Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Ashley Bethard
The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: “Of Blood” entails a deeply personal account of your life. How do you as a writer negotiate that level of exposure? At what point do you become comfortable sharing this intimacy with your readers?
Ashley Bethard: There’s no easy answer to this question. As a reader, I gravitate toward writing that’s brutally honest and revealing. But it has to go beyond mere exhibitionism to a place where the narrator honestly engages with the truth. Exhibitionism’s gut punch alone doesn’t do it for me – there has to be some real examination of action and emotion, and acknowledgement of what’s at stake.
The most personally rewarding writing I’ve done is intensely personal, which has also been the most difficult to write. This piece was one of the hardest by far, but it was also a story that I couldn’t not tell. That’s the question that everything hinges on: do I have to tell this story? If the answer is yes, I’ll wrestle with it.
One of the challenges with nonfiction is that it usually involves other people – family, friends, loved ones who are close to me. That is where I feel the most trepidation. I’m lucky to have a sibling who, like me, knows the importance of truth and is committed to making sense of it. That’s encouraging, to have someone close to you who understands what you’re trying to do, and knows that your goal is not to hurt people or write some sordid expose for the sake of sensationalism. But I get pushback, too. One time, I shared a draft of an essay about my family with my mother, and it made her very uncomfortable. She was kind to me about it, but she also made it clear that she wished I could write about something else. “Not writing about it” wasn’t an option for me, so I stopped sharing work about the family with her.
In the end, if the piece comes from a place of truth, examination and compassion, then I’ve done what I set out to do.
RR: Anne Carson’s Antigonick (Sophokles) plays an important role in holding “Of Blood” together. How did that separate work drive this piece?
AB: Carson’s work has always fascinated me. She takes these general, well-known narratives (in this case, Sophocles’ Antigone) and retells the story, often from a different or fractured point of view. By doing this, she exposes the multiplicity of narratives, which exposes their fallible nature. She reinvents the story, multiplies its meaning. She expands it.
That idea of multiple, alternate narratives is something I’ve always been obsessed with, so Carson’s work really speaks to me. In this particular essay, one straightforward narrative was not going to work. The constraints of a singular narrative didn’t serve the story. Carson’s challenging of singular strand narratives opens up a myriad of possibilities, and results in a much richer experience. That’s what I tried to do in Of Blood.
On a craft level, she’s a true language poet. Words are potent little bombs waiting to go off, and not just because you can string them together to build sentences and stories. She shows that going the opposite way – deconstruction of language, the surgical parsing of pieces of words – can have just as powerful an effect.
RR: How does a memoir writer discern the appropriate time between a life event and writing about said event?
AB: There’s no set amount of time for this. I think it’s completely dependent on the writer and the experience. Personally, I find it difficult to write with clarity about things that are relatively recent. Distance and time to process an experience is valuable, and can provide insights that give the writing a necessary depth.
But immediate, visceral responses are crucial, too. I journal about my initial response to experiences that I’m not in a place to write about yet. They provide raw emotional context that I might otherwise miss when I finally write about it months or years later. And that emotional rawness is so important, because that’s what readers connect with.
RR: You primarily write nonfiction, but within that genre you have published very different pieces: editorials, creative essays, and reviews, among others. How do your approaches for all of these differ?
AB: A better way for me to answer this, actually, would be to talk about how the approach is the same. It all comes from the same place of truth – that place of “do I have to write about it?” If something is important to me, I need to express that. With that said, different pieces require different things. When writing an editorial, I rely much more heavily on facts and extensive research – and I also have to be much more willing to accept that my opinion may change along the way, or that it’s based on knowing only a piece of the truth.
Reviews tend to be much more text-based – you have to allow the text to become your “facts,” so to speak. I’m not a professional reviewer, and I’m far from a critic – I tend to review things that speak strongly to me (often favorably). My reviews tend to read more like personal essays – they’re more focused on experience of reading and interacting with the text, and less about imparting a critical valuation of it.
Essays feel like home to me. They’re the most natural. They’re also the messiest to write. I start with a germ of an idea and try to push it in every direction, as far as it can go. This process of exploration and discovery is thrilling. Once I feel like I’ve written it as far as it can go, I start cutting. Many times I throw a lot out – tangents I had to write to get where I needed to be, but don’t serve the overall piece. It doesn’t mean that that writing is any less important, it just had a different function.
RR: Because memory is so malleable, how do you remain faithful to the facts in your writing?
AB: It’s important to acknowledge the malleability of memory in every piece, whether it’s subtle or overt. In this essay, I fact-checked a lot of my memories against my brother’s. The result of our matching (or mismatching, depending on how you look at it) ended up in the piece.
Remembering the facts exactly as they happened is an impossible feat when you’re relying on your own memory. In psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, he talks a lot about the biological nature of memory and what our brains do: how we initially inscribe the memory, as well as how we recall – and in the process of recollection, rewrite the memory.
We’re not wired to inscribe memories in the way that a recording device captures a moment in time. And something really curious happens when we conjure the memory: we essentially rewrite it. Over time, that memory is destined to change.
As a nonfiction writer, I feel committed to the truth, but I also know that “truth” in the way that most people understand it is a slippery thing. Cross-checking my memories against others who were there is a really crucial part of writing about anything that happened to you. But then, what to do when you come up against all of these incongruities? I think that’s the beauty of writing nonfiction – in trying to retell the memory, you end up with all of these other problems to work out. You’re forced to confront your own limitations, and then negotiate how your memories fit with others’. But this isn’t an unsolvable problem. What makes nonfiction so interesting to me is how narrators choose to acknowledge or ignore the fallibility, or problem, of memory.
I tend to openly acknowledge my own shortcomings in the writing because that feels like the truest thing for me. Instead of simply copping to the fact that I remembered wrong or that I can’t remember, I view it as a new possibility. Why might I remember it this way or that way? Why might I not remember a thing at all? What sense can I make of those questions? Sometimes, those explorations reveal more truth about me and the thing I’m grappling with than a lost memory ever could.
“Of Blood” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 1.4.
Ashley Bethard is a writer, editor, digital geek and news junkie working in digital media in Dayton, Ohio. Previously, her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart and Pank, among others. Obsessions include: food, cooking, travel, dachshunds and the family farm. You can find her on Twitter @AshleyBethard and online at ashleybethard.com. If you ever meet her in person and there’s a kitchen handy, she’ll be happy to make you a sandwich.