“On the Leaving and Those We Left Behind”: A Conversation with Joanne Nelson – curated by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Joanne Nelson’s writing appears in anthologies and literary journals such as Brevity, Consequence, and Redivider. She is a contributor to Lake Effect on 89.7 WUWM, her local NPR affiliate and has been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. In This Is How We Leave, Nelson investigates her own role, and even culpability, in a childhood marked by disruption, emotional abuse, and parental alcoholism. She was raised and continues to live in Wisconsin.

Linda Michel-Cassidy: First off, congratulations on your memoir, This Is How We Leave. I know you as an essayist, and wonder about the shift to full book-length project. Which of these pieces or sections came first and which was the one that led you to think: this is a book, a story which must be told in whole?

Joanne Nelson: It feels like there are many births to this story. It’s true that I primarily write essays and I seem to think in essay-sized chunks. Many of the chapters began as seemingly complete essays—if I had initially thought of the manuscript as a memoir I probably would have been too frightened to get past page one. I believe the first piece written (now titled, “Just a Hum in the Background”) was for a project you were involved with around eight years ago. The central piece, the one that seemed to gather the others, is “If Not for the Mess.” In fact, that was the title of the collection for a while. It explores several generations of runaways in my family, and it started me thinking about all the ways we leave our families and ourselves.

LMC: Having seen these essays in various iterations, it’s been interesting to see the theme of “leaving” emerge. In the beginning, I’d say chaos and benign neglect were more apparent as threads. What shifts have you seen as the project moved forward? Has clarity about the book led to any revelations about your life? Is your backwards lens sharper or changed by way of working on This Is How We Leave?

JN: The primary shift happened due to a rejection letter I received. A potential publisher took the time to give my pages a careful read and to share valuable feedback. He felt the essays were too disconnected from each other and suggested I give careful thought to what I wanted the reader’s key takeaway to be. A light bulb went on—I wanted readers to recognize the many ways we leave our own lives behind.

I set out to re-explore and restructure the manuscript to make the idea of how we leave more of a through-line. I still pitched the manuscript as a collection of essays, though. It was my publisher at Vine Leaves Press who recognized the manuscript as a memoir. 

I’d say my backwards lens has both changed and become sharper since writing This Is How We Leave. Much of this is due to the editing process as the manuscript morphed into memoir. Breaking up what I thought of as complete essays to lend strength to certain chapters or to make timelines more logical helped me see my own life in fresh, sometimes surprising ways. 

My compassion for my parents also grew during the editing process. For example, one day I was working on a paragraph about my discomfort when my dad would show up unannounced following my parents’ divorce. For the first time, I started thinking about his discomfort as he tried to maintain a relationship with me, about what it must have been like for him to continue trying with a kid who didn’t have much to say to him. It shifts the story when we widen our focus in that way.

LMC: Your use of humor is quite sophisticated. I’d love to hear your thoughts on utilizing humor as a device when writing about serious material, such as addiction, traumatic events, and neglect. Do you worry that it will soften the edges too much? Are these resting places or plateaus necessary to give the reader pause to notice the points of tension?

JN: Humor does give the reader a chance to rest or pause, but I don’t think the pause is about noticing the points of tension—its more that the pause provides a break to the tension, a chance for the reader to catch their breath. That’s what humor does for me in real life, especially in times of trauma. Too much humor will soften the edges, or just become irritating, but I like to believe that a little humor, even in the darkest stories, joins us, offers the benefit of increased camaraderie.

Lack of control is the most frightening element of this whole process, right? We (okay, I) want everyone to see the situation as we (I) did. Maybe that’s especially true of memoir. I’m better at accepting that a poem will be interpreted in myriad ways. The risks are about an interpretation I didn’t intend—especially if that interpretation led to hurt feelings.

LMC: Your book, as memoirs do, features plenty of family members, some of whom still walk the earth. We’re both teachers, and I suspect you get this question a lot, because I sure do, and I continue to wonder about it: What do you owe to the folks you write about? I mean, the book is about yourself, but it’s impossible to write a life without including those who shaped it. Do you run things by the subjects, and if you have, have you had any objections?

JN: Fairness. I believe the memoirist owes family member fairness—and for me that means considering them as whole people with just as many fears, and anxieties, and hopes as I have. One of the benefits of letting some years pass before writing about specific incidents is the ability to look at the players with more compassion. That doesn’t mean excusing or accepting horrible behavior, but being able to assess events from multiple angles instead of just from the original wound. That includes examining my behavior from all angles—my goal throughout was that if anyone was going to be skewered, it should be me!

I only ran things past my daughters. A few chapters focus on them before they were adults and I wanted the okay for those. So far, my extended family has been supportive and I’m very grateful for that. I don’t think anyone ever wants a family member to write a memoir. 

LMC: As a psychotherapist, you stand in a good position to have additional insight into past behaviors of yourself and others. What, if any, interplay is there between your work as a therapist and your life as a writer? What has writing brought to your therapeutic practices? 

JN: As a therapist, I ask a lot of questions and hope that practice affects my work as a writer. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I want to explore, to assay, to look past assumptions. Even if I think I know the story I want to tell, it is through the writing of the first couple drafts that I find out something new—and that something tends to become the heart of the finished piece. I often recommend journaling in my work as a therapist. This is how writing most affects my therapeutic process. We learn more about ourselves and our motivations when we journal, and sometimes discover new strategies or ideas that can lead to greater happiness or goal attainment.

LMC: Absolutely, and in many ways, we write to learn who we are. The finished product tells the world what we lived through and what we made of it, but long before that, we unpeel the layers which make us. What discoveries did you make as you created this book? 

JN: The discoveries I made are first about memory. When you sit quietly and let memories play out, a lot comes back, including things you’ve been blocking or avoiding. The other surprise was about empathy. As I drafted my story, I became increasingly aware of how others in the scenes might have felt, of how much more complicated each decision must have been than I initially realized. For example, in “If Not for the Mess”, I reflect on how my grandfather may have felt having both father and son leave without explanation. Another discovery that came with the writing was more awareness of how my own actions—less than admirable actions—may have affected outcomes. 

LMC: I have long loved your essay, “If Not for the Mess.” In it, you go back a few generations, a tricky thing to pull off. I have so many questions about that. First, how do you deal with matters before your lifetime and/or events for which you have only child’s-eye-view memories? Also, talk a bit about how you write devastation. You write in a very measured, not at all frantic way. I don’t want to simplify and write this off as being a Midwestern thing (despite the temptation to do so). I’m wondering if this relates to children normalizing certain behaviors because it’s all they know? Or is there some other strategy at work? 

JN: It’s important, when writing creative nonfiction, to let the reader know when you’re not sure about something. My goal is that the reader knows what I’m doing—I’d never want to pretend I have access to something that happened before my time. 

I do think we can up the odds that what we are supposing happened in the way we describe—with research, looking at old photos, having conversations, even weaving that research into the narrative. It’s interesting how the stories that impact us, that become a huge part of who we are, may have happened generations before we’re born. For example, my grandmother’s father and brother were killed by the same horse within a week of each other when she was barely a teenager. We were very close, and I spent a good amount of time with her. So, her memories, reactions, lingering grief about this tragedy affected the way I am around horses and even how I’ve talked to my girls about horses.

Writing about trauma in a measured way is probably most helped by the passage of time. Years have gone by since many of these incidents and that buffers the emotional reactions. Another factor is that I’ve journaled about the difficult parts of my life for years. With this practice, we unpack them, reconsider them, find not only patterns, but hopefully, ways to resolve our pain. It could also be that Midwestern thing—but I’m probably too enmeshed to give an honest answer.

LMC: Have you noticed any changes in your writing, reading, and or teaching practices during the pandemic? Personally, while I’ve missed the energy of in-person literary events, I have enjoyed that geography is no longer a barrier to viewing readings.

JN: I’ve noticed several shifts and they probably all relate to what you mentioned about geography no longer being an issue. For example, I taught a writing class this morning from my basement in Hartland, WI that had members from South Carolina, Missouri, and Minnesota. And, I’ve taken several writing classes based in locations I couldn’t have considered before Zoom became such a common part of our lives. And because I’ve been able to take classes in lyric essay, poetry, and assembling chapbooks, my writing has expanded in areas I wouldn’t have thought about two years ago.

LMC: Lastly, I’m thrilled to hear you have another book coming up. Huge congratulations! Is it a sort of sequel, or a totally new project?

JN: Thank you! My Neglected Gods is a collection of prose and poetry that will be published by Vine Leaves Press in July of 2023. This manuscript was born out of questions the pandemic rose in all of us. Who and what do we hold as the gods in our lives? What happens when we look closely at what we consider most important? The rug of certainty has been pulled away from us and this new book is a way to engage with what might be underneath.