Tell it Brave

After a whirlwind four days of revising, editing, and finessing a cookbook proposal with my fine lady friends over at The White Moustache, my eyes were tired from staring at track changes, my body sore from too many hours in a stiff-backed chair. I needed a day off.

The morning cooperated, giving me a pale cerulean sky and cooler temperatures than we’ve had all week. I meandered through the Union Square farmers market, its abundance garishly bright this time of year. Rosy-hipped apricots made it into my bag, as did Romano beans, destined for a slow braise in plenty of olive oil. I picked up ramp tops,  like dill flowers but tightly budded and startlingly pungent.  I filled a sack with the first new crop apples, a sharp reminder that summer’s end is around the corner. Then I read. And read and read and read. It’s been a long time since I’ve given myself a day with a good book (and, oh, what a good one this is).

Speaking of books, I did a good deal of my summer reading last week (the one before the editing blitz began).  Chris and I (along with all my in-laws) were at my favorite place: tiny, remote Isle au Haut,  which sits downeast in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The views look like this:


And this:


And this:


I’ve been going to Isle au Haut my whole life. There are pictures of me taking my first steps in the living room there, and learning to read sitting atop a weathered picnic table on the front porch. My mom’s parents had the good sense to buy a modest house on a striking spit of land in the 1960s, and the ever-expanding Bergen clan has been divvying up summers on the Island ever since.

I don’t lean towards hyperbole when I say: it’s paradise.

As kids, we were given the run of the place. We’d spend hours playing on the rocky beaches, overturning flops of seaweed to hunt for tiny crabs. We’d ride our bikes for endless hours up and down the church boardwalk, and hurl crab apples from the back of the blue Jeep pickup at roadside targets. Our lemonade stands earned us enough money to make out like bandits at the tiny town store, filling plastic sandwich bags; sour penny candies for me, Fireballs for my brother, Pete. There was ice cream every afternoon, and, some nights, we lit sparklers in the salty fog.

It was also the place I saw my mom happiest.

Since she died back in 2008, the Island has come to hold a different kind of meaning for me. It’s still my wild place, where I stay barefooted all day, clamber over rocks, eat too much sugar and swim until my lips turn blue. But now, it’s where I go to commune with my mom, to access her memory in a way I can’t in my day-to-day life in Brooklyn.

On the Island, it’s utterly obvious to me how true it is that daughters become their mothers. While we were running wild as kids, mom found solace in not having to do much parenting. She used the time to sequester herself from the busyness of her life as a mother, wife and teacher. It used to drive me crazy how she’d read or lie out on the rocks for hours on end, not wanting to be disturbed. These days, all the things I found tiresome about her behavior as a kid, I adopt myself while on Isle au Haut. I read endlessly on the porch and use binoculars to spy on the pleasure boats moored in the thorofare. I make my back sore crouching on the roadsides to pick enough blueberries for a pie. I spend a lot of time with the dog. I’m rendered reticent, shutting the world away, protecting my memories. My time there is about restoration and reflection. With few distractions, I do a lot of thinking, and usually a lot of writing, too.

This summer, I found my well of words dry. It’s been a year packed with so much tumult that I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to say about it all, even in a notebook, to myself. So instead, I read.

First up was Stir, Jessica Fechtor’s new memoir about (among other things) enduring, and recovering from, a brain aneurysm. My dear friend Sally recommended it to me a couple of months back– she said she couldn’t put it down, and that it left her weeping. Another of my oldest friends, Theo, gave it his endorsement too. I picked up a copy, and squirreled it away for vacation.

I don’t know Fechtor’s writing the way fans of her popular blog Sweet Amandine do. And I admit, her language didn’t move me. But her story did. It struck deep,  and has stayed on my mind.

I connected with Fechtor on some basic levels– divorced parents, disillusioned doctoral student, a love of cooking, yadi-yadi-yah. The stuff of personal blog fluff won’t hold my interest. But what will is a young woman trying make sense of what it means to have a whole lot of Big Life Stuff, the kind that really runs you off track, happen at a young age. An aneurysm. Repeat surgeries. A miscarriage when all you want– when the only way you feel you can really reclaim you status as a living being after so much loss and fear– is to make new life.

What do you do when your knees have been taken out from you again and again, and how do you express what it feels like to start to re-enter your own life, tentatively at first, then desperately, gulping at it like water when you’re parched? How do you begin to tell about it?

With two parents gone, a desperate desire for a child in their wake, infertility treatment and a miscarriage under my belt, I’m craving stories like Fechtor’s, stories that get right to the heart of the matter. An ardent lover of artful writing, I sometimes find myself relieved when personal prose is stripped down, when the story itself shines through and wordsmithing is let to rest.

Today, I found out Stir made it onto the NYT bestseller list, which got me thinking. What is it about these stories that’s so resonant, that keeps us buying those books at the till?

Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I see where she was coming from, really I do. And mostly I agree with her; a  good metaphor, for example, can do wonders. But the explosive success of memoirs like Fechtor’s in recent years (um, Wild anyone?) has me wondering if what we’re longing for are ways of talking and writing about our lives with the varnish sanded off.

I’m talking about the difference between the kind of conversation you have at a fancy restaurant and kind that emerges when you crack a bottle of wine with a good friend and talk long and deep; the way you speak to a lover in the middle of the night, with the lights still off, when a heavy mind is keeping you from sleep.

Unpolished. Raw. Bone.

The success of Fechtor’s story, I think, is a testament to a growing hunger for that kind of storytelling. It’s the same thing driving Anna Sale’s brilliant Death, Sex and Money and her gutsy, empathic approach to interviewing, born of her own life-rocking moments in her late twenties (I was lucky enough to hear her tell her own story out loud at BAM this past May).

It’s no coincidence that this kind of shift is being driven by women. For decades now, we’ve been drowning in the “woman-as-warrior” narrative, “leaning in” and trying to have it all. And that’s important; it’s given all of us opportunities and public spaces that weren’t there before. But stories like Fechtor’s, Sale’s and Strayed’s take a different approach entirely; they’re about feeling nearly broken, and using whatever’s at hand, a bricolage of sorts, to rebuild, re-imagine. They’re about deriving strength from the fall, too, rather than just the climb. They’re about finding a way forward knowing what you know,  unable to un-see what you’ve been shown. There’s no naivety there, only guts.

It’s all got me thinking about what I want to say, and how.

Because I think we want– no, need– to tell it brave.