One of the exercises my mentor (Sara Pritchard) suggested was to conduct a self-interview about my memoir and the writing process. Fortunately, Sara was nice enough to write the questions for me. Her questions and my responses are below.
Tell us a little bit about your memoir and how you came to write it?
Mush is a journey of self-discovery. It revolves around the two-year period of time that I spent in Utah, supporting my boyfriend’s dream of becoming a dog musher. Those were the most emotionally and physically difficult years of my life so far, and they were also very formative. During that time in my life, everything seemed to go wrong, including my health. Eventually I had to move back east because I couldn’t thrive by following someone else’s dream. Moving home was the hardest thing I ever did. I’d grown very attached to the sled dogs and had helped raise a litter of puppies. In addition to feeling like I was abandoning my boyfriend, I felt like I was abandoning all the dogs and the innocent little puppies who had helped me through the hard times there. After I returned home I became very ill. I’d actually been ill on and off since before leaving for Utah, but it got much worse after I moved back east. Soon after my return, I was diagnosed with celiac disease—a life-long autoimmune disease that causes the small intestine to attack and destroy itself when gluten is ingested. Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye, and it’s used in an astounding number of processed foods. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis that I realized I’d had this disease forever. And it had affected my entire life, including my time in Utah.
When I got to grad school and had to choose a subject to write about, this just seemed natural. I think a lot of women can relate to the idea of putting their own goals and dreams on the back burner while helping others achieve theirs. Still others will relate to the illness theme and how profoundly it can influence your life, even at a subconscious level. In the end it was just the story I had to tell.
How long did you spend writing Mush!?
The first draft took me about six months. I started out writing what I thought would be short stories or essays, but after a couple of first attempts, the writing quickly turned narrative. I got a lot of feedback from friends and classmates along the way, which was extremely helpful. And I couldn’t have written that first draft without the guidance of my mentor, Sara Pritchard, who helped me find my voice and nurture it for purposes of telling this story. I think a very difficult thing for new writers is to find the right voice for the story they are trying to tell. It is all so new, and we are trying so hard to be “good, literary” writers based on what we’ve learned and read. Sara helped me realize that it was ok to write the story in a way that felt natural to me. That’s an important lesson for a beginner to learn. After the first draft, revisions took another six months, so the whole manuscript took about a year to complete.
Many writers who have written a memoir say that you need distance from your subject so that you can write objectively and with a better perspective of the whole experience. Did you find this to be true with Mush!?
Absolutely. There’s something about that distance that gives the writer the necessary perspective—a perspective that others can relate to on a more universal level. Without that distance, I think the writer runs the risk of creating work that is too self-centered and not relatable to others. That relatable quality is what makes good writing. It’s the universal nature of the work or, what we like to call the truth. I’m not explaining it well. For me, there’s a magical quality to it all, and maybe I don’t want to directly define it (which is good since I certainly can’t seem to!)
How has celiac disease changed your life?
That’s another book (which I’m sure other people have already written). Being diagnosed with celiac disease changed my life completely. Everything from my eating habits to my physical appearance to my social life—everything changed. People who have a disease don’t like to say that the disease defines them, but for me, in a way, it does. I’ve gained a lot of weight. My hair has turned darker and wavy. I’ve even had to adjust my personality to accommodate this disease. For example, I used to love to dine out at restaurants, which is not as appealing to me anymore because it is so difficult to avoid contamination when not preparing your own food. When dining out, I would never special order a meal. I didn’t think it was fair to the chefs who had carefully prepared the menu based on their expertise, and also, I didn’t like to make people go out of their way to accommodate me. All that has changed. Now I have to ask people to accommodate me, or I will become ill. When you’re not forced to think about it, you don’t realize how much of life revolves around food—from holidays, to professional lunches, to getting together with friends—food and drinks are always involved. So having a disease that is so limiting where food is concerned changes everything.
Everything in your life–good and bad–shapes who you are. If you had it to do over again, would you have moved to Utah and spent those years there? How do you think your life would be different if you hadn’t?
Wow, that’s a tough question. Knowing how hard it was and what I went through, I don’t know if I can say I would consciously choose to do it all over again. I’m honestly glad that period of my life has passed, and I can now look back on the lessons it gave me. With that being said, I truly believe that I wouldn’t be who I am right now if I had not experienced all those things. So, would I choose to do it again? Probably not. But on the other hand, I’m glad to have had the experience. It truly shaped me as a person.
As far as what my life would have been like if I hadn’t moved to Utah, I just can’t say. Who knows what would have happened—if I would have discovered the celiac disease at some point, or just gone on living the way I was, or worse? I simply don’t know. All I can say is I’m grateful for the way things turned out. It was a challenging period of my life, but in the end it worked out for the best. Not to sound too cliché, but if ignorance is bliss, knowledge is definitely power. I feel like I have that power over my life, which I never had before. And it’s all because of the events described in Mush!