Sarah Einstein is a Pushcart award-winning writer known for her smart, revealing personal essays and creative nonfiction. A provocative collection of Einstein’s essays, Remnants of Passion, gives us a perfect excuse to pick the author’s brain about memoir and the rest.
How do you define “truth” in memoir?
I work very hard to be faithful to my own memory of events and, when I’m including historical information, to documented accounts. But when my memory conflicts with another person’s, and neither of us has anything but memory to suggest that we have the truer version of events, then I rarely change what I’ve written. Memory works that way, and memoir—as opposed to autobiography—reflects memory. It’s a writing down of the stories I tell myself to make sense of my life, not an accounting of that life as it might have appeared to another.
Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
There is nothing that is too personal to me, but I keep other people’s confidences and don’t write stories that aren’t mine to share. I also try not to ever write anything that might make another person feel ashamed or get into hot water. (For instance, the only time I change names or key facts is when what I’m writing could cause another person personal or legal trouble.) I believe that in memoir, it’s important to be as naked on the page as possible … but not to strip others of their dignity.
Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
I love my iPad, in part because it’s like having a bookstore in my own home. Does it sound like I’m being insincere if I say that right now, I mostly have Shebooks on my Kindle app? I just finished (and loved) Anna Marian’s Love Junkie and plan to start Barbara Graham’s Camp Paradox tonight. I’m sure I’ll love it, too.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I am in love with the works of Abigail Thomas, whose books Safekeeping and Three Dog Life taught me to think of form as my plaything, rather than as a set of rigid rules. I love brave women writers who write about experiences that go against the grain of what women are told we should think, feel, and do, so I’m particularly fond of the works of Lidia Yuknavitch, Laura Bogart, and Rebecca Solnit. Each of them writes against expectation in a very different way, but each one challenges the expected narratives for the lives women lead. I also have a few touchstone books that I return to again and again to remind me of how beautiful language can be: Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Kevin Oderman’s How Things Fit Together, and Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. But really, I love reading. I could answer this question for a week and only start to get it right. I believe other people’s work is the food writers need to fuel their own.
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term “chick lit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?
It’s funny, because I actually think we should fight against the term “chick lit” for all the same reasons I think we should fight against the term “gay” and, instead, embrace the terms “women’s writing” and “queer.” I like names that include everyone who might want to be included, and “women’s writing” can do that. “Women’s writing” tells me that the author of the work identifies as female; “chick lit,” on the other hand, tells me that the work is written for an audience of women. And I think everyone should read—and review!—women’s writing. That women’s writing matters as much and means as much as men’s writing to all readers.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Make a deal with your mother that she will only read your work when you tell her that she should, and then don’t share anything with her that will make her genuinely unhappy. It may sound like I’m kidding, but I’m not. Many, many writers I know have a hard time getting past the self-censorship that comes from worrying about what their mothers will think. My own mother is wonderful. I tell her which works are Mom-friendly, and which aren’t, and she genuinely stays away from the ones I ask her not to read. (Remnants of Passion is most definitely on the list of works that aren’t Mom-friendly, of course!)
What is your favorite word right now?
Blunderbuss. I’m working on a series of essays about my recent trip to visit my husband’s family in Austria, and his mother took us to all of these wonderful Christmas festivals in and around Salzburg. At many of them, men in lederhosen fired blunderbusses into the air to ward off winter. And, now that I think about it, I like the word lederhosen very much!
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m putting the finishing touches on my book-length memoir about a fascinated friendship I had with an older homeless man. We were fabulous friends, and I spent some time “houseguesting” with him in his homelessness in the American West. It’s not a book about life lessons. It’s really more of a road-trip story in the classic sense. Two buddies, out for an adventure. I hope to finish it this summer.
Looking for stories that will spice up your afternoon? Read Remnants of Passion by Sarah Einstein only from Shebooks.