Emerson Whitney on Choosing the Stories That They Tell Themselves
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Emerson Whitney is the guest. They are the author of a memoir called Heaven, available from McSweeney’s.
From the episode:
Brad Listi: When you refer to your map, you just mean the terrain of your life, not necessarily just the genetics of your existence, but just like all the different places that you were raised and all the people in your immediate orbit.
Emerson Whitney: Totally. Just the conception of how am I not a collage then is something I think about.
Brad Listi: Also the fate of it all, like to whom you were born, where you were born. The random circumstances of who you meet along the way, where you go to school. All those accidents of fate that form a person. I am increasingly skeptical of any idea or any notion that we have much control over what the hell’s going on. I don’t want to not take responsibility for my life, a complete hands-off-the-wheel situation, but so much of what happens is completely out of our hands.
Emerson Whitney: Yeah. In some ways that is part of the fulcrum of the text in terms of one of the threads I hear people really calling out to me when they’re reading it these days is the compassion for your mom is really overflowing in the book. People seem to really be responding to that. I’ve been trying to articulate that basically the way that the text works is that kind of push toward understanding and knowing that she literally did everything she could. I really look at my mom as this kind of like unfolding fern thing, and she just unfolded in that exact sort of patterned way—and so did I in relationship. There are so many ways for me to tell myself stories that make my day harder in response to my upbringing, but I can also look at it with ways that make my day actually more ebullient. And so I’m choosing that track in a sense, and that’s probably really the only choice I have is I get to choose the stories that I tell myself.
I think my favorite part of the book is that what is revealed is a true reveal that I started out this process, not really being able to look at it with as much compassion as I do now and in the process of writing it and coming to understand really my relationship with these people. I did come to a greater level of compassion, which just means that the love became more unselfish in a sense. I don’t need anything. I just love them. And that’s always what I’ve wanted to articulate. Writing is so cool because it reveals my thinking, and that really is my thinking. So what you’re reading is that change in me, which I think is pretty cool.
Brad Listi: That’s about as much as you could ask from the writing of a book.
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Emerson Whitney is the author of the poetry title Ghost Box (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014). Emerson teaches in the BFA creative writing program at Goddard College and is the Dana and David Dornsife Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California.