Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

Monica Wesolowska

Author’s Note

Monica Wesolowska

Author of Holding Silvan

Bus Talk: On Being a Memoirist in Public

Posted by Monica Wesolowska on 25 Oct 2016

| Comments (23 so far)

Here we are, two strangers, side by side. We don’t have to talk, do we? The din of sixty prepubescent sixth graders on a field trip is enough for me. I have a book in my bag to read. And yet, as the school bus pulls from the curb, the inevitable small talk between us begins. You ask, “What do you do when you aren’t chaperoning field trips?”

Now here’s the beauty of having published a memoir. Gone are the days of small talk with strangers. In a moment, this conversation will go one of two ways fast.

I take a breath and begin, “I’m a writer. I’ve written a memoir. It’s an end-of-life story.”

I may sound coolly professional, but I’ve practiced this phrase. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to ignore death, I’m giving you an out. You can smile, check your phone, ask the girl across the aisle to lower her voice. We can ride along together, acting as if death can be banished this way, even as we’re on our way to show sixth graders a whole museum full of dead things—cats, birds, and people, all mummified by the ancient Egyptians. But you don’t look away.

So I go on, “It’s an end-of-life story when the end comes at the beginning.”

A look enters your eyes. End of life is one thing, at the beginning is another. But you seem to trust that my pain is not so raw it will gush and shudder all over this bus, startling the gleeful sixth graders from their youthful dramas. You must understand what it means to be a writer, to have distance enough to write a book. Presumably, I have language on my side. I’m even smiling. We’re both still alive. So you ask who died.

And I tell you. My son. As a newborn.

You don’t (as my former student did in the grocery store last week) back away into shelves full of eggs and apologize for having asked. No, you sit beside me on the bus and offer condolences. That’s the polite thing to do. Since my grief is not fresh, even a perfunctory condolence will do. Again, I smile.

And now I’m tempted to change the subject, to ask what else you do in your life. After all, Holding Silvan  has been out in the world for three years now and sometimes I feel too tired to keep talking about it, to keep adding words to its carefully chosen 50,000. Lately I’ve been working with fewer words, 322 words, the entirety of a children’s picture book text. Sometimes I fantasize about the conversations I’ll have once my next book is published. Arlo doesn’t want to go preschool. She wants to go to the moon instead. Yes, I’m eager for those kinds of conversations.

But before I can divert us both, you ask how he died. You are persistent. You are unusual. So I tell you. He was brain damaged during labor. We chose to let him die. In the age of modern medicine, I say, death can’t always come without a choice.
And now something extraordinary happens, right here on this noisy yellow school bus.

We start to talk. For real. You’ve had an experience with death, too. You’ve had a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a problem conceiving. Or someone you know has, a neighbor, a colleague, and you’d like my advice on things to say to a bereaved parent. Or perhaps it isn’t a baby. Perhaps it’s your grandmother you tell me about. Your grandmother just died, but it was beautiful. Thanks to your grandmother’s lovely hospice worker, you’ve now decided to become a hospice worker yourself. Or you’re a social worker, a nurse, a chaplain. You’re a masseuse who specializes in treating the ill. Or you’ve just witnessed a friend’s living will. You’re an advocate for death with dignity laws around the country. You’re afraid of dying. You want your own death to be peaceful. 

You will reveal something you have revealed to very few people, something you care deeply about but haven’t yet put into words, something about the shape of your own life that includes this very moment, here, together, that will soften the shrieks of sixth graders and surround us with the hum of intimacy. We have found our bond.

Writing a memoir is one thing. Publishing it is another. Though I feel sick to death sometimes of being asked a question I know will reveal my private pain again, once I open my mouth to tell you my story, I find I’m not at all sick of the conversation it inspires.

This is beautiful! You made me remember—once we write our truth, we must speak it too. I must remember to speak what I write. Sometimes it’s easier to write it. And to be quiet in conversation. Our truth might conjure old pain—but with that conjuring comes unforeseen beauty, and profundity instead of triviality. What reels me in is that you bring all of this out of others with gentleness and love, with careful and caring prose. You let people who aren’t ready to meet you all the way where you are—you let them let it go, if they so choose. Knowing I have this choice, I hold on. And instead of worry, in the “hum of intimacy” you create for your readers, I am curious instead of afraid. Thank you for sharing your gorgeous writing!

Lauren from Los Angeles, CA on 25 Oct 2016

Thanks, Lauren. I know exactly what you mean about it being easier to write our truth than to speak it. Way too often I hide writing I’ve done, plagued by the usual fears that it’s not good enough or people won’t want to hear it. And so often, even when I do overcome such fears, my writing is met with silence. So I appreciate your feedback. Even for me, who wrote these words, it’s good to be reminded about the “hum of intimacy” that daring to share creates.

monica wesolowska from Berkeley on 25 Oct 2016

This exact scenario happens to me weekly.

  “Any weekend plans?” the dental hygienist asks me, her eyes peering at me over the seafoam green mask. I drool a little as she pulls the pick from my mouth to give me a moment for the “get to know you lighting round” with the person whose mouth she is getting up close and personal. I’m convinced that such intimate interactions as having your teeth cleaned or getting your annual physical can never be clinical enough. For this reason, I will always appreciate the niceties of a technician asking “What do you do when four hands are not shoved in your mouth all at once?”

  “I’m volunteering.”
  “Oh,  really? Where?”
  “At a program for homeless youth and youth who have been sexually and commercially trafficked.”
  “Wow,  how did you get into that?”

  And this is the answer I get every single time.  I have to guage two things in determining how to answer.

1)Do I and this other person have at least an hour available right now?
2) Does this person have other obligations later today? Do they need to work this afternoon without the distraction of crying?

  The answer to both of these questions for my dental hygienist last Friday did not allow for me to tell her that I may appear to be a successful, mentally stable,  healthy, wealthy adult. But as a child until the age of ten, my father trafficked,  prostituted, raped me and stole my identity for tax fraud. And because when you really get into it, no one is really the Boss or truly in control of the IRS except “We The People” that I finally submitted to paying thousands of dollars in tax fines to the IRS when I was 18 because my credit was ruined and I was a homeless teenager who desperately wanted to sign an apartment lease and not live with meth addicts. Call me snobby, but meth does not make for good roommates at shelter when you are sober.

  I did not tell the dental hygienist that though I somehow escaped being a child prostitute,  my little sister did not. I did not tell her that I “got into”  volunteering for homeless and trafficked children because they are me, and because they are my sister who didn’t seem to know how to want a different life. I did not tell her that it is only because of programs and volunteers that I am alive, that I am having my teeth cleaned - a luxury not afforded by a sizeable number of Americans post ACA. CPS never took us away. Maybe because we were white and didn’t fit the right stereotypes to have bad parents. Maybe it was because we crossed state lines too often.

  Instead I deflected and told her about some of the fun projects I’ve done with the youth like putting together a music production workshop,  buying $5,000 of guitars and drums and amps for a homeless youth program, or just cooking lunch and baking gingerbread houses with them.

  When there is enough time, I talk to people because they need to know what a child prostitute and slave looks like in America. Like me.

Sabra Grace from Portland Art Museum on 25 Oct 2016

Sabra, Yes, you know exactly what I’m talking about—in a different form. And, as I have my fictional person on the bus say to me, I’m sorry you went through that.  What amazes me is how hard it is to see someone else’s suffering as a suffering as real as our own.  It’s as if everyone else’s pain is really fictional, or can only be approached as fiction, as if that person must be stuck back in that fictional time and can’t gone on to have a life like our own. But, as you say, people need to know what a child prostitute and slave looks like in America—like you, like real people we might actually sit down next to and start talking to. Thanks for keeping it real.

monica wesolowska from Berkeley on 26 Oct 2016

Monica, your writing touches me deeply and reminds me of the beauty of writing.  Strange, how words spoken now echo in a far distant tunnel. I repeatedly perceive myself uttering the words, ” My Mother fell, more likely jumped, from the sixth floor of a building across the train station on a Sunday or Monday-sometime when the desolation of the cityscape was pronounced. My lips moving uttering, as if a broken record, ” Thank You, for your condolences .” Life so hollow now. Yet, the pain of death, of losing my Mother to Mental Illness, my steady companion now.
  You write that often times others assume that ” You have language on your side” and that you must, as a writer have enough distance from the pain of grief. Surely,how else is one to face death? However, it is precisely by embracing the pain within that one can even begin to start to face the unceasing roller coaster ride of grief as your beautiful written account of a public memoirist makes clear. Thank you for the bravery to face life with all its beauty and cruelty at the same time.

Tanja Pick from Portland on 19 Dec 2016

Tanja, What a beautiful truth you have pointed out. No writer can write about pain unless, as you say,  they have “embraced the pain.” That really resonates with me. It makes me feel lucky that I was able to embrace Silvan fully, both the pain and the joy of being with him. Like you, I also know the complicated pain of losing someone to suicide—my brother (I wrote about him in my memoir, too.) I’m so sorry for your loss. Keep speaking about your mother and you, filling the hollow within.

monica wesolowska from Berkeley on 20 Dec 2016

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