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Interview: Author and Teacher Amy Friedman on Shame, the Power of Memoir, and Inner Truths

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As a member of the WOW! (Women on Writing) Blog Tour Partnership Program (a community of bloggers who participate in doing book reviews and/or author interviews as part of Book Blog tours organized by WOW!) I had the opportunity to interview Amy Friedman on her contribution to the nonfiction anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small. (The link takes you to the book review on Blogcritics.)

Amy is a longtime teacher, author, journalist, and editor, with writings ranging from fairy tales to bittersweet memoir. She shares her thoughts on shame, the power of fear and truth, and the transformative freedom of “speaking one’s truths aloud.”

How were you approached for your contribution to the anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small?

I’ve known [coeditors of the anthology] Amy [Ferris] and Hollye [Dexter] for a few years—Hollye took a memoir writing class with me a while back, and Amy and I met when I discovered there was another Amy F on Shewrites.com (in its earliest days, when only 40 or 50 people were involved in the site). At the time Amy’s Marrying George Clooney was on pre-order. I pre-ordered and fell in love with the book, which began a correspondence that has turned into a lasting friendship. I think we’re all mutual admirers of each other’s work, and because they knew a great deal about my memoir in progress at the time, they knew the subject matter I would likely deal with.

What drew you to the project?

To be honest, it took me a while to figure out what precisely I would write, and for a while I thought I might have to write about the shame of not feeling shame—that sounds, well, perhaps preposterous, but I’m rebellious, and whenever people have tried to make me feel shame (as certainly happened during all the years I was married to a man in prison and certainly happened to the girls I raised, daughters of a prisoner). But shame permeates our world—I knew the book would resonate with a great many people, and the process of thinking about the subject led me on a long, difficult journey.

Who is your target demographic for Dancing at the Shame Prom?

I never think about that question, not ever. I actually think it’s a dangerous question for writers to consider. Writers need to write those stories that knock at their hearts and heads and souls. They can’t worry about what others want to hear. So, well, I don’t. Besides, I’m always surprised by what resonates for people. Always surprised.

Please take us through your process of writing “The Men Who Stayed Too Long.”

Oh, man, if I took you through the process, we’d be here for months. But in essence the process for everything I write begins more or less the same. I ponder the idea, I toss things out onto the page (handwritten—I write first drafts of everything by hand). I play. I read what I’ve written. I wonder about what on Earth I was thinking. I try to find the meaning inside the stories and snippets that appear on the page. For a short essay—2000 words or less—I don’t think a writer can contain more than one big idea, maybe one and a half ideas. I half-feel as if my essay for The Shame Prom fails because I think it tackles a few too many ideas. But I also have learned how to eventually let things go, so I won’t ponder that idea here.

Everything in your essay felt like it dovetailed into one central idea. The major thing I walked away with from “The Men Who Stayed Too Long” was your concept that when we are ashamed of ourselves, we try to hide in our opposites, and in the fantasies of the person we wish we could be. How did that attitude affect your life and your sense of “self”?

I believe that’s true, and I’ve seen it manifested both in my life and in the lives of loved ones—we all, I think, imagine what perfection looks like. Take, for instance, imagining what the life of a perfect writer must be, how that person probably works, thinks, lives. It’s impossible not to think about it (in part interviews lead people down those paths, of course). I’ve long fantasized having the success of those writers who are everyday names, who write anything they wish and hand it over to an editor and the editor says, “Yes! Here’s your paycheck!” I lived (and published) in Canada for over twenty years and was not famous but was at least, well, a little known. When I was in my late 40s I moved back to the United States and suddenly I was a “nobody” as a writer, and it took me three or four years to climb out of the slough of despair (and shame) that created, to find my way back to writing because it’s what I love, what I do. I think there’s a constant struggle to look oneself in the eye and say, “This is who I am, and that’s just fine.” I don’t think that struggle ever ends; at least it hasn’t for me.

By your definition, what is “normal”?

Ha! No such thing. By spending so many years so closely tied to prison, a little cynicism developed—and there are days “normal” frightens me. Sometimes I fear that if I were “normal” (whatever on Earth that is) I would be dull and uninterested in the world around me.

Honestly, I don’t know what normal is. I suspect everyone has a different definition–what seems “freakish” to one person might be perfectly normal to another, and vice versa.

Among the signs of suicidal behavior are “excessive shame,” “withdrawing from people,” “feeling trapped, like there is no way out,” and “feeling hopeless.” How would you relate those feelings to your experiences of wishing to be someone else?

Well, I think people who wallow in a desire to be someone other than who they are usually wind up disappointed when they do not become that person—whether it’s a desire to look different, live differently, own more, know more, do more. Lack of acceptance of self can certainly lead to feeling hopeless, and there is nothing worse than that sense of hopelessness. I don’t know the cure. For me it’s always been fighting to be who I am and to find some way to be okay with that, and learning to surround myself with those who love me (and to shy away from those who do not).

You wrote “What we see on the outside seldom even scratches the surface of an individual’s inner truths.” Please elaborate on this.

I think this probably is at the heart of the reason I’m a writer. I write to discover what I think, what I know, what I didn’t know I knew. Writing takes me to depths of understanding (of myself, particularly) in a way nothing else can (except perhaps meditation). I’ve been teaching memoir and personal essay for fifteen years, and if I’ve learned nothing else from this experience it’s that we never ever know at first glance (or the fifteenth) what’s going on inside a person’s head or heart. I believe in listening, closely, and in withholding judgment (every student I’ve ever taught has surprised me).

You talked about the “transformative power of speaking your truths out loud.” How has speaking your truths out loud transformed you?

Absolutely—although I think I would amend that to say “writing truth” and I’ll amend that to add: It is vital to be open to what others say in response to your own truths, to listen with an open mind and open heart. But putting what I have to say out into the world has strengthened my sense of self. I know there’s more to say about this, but for now…

What things were you once afraid of, but no longer?

I suspect I’ve been afraid of everything at some time or another, but the fascinating thing about fear is that once it’s gone, it’s gone. During the years I was involved with prison, I lived one big fear that all that I was working for—to get my husband released, to keep our family afloat, financially and emotionally—would come to nothing. And in a way that’s what happened, the whole dream exploded. And because I didn’t die, because I came out stronger and wiser and calmer, oddly, I think a lot of fear was burned up in that explosion.

I still sometimes fear rejection—that’s probably the biggest fear—that I’ll write something or say something or do something and receive in turn anger, cruelty, people turning away.

But here’s the thing: That happens, and still, I survive. Some days I hide under the blankets for hours and weep. Some days I can’t face the world. But a good long cry and those kinds of losses and sadnesses and terrors are oddly cleansing.

What gave you the strength to share your truths with the world?

I have to say I was raised to be open and honest, by parents who spoke their truths. A vivid memory of youth: Many of my ancestors were lost in concentration camps, my paternal grandmother’s entire family wiped out in the War, my dad a POW during World War II. But when I was in high school, we had an exchange student at the school from Germany. My mom taught at our high school and one day Gaby (the exchange student’s name) came to my mom to ask if she could move in with our family (and out of the home she was staying in where some problems had arisen). My parents welcomed her with open arms, and years later I found out that they had taken much grief from many Jewish friends and family members still seething with anger at all Germans. But that was my parents. I’d seen my dad, an Atticus Finch type, stand up to angry neighbors who did not want an African American family to move onto our street in the early ’60s—I saw that the way to face the world was to face it honestly, and with strength, no matter the consequences.

And when I was 12 and writing came—my window to knowing what I thought, what I stood for and what I wanted to say—I came to see that writing is never any good unless it comes from those deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

What do you know now that you wish you had known as a teenager?

What don’t I know now that I wish I’d known as a teenager is a better question. I suppose in a nutshell it would be that life would go on, no matter the angst and pain. But in some ways this question is just too hard—I’m not sure I know the answer. There is that old saw about wishing I were young again but knew everything I know now, but having just spent a good deal of time with my teenage nieces, I’m not sure that’s true. One of the beauties of their lives is the way they think they know everything already—I love that, and I love knowing all the things they’re going to learn, and learn, and learn…

What would you say to someone who considers that keeping up the façade is safer than confessing who they really are, where sharing their true self or secrets might result in physical or emotional harm?

I would encourage, gently, that person to write. Honestly, that is what I do. And to meditate. I have done this. I raised two girls whose life in so many ways depended upon keeping up a façade—pretending their father wasn’t in prison because they had taken so much grief and rejection and cruelty from people for something over which they had no control—and throughout their lives I have tried to hold them close and teach them that they are not the people those who judge them believe them to be. One of them has found her way, one has not. I still hold out every imaginable hope.

What are some of the resources for people who need a safe place to be themselves and speak their truths?

I think this depends—there are wondrous writing teachers around, and because I’m a writer, that’s where my mind takes me first. There are support groups. I think it’s important for people to find those who will help to nurture them and support them and listen to their truths, and to surround ourselves with those people. But this takes me back to the question of what I wish I had known as a teenager that I know now—I wish I’d known as a teenager that it is vital to surround oneself with those who love and respect us and to give wide berth to those who would judge us (and that those who judge us most harshly are usually merely projecting their own inadequacies and fears).

We’ve talked about shame. Let’s explore the opposite. What are you the proudest of about yourself?

I’m proudest of the fact that I have followed my dream, that despite not having become “rich and famous” I am a writer still, a dream that began when I was 12 and from which I’ve never wavered, and that I’ve found my way to discovering how to make a living and to keep producing stories and books. I’m also proud of my teaching, and I’m proud of the people I’ve had a hand in raising—stepchildren (4), nieces and nephews, and some students.

As a writer, what gives you the greatest joy?

My greatest joys come in those moments when I’m so deep inside a story, I am flowing, and I know I am onto something—it’s an indescribable sensation, but when I’m there, I know it, and it is, for me, the essence of joy and peace. That and going to the movies or for long walks with my husband who is the greatest imaginable partner and friend. And boogie boarding. I love boogie boarding and just about everything about the ocean.

You have adapted some marvelous tales in your “Tell Me a Story” column, based on folk tales, fairy tales, and mythological stories. What drew you to that project?

Oh, alas, that’s a long-ish story. But the short version is this. I was working at The Whig Standard in Kingston, Ontario as a columnist (had been for nearly eight years), and I had a terrifically wonderful editor who was always open to new ideas. My dad was a newspaper junkie, so I grew up on newspapers—and I decided our paper needed something for kids. I told my editor I thought so and he sent me off to figure out what that should be. A librarian at the Kingston public library led me to stashes of old folktales and fairytales and myths and legends that people were forgetting, and she also led me to an amazing illustrator. I proposed the idea to Neil, my editor. He said, “Go for it,” and within weeks Jillian (my illustrator) and I were producing a column six days a week (in those days I wrote one story a week and solicited and edited the other five, but Jill illustrated all six). Within three months, ten Canadian papers had picked up the column, and a year later Universal Press Syndicate came to us wanting to syndicate the column in the United States. We started in 1992 and last month published story #1086 (they run in papers around the world). Jillian is retiring, but I’m still going, with a new illustrator beginning in February 2013, Meredith Johnson. Onward, upward. It’s been fascinating, frustrating, and always inspiring (and I’ve produced three CD audiobooks of the stories as well).

Tell us about The Desperado’s Wife. What prompted you to share your story in its entirety now?

Ah, well, I’ve been working on the book for ten years, so it isn’t precisely now that I have been prompted. The book has been excerpted in several places over the years (in The New York Times as “Modern Love”, Salon.com and in a book by Katherine Tanney and Spike Gillespie called Stricken: 5,000 Stages of Grief), and my agent has been trying to sell it for a year or more. But when the Katie Couric show invited me to be a guest to talk about the subject and my book, I decided I was no longer going to wait for publishers to give me the green light, and so I have self-published the book and will be on the Katie Couric show in late January 2013. I think it’s an important story—inspired in part by my longing for prisoners’ families to come out of the shadows, to not have to live in shame. That’s what I hope to talk about with Katie Couric.

You have been teaching memoir for 20 years. What is your most memorable experience as a teacher?

I don’t know that there’s one “most memorable” experience as a teacher. The happiest moments are when students discover their voices, when they are able to dive more deeply inside their stories, when they realize—sometimes against their will—that they can tell a story they’ve been struggling to tell. I wish I could say the happiest moments are when students publish their work—and there is some satisfaction in seeing that happen. But I’m also frustrated by the whole publishing world because I think it is not often that truly good work is rewarded—sometimes there are too many other things (fame/hip-ness) involved in publishing decisions.

But I love teaching. I love seeing people making new discoveries about their stories.

One of the success stories from your students is “Amy helped me to discover that a genuine writer did live inside of me and allowed me to grow and develop in an atmosphere truly free of judgment.” Many others speak of the environment you create, and the self-confidence you help foster. What is your teaching philosophy?

That’s it in a nutshell, to create an environment that both nurtures and pushes, that doesn’t coddle (I don’t try to be Mama), but that allows a writer to find his or her own way into a story, that doesn’t shut them down. I have a very particular workshop method I use (adapted from a choreographer) that allows only for questions of the writer. In other words, I don’t allow students to write each other’s stories but rather to open doors into the mind that might have been closed by asking who, what, when, where questions. I suppose the whole philosophy would be “don’t shut up anyone, inspire people to speak and discover what it is they have to say.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Only this: It’s important to read and to write and to buy books. The publishing world is crumbling, but readers can keep it alive if they try.

 

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You may buy Amy’s memoir The Desperado’s Wife at her website and receive an autographed copy and bookmark if you place the order before January 15th. To learn more about the anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small please check out their website.

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com
  • http://www.authorhamlett.com Christina Hamlett

    Excellent questions set forth here, all resulting in a very informative read.

  • http://joannaceleste.com Joanna Celeste

    Thank you, Christina. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview.

  • Diane Smith-Merrill

    Wonderful interview!!

  • http://joannaceleste.com Joanna Celeste

    Thank you, Diane! It was a joy to interview Ms. Friedman.