Maud Newton: Good Writing is All About Being Interested
On Finding the Freedom to Write However You Want
For years I’d resisted writing a memoir. Like many writers from troubled families, I was often congratulated for “the material” of my life and urged to write it all down. And sure, I grew up in a weird family, an extreme family, a difficult and sometimes abusive family, but I couldn’t envision writing an entire book about it without a great deal of distance from my experience, without the freewheeling transformative tools of fiction. It wasn’t that I shrank from the idea of sharing the truth of my experience. I’d written personal essays, and I’ve always been a candid writer. But I imagined that writing a book of pure autobiography would feel like being locked in a tiny room with my past: probably boring, possibly injurious, absolutely depressing.
I wanted to write about things I didn’t know or understand yet—and of course memoir allows for this, as I knew at some level from many years of reading and enjoying people’s books about their own lives, and as I know much more intimately now. But back then, as I obsessively researched my family history on multiple lines over many years, I chastised myself for wasting time on genealogy sites rather than doing what I thought of as my “real work”: writing the semi-autobiographical novel that I never seemed to be finishing.
It seemed important to involve my imagination, as if changing various facts and transmuting my life into fiction might result in some magical truth for the reader and, I can see in hindsight, for myself. I worked on my novel draft, often diligently, and sometimes it was good, but the part taken and disguised from my life too often felt inert and didactic. Meanwhile, Ancestry.com and 23andMe kept pulling me in. “Your family is your work,” my friend Lizzie Skurnick, also a writer, told me, but I was too busy condemning my lack of discipline to hear her.
Still, I had to admit that connecting threads of dysfunction between my nuclear family and my ancestors back through time was part of what led me to start writing the semi-autobiographical novel in the first place, and now I was finding patterns truly repeating across many generations. Then I wrote the Harper’s essay that ultimately became the seed of Ancestor Trouble, and I realized that I enjoyed laying my family history alongside broader histories, and that the more I allowed myself to bring in other disciplines—history and science and philosophy and religion and other people’s lives and art—that stretched my canvas in unexpected directions and informed my own experience and my understanding of it, the less stifling writing about my family in memoir turned out to be.
When I was younger, I wrote to expose hypocrisies, tear structures down, show the world in all its ugliness. There wasn’t much hope in my writing then, only irony, righteous indignation, and sublimated longing. What startled me as I began to conceive of Ancestor Trouble was that I wanted it to be of service somehow, not an inquiry limited to my own family, but one that might interest other readers struggling to reckon with family patterns that seemed to have a power in their lives they couldn’t understand. I was afraid of this aspect of my motivation, in part because I imagined that no Serious Writer would approach their work that way, but I decided to surrender to it.
In an early draft of the beginning of my book, I compared the excitement and hope and terror that many of us feel around our ancestors to ghost stories. It felt a little excessive to me then, the way I’d framed it, and my editor, Andrea, must have picked up on my hesitation. “Don’t be afraid of that,” she said, over lunch a month or two later. I carried forward this exhortation awkwardly at first but over time I became more comfortable with it and allowed that part of my interest to dominate. At my most engaged, I was researching and thinking and feeling and writing toward that ghost story place.
I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of intuitive writer whose outlines become obsolete as soon as I commit them to paper, but the opposite turned out to be true with Ancestor Trouble. From the start, I planned to open each section with personal stories and broaden from there. My editor liked that idea and encouraged me to come up with a loose order. I settled on seven parts that ended up being my guiding light from 2014 to the final draft.
As I wrote, interconnections between them grew. Eventually, I broke out an eighth section, about inheritance—money, wills, objects, land, sustenance, poverty, enslavement, and all the practical, emotional, and ineffable reverberations of those—when I realized it was the common element to almost everything I wanted to include around generational wealth or the lack thereof that didn’t fit in the other parts.
At times while working on the book over the years, I would become resentful of it, as if it had its own expectations, as if the draft itself were insisting I recount the entire history of genealogy in the United States or offer a dissertation on genetics. Ugh, now I have to write this boring part, I would think. I would spend a few days in active rebellion against this directive that I imagined the book was imposing. Then I would realize: this is my book. There are no rules! I can write it however I want!
Also, I would think, if I’m bored by something that I believe I need to write, the reader undoubtedly will be too, if not because the subject is inherently boring, then because I, myself, find it so unbearably tedious to imagine discussing it for five pages. Often as not, I would remember some aspect of the subject that deeply interested me, something a little outside the way it’s usually perceived or written about. Then I would meditate on that, and soon I would be scribbling notes from an increasingly excited place until I found a way forward. A form of beginner’s mind.
And so, my craft advice is to let the true flame of your interest dominate. Don’t get hung up on genre. Don’t worry about what Serious Writers do. If you get stuck, take a step back and remember what excites or energizes you. Write from that place.
Ancestor Trouble by Maude Newton is forthcoming by Penguin Random House in March 2022.