Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Lizzie Roberts’ nonfiction piece, Sons and Daugthers
Sommer: This piece is creative nonfiction. I presume you write some fiction as well? In your experience, what are the differences in how you approach, imagine, and craft nonfiction versus fiction? Do you prefer one to the other?
Lizzie: I find negotiating the freedom to make things up more challenging than being constrained by an obligation to the truth. I tried and failed to write short stories for years. I had plenty of gratuitous description but absolutely no conflict. Finally I started writing stories based on growing up in joint custody, split between Detroit and Grosse Pointe. I internalized the deep rift between ghetto and country club; between a loving mother struggling with poverty and addiction and a distant, conservative father. The project turned into a memoir. It was such a relief to know what happens, to have a plot! It let me concentrate on character, setting, dialogue. As far as craft goes, I don’t see much difference between fiction and creative nonfiction. You write scenes, you weave in underlying themes, you create tension. The goal is to take the reader on a journey.
I admire how vulnerable and honest about yourself you are in this piece, the lack of which is what makes creative nonfiction so hard for many writers to pull off. What do you think are the skills needed to be able to access and write about this kind of honest truth?
An exhibitionist streak. A tendency to overshare. You also need to be able to see yourself as you do strangers on the subway, with that same merciless, objective inquiry. It’s helpful to have indulged in vanity to such a degree that you’ve almost given up on looking good; to have reached the kind of maturity that comes from owning the mess you’ve made. It took me a while to get there. But the honesty can be stressful: you look at that pathetic character and it’s you! I’m writing a novel now, which pivots on the dichotomy of freedom and security. Though it’s based on a period I lived through—Berlin in the mid-1990s—I’m eager to get away from myself for a while.
If Wally were here today, what’s the one thing you would ask him?
I would like to see the broad outline I have of his life filled in with more specific details. Also, I think I would engage with him more daringly, by which I mean I would take myself as seriously as I took him. The last few years have definitely changed how women interact with men, and have certainly left me questioning my own actions in the new light cast on theirs.
I really love the complexities you show in this piece regarding the relationship between parents and children, and just how difficult it is for parents to love their children unconditionally. Is there an “easy” answer to all this? Or is it simply all about what Kahlil Gibran says, “[Your children] come through you but not from you.”
I think the revolving door of life ensures that parent/child dynamics will always be fraught to some degree. But some are so much more volatile than others. It’s funny that you mention Kahlil Gibran. As a teenager I wrote many an angry letter to my father, and I remember one in which I quoted Gibran: “Your children are not your children.” He was not impressed. Despite my rebellious spirit, I was seeking a connection. When I first started writing about Wally, the piece was going in a different direction. It wasn’t until I brought my father into it that the various elements came together. I realized that a desire for connection to people beyond my reach was at the heart of it, and this led me to explore the ambiguity inherent in an unresolved relationship, an imperfect end.
What are your feelings and thoughts about being one of “Wally’s women,” or do you consider yourself to be a part of that group?
It’s always disappointing to find out you’re not the only one, but it sure changes your perspective. The other women all knew each other, and they met up with Wally together sometimes, so they formed a group I wasn’t really a part of. Being an outsider is familiar. It makes it easier to observe, of course, but in this context it also awakened my usually dormant competitive side. At the burial I remember looking around and thinking, Okay, now we’re all going to start writing about Wally. The race is on! Who knows, maybe there are three or four different versions of this essay out there.
What advice do you have for writers on handling rejection? And how do you stay motivated and inspired to keep at it?
The first time I ever submitted was to a small journal, which accepted the piece. This is easy, I thought. Next I submitted to Ploughshares, and I was in a funk for days when I got the rejection. I eventually learned to gauge my place in the literary landscape a little better. But it’s a balancing act. If I get too wrapped up in the submission process my writing suffers. Yet I have to publish in order to know that I’m connecting with someone, somewhere. So, I guess it’s a need to communicate that keeps me at it.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations! It is an honor to publish this beautiful piece.
And thank you—working with The Forge has been such a positive experience.