Places We Left Behind, A memoir-in-miniature, Vine Leaves Press, 2023

Hear Jennifer read from the memoir

Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? How long did you work on it? Is there anything you want to say about process? 

Jennifer Lang: Like most writers, I can attest to how long and nonlinear this process was from conception to conclusion. I began exploring my marriage after my second semester advisor during my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts suggested it in the margin of an essay. I questioned him: what about my marriage? He pointed out its complexities: two people from different cultures with different takes of their shared religion, as well as an inability to agree on and an incessant search for home. 

And, like most writers, I wrote a really, really shitty first manuscript: overwritten, unwieldy, flat, dull, uninteresting, not page-turning prose. Still, I moved forward, hired an editor, felt overwhelmed by her detailed, supportive, on-point feedback, put it away for a few months, moved on. 

Not to another manuscript but to something fun and fresh: online flash classes with Kathy Fish. Writing and reading others’ tight and compressed prose often gave me shivers. Their response to my words bolstered me to consider writing about my life in Israel in shorts. Around the same time, I responded to a call for submissions from the British journal Mslexia “J is for ...” – 300 words max. I went straight to the word jury in my manuscript and axed like Paul Bunyan, cutting from 900+ words to 298. It sizzled. On and on I went, forwards to K, backwards to A, until I had an organic and asymmetric number of small chapters for each letter of the alphabet. 

Another important turning point happened when a writer-friend read my manuscript and suggested I reframe my question, consider looking at my journey through a different lens. My journey, it turned out, was far from finished. I re-everythinged from question to structure, moving from draft to draft. Revision to revision. Manuscript to manuscript. Until, years later (think six), I eventually found my happy place. The happiest of all is that I ended with not one but two books: Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature and Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses, both by Vine Leaves Press. 

What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it? 

JL: The last part of my process: the play. After spotting the word “experimental” in certain calls for prose chapbook submissions (which is how I originally envisioned this manuscript) in the summer of ‘21, I noticed this word and wondered what it meant, how to approach it, if my manuscript lent itself to experimentation. I began not axing as much as daring. And as the saying goes, one thing led to another...

Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including or that was particularly challenging to you to write? 

JL: It wasn’t a particular section or poem or chapter that made me doubt it or myself as much as the travel back in time — rereading old letters I’d written to my parents and other family members and friends who’d returned them, scouring old photo albums, digging up my journals — and reliving the more difficult conversations and crossroads in our marriage: alone. Sometimes, during the writing, I felt sad. Or confused. Even angry. At my spouse, at myself. And it took me a long while, after the manuscript, to realize how much that journey back in time by myself was lonely and tough and not a place I wanted to return to again. How thankful I was to have arrived safely on the other side, my marriage still intact. 

What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and surprising, or for some other reason?

JL: My answer is two words, which are my chapter titles: Intense and me!

They came partly via a developmental editor’s input. They completely delivered unrealized truths. They finally released me from long-held misbeliefs. 

Can you share a few other works that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? Would you like them to be? 

JL: Years before my MFA (’14-’16), one of my writing students told me she wanted to write a graphic novel. Then, I wasn’t familiar with them. In school, we read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which I proceeded to see in Manhattan. I swooned from my seat, imagining what it must feel like to see your memoir come alive on stage. Two years later, I heard Nora Krug speak about her illustrated memoir, Belonging, at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. What followed were a few stand-alone pieces like “Evidence, in Track Changes” by Jennifer Lunden, “...” by Lia Woodall, and “A Log Cabin Square” by Sarah Minor, each of which made me whisper wow. The structure, the content, the form, the story.

I doubt anyone who influenced me would see what they gave me but am so grateful to these writers for breaking boundaries and sharing their stories in such unique ways. 

California-born Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity Journal. When not at her desk, she’s often on a yoga mat, practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature will be published on September 5, 2023, and Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses on October 15, 2024, both by Vine Leaves Press.