This week – seeking comfort – I returned to an old favorite, The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff. “While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is.” I’m not sure that the Tao is my road to inner peace, but I’m not opposed to borrowing its wisdom. And I’m in favor of Pooh in all circumstances.
I’m also in favor of friends writing books! Mary Laura Philpott, editor of the online literary journal Musing and host of the TV show “A Word on Words,” stops in today to chat about her new collection of essays, I Miss You When I Blink. Ann Patchett will interview Mary Laura at one of Nashville’s independent bookstores, Parnassus, tomorrow – April 1, at 6:30 pm. I hope to see you there!
Hi Mary Laura! “I Miss You When I Blink” is a different kind of memoir – a series of stand-alone essays. I like that approach and appreciated the chance to read an early copy! The collection sparkles, hustles along, pauses, and reflects as you tell the story of your life so far, beginning with your days as a Spelling Bee champ. You reflect on parenthood and preserving your own identity; the relentless passage of time; choices made and not made. You reflect on going a little crazy, or maybe being a little bit crazy, like the rest of us. Your book shimmers with cleverness and humor. It conveys the most important lessons you’ve learned, and sometimes feels as much like a book of advice as a memoir. Maybe I’ll get better at describing it….
Honestly, I’m trying to get better at describing it, too. This is pretty good!
How do you describe I Miss You When I Blink?
Lately, I’ve been borrowing this phrase from a review in Southern Living, because the editor, Caroline Rogers, just nailed it: “…in the midst of a tidy life, there occur impossible-to-ignore tugs toward creativity, meaning, and the possibility of something more.” Isn’t that great?
I Miss You When I Blink is a book for anyone who has had flickers of that “what the hell am I doing with my life?” feeling — especially if you’ve felt guilty about having that feeling because your life is perfectly fine and it seems greedy to want anything different. Someone at Simon & Schuster described it early on as “the anti-Eat, Pray, Love” in that it’s a book about reinvention for people who aren’t going to throw their lives away and travel the globe. I get that sentiment — and it is about small reinventions, that’s true — but I also really liked Eat, Pray, Love, so I wouldn’t say I Miss You When I Blink is “anti” anything. Maybe it’s just an alternative to the burn-your-life-down memoirs.
What’s the nicest thing a friend or critic has said so far?
I tell you what, this whole process of publishing a book is daunting in a lot of ways, so every positive word really does stay with me, and I’m not taking any of the good news for granted. Some of the early reviews and blurbs took my breath away. (I mean, to be blurbed by both Ann Patchett and Jenny Lawson — two very different writers, to say the least — is so strange and wondrous.) One of the blurbs that made me silent-scream was from Dani Shapiro, who wrote that this book belongs on a shelf next to the books of Nora Ephron. WHAT?? But among the most meaningful responses have been the personal letters and emails I’ve received from people I’ve never met, early galley readers who wrote to say that one essay or another put words to something they’d been feeling for so long and unable to express. People are reaching out and confiding in me about their own lives, which has been both a delightful surprise and honor. And the friends who’ve been by my side while I’ve been writing it (and wailing about writing it) — all their pep talks mean the world.
You’ve been an essayist for a while, published in the New York Times and elsewhere. How and when did you know you wanted to expand your essays into a collection? How long did it take?
It briefly occurred to me around the time we moved back to Nashville. (I was born here and lived here as a tot but didn’t grow up here, and then moved here with my family five years ago.) I wrote about all that in a weekly column for the New York Times that summer and fall. But it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t an entire book to be made out of that material. And it’s funny: in the end, everything I harvested from that column only accounts for a single essay in this book. Then the idea came up again about a year later when I looked at some other things I’d written and thought, “You know, there’s more to say on this or that subject.” Once I decided to start adding new, unpublished work to the pile and create a book, it probably took about two and a half years of writing, plus some editing of the final manuscript with my editor’s input. So, almost three years, altogether.
Your first book – Penguins with People Problems – features sassy cartoon penguins making big mistakes and generally reveling in the preposterous situations that people – I mean penguins – get themselves into.
This might seem like a crazy question, but did you ever consider writing your life story in cartoon form? Or graphic essay form? Or graphic novel form? Or even in the form of a debut novel? It seems to me that many debut novelists are doing that very thing – telling some version of their life story, flavored with lessons learned…
That’s not a crazy question at all! My editor and I did discuss — very early on — the possibility of adding some illustrations. In the end, my art style just didn’t really fit with my writing style here. My cartoons, as you know, look kind of goofy and childlike. And while there’s lots of humor in this book and some frank explorations of some of the more absurd parts of life, my drawings just didn’t suit this material, which worked better as written narrative. But maybe I’ll draw again in a future book. I adore Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and that’s a format I’ve thought about exploring sometime.
As for novels… never say never, I guess, but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to build a novel. I’m in awe of novelists.
Is there any memoir that you particularly LOVE? Do you consider any author or book your inspiration?
Ah, I don’t know where to start! I’m particularly fond of literary memoirs about regular lives — books about “surviving the ordinary.” (I made a list of those once, and it includes everyone from Joan Didion and Roz Chast to, more recently, Maggie O’Farrell and Alexander Chee: https://lithub.com/surviving-the-ordinary-why-we-need-memoirs-of-regular-lives/) Lives in which nothing tremendously glamorous or shocking happens — that aren’t “larger than life” — are still life.
If you really pay attention, you can see how even the most mundane moments brim over with joy, anger, fear, embarrassment, and hilarity. Examining those common experiences — friendship, work, love, kids, death, all of it — and teasing out their narrative arcs and thematic threads is how we make our lives into stories. And sharing stories is how we show one another that we see and hear each other. Every time someone says this book makes them feel seen, I feel like, OK, that’s it, that’s why I wrote it.
You write a lot about your husband and kids. At what point along the way did they see the manuscript, if at all?
To me, it feels like I don’t write about them very much, because in general I lean toward protecting their privacy and writing about other things — or, when they do come up in a story, to make sure I’m keeping the focus on the experience as I lived it, not to tell stories about the other people in that experience. But yes, they’re in this book from time to time, for sure. I found it was impossible to write about adulthood without spending some time on the biggest relationships in my adult life, which obviously include my spouse and our children — so there they are! My husband read the manuscript when it was complete, just before my agent and I sent it out; but he didn’t read it during the years I was writing it before then. He’s a very private person, so he thinks I’m a little nutty to write about personal thoughts and feelings for the world to see, but he says he’s very proud of the book, and he’s been tremendously supportive and encouraging. Our children have seen a few of the essays — they’ve spotted them in the newspaper a couple of times, and I’ve shared a few with them before publishing — but at the moment, neither of them have sat down to read the whole book. It focuses so much on reconciling all the realities of adulthood, I just don’t think they’re at ages where they want or need to read about that stuff just yet. My son has his spy novels, and my daughter just wants to know when she’s allowed free reign to browse the YA section at Parnassus.
Did you enjoy writing this book? Do with this question what you will. 🙂 It seems to me that writers often have very mixed feelings about writing – And Yet.
Yes? No? It often felt like agony trying to get the words to do what I wanted them to, but as maddening as it got, I kept going back for more. Kind of like hot chicken — it hurts, but you keep eating it. Sometimes it’s torture; still, it’s what I love to do.
You are generally very kind and generous to the people around you in this memoir, but a few people get what they deserve. Like the woman who asked you, dismissively, about your cartoon pumpkins – “So this is what you do all day?” I hope she sees herself in this book. Maybe you can send her a copy? Did you have to think hard about relating a few of these experiences? Or did it feel great?
Ha! Well, I suspect she doesn’t even remember who I am. But yes, anytime something like that came up — an episode where someone other than me doesn’t come off well — I definitely thought hard about whether to include it, and if so, how to let the person’s words or actions speak for themselves, as they did in that moment. I’m never writing to get back at anybody for anything. (If you just want revenge, there are far easier ways to get it than to write a book, you know?)
It’s easy to tell a “listen to what this asshole did” story and get a laugh, but that’s only enough for gossip; it’s not enough for an essay or a book. If you’re going to write about a story with the intention that other people will read it, you’ve also got to examine your own actions and words in that scenario, and then step back and look at the interaction and ask, OK, what’s the point of telling this story? There has to be a point, or it doesn’t belong in a book.
It’s hard for me to pick my favorite from this collection. Maybe “A Letter to the Type A Person in Distress.” It seems that you’ve spent a long time figuring out how to be a better perfectionist – learning how to live with that internal drive while not making yourself or the people around you batshit crazy. You’ve come a long way. A+!
Oh, thank you. That’s one of my favorites, too! I don’t know that I earn an A at anything most days, but I’ll give myself a solid B for effort when it comes to managing my perfectionism. I’m more aware of it now than I used to be, so I can try to reign myself in and not micromanage everything around me quite as much as I used to. I don’t know — you might have to ask my friends how I’m doing on that.
You think a lot about the relentless passage of time. We are stuck in our moment in time, of course – we can’t go back to the days when our children were babies, and we can’t explore alternative timelines in which we made different choices.
I sometimes feel that time is your enemy in this book – and sometimes I feel like it’s your playground. In “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” it feels like a playground…
What a great way to put it. I love a good time travel story; there’s something so appealing about the idea that we could dial back to any point in our lives and take a different turn. It’s fun to imagine alternative lives, alternate selves. If only we could figure out how to slow time down a little bit once we grow up. It’s going too fast!
In “The Joy of Quitting,” you write about quitting your work for the “US Weekly” fashion police. In an earlier essay, you talk about finishing up a volunteer commitment that had consumed a lot of time and energy. Many moms can relate. Have you quit anything lately, or do you feel like you’ve got things pretty much in balance?
Good question. I feel like I have only half a nostril above the waterline right now just because of how busy this particular season of life is, but I also know this feeling is temporary. Things with the book will calm down, and summer will come, and I’ll be able to breathe again. (Right? Right??) So I don’t think I need to quit anything right now, but I reserve the right to quit things as necessary in the future. It can be so restorative and exhilarating to give yourself permission to say no to something that isn’t right for you anymore.
Actually, wait — I take that back. I have quit something recently. I’ve quit wearing super-high heels. They’re so pretty, but they hurt.
I’ve been thinking about the moms talking about chicken salad in your essay “Sports Radio.” I’ve been that mom talking about how to make chicken salad while you wondered why everyone was talking about chicken salad.
When I was talking about chicken salad, I was mostly talking about how to survive that phase of life. How to do well at that phase of life. How to get through the day and feed the people I loved and who needed me.
Trying to “survive this phase of life” — that’s what we’re all doing all the time, isn’t it? That story starts with me thinking something’s wrong with everyone around me, and then thinking, no, that can’t be right, so something must be wrong with me. What became clear a little later was that nothing was wrong with any of us. We were all just doing the best we could, and what might have been a perfectly comfortable phase for me a year earlier wasn’t anymore. That feels so disorienting — to be doing all the things that felt right for a long time but to discover they don’t feel right anymore. And it’s so easy to default to taking things other people say or do personally when in fact the situation may just come down to feeling out of sync because my life phase doesn’t match up to someone else’s.
In short: There’s nothing at all wrong with a conversation about chicken salad until you’re suddenly very sick of talking about chicken salad; then it’s the worst conversation you’ve ever been stuck in, and you’d set fire to yourself just to get out of it.
Do you have a favorite essay in the collection?
I like different ones for different reasons, but I am a little partial to the “Letter” one we just talked about. Deep in my gut, I knew it was something a lot of people needed to hear, because it was also what I needed to hear, and that made it a joy to write.
Life is about to get very busy for you, promoting this book. What kind of book tour is lined up? What will be most fun about that for you? Least fun?
First things first: we’re kicking things off on April 1 with an April Fool’s Night launch party at Parnassus Books at 6:30. (https://www.parnassusbooks.net/event/author-event-mary-laura-philpott-author-i-miss-you-when-i-blink) I’ll be in conversation with Ann Patchett, and EVERYONE is invited! Come raise a toast with me to this whole wonderful community we live in, and let’s talk books.
I can’t believe a book tour is happening. I can’t believe people in other states invited me to come talk to them about this book. I wish I could go back in time two years and show the me who was struggling so hard to complete that almost-almost-final draft that this is where we’d be. It seems unreal. It also seems unreal how many days’ worth of clothing I’ve got to cram into one small suitcase. I’ve been discussing packing tips with everyone I know. I’m also a little nervous about exactly how everyone back home is going to get where they need to be while I’m away. Removing one adult from the two-kids/two-grownups equation alters the transportation ratio quite a bit.
Right now, I know where I’m going in April and May, and I know there may be a few other things coming later that are still in the works. If you know anyone who lives in any of these places, please tell them to come out and say hi.
Please come out and say hi!!
And if you know anyone anywhere else who might be interested in bringing this book to their book club, I have discovered that I absolutely love talking with book clubs — both in real life and by Skype. It’s really fun.
What books will you take in your suitcase?
I don’t have room for many books, so right now my plan is to leave with one advance copy of a short fall 2019 novel or memoir; read it on the plane; then swap it for another one from the galley cabinet at the bookstore where I read that night; and so on. So I’ll always have one book, and I’ll be sharing books as I go. This is the upside of being a bookseller while on book tour. I’ll probably listen to a nonfiction book or two along the way via Libro.fm, which curates really good lists of audiobooks. (https://libro.fm/explore)
What are you reading right now?
In terms of the upcoming releases I’m reading at the moment, I will say this coming summer and fall are FULL of great books. As for things you can pick up right now, I stand by every one of my staff picks at the bookstore (https://parnassusmusing.net/category/staff-picks/). One of my very favorite quiet, quirky novels of last year — The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale ((https://www.parnassusbooks.net/book/9780525432678)) — just came out in paperback, and I’m actually considering re-reading it, which is something I hardly ever do. And in just a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to get the hysterical essay collection Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis (https://www.parnassusbooks.net/book/9780385543897), which blew my mind. If you like dry humor with a slightly uneasy edge, don’t miss it. (Helen and I will be in conversation at Parnassus on April 30, too!)
And – more importantly – what are you working on right now?!
I’ve been starting to think in just the vaguest terms about another book. I can’t look directly at it, or it’ll blow away, but it’s growing over there in my peripheral vision.
Thank you for encouraging us to be a little easier on ourselves, and on each other. And encouraging us to try to understand each other, the best we can. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read?
Amen. Thank you, Jennifer!