Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy
Read Jillian Luft’s nonfiction piece, Heart-Shaped Box
Sarah: The structure of this piece is more complicated than it first appears. Just when we come to expect the refrain, a second refrain is introduced, “But we knew…” Finally, there is the devastating shift from the “we” voice to the singular “I.” Did you have elements of this structure in your head when you began to write, or did it evolve through the writing process?
Jillian: I don’t typically work this way, but I first decided on the general structure of the piece (first-person plural) and then mined my past for experiences that would best be told from this perspective. I’d attempted to write about my mom’s craft obsession before, but in a humdrum linear essay form that bored me and read as less than honest. By relating our shopping excursions in the collective voice, I hoped to present a more complicated and nuanced truth, funneling my mom’s experience through the family’s perspective. The first line I wrote when drafting this piece (“We went to Wal-Mart, Rag Shop, Target, Phar-Mor.”) immediately asserted itself as the refrain. I also knew I wanted to pivot to first-person singular at some point in the story, but didn’t know when that would happen until I started writing. The introduction of the second refrain and the ending happened organically but always hinged on that original refrain. After I’d written that, it felt like I had a song’s chorus and just needed to flesh out the verses.
Caregiving is an overlooked and undercompensated gig, even as it’s something most of us will need and/or provide at some point in our lives. What do you hope readers will take away from this piece?
Most representations of caregiving tend to take place in the shadows—in darkened bedrooms or other private domestic spaces where the work goes unseen and unacknowledged. And it’s often perceived as a grave and solitary endeavor. I wanted to push back on these preconceptions a bit by placing caregiving, literally, under the lights in a highly public space and show how a family is forced to work as a unit even when there is confusion, resentment, exhaustion. How they are bonded by love and, at times, dark humor. While most of my caregiving experience was invisible and isolating in a dark house, it was also monotonous errands under the guise of “family time” like those depicted in this piece. During this pandemic and prior to it, so many of us have amassed our own unique caregiving experiences. Maybe my piece will help shed light on the spectrum of caregiving stories that exist or spur others to tell their own.
Despite all the people for whom the mother is ostensibly crafting, the reader feels the family’s isolation. The kids complain and list what they’d rather be doing, but they continue to accompany their mother. This is clearly mostly from love, but I wondered if there was also a form of comfort for the family in the empty, neutral anonymity of the box stores. Maybe a relief from the well-intentioned sympathy of all those others?
Yes, absolutely! So thrilled you made this connection. My happiest childhood memories center on box stores, chain restaurants, cable TV, top 40 radio. These suburban touchstones were temporary escapes into normalcy, spaces we could forget the dysfunction in our darker hours as a family. I could imagine everything was swell because we scarfed down fast food burgers and shakes or because I owned the new Mariah Carey album. My parents fervently held middle-class aspirations that sank us into significant debt. And I often wonder if this was related to this need for comfort—to not feel so isolated, to feel like everyone else. Capitalism certainly offers that anonymity and solace as gross as it is. Now, you’ve inspired me to explore the horrors of this in future CNF!
This is a story about a woman turning her pain, fear, and love into art. You’ve done something similar in crafting this nonfiction piece from your experiences. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to transcend personal grief and reach out to others. Do you have any advice for other writers attempting to put words to matters so personal and emotional?
Oh, man. I hesitate to give any advice because translating your life into art is so deeply personal. Some find it to be cathartic; some find it to be a masochistic undertaking. If you’re trying to discover the core truth of your past experiences or make sense of them, I do think writing is an excellent way to engage with that mystery and bear witness to what unfurls. Or, at least, I think that’s why I do it. If you’re trying to heal from these experiences, I wouldn’t recommend writing as the sole way to do so. And if you’re unsure why you want to write about personal and emotionally-charged matters, then I suggest setting boundaries for yourself. It’s always okay to stop, take a prolonged break, or never return to that experience on the page. Before we share our stories with others, we should first decide if we’re ready to share the full story with ourselves.
What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?
I’m finally reading Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections. The last few books I read were all incredible: Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Dantiel W. Moniz’s Milk, Blood Heat, and Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed.
Thanks so much for doing this interview and congratulations!