Interview with the Memoir: Shannon Drury

This is the first in a series of interviews I’m doing with memoir writers. By interviewing memoirists, I hope to showcase excellent writers, as well as helping beginning writers and others tell their own story.
Ebook cover 978-0-9797152-2-8
Shannon Drury’s memoir, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, was published in 2014 by Medusa’s Muse Press (disclaimer – I am the publisher). In her book she writes about her struggle as a “stay-at-home” mom and feminists. Can you call yourself a feminist if you’re a stay at home mom and homemaker? Get a copy of her book and find out.
Thank you so much Shannon for taking the time to answer my questions. 
Your book really shows the intersection of politics and personal life. How hard was it to write a book that is both political and personal? 
It wasn’t hard to write at all. As a lifelong feminist I’m acutely aware of how social and political movements intersect with and influence our lived experiences. I couldn’t write about being a stay-at-home mom without reflecting on the unique set of circumstances that made that possible, even practical, for me. And I couldn’t write about feminism without reflecting on its influence on my life, including how it affects the way I raise my children.
But what was easy for me to write was very difficult to market. A hybrid anything is less marketable than “if you love Jessica Valenti’s polemics, you will love this!’ or “if you love Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, you’ll love this!” In fact, my neighbor just told me yesterday that she finished the book but can’t decide where to shelve it. I told her I’d sell her another copy!
How long did it take to write your book? Would you change anything about your book? 
Writing the book was the easy part, especially since I was building a framework on some previously published columns and blogs. I would guess that writing took a year. Editing, on the other hand, took some time. You can ask my publisher how she feels about that….!
You are very vulnerable in much of your book. How were you able to open yourself up so much, especially knowing there would be criticism?
I am of the opinion that the non-vulnerable memoir is not worth writing. I recently read a memoir that I thought I would love, as it was written by a fellow lefty mom like me, but the author barely revealed anything substantive about herself and her life. Without that glimpse of humanity, there is no opportunity for connection. Writing can be lovely for its own sake, but I write for a deeper purpose–to connect in some small way to the beating heart of humanity. That may sound corny or even quasi-religious, but it’s true.
Years of writing a column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and keeping up a personal blog have helped thicken my skin to criticism, especially from the online commentariat. One person on Goodreads said she knocked off a star because I cursed too much, and I can handle that. When I’m called evil and a rotten mother (which happened on Twitter recently), I know it’s not about me, it’s about their fear of what I represent.
That’s not to say that it still isn’t hard. Members of my extended family have the book but have yet to talk with me about it.  And I don’t mean in-depth analysis–I mean I have yet to hear “Hey Shannon, I read your book.” There is intergenerational discomfort about parenting, economic class, and mental health in most American families, not just mine.
 
What was the hardest thing for you to overcome when writing this book?
Ironically, for a dedicated feminist convinced that women’s stories have the power to change the world, I had to fight daily against the quiet but insistent fear that I am a nobody who has nothing to say. Impostor syndrome can suck the life out of you if you’ll let it.
Why was it important for you to write your book? What do you hope the reader gains?
I truly believe that feminism provides the best, most sane and compassionate parenting philosophy out there, but we’re still letting the conservative right own the narrative of “family values.” I think it’s essential for feminist moms to tell our stories, to connect the struggles of our own families to the broader failures of American society.
My readership looks a lot like me: white, middle class, educated parents. We’re privileged, and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s time that we stopped judging and/or arguing with one another for what we feed our kids (organic or conventional? breast or bottle?) and asked larger questions about the systems that have more control over families than individual parents do. As I write in the book, “when is a choice not a choice?” I think most American parents would “choose” to take a year of paid family leave when their babies are born, like they do in Sweden. The manufactured war between working moms and at-home moms is ridiculous–the real battle should be parents demanding that government officials make “family values” a reality, not a campaign slogan.
What advice can you give to other memoirists?
I have no better advice than “write like a motherfucker,” the directive of the aforementioned Cheryl Strayed. For me this means that the process is embarrassing, painful, and exhausting. If I look at it and can say “damn, this makes me sound ridiculous,” I am probably on the right track.
Can you recommend some good memoirs to read? 
One of my all-time favorite books of any genre is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home.” It is so smart, so revealing, so funny, and so tragic at the same time. And of course it’s beautifully drawn and designed. Other classic graphic memoirs are “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Majane Satrapi.
I am always late to trends, which means that I only recently read Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” In the last few months I read the new memoirs by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Viv Albertine of the Slits, but I still haven’t gotten to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which everyone raves about. I have yet to even read “Wild”! Reading comic books takes up a lot of my time, apparently.
Shannon Drury is a writer, at-home parent, and feminist activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and served six years as the president of Minnesota NOW. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. Read more from Shannon at her blog The Radical Housewife
You can buy her book from Medusa’s Muse Press, Amazon.com, Powells, and wherever books are sold. Also available as an ebook.

Reclaiming the joy of writing while being a caregiver.

Because of my husband’s cancer fight, my writing productivity has dropped. When I try working on my book my brain freezes and it takes hours to write a page. Before, the words flew through my fingers, but now they drip like melting snow on a roof.

I’ve decided that’s okay.

Somewhere along this road of creating a publishing company and editing business I lost the joy of writing. My work had to be useful, meaningful… productive. I didn’t allow myself the luxury of sipping strong coffee in a cafe while writing bad poetry no one would read.  “What are you writing?” sounded like a challenge; I’d better have an answer and several good pages to show.

I’m still working. Currently I’m writing a middle grade chapter book and a rough draft for my memoir. I’m also researching drag queen culture for a new play. Writing is in my blood. But instead of worrying about word counts and productivity, I’m relaxing into the process of writing. The outcome isn’t important right now.

My energy is needed to help my husband fight cancer and my child transition into adulthood. Therefore, I’m reclaiming the joy of writing, which includes several pages of awful poetry.

My ancestors owned slaves?

Be careful when you research your family, you might not like what you find.

I guess that’s what freaked out Ben Affleck so much.

My uncle has been researching our family for 20 years, and has traced our ancestors back to the 1600’s in the United States; we were here before the country was. We fought in the Revolutionary War (I wonder if the Daughter’s of the Revolution would let me in?), built cities and “tamed the west” (killing many natives along the way). We’re mainly Scotch-Irish with a lot of German thrown in I discovered. And my grandmother’s family were genteel plantation owning Southerners who owned slaves.

Slaves? My ancestors bought and sold black people?

I suppose it’s not all that surprising seeing as my ancestors have been here for 350 years. But I’d lived under the illusion that my family were all abolitionists. Many were. I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. But seeing the documentation stating how many slaves a particular ancestor owned when he died makes me shudder.

When I lived in San Francisco there was a hair salon near my house that was owned by a black woman with the same last name as my grandmother. “I wonder if we’re related?”, I thought. Today, I wonder if my ancestors had owned hers.

Slavery. We see the effects of it all around in the high proportion of poverty in people of color and the institutional racism that impacts everyone’s daily life. To be black in this country is to be judged. What is it like to live with the weight of that, day in and day out?

My ancestors were slave owners. Rather than turning away from that fact, I acknowledge it. I recognize it as a part of my history. Am I guilty about it? I’m not sure. Should I be? I myself have never owned slaves, but again I think about the black woman who owns the salon with the same name as my grandmother. If we go back six generations, what will we find?

If you’re an American with ancestors who’ve been here more than 200 years, there is plenty of blood in your family closet.

No father should have to change his daughter’s Maxi-Pad.

Rick

Happy Father’s Day to my fearless husband. The man who works every day to keep a roof over our head and food on our table (seriously, he works every frickin day). The man who chose to become to father of a severely disabled girl. He is not her biological father, but he is the one who has raised her and fought for her and has even changed her Maxi-Pad.

Yes, he has had to learn how to deal with a girl’s period and which Maxi Pad to use.

No father should have to do that. Ever.

Happy Father’s day, you wonderful man. And to all the father’s of children with disabilities: the ones who stay up all night with a sick kid; who work crazy jobs to buy their child a new walker; the fathers who sacrifice their leisure time to help their child put stickers on a drawing or play with dolls; thank you. You are the rock stars of medically fragile children everywhere.

Celebrate your day!

Thank you Andrea Lundgren for allowing me to be a guest

Andrea Lundgren, author and editor, has invited me to be a guest on her blog. She just posted my post about how a memoir needs a plot.  You can read the post here:

https://andrealundgren.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/spotlight-saturday-12-plotting-a-memoir/

Thank you so much Andrea for the support. Looking forward to reading more from you.

Even professional editors forget to follow their own advice when writing.

Feeling exuberant, I plunged into writing the first chapter of my memoir. My fingers ached from typing so much as the sentences flowed. After 700 words I happily read what I’d written.

It was awful.

Seriously, what the hell was I trying to say?

Who was going to read any of this?

And that was my problem. I’d forgotten who I was writing for. Instead of keeping my imaginary writer in mind, I wrote lovely prose all for myself. My memoir had turned into masterbation and I honestly thought someone would pay to watch.

I deleted every word I’d written and stared at that blank screen so long I stopped blinking.

After a few days of self pity, during which I decided I was the worst writer in the world and no one would buy any book of mine and how dare I think I had a story anyone would want to read, I thought about why I was writing a memoir. I want to help struggling parents who are raising special needs children while coping with their own complex emotions. Who were those parents? I remembered myself at age 29 with a tiny, medically fragile baby and no idea how I could save her. Slowly, I wrote to the young woman I used to be, realizing that the world was filled with terrified parents clutching fragile children. I wrote what I had longed to hear those first few weeks.

Remembering why I was writing my memoir, and who I was writing it for, put me back on track. I finished chapter one knowing my words have purpose and the book has a point. We’ll see what my editor thinks, but for now, I am grounded enough in the writing to finish this book.

When I edit, I always ask authors what the book is about and who they are writing for. It was surprising to realize I had forgotten to follow my own advice.