Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Melanie McCabe’s nonfiction piece, Before There Was a Road
Sommer: I understand that your essay is personal, yet I think what makes it so powerful is that it shows us something that most women can identify with, which is that girls and women are forced into having to come to terms with two disparate worlds: the private one and the public one. The public one, in which girls must learn to live with a certain amount of violence, unfortunately comes to influence the private one. Do you think this reality has changed much between when you were growing up, and today?
Melanie: I am not sure it has changed all that much. I have two daughters, now 32 and 29, and although I thought I had protected them a lot more than I was protected as a child, the stories they have shared with me of their own experiences prove how little I was really aware of. Their childhoods were a lot more “scripted.” Kids had play-dates, rather than just roaming the neighborhood as I used to do. But despite what I thought was my vigilant eye on their friendships and interactions, it seems that conflicts and the threat of violence were as present in their childhoods as in my own.
Still, I usually knew where they were at any given moment. My parents had no idea where I might be. My license to go anywhere and do anything, as long as I was home in time for dinner, landed me in some questionable, and frankly, dangerous situations. I learned to negotiate those situations. But I was hardly a fearless child. I carried my fear everywhere, and often, it served to protect me from truly dire outcomes.
I love how nature factors prominently in your essay. It provides comfort and safety. What is your relationship with nature, and do you think there is some kind of integral connection between feminism and nature?
Nature was a far more present part of my life when I was a child than it is now. It was my world; it was where I spent the majority of each day. Unless it was brutally cold, I spent most of my free hours wandering the neighborhood with my friends. The vacant lots that I write about in the essay were an ever-present and seductive draw for all of us. Who would choose to stay in a confined yard, on a small swing set, when one could run free through open fields of grass and wildflowers, and swing from a rope over cliffs and railroad tracks? In those lots, we were far from our parents’ watchful eyes. I loved that freedom and the sense of independence that it provided me.
Now the moments that I spend in nature are far more pre-planned and orchestrated. Too much of my life is spent at my dining room table, grading essays, looking out at the world that goes on without me.
I do think that there is a connection between feminism and nature. I know that when I have the opportunity to immerse myself in that outer world, I feel more myself and more powerful and balanced than I do shut inside four walls.
In your essay, there is a change that happens to you between ages eight and twelve—you learn to become more fearful, less carefree. Why do you think there is such a chasm between the way families and society treat girls before and after puberty? What can we do about it?
There seems to be something in the process of girls becoming women that changes the way they are seen. They become sexualized. There is a power in that transformation that is both tantalizing and terrifying—to both the girls and to the adults around them. When I was young, there was a lot more focus on becoming “young ladies” and pursuing romance, marriage, a traditional female role. Although I still see some of that in the female students I teach, I am amazed, really, by how powerful and sure of themselves many of them seem to be. I think there has been a shift in the right direction, though there is still a long way to go.
Your father seemed like such an incredible man! I’m so sorry he died when you were still young. In what ways did he help you navigate the public world?
For one thing, he instilled in me a sense that I was smart, creative, and interesting, by how fully engaged he was in parenting me. He was nearly 50 when I was born and he had not expected to ever have children. He was thrilled, and his delight resulted in a great deal of attention focused on me. He wanted me to do amazing things. I remember that he wanted me to study either economics or law, and was somewhat dismayed that I wanted to be an English major. He was a struggling writer himself, and I think he wanted me to achieve success and financial independence—to not go down a traditionally female path that would make that more difficult.
What are you working on these days?
I have been writing a lot of essays, this essay among them, and I want to compile these into a collection, a sort of “memoir in essays.”
I am always writing poetry. And I have an idea for a novel that I am going to focus on this summer, to see what comes of it. I haven’t written fiction since I was a girl.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
My best advice is to expect rejection and to keep sending out work in spite of it. I have encountered tons of rejections along the way, and I see these rejections as the price I have to pay to break through. I was incredibly blue as I sent out my memoir about my father and kept getting “no, thank yous.” There were definitely times I questioned whether I had spent all that time and energy for nothing. But if I gave up sending it out, then I would be accepting that I had indeed wasted my time, and I was not willing to let that be the end of the story.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you for publishing this essay, which means a great deal to me. I am delighted to have it out in the world.