Don’t Boss It Around: Abigail Thomas on Writer’s Block, Confronting Fear, and the Joys of Aging
The Author of Still Life at Eighty in Conversation with Mira Ptacin
When I first read Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, I was pregnant, in-between the first and second year of graduate school, and assumed that I was doomed because I thought that in order to be a professional writer, one must never have children. Or marry. Or do anything but isolate themselves and write, write, write.
I also thought that if one wanted to write memoir, they must write lengthy, sprawling memoirs with complex, highbrow sentences that reveal the author’s genius but were not easily digested or understood, that good writing wasn’t accessible or warm but hard to reach and only for the select few who really “got it.” Oh, how naive (and cliche) I was back then.
But then my professor (the true blue, one and only Jo Ann Beard) introduced me to Abigail Thomas’s work, and I knew I had not only found an artist but a mentor. Safekeeping pulled me in with warm arms, like a loving grandmother, fed me apple cake, didn’t take up too much of my time (most chapters are about a page long), sent me on my way, and told me I was welcome back any time I wanted—no pressure—and could bring friends next time, too. Safekeeping, which inspired me and gave me the courage and permission to write my first memoir (Poor Your Soul), is an inviting and stunning kaleidoscope, a haunting elegy of prose that chronicles Thomas’s pregnancies and marriages, among other things (including getting kicked out of college), but most notably, the book tears apart the idea of what “memoir” is and puts together a notion about how to tell true stories of a woman’s power and a woman’s rage.
Safekeeping was published in 2001, and Thomas has published many books since then—books lauded by Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and Amy Hempl, among others—and (holler if you hear me) has become a beacon to many, showing us what’s possible in form and in function in art, and in living. Recently, we spoke about her latest book, Still Life at Eighty, her writing process, and confronting fear on the page. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mira Ptacin: Congratulations on your most recent book. Can you tell me about it?
Abigail Thomas: It’s called Still Life at Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing. It’s about being really old and how much easier that is than being really young. When you’re old, you never again ask a question like, “Do these earrings make me look fat?” Which I actually really, truly asked one of my kids once, so I don’t do that anymore.
For its publication, I decided to go with the little local bookstore. They wanted to start publishing things, so I thought, well, why don’t I just do that? That would be fun. But he forgot to send it out for reviews [laughs], so there are no reviews and as far as I can tell, there will be no reviews. So here’s this book that is just gonna sink underwater, but it’s actually kind of a good book.
And it is wonderful to be 80, now 81. So many things that used to plague me don’t bother me at all anymore. What I look like, needing some man in my life, whether or not I look fat—couldn’t give less of a shit. I like walking down the street invisible, able to stop and stare at someone if I feel so inclined. Nobody notices. I could rob a bank without a mask. And I’m not shy about speaking my mind. I don’t think I ever was, but old ladies get a pass, and that’s nice. And knowing you can’t fix anybody saves us all a lot of time.
MP: I love every single thing you write, and I’m curious about your process. Would you describe where you write, and how you write, and how that suits your personality? What have you learned does not work for you?
AT: I sit in a chair wide enough to hold me and a dog. There are windows on either side so I can see what’s going on outdoors. I can stare at trees in the wind and let my mind go blank, which is a good exercise for writers tired of waiting for the backs of their minds to make their way to the front. Going blank can give you a jump start.
There is always something to write about. It might be crawling up the bookcase, and you can watch as it makes up its tiny mind where it’s going (in case it thinks) and where it winds up, figure out what it is. Write about that. The bug’s the thing, but you’re telling us about it, so you are part of the story. The mood you were in when the bug showed up. Did it worsen or lighten your mood? The way you see things is so telling. And it is the story. Going to a coffee shop used to work, but only for eavesdropping. I couldn’t stop eavesdropping and got no writing done.“What I look like, needing some man in my life, whether or not I look fat—couldn’t give less of a shit.”
I always used to write by hand, but my hand doesn’t want to do that anymore, and I can’t read a word I write. So it’s the computer. Did I say I love to live alone? And I love to live alone.
MP: What are some tips you can give me for when one gets stuck and can’t write, or is afraid to write?
AT: I tried a million times to write a book called What Comes Next and How to Like It. Nothing worked. I just couldn’t get it started. Months went by. So I decided to write about that: THIS IS TOO HARD TO WRITE. I began, and listed the reasons why. Pretty soon, I was writing the book. So that’s what I always recommend—write down all the reasons why you can’t write and you may just get somewhere. If it’s too scary, say that, try to say more about the scary.
The other trick is to write in the third person if the first isn’t getting anywhere; the third has its advantages and you can always go back to first once you find out what the third knows. Ditto if you go from third to first when third isn’t working. First and third are very different; there is something to learn from both. You just figure that you’re lying fallow, and soon enough something will cross your mind, or you’ll look at the rug and start to write. I mean, you just start to write about whatever catches your eye. Whatever makes you curious. It doesn’t have to start with a thing you want to write about. You just have to start writing.
MP: So then tell me, what does the term “writer’s block” mean to you?
AT: It just makes me wanna take an ax, chop it into pieces and figure out what it is I’m afraid of. And whatever it is I’m afraid of, I’m afraid of.
Sometimes you’ll be reading somebody’s memoir and there’s a paragraph that just doesn’t ring true. Maybe there’s a couch in the living room, and you have a feeling that behind that couch is what the writer is terrified of. Well, you’ve gotta go behind the couch and bring it out because the scary stuff has all the power in the darkness. The more vulnerable you make yourself, the stronger you become.“Your job right now is to write it and not to boss it around.”
That’s my motive, at least. I’m not writing for other people—I’m writing for myself because of the clarity it gives. You can write about the most awful things as honestly as you can and as best you remember it, and for clarity, because there’s such comfort in clarity, no matter how “off.” You can’t have gotten to what will be your first sentence unless you write the 50 pages that lead you there. Nothing is wasted. Everything you do gets you closer or further to what you really wanna do but are too scared to. And you don’t have to have the answer. You shouldn’t have the answer. If you write a memoir that ends where you thought it would, you’re probably doing something wrong.
When I was about halfway through writing Safekeeping, although I didn’t know I was halfway through, I went to see my daughter, who had just had her first daughter. That’s the last piece, which is called “What the Moment Can Hold.” I thought, that’s where I wanna end. I wanna end with that scene in the tub when we are looking at the unborn child, because the temperature of the water is exactly the temperature of amniotic fluid.
And it was really a miracle. It took me longer to write that essay than it took me to write the whole book, but that’s where I wanted to end. And then when I knew where I wanted to end, I had to earn that ending. So I had to do other pieces that were sort of attached to that, allowed me to earn that.
Your job right now is to write it and not to boss it around. You have to let it be the boss because it may take you someplace you’re not inclined to go, but you have to go there. If you get stuck, you can start by saying, I don’t wanna write about this, I don’t want anyone to know this. So write it for yourself. Write it for yourself because that’s who you’re writing it for anyway. It will give you a different place to live than inside of you. It gives it a different place to live, and it puts it in the past, because it’s finite.
When you bring it up and look at it, it has edges. It’s not all over the place. It’s bad, but it’s not infinite, and you’re not bossing it around, but you have a certain control, and all you have to do is be honest. That’s really all. It’s hard, but it does make you stronger.