I was driving to the park where I liked to go running when I first heard Carolyn Parkhurst interviewed on the NPR-affiliate Diane Rehm Show, and I sat in the car to catch the end of the program. I had started out listening in a vaguely jealous way—I wish my first novel had been selected by the Today Show Book Club—but by the end of the interview, my jealousy had given way to admiration. In the interview, Carolyn sounded smart and down-to-earth; and I couldn’t deny that the concept of her first novel, The Dogs of Babel, was both brilliant and marketable—a man is so distraught over the death of his wife that he decides to teach his dog, the only witness to the event, to talk so he can learn whether the death was a suicide or an accident.
Then I read the book: it was so more than a marketing pitch line. Evocative, beautifully written, a deep exploration of the tangled path of grief…I finished it on my patio as the evening sky darkened, sniffling away, unwilling to interrupt the experience to go inside to find a lamp and Kleenex.
So how fortunate I felt when Carolyn joined my writing group and I discovered firsthand that, yes, she IS smart and down-to-earth and funny and generous and a terrific writer and a generally great person. (Check out the end of this post for a great writing tip from Carolyn that involves an old Doritos commercial!) It was a pleasure to read along in draft as she wrote her wonderful second novel, Lost and Found, now out in paperback. The book examines the complicated emotional landscape of a number of contestants competing on a reality TV show—while you might expect the humor in such a situation, Carolyn is an empathetic writer who also finds poignancy in her characters’ lives.
So I’m very pleased to share this essay Carolyn wrote in which she explores yet another complicated emotional landscape: can everyone in a writer’s life be “material”?
In the spring of 2000, my husband and I adopted a puppy. We returned him three days later.
That’s all you’re going to hear about that, unfortunately. I’m sorry it’s not a better story. Those two sentences were going to be the beginning of a different essay, a piece about a rough patch my husband and I have gone through this year with one of our children. It was going to be insightful and engaging and valuable. At least, that’s how it was in my head; I never got to see how it looked on paper.
The reason I’m writing this essay instead of that one is that when I told my husband about my idea, he said no. He argued that making my children’s lives public would be crossing a line that’s pretty clearly uncrossable. Of course, I knew that’s what he was going to say; it’s the reason I asked. I’m usually the only one who has veto power over any writing projects I’m considering, but in this case I knew I needed a little help. Because as a writer, there’s a part of me that isn’t sure which is the greater good: protecting the people I love or exposing a new truth. It’s actually a question for me, which makes me wonder if I’m missing some crucial moral piece. (Writers and sociopaths…maybe those categories overlap more than we’d like to admit.)
It’s clear that self-exposure is a necessary component of writing. You can’t see your own book on a bookstore shelf without feeling a little naked, knowing how many of your quirks and fears and unflattering thoughts it contains. Fiction is easier than memoir, because you always have a place to hide: it may be that you strongly resemble your protagonist in a million different ways, but if she lives in Arizona and you’ve never even visited, then it’s clearly not about you. But even with those safeguards in place, readers are going to know that every word reflects the contours of your own messy mind.
For me, the desire to lay myself bare this way comes less from exhibitionism than from an idea that our own life stories are important. If I write about my own sorrows, my own failures, it might help illuminate some of the darker corners of a problem that someone else is struggling with. Feeling less alone—that’s part of the reason we read, right? But there aren’t many things in my life that are really just about me. The shampoo I use, maybe. What I decided to have for lunch today. (You want to hear about that? I’d be happy to write something up for you. It might really shed some light on your own toiletry and sandwich issues.) The minute you leave the territory of your own skin and enter the larger world, things get a lot more complicated.
The boundaries aren’t always clear, but it’s obvious to me that writing about my kids is different from writing about my parents or my husband or my sixth grade teacher. I’m the only mother my children have, and I have to be very careful about the things I say about them. It turns out that the difficulty of juggling writing with parenthood isn’t confined to finding time to work between preschool drop-off and pick-up. Being a mother has produced some of the most complex feelings I’ve ever known, and it’s come as something of a shock to me that I can’t do whatever I want with that material. (And yes—I just said that feelings equal material. Make of that what you will.)
The story about the puppy we didn’t keep may yet find life somewhere else—in a novel, or a story, or an essay on a less contested subject. And some of the trickier things I wanted to write in that piece will no doubt find their way onto paper as well, but they’ll have to be disguised or diluted or written only for my own eyes. It’s not a terrible loss. I’ve still got plenty to write about, and I can always, you know, actually make stuff up. I hear some fiction writers think that’s the best part. ~~Carolyn Parkhurst
About: Carolyn Parkhurst's first novel, THE DOGS OF BABEL, was a New York Times bestseller, as well as a Today Show Book Club pick, a Book of the Month Club Featured Selection, and a New York Times Notable Book. Her second novel, LOST AND FOUND, which Elle Magazine called "a deeply affecting page-turner" follows several contestants on a reality show as they criss-cross the globe and try to keep their relationships intact. LOST AND FOUND, which has been chosen as a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, was released in paperback this week. Carolyn Parkhurst lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.
Here's an interview with Carolyn about The Dogs of Babel, if you’d like to read more.