Sunday, January 24, 2016

Unearthing Bone, Writing Memoir: An Interview With Wendy C. Ortiz

Olga García Echeverría

Photo by Monica Orozco

What looks like bone might just be rock.
She is looking for clues.
There is a timestamp sealed in the bone's marrow.
The bone is a puzzle piece.
The bone is a treasure...

...Let me excavate. Brush this bone off.
Let me know its story.

                        Wendy C. Ortiz, Excavation


I was stuck on a personal essay and looking for inspiration in my Must-Read-Memoir pile. I had gotten to a section in my own writing that made me feel frustrated, vulnerable. How long had I been writing the same story? It pissed me off that my father (who a good friend once labeled The Patriarch) was yet again showing up on the page all messy and in ways that set off emotional triggers. The plan was to read a few pages of someone else's vulnerability, feel better, and then go back to tackling The Patriarch. I picked Ortiz' Excavation from the stack because the title had long been tugging.
Excavate (verb):
to expose or lay bare by or as if by digging;
to unearth;
to excavate an ancient city, for instance.

Excavation is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the San Fernando Valley, where Ortiz grew up as an only child. The primary focus of the memoir is Ortiz' relationship as a teenager with a private school teacher fifteen years her senior. From the onset, the story is unsettling, complex, and deeply compelling. Those "few pages" of Excavation that I had planned on reading for inspiration turned into 50 pages, then 100, then 200, and so on, all in one sitting. My vision was blurry and the barrio roosters were crowing by the time I finished.

During the following days, I couldn't stop thinking about Ortiz' book. I thought about how writing creative non-fiction takes a lot of ovaries (or balls, depending on your gender preference). As Ortiz makes clear in her writing, memoir is an art form that requires courageous digging, uncovering, and mending. Think archeology where the terrain is The Self. Ortiz mentions some tools that might help in the process of excavating stories—a bulldozer, a backhoe. Or you can zoom in and get meticulous, as Ortiz does, and bring in the pick-axe, the shovel, and the brushes. Don't forget the brushes! Found objects must be handled with care, dusted off, and examined.

The other thing I kept thinking about after reading Excavation was how much I would love to interview Wendy Ortiz and pick her brain on the art of writing memoir. I put that wish into action by contacting her via Facebook with an invitation for an interview. She graciously accepted, and we are fortunate and excited to have her with us today.
Wendy, bienvenida! I have so many questions about memoir, but I will begin with one that has been buzzing in my mind recently. I did an interview with author Ben Saenz a couple of months ago ( and asked him if he'd ever consider writing a memoir. His response was an immediate and adamant “No,” which made me laugh. I love Ben's writing and was hoping a memoir was in the works, but he described the memoir as “a dangerous genre” that necessitates the author become the hero of his or her own narrative. “Writers are self-involved already,” he said. “No thanks.” I can relate to what Saenz shared.  However, I also think that memoir too often gets dismissed as literary neurosis. Any thoughts on this? Are those of us who delve in creative non-fiction a bunch of self-centered junkies?
I’d argue that the description of memoir as necessitating that the author becomes the hero of their narrative is a pretty narrow description. Yes, there’re a ton of books under the genre heading “memoir” that fit that description—however—and that’s a big HOWEVER—there are plenty of books, on some radars, but mostly off the big radars—in which the author is actually an anti-hero, or their identity is complicated in some way that makes the word “hero” not applicable. This is the type of memoir I’m interested in. If memoir were simply authors writing themselves as heroes in their narratives, I wouldn’t want to read or write memoir.
What about this notion that memoir is dangerous?
The idea of memoir as “a dangerous genre”—well, I write in multiple genres, I hybridize, and can only hope all of it is “dangerous” because to me that means I’m getting to the heart. I want to feel the danger as I write. Maybe in this way I am indeed a junkie?
Sometimes I think writing memoir and putting it out there is like getting naked in public. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is so much revelation and vulnerability in creative non-fiction. How did you deal with the issue of vulnerability when writing Excavation?
Vulnerability is where it’s at. It took me a while to get this and I still struggle with it. Vulnerable, to me, does not mean getting naked in public, though. It’s about getting to the uncomfortable truths, usually buried in old shame, and looking at those truths from different angles, with as little judgment as possible. There are many stories I left out of Excavation, partially because they didn’t enhance the narrative—they would have been like an unnecessary exposure. In the writing of Excavation, I had moments where I felt physically ill, or noticed an anxious thrumming underneath everything as I worked, but I took those to mean I was on the right track. Vulnerability is not so much an issue to me as it is a desired state of being. I see strength in that.
Dorothy Allison says that whereas in a novel we can always have redemption, it's not always possible in memoir. The nature of the genre requires a distinct type of honesty and truth, and as Allison writes, “memoirs are messy, relentless, and give no quarter...”
This helps illustrate my point about memoir not simply being a hero narrative! The messiness is what I crave and will go after. There are times when I try writing a story from my life in a different genre, such as poetry or fiction, as an exercise. I used to hide many of my selves in my fiction in my early twenties, when I was too scared to claim the mantle of “true story.”
Did you ever consider publishing your stories in a different genre?
The decision to publish, for example, Excavation, was mainly because I looked for exactly this type of book when I was going through the experience the book describes and never found it.
One of the issues I struggle with when writing family history is that I don't always have all the pieces. I may have fragments of a story passed down by a relative who is no longer living. Or I may have two radical versions of the same story. In memoir those gaps can't always be bridged as they are in poetry or fiction. Were there gaps in the narratives of Excavation or Hollywood Notebook and if so, how did you handle them?
If I were to write family history, there’d be a ton of gaps. My grandmother, who was the only grandparent I grew up with, didn’t have a birth certificate, for example. I’d have to do some extensive research to piece together “the facts” of both sides of my family because people have died, people have secrets, and we’re largely estranged. Both of my books, though, come from the journals I wrote, so gaps in narrative aren’t much of an issue there.
Did you grapple with the reality that in telling your story you would also be telling the stories of others in your life? Was there resistance from family, for instance, or self-censorship as a means to protect loved ones?
I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to writing a story that took place years ago. I did look at who I wrote about and how they’d come off and examined my intentions. I changed names but there is no one who needed actual “protecting” in Excavation. I didn’t experience any resistance from family, but I also don’t share my writing life with, for example, my mother. This is shocking to some people, but it’s real. Writing has always been a hobby to my parents, something I do on the side, and I didn’t see a reason to share the book with my mother, just as I don’t share with her the details of my publications in journals, etc. (my grandmother and father, who are in the book, are deceased). So, in a sense, maybe I’m protecting her, maybe this is where the self-censorship comes in. But honestly, it just feels like a function of the limited relationship we have as mother/daughter.
Last year I went to a writer's conference where I met an author whose memoir I had recently read. I didn't personally know this writer, yet the memoir had been so revealing and intimate that as a reader I felt a strong connection.  I went up to this author feeling/acting like we were old buddies, actually wanting to embrace him. It was presumptuous of me to think I really “knew” this person because I had read his memoir. Do you ever experience this type of behavior from readers and if so, does it bother you? How do you find that balance between sharing private aspects of yourself in writing and setting boundaries with readers you meet in public?
I experience this all the time! It’s actually a lovely thing until someone crosses a line (yes, lines have been crossed, but nothing outrageous). My training as a therapist and all the years I worked on boundaries in my own therapy make me pretty firm when it comes to readers who presume a relationship with me after reading my books. I mean, I understand what it’s like, I have those feelings of wanting to connect with the author of a memoir I just read and loved and gush all over them. I did that recently in a Twitter direct message after reading one author’s book. A total, “Oh my god, I loved it, I relate so much, I’m the age now that you were writing about it, and I’m going through this, wow!!!” sort of thing, and I was aware I was doing it and knew, actually, from the book, that this author probably had very good boundaries and would let me know if I’d crossed a line. I felt pretty safe, though. I wasn’t saying, YOU AND I ARE THE SAME PERSON or, like, We must be best friends now!! When I meet people they mostly behave graciously, kindly, warmly. I also think I’ve developed an invisible shield from truly shitty behavior (knock on wood). A friend of mine has described me as “unfuckwithable” and I think that’s part of what the shield’s composed of.
In 2013, sculptor and MacArthur Genius Teresita Fernandez presented her speech, “On Amnesia, Broken Pottery, and the Inside of a Form,” to the graduating class of her alma mater,

In one part of the speech,  Fernandez shares how, while visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was fascinated by a Greek ostracon, a broken piece of pottery or stone engraved with a message (these broken clay pieces were many times used like paper and for such things as voting). The ostracon reminded Fernández of the natural fragmentation that is part of life and creativity, and yet, she states, “we are conditioned to think that which is broken is lost, or useless, or a setback...” She goes on to talk about the Japanese art of mending broken bowls with gold, Kintsugi, where that which is broken is not only repaired but also renewed and beautified. I couldn't help but think about the act of writing memoir as I listened to Fernández' speech. Can you speak to this notion of fragmentation, mending, and recreating in relation to your writing?

Wow…you describe this beautifully. When I relate this to writing memoir, I think of how I often take experiences that some would consider ugly, or tragic, and try to make a thing of beauty out of them. Lately, too, my work has become more and more fragmentary. My tumblr, which I think of as my public notebook, feels like a bunch of fragments that I’m waiting to show me how they will connect and turn into something else. There’s also something here about the “mending” of situations I write about in memoir—a mending that is constant, never really ends.
Along that same vein, she who writes memoir is very much like an archeologist who has to get her hands dirty and excavate those broken pieces and stories. I loved this metaphor running through Excavation. One question I often have when writing autobiographical pieces has to do with this process of excavating. There is so much to uncover! What do we choose to salvage and recreate? We can't reveal every detail or scene (or can we?), so how do we determine what pieces are worth mending?
I don’t tell or reveal every single detail or scene, partially because every detail or scene won’t advance or enhance the narrative, but also because I need to keep some things, some stories, to myself. I get off thinking about all the stories I contain that will never be written. They are the stories I share with the people closest to me in my life, and then the deeper heart container of stories I won’t even share with those same people. It thrills me that it will never all be known.
What advice can you offer writers out there who are trying to write their first memoir?
Advice I received from Bernard Cooper, my first faculty mentor in my graduate education: write everything out chronologically THEN play with narrative structure. Consider how far away you are, in years, in emotional distance, from the experiences you describe, and how that may impact the story.
Okay, and one final question for fun. You're invited by NASA to put 5 books into a time capsule that will be buried and then excavated by future humans in the year 2115. What five titles do you choose?
1. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
2. Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond by Denis Johnson
3. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
5. I’d pull one random poetry book from my collection and assume that was the one that was meant for a reader in 2115.

What appears to just be a huge heart-shaped rock floating in space
is really the Wendy C. Ortiz time capsule full of awesome books.
Future humans decided to launch it into space!
Photo "borrowed" from NASA.

Upcoming events for Wendy C. Ortiz:

Wendy C. Ortiz Website:

Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014), Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Bruja (CCM, 2016). Her work has been profiled or featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog. Her writing has appeared in such places as The New York Times, Hazlitt, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, and a year-long series appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy lives in Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a thoughtful interview. Your questions are so well-crafted and both expand the ideas and focus the topic.

Thank you for your work.