer of first-person nonfiction, she felt paralyzed by the fear of hurting those closest to her.


In this episode, I talk with writer and editor Sari Botton. Back around 2010, Sari started an interview series at The Rumpus called “Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me.” At the time, as a writer of first-person nonfiction, she felt paralyzed by the fear of hurting those closest to her.

By definition, memoir and essays inevitably include stories about the people in our lives. But figuring out what the lines are – who we feel we can write about and how to do it – that takes time. And lots of real-world practice.

Over the past 12 yrs, Sari has grappled extensively with how to give herself permission to write about herself and others. As her new memoir-in-essays, And You May Find Yourself..., started coming together, she landed on a different way to understand this issue.

Writing about herself is really an act of defiance, she says. Women, and particularly women writing memoir, are often derided for first-person writing. Or, as she writes in the foreword to her new book: “I remembered that my voice matters. I’m using it now, to take up space, to say, ‘I was here.’”

In this interview, we also talk about Gen X identity, and about Sari’s newest project, Oldster magazine, a Substack newsletter aimed at exploring of how we live inside our aging bodies.

Sari Botton is also the editor of two anthologies, the award-winning GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: WRITERS ON LOVING & LEAVING NY, as well as the NYT bestselling followup NEVER SAY GOODBYE: WRITERS ON THEIR UNSHAKEABLE LOVE FOR NY. She teaches nonfiction at Catapult and in the MFA program at Bay Path University.

 

Discussed in this episode:

And You May Find Yourself...  available from Bookshop | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

After Fifteen Years, I Stopped Panicking, Started Declawing, and Finally Published My Memoir, by Sari Botton (Catapult)

Conversations with Writers Braver than Me by Sari Botton (The Rumpus)

 Oldster Magazine

 

Additional resources for writing about others:

A Big Shitty Party: Six Parables of Writing about Other People, by Melissa Febos

Other People’s Secrets: An Interview with Kerry Cohen by Paul Zakrzewski, (Brevity Magazine)

The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity, by Kerry Cohen Bookshop | Amazon

“Other People’s Secrets” (essay) by Patricia Hampl, collected in I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory

 

Credits:

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

Transcript

Pre-roll ad [host read] Hey, before I get to today's episode, I want to take a moment to address the June 24 Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe versus Wade.

This decision stripped away the right to have a safe and legal abortion. Everyone should have the freedom to decide what's best for themselves and their families, including when it comes to ending a pregnancy.

This decision has dire consequences for individual health and safety. And it could have harsh repercussions for other landmark decisions. restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion threatens the health and independence of all Americans.

Learn more by visiting choice.cr d.co That's choice dot c rd.co. If you're able to support others, please consider donating to abortion funds. I encourage you to speak up, take care and spread the word.

[music]

 [Opening Quote, Sari] I have written things in the past that have upset people in my life. And I was so worried about doing that again. But I also felt like I really really needed to tell these stories. They're essential to who I am. And also every time I publish a personal essay I hear from women and men that they really found it resonant.

[Host 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. I'm Paul Zakrzewski.

I'm a writer and book coach. About a dozen years ago, I stumbled on an interview series over at the rumpus. It was by a writer I'd never heard of before, Sari Botton. Sari kicked off that first interview with this really honest note, she was a writer, first person nonfiction, and she felt paralyzed by fear. Mostly, she was afraid of hurting the people close to her with her writing.

By that point, I've been leading nonfiction workshops for a few years, not a class went by without someone, usually a few people expressing some version of the same fear. Now memoir in essays are almost always about other people in our lives. But figuring out what the lines are, who we feel we can write about and how to do it. Well, that takes time, and lots of real-world practice. But I don't think I've ever talked with another writer who’s wrestled with this question in quite the same way as Sari.

Over 15 years, she's figured out how to push back against that fear. Figuring out just why writing about her life is, as she calls him in this interview, an act of defiance. And the result is this terrific new book of essays called and you may find yourself that title is a reference, of course to that talking head song once in a lifetime. And Sari and I spend lots of fun time talking about other Gen X stuff.

Sari is also the editor of two popular anthologies about New York City, and she teaches nonfiction at catapult and in the MFA program at Bay Path University. Recently, she started Oldster, a magazine on Substack. It grapples in really interesting ways with the idea of aging.

One more thing before we get started, today's show marks the last one for this season. I've had a blast doing the show this spring, and I'm so thankful to you for listening. After a bit of a break. I'll be back this far with a whole new set of episodes. If you have ideas for guests you'd like to hear or anything at all, please drop me a line. You can reach me at Paul at pzak dot info. That's paul at pzak dot info.

And now on to the show.

[music fades]

Paul: Welcome, Sari. Thanks for doing the podcast.

Sari: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Paul: So this morning before this interview, I opened up my email and I saw in Oldster magazine that you were asking the reader about our biggest regrets. So I thought I'd start us off by asking us to swap biggest regrets.

Sari: Oh, okay. Yeah, let's do that.

Paul: First of all, why don't you tell people what Oldster magazine is?

Sari: Okay, Oldster magazine is actually a newsletter, a paid Substack newsletter, where I explore what it means to travel through time in a human body. At every phase of life, every gender It is my way of looking into something that I'm very curious about, which is what it feels like for other people to go through different milestones, different phases of life, because I've always felt out of step. And I've been fascinated with milestones, and when you're supposed to pass through them. From the time I was 10 years old, and at my birthday party, my uncle said to me, you're never going to be one digit again.

And it was catastrophic. Like, I was like, what? There's a milestone here, you know, I'm so young, and it was the beginning of a fascination. And so I started this newsletter slash magazine in August of 2021. But it is an extension of a series that I had launched and edited on long reads when I was there, that was called fine lines, which was the same idea that was personal essays.

This is a combination of personal essays, blog posts, and something called the Oldster magazine questionnaire, which I give to people, they all answer the same questions about what it means to be their exact age. So it came out of my curiosity, and it continues to feed my curiosity, reading other people's reactions and responses and essays. And I'm really enjoying it. And you can get there by either going to oldster.substack.com or oldstermagazine.com.

Paul: So and then this morning, you were saying your biggest regret, it sounds like was losing your New York apartment.

Sari: It's not my biggest regret, I have bigger ones. But I wanted to send one out that people could relate to. But I also wanted them to buy the book, which has a lot more of my regrets in it. I think my biggest regret is marrying young. I married at 23 the first time, and I didn't make a good choice. And I also didn't prioritize developing myself as a writer and journalist. And I had opportunities to do that. I instead focused on trying to hang on to a fickle, flirtatious man, when I could have developed myself professionally, and also, just as a human being, I shrunk myself instead of expanding myself very young. But I also really regret giving up my East Village apartment, I don't think I'll ever stop regretting that.

Paul : I know the rent was, what did you say?

Sari: $722.

Paul: I left it the same year, as you did in mind was $1,000. And I have I have a similar regret.

Sari: I bet. I had started renting that apartment in the early 90s. And then I also had had my rent lowered, because I threatened to take my landlord to court because he was not fixing things. And it's a long story. But he lowered my rent from 825. Yeah…

Paul: So your new book is called, And You May Find Yourself…And so for non Gen X listeners—it's really sad  I have to do this—but of course, this is a reference to one of the most famous Talking Heads songs, “Once in a Lifetime.” What do you feel like this particular lyric means to you? What were you thinking about when you titled your book that?

Sari: Well, it's very interesting. I've seen a lot of other Gen X people reference “Once in a Lifetime,” different lyrics within the song. And I think it's a very common refrain. And I think it is so resonant with Gen X because we experienced a paradigm shift that our parents went through that made it so that we got very mixed messages about how to be adults. And I think that led to a lot of disbelief, like, can you believe that this is the life I'm living?

A lot of us were not sure which of the messages we were supposed to follow. I know that in my own case, for example, my mother married at 19. My dad was 25. And you know, it was the 60s, it was 1960. And they were in a very conformist role, the marrying young, the happy face, even when you're not happy, and then came along the sexual revolution, and women's liberation. And suddenly, our parents broke out of their molds and threw away all the rules, at least for a while.

In my case, my parents went back and just kept replicating the same thing. So on the one hand, as I say, in the book, we grew up at the intersection of two conflicting messages should and whatever. And so I think it led to this kind of surreal entrance to adulthood like: Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to be doing? And is this my beautiful house? Was I supposed to have a beautiful house? Or was I supposed to live in a grungy East Village apartment? So I think we were just very confused and remain confused. And I think that's why that song is kind of an anthem for us.

Paul: It's interesting, because at the same time, I was reading your book, I also couldn't help but notice that Top Gun is the number one movie in the country at the moment. Kate Bush is back in the Top 10 hits. And Stranger Things— which is, if nothing else, an enormous pastiche on 1980s culture—is like the number one streaming show. Certainly on Netflix. Well, first of all, as a Gen Xer, what do you make of that?

Sari: I think nostalgia always sells. And I think also, it's interesting when the culture tries to make sense of a time from the past. I think there's a lot of people trying to make sense of the time when we grew up right now. And it's probably mostly Gen Xers making a lot of these decisions. It was really a wild time. And right now we're living through some very uncertain, weird, surreal times. And maybe we're looking back to the 80s to try and find a way forward from where we are now. Because it is really a confusing time.

Paul: When you see these representations of the 80s, what do they feel like for you? Like, to me, they seem very stylized, and I don't necessarily recognize my 80s in them. Do you?

Sari: I hated the 80s. I just remember watching Ronald Reagan get elected I was 15. And I just knew that that was bad, and it was gonna be bad. And it was. And then college, I just I couldn't fit in, I had a really hard time fitting in I was simultaneously precocious and immature in ways I mean, which I guess is true of everyone in their teens and early 20s.

I also hated the music, and the clothing styles and the fashion it was also loud and brash. So it's kind of funny to me, looking back, I guess some yellow jackets really celebrates the 90s, not the 80s. It's funny to me to look back at these things, I don't crave any of the styles, I'm not gonna go back and buy any of those clothes.

But it is interesting. I'm too scared to watch Stranger Things. I did watch season one. My husband watches it. It's funny, we sit side by side, he watches Stranger Things, and I watch Better Things. So it's all Things, right? And we each have our headphones on—

Paul: Stranger, Better Things!

Sari: [laughs] Exactly! I'm too afraid, though, it's too scary for me the horror aspects of Stranger Things. But it is it is also kind of fun. When you look back at old styles, it is just a little bit funny. It's funny to look at Mac classics and anything from another time when we hadn't really advanced our aesthetics. It's just kind of fun and funny to look back.

[music break]

Paul: In your book, you've got some longer kind of more substantial essays on a number of different topics. I thought I’d ask you about a couple of them. Sure. One that stood out to me, probably because I had some similar experiences is about me and girls, which of course is now kind of a huge cultural trope, thanks to Tina Fey. What I was curious to ask is that, apart from the experience that you had in junior high, it seemed like there was kind of a resurfacing of these mean, girls in your 40s. I wonder if you could tell me that story.

Sari: You know, it's very interesting. It's not just my 40s it keeps repeating itself, either in my own experience, or people tell me about it. So often when I make new friends. Women say to me, you know, I'm always apprehensive about new friendships, because when I was in junior high, I was ousted from my clique. I keep hearing it again and again. It happened also to my sister at the same age that I was, it's happened so often.

The incidents that I mentioned in my 40s was a friend and I were working on a project and someone we knew wanted to be part of it and we started collaborating with her and it did not go well. And, a lot of our gripes were very legitimate, and we had told the person we tried to be very honest and kind. And then the person came back and just like, freaked out, like was just freaking out. So then my friend and I had a conversation about it, where we went from just talking about the nitty gritty of the collaboration and what was wrong with it. And the two of us just let it rip. Like we just went off on this person, like things that had nothing to do with the collaboration.

And what I hadn't realized was, I had accidentally touched my iPhone, and called the person in question. And the entire conversation was recorded on her voicemail. So she heard the two of us going off on her in the meanest possible way.

Paul: [laughs] Geez…

Sari: I think we were frustrated, because we had tried to be really kind and specific and constructive in going to this person, and she freaked out on us. And I think it triggered the only way we could have power was to be like [mimics outraged voice]: Hey, can you believe that she also does this? And what about that, this and that? You know. And we really went to town. And then she called and said, I heard everything you said, but—

Paul: That is the worst.

Sari: And we had to apologize. It was the worst. I will give her credit though and say she copped to some of it. She was like, You know what you are right about a lot of what you said about me, you didn't have to comment on my clothes. But whatever it was, to her credit, she copped to some of our complaints. She couldn't hear them when we said them to her directly. When she heard us fetching about her, she was able to hear it a little differently. You know, so to our credit, we tried to address it head on. But I didn't like myself. In that moment. I felt horrible. And, you know, it still happens. I mean, a friend and I have been talking about another friend's book that we don't like, and that we can't say we don't like, and sometimes it gets ugly. And I don't like that. It's a natural human inclination, I think. Yeah.

Paul: In one of the, one of the other essays, you talk about, I guess, an eating disorder, or challenging relationship to food and diet culture. And at the end of the essay, you have a note that you had tried to write this kind of in a funny tone or funny voice. You write: “I tried, and I tried.” And you finally decided to let yourself be angry. And I was really struck by that. I wonder if you could say more about that.

Sari: Thank you. The essay opens on a funny note, a woman in my community looks me up and down and says, Have you ever been working out because you look better. And it's such a backhanded compliment. So I started off the essay funny, and I kept trying to keep it in that register. But my anger kept coming out. And I finally realized, I am enraged. I am enraged by our culture's attitudes about food, and body image and weight.

I can't believe some of the things that adults said to me when I was growing up and the diets they were on around me, the way they commented on other people's bodies, something I learned to do, to evaluate other people's bodies and choices and eating. And I'm so angry about it. And I just keep seeing it everywhere. Even some of the most enlightened people I know, some of the people I admire the most make the most awful, casual comments, casual weight-ist looks, just comments. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture.

And I also keep discovering that people I know have eating disorders, or what appear to be eating disorders that they don't even recognize in that we're disordered eating disordered attitudes about eating and food and body. And I feel so frustrated by it. I really do. And so, at a certain point, I gave up trying to make it a funny piece. And it was really cathartic to be able to allow myself to be angry. I have a litany in that essay about all the things I hate about diet, culture, fat-phobia.

It occurred to me I also was worried, I am a relatively thin person, I am a small, thin person. I talk in the piece about how horrifying it was to me to learn from my doctor's office that I weighed 122 pounds. And I was worried that people who are more recognizably fat identify as fat would take issue with me for this, but I thought, no, it's important to note that in our culture, someone who has never been told by a doctor, that I need to lose weight, except for an eating disorder doctor, when I was having an eating disorder told me I hadn't lost enough of a percentage of my body weight to be hospitalized, and I should, you know, come back, try harder. But you know, someone who is reasonably small that I, too, am experiencing this. I thought, That's remarkable and should be noted. And so I wrote the piece anyway.

Paul: Yeah, I'm glad you did. I felt like it was a really strong piece.

Sari: Thank you.

Paul: It's interesting, because I feel like a lot of the essays in your book, it just occurred to me actually, this morning, as I was thinking about the interview, they seem to kind of chart this path towards acceptance, kind of a path to acceptance of previous challenges, bad patterns, regrets, does that resonate for you?

Sari: You got it, you win.

Paul: What do I get?

Sari: You get an A! Yes, that is exactly what I was trying to do. By presenting the stories in the particular arc that I did. I didn't want it to be a straight narrative. I'll be very honest, I often find straight narrative memoirs to be boring. The things that authors do to create connective tissue between different aspects of their life, different moments of their life, unless it's a memoir about a very specific thing, or a very specific event or series of events, I find them boring.

So I wanted to present these as pieces. But I also wanted to present them in an arc that showed me making progress toward literally self acceptance and self knowledge. It's funny, and you may find yourself those words, that song first came to me when I was in a fertility clinic waiting room at 42. And on some deep level, I knew I didn't want kids, but I also didn't feel permitted to know, I didn't want kids.

And so that lyric came into my head: and you may find yourself in a fertility clinic. And you may ask yourself, What the hell am I doing here? And so the title of the book comes from that. But it's also an affirmation, may you find yourself. So it cuts both ways. On the one hand, you may find yourself someplace, you really don't feel like you belong. And on the other hand, you may actually find yourself in the real-70s-sense-of-finding-yourself term.

Paul: The subtitle of your book is “Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen X Weirdo.” So I know we covered Gen X more at the top of the interview. But I wanted to ask you about the second part of that—late bloomers. It's a category I also identify with, late bloomers….although it has a pejorative connotation, certainly, to me, and also suggests kind of this path of hard won wisdom. I feel like for those of us who have been called Late Bloomers, that part of that has to do with kind of getting over childhood trauma, learning how to break bad patterns, that sort of work. And these things require both experience and honesty. So I guess my question is, what kind of wisdom or insight do you think we late bloomers have to share?

Sari: That is interesting. I think it really is related to trauma. I mean, I know there's like a lot of these jokey memes about what's a trauma response. But I do think that, in my case, at least, and I think a lot of 70s and 80s divorce kids, we grew up too fast, because we had to be friends or parents to our parents, and then we regressed. So we were like latchkey kids, very grown up, and then got to adulthood and something just didn't compute, and then we were lost.

But I do think that being a late bloomer, allowed me to make a lot of mistakes, and learn from them and get lost along the way, in such a way that I could really study what I was doing, unofficially. But on some level, I was processing everything I was doing, every choice I was making. So then when I arrived in my mid-40s, and it all started to compute in a new way. I feel like I had greater knowledge than maybe somebody who just went through adulthood in the normal progression, you know, so I was very precocious. And then I was immature. I was I mean, I was always a mix of the two. But being precocious, was dominant when I was a kid, and up to my early 20s, when I married too young. And then I swung the other way, and had to learn a lot by making a lot of bad choices, living through them.

[music break]

[Sari reading] I am a writer, mainly a first person nonfiction, a woman writer in my mid 50s, an age at which American culture tends to deem us boring, invisible and disposable. This is work I feel naturally called to. I always have from the time I was a young girl and I sequestered myself in my bedroom, recording my perspectives on my relatively average life. It's also work that feels imperative to me, I'm staking a claim. It is my right to do this to deconstruct my everyday experiences as a woman in American culture, because I feel like it because I enjoy it. And because, frankly, while my work won't be everyone's cup of tea, I'm not bad at it. I'm writing specifically as a late blooming Gen X woman. But when I read this line, I'm writing specifically as a late blooming Gen X woman. But when I read this line of graffiti in a photo posted by millennial writer Chloe Caldwell on Instagram, it helped me recommit to my mission, “I just felt like writing something.”

[music fades]

Paul: I'm wondering if you could tell me the story of how your book came to be?

Sari: That's an interesting question. I have been writing this for years and years and years. And a few of the pieces have been published elsewhere in the past, but have been revised since then, as my perspective has changed. But I didn't feel permitted to publish this. And I wrestled with it for over a decade. I have written things in the past that have upset people in my life. And I was so worried about doing that again. But I also felt like I really, really needed to tell these stories. They're essential to who I am. And also every time I publish a personal essay I hear from women and men and people of all genders, that they really found it resonant and they were grateful I wrote it. That they heard their own story in it.

So for a long, long time, I wrestled with, Can I say these things? Can I publish these things? And I have a piece coming out in catapult soon about this. But I interviewed other memoirists for a long time for The Rumpus in a column called “Conversations with Writers Braver than Me,” because I needed to hear other writers. I needed to know what their perspective was on writing about other people in their lives, writing about things that might upset their families. And so I interviewed many, many people.

I couldn't get to the place where I could permit myself, until I went to the 2019 edition of an AWP in Portland, Oregon. And I went to a panel on Writing about Other People (“The Other Side of the Story,”). And it was moderated by Sophia Shalmiyev. And it had Lacy Johnson, and Melissa Febos and others on the panel. And Melissa Febos revealed the kernel of what she would later publish in Bodywork about how her philosophy had changed, about writing about other people. And I had already been kind of developing this myself in my editing work at Longreads, in my teaching work for Catapult. I was already trying to get people to blur the people they were writing about, to be more generous toward them, to consider their perspectives.

But hearing Melissa talk about how she had written about someone in one of her memoirs, in such a way that she revealed things that that person didn't want to reveal and how it made her realize you need to engage with people if you're going to write about them. She has a lot of rules about who you do engage with and who you don't engage with. And I adapted that for myself, that it can be a little messy writing about other people. And that if there's someone in your life that you really want to keep in your life, who you respect who you care about, you owe it to them. Even if something hard happened between you, you owe it to them to either find a way to blur them significantly, or to kind of work with them to get it to where it's okay for them.

And there was something about hearing her talk, you would think it would make me feel more limited, but instead it liberated me it made me feel like this was doable. And I got back from AWP and I finally finished my book proposal. And then we sent it out. And then in a few months, I had an offer from Heliotrope… I had three offers. It took me a while to accept the offer from Heliotrope. She was really wonderful, Naomi Rosenblatt. She had said to me, ‘I feel like you could get a mainstream traditional publishing deal. You know, I'll make you this offer, and it will stand for a long time. If you can get another deal, take it.’ And I didn't.

I have really enjoyed working with Naomi and I've been really enjoying being with Heliotrope. There have been so many advantages to being with a tiny press. But as I was working on the last round of revisions, a galley of Melissa's book Bodywork arrived. And in the chapter about writing about other people, she vaguely refers to me and the first conversation we had for The Rumpus. Where she had one point of view—which was, she always lets the writer win when it's a choice between the writer and the daughter—and then how she changed her perspective after revealing too much about somebody.

And there was something about receiving that just as I was going through a second round of kind-of-declawing my book, making it less threatening to other people, I felt held by it, it was really a wonderful experience receiving that book when I did. Because I put my book through several rounds. My book was supposed to come out a year ago. And I said to Naomi, I said, ‘I need to go through this again. And I need to take out a lot.’ And then we did that. And then I said, ‘I hate to do this, but I need to go through it again. And I need to take out more. And I need to blur more.’ And I did.

Paul: So it sounding like this is a book that… you had pieces of it that you had worked on for a long time, but that it really shifted in a big way, so it’s even mostly a new book in the past few years.

Sari: Yes, because even the pieces that have been published before, which is like less than a third of the pieces, they have been revised, updated with my sort of new wisdom that I've gained. So yeah, it is pretty new. And there's stuff I wrote about that I've never written about before. The weight, that piece about body image, that is brand new. There are some pieces in there about my attachment to make believe as a kid and so many pieces are brand new. They're things that I first began to understand about myself in the writing.

Paul: I'm really glad that you mentioned The Rumpus, which is, of course, an online magazine that you mentioned the interview series that you ran, because that's how I first got to know of you. And you know, I love those interviews, and I actually went back to some of them when I was prepping for this. And it seems to me, like a lot of those interviews have to do with this question of other people's secrets, representing other people and memoir, and then even at a more basic level, they have to do with fear. Fear of self-exposure, fear of self -revelation. It’s certainly a topic I identify with. And I guess I want to ask you what you feel like doing your book taught you about that fear? Did it teach you anything about moving through it? How would you describe your relationship to it?

Sari: I think for many years, I toggled between being so afraid. I thought I could never do this. And then feeling like ‘What do you mean, you're afraid? You have to do this,’ this compulsion to do it. And it was only when I got older, and also, I started to have friends die, that I realized, time is moving. My grandmothers both died around my age. I've now outlived both of them. I'm 56. One died at 51. One died at 55. And that has been in the back of my mind for a very long time. I've been afraid that I would die young and I would not be fulfilled.

And I guess just as I've gotten into my 50s I just started to feel like, lady, you don't have a lot of time. I also kept ushering other writers toward book deals as an editor and teacher. And I was starting to feel resentful that I'm giving so much to other writers, I'm helping other writers do what I want to do, and I'm not doing it myself. And then came the pandemic, my book deal and the pandemic came about around the same time. And also, I left Longreads, I suddenly had time. And I knew I had to do it, I knew I had to just put up or shut up. And so I pushed through the fear.

Paul: So in your Foreword, when you talk about the writing of this as being a great joy, you also use the phrase “an act of defiance.” Is that partly what you're talking about?

Sari: Yeah, this is very much an act of defiance. It's, it's weird to take a book — there's a number of light essays, and they are about mundane things — to call that a political act. But it is a political act in a patriarchal culture to say, I'm a woman, and my story matters. Even though it's not catastrophic. Men have defined what's important, what reality is, and what matters. And I'm saying, You know what? My story matters. So, and I'm also saying, You know what? some people might be upset by what I write. They might not like what I write, but I'm writing it anyway. And it's a risky thing to do, especially now, after the Amber Heard Johnny Depp verdict, it's going to be harder for people to do

Paul: Because of the fear of litigation? Is that what you're saying?

Sari: Yeah, yeah, I mean, fear of litigation for defamation. There was a piece I had to kill at Longreads, a really well reported piece by two women, journalists who had discovered they were both in “exclusive relationships” with the same man, who it turned out was also in exclusive relationships with five other women! This guy was juggling seven women, he was emotionally abusive to all of them.

So these two women discovered this. And then they reached out to the other women, they all became allies. They wrote this fantastic piece. It went through fact checking. And then our lawyers said, this is a litigious guy, and he could legitimately sue for defamation or invasion of privacy. And he might not win, but he could tie us up in court for years, he could bankrupt us. And he could be Peter Thiel, to us.

And I had to kill the piece. And it was very painful to have to do that. Because why can't you tell the story of a guy lying to you like that? There's only one piece in my book… there's a piece where somebody was abusive, and boy, did I blur the living daylights out of that guy in that situation. Because, you know, well, also, I just, I don't want to engage with that person. I don't want that person in my life, I didn't want to have to fact check with that person. But I wanted to be able to tell my story. But yeah, it is an act of defiance. I'm saying, You know, these things happened. Part of why they happened is because I live in this culture and I want to be able to say, what happened and how this culture affects women.

Paul: I want to ask you about the decision to write essays versus a memoir, and why essays felt like a better form for you in terms of exploring your experience.

Sari: Well, first of all, essays, that's my genre, and it has been for a long time. I love reading personal essays. I love writing them. I love editing them. I love teaching the subject. It's just something that came naturally to me from a young age. I won the elementary school wide essay contest two years in row. I just gravitate toward it. Some of my favorite books are essay collections. I also as I said earlier, I find often that straight memoirs can be boring.

I've also been a ghost writer of people's memoirs, and I have done the job of creating that connective tissue between stories between episodes and I feel like it can be really boring and unnatural. Unless your memoir is about something very specific, a very specific turn of events. I think about Nick Flynn's memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. That is very much about meeting his father. at the homeless shelter, and everything else leads to that. There's a lot of other backstory and stuff, but there's this central thread that holds the thing together.

Paul: Yeah, that's an interesting example because I also I had Abigail Thomas on earlier in the season of the podcast and they're very different writers but I think of them in a similar galaxy because both those books — Safekeeping in Abigail Thomas's case, and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in Nick Flynn's — they're both what I call fragment memoirs. They actually do away with the connective tissue. It's all about how they rearranged the fragments and stuff.

Sari: Yeah, yeah, they are fragmented. And I enjoy them both. By the way, Abigail has written a bunch for Oldster magazine, which has been wonderful. And she also gave me a blurb, which was really nice. Yeah, the connective tissue, I say this as a ghostwriter, is part of the problem, especially when the memoir is about an aspect of your life, but not necessarily a turn of events. I like fragments better. And so in a way mine is fragments, though not in the same way as theirs is fragments. Theirs are really fragmented, mine…each essay has a beginning, middle and end. But I do think even though it's fragmented, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City has a real central spine to it, which is the experience of encountering his dad and forming a relationship with him.

Paul: Right? So you see the essays in your case as kind of like flashbulb moments—or you call them fragments—is that kind of how you're visualizing them?

Sari: It's funny, I'm thinking of a camp alma mater now, it has a line, “separate fragments woven strong.” I think that's kind of what my memoir is: separate fragments woven strong.

Paul: Nice. So now that you've, you've written this book, and it's soon to be out there, what do you feel like has changed for you?

Sari: It's interesting, I have a box of the books in my house. Receiving that box of books was just mind blowing. Like, because I dragged my feet on this for so long, like I really stalled every way you can stall. I never really envisioned myself on the other side of stalling, on the other side of yearning, longing, striving toward this.

You know, of course, I'm still in that period before the official pub date. Although people are telling me the book is arriving for them sooner, I feel really good. I feel really, really good. There was a step before this that helped, which is that I sent galleys to my family. And I was very, very worried about that. I've upset them in the past. And I didn't want to do that. But I wanted to tell my story. So I found ways.

For instance, in that essay, the weight about body image and weight and all of that, instead of saying what my parents did, or my grandparents did, or I say the adults around me, I really found ways to make it palatable to my family. I only got like 15 galleys, we made a very short run of galleys. And I sent one to my mom went to my dad went to my sister, and I sent them with a note saying, you know, I did my best to blur to take out details that weren't necessary. I'm very proud of this. I want to share it with you.

And all three of them loved it. And I didn't see that coming. And that made this a completely different experience than I thought I was going to be having. They're okay with it. They're more than okay with it. My sister, who's funny, thinks it's hilarious. Both my parents love it. They're proud. They cry every time they speak to me, but not like a bad cry, like a happy cry. And I really envisioned that this was going to be like the end of my relationship with my family. Like I really thought it was going to be painful and difficult in a way that it is not. And so that has freed me to enjoy this.

Paul: That's incredible. I love that. I also want to ask you about a couple other projects that you've been involved in. We've talked about Oldster magazine a little bit, I guess I'm kind of curious as to where the where the idea for Oldster magazine came from.

Sari: Well, so I had first done a series for Longreads called ‘Fine Lines’, which came from the same place…which is that when I was 10 years old, my uncle came to my bowling birthday party in Long Beach, New York, and promptly told me that I could never be one digit again. It was the first time I realized that there were milestones you pass through, that you couldn't go back the other way through that there was only one way and it was forward. But also I'm a person who has done things out of step. I married too young. Then I got divorced. And then I married late. I didn't have kids. I've just fell out of step with my peers through much of my life.

I've always been curious about how other people approach these things. And that's where Oldster was born. You know, also, I'm 56, which is, and again, I'm older than my grandmothers were when they died. I always have that in the back of my mind. So there's been this sort of obsession and curiosity with what are you supposed to do at what age is the supposed to even figure into it? And whenever I follow my curiosity, it never leads me in a wrong direction. Like if I really, really follow what is catching my attention. It catches other people's attention. And so Oldster has taken off and it continues to grow and it's been really, really fun for me. That's another thing. It's a job. It's very much a job, but it's fun.

Paul: Now, where do people go to find Oldster? If they want to find it?

Sari: They can get there two ways. One is through oldster.substack.com. The other way is oldster magazine.com.

Paul: And of course, your book—which is coming out right around the corner—is called And You May Find Yourself… Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen X Weirdo. Where do people find your book?

Sari: Well, I like to recommend that people buy it at bookshop.org because it supports independent bookstores. But you can also of course, find it at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound, or your local bookseller.

Paul: If people want to find you online, what are the best ways to find you online?

Sari: SariBotton.com actually goes to a link.tree but it's got a lot of good links. And my handle on social media is @SariBotton. Also, I'd like to mention Kingston Writers Studio, which is a website right now only it used to be a co-working space for writers in Kingston, New York, but I'm going to be offering classes through there soon.

Paul: Well, Sari, I want to thank you so much for making the time to talk with me today.

Sari: It's been a great pleasure, Paul, thank you for having me.

[music]

 

Host Outro, Paul: You've been listening to "The Book I Had to Write." I'm Paul Zakrzewski. My guest today was writer, editor and teacher Sari Barton. She's the author of the new essay collection, And You May Find Yourself…

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