Know You’re a Nobody, Say the Horrible Thing, and Make Every Sentence Brilliant: An Interview on the Craft of Memoir with Claire Dederer

by Lauren Hurston

I sat next to the Continental baggage carousel at the Norfolk Airport searching the crowd for a blue and white scarf. In our email correspondence, this is how Claire Dederer told me I could recognize her. She emerged from the crowd before me in an earnest conversation with an older gentleman. I noticed her nodding her head sympathetically one second and open-mouthed laughing the next. She turned to me. “You’re Lauren, right?” I nodded and she shook my hand. She said goodbye to the man and wished him good luck with his granddaughter. For a moment, I anticipated that they would hug. “[His granddaughter] is going through a really rough time right now,” she explained as we walked to the parking lot. I asked her how she knew the man. “Oh,” she shrugged. “We just met on the plane.”

On the car ride to her hotel, we chatted about Australia—we both lived there for a while—and music—we’re both fans of 90s Alternative Rock. Even though I am not normally someone who is gifted in the art of the chat, talking with Claire was natural. Before I knew it, we were at the hotel and she was gone. Just like that. I was excited, surprised, and a little sad. I didn’t want her to go. A twenty-minute car ride was just not enough time. I felt giddy, like a student on the first day in a new school who just met her future best friend. And that’s the Claire Dederer that I—and everyone who spent time with her at the ODU Literary Festival—came to know. I suppose it would be fair to say she charmed us all.

Dederer is the author of the memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, a sharp-witted, elegantly styled, and ruthlessly honest account of her foray into motherhood and, subsequently, yoga. Dederer’s prose is perfectly orchestrated and her voice carries a distinct charm and humor that you won’t find in most yoga-centric literature, but that is precisely her intention. During the Festival week, I sat down with Claire to talk about her writing process, to discuss her thoughts on the memoir genre, and yes, to chat.

LH: I had a writing professor once tell us that creative nonfiction is “real life, written with the electric spark of fiction.” What, if anything, is your definitive factor of good creative nonfiction/memoir writing?

CD: When I am creating nonfiction, I tell myself I’m writing realistic fiction. Making language as careful and alive as possible. It’s a tool I use, the idea of it being fictional.

LH: I’ve often seen this topic pop up when discussing your book, how a memoir about yoga could potentially have been bad: this kind of new age-y, spiritual fluff. Clearly, your book is not that. Poser is grounded and witty and the writing is vibrant. No fluff at all. Were you conscious of avoiding that, and if so, what was your strategy?

CD: My guiding thought was that I wanted to be the Pauline Kael of yoga. Kael was a film critic at The New Yorker for decades, and when I read her at 11 or 12, she was this guiding intellectual force because she got underneath the movies. She never said the expected thing. She would step aside from other things and capture what was happening emotionally, physically, and intellectually. There’s the challenge of making each sentence wonderful and brilliant. I knew I was doing was risky—too pop, too new age. But the form was so compelling. Once I connected the idea to motherhood, it was so rich I wanted to make those sentences as brilliant as I could.

LH: Your book is organized into twenty-three chapters, each one attributed to a yoga pose, sometimes two chapters dedicated to the same pose. How did you devise this organizational structure?

CD: It was a thematic ping-pong between the pose and the story. I have to write freely toward form. There’s a balance there. Of course I do generate writing that goes nowhere, but I’m always writing toward form. I think that a writer should write every day, with a sense of freedom, but with a form in mind. Form is optimistic to me. There’s this quote from Ann Fadiman that, paraphrasing, goes, “a sonnet might look dinky…but you could fit the whole world in there if you shoved hard enough.”

LH: In the same vein, would you consider yourself an organic writer or one who plots before you write?

CD: I think you can write towards structure and still be organic. It doesn’t have to be a tight structure; it can be loose. Being a journalist, I was used to form and structure, and writing on time and to length for twenty years. I thought how could I use that constraint as a tool for creativity rather than an obstacle for creativity. In Poser, I had this series of what would have just been essays, so it was easy to approach the book because I was familiar with the size and shape, then got to do the thrilling thing of piecing together each piece and putting them together into a narrative arc. When doing the process, I felt like I was building a bridge as I was crossing it. I was stepping into air and I’d have to build something to step onto.

LH: People in our class had this impression of Claire Dederer from Poser and noticed a difference between her and the Claire Dederer whom we met. To me, it brought to mind this kind of paradox of being a writer and being the character, and how to handle both roles. As a writer, did you ever think, “I need to be more aggressive/anxious here” to punch up action? Where is the line drawn between starting to embellish character, if there is one, and where do you stop?

CD: Here’s the deal. I’m not interested in the idea of an authentic self when it comes to writing memoir; I’m interested in writing a story. So we’re all different selves all the time. Right now you’re an interviewer but we’re also friends, there are just a lot of roles going on. We change through the day constantly, we’re so variable, there’s no stable center of the self—even though that’s phenomenally pretentious, it’s just true. Even if there were an authentic self, it would be impossible to capture in writing. Once you start reflecting on yourself, it would be a Schrödinger’s cat situation, you’d be altering the situation as soon as you reflected on it. So I’m not interested in the authentic, perfect representation of the self in memoir, I’m interested in story and in the transformation of the self. I can try to figure out how I change, but I’m not going to pin down who exactly I am; talking about transformation and movement is more what I want memoir to do. So to do that, you have to exaggerate a little bit. In the opening of my book, my character is a little neurotic and nutty. Was I a little bit that way, at that time in my life? Yes. Was I as much that way as the book represents me being? No.

LH: Right, and that was one of the things we talk about in our (nonfiction workshop) class. We were reading Poser and we had this view of this woman with this sort of drive for perfection, in particular, the part about the Trader Joe’s vs. Whole Foods bit—I think I made the joke in class about it being First World problems—and when (the class) met you, we all felt this instant connection to you and it was very warm and inviting. It wasn’t a bad characterization of you, it was just different. So when you’re writing this, is it an instinctual thing or is this something you can teach to a beginning memoirist?

CD: It the same idea that we come back to again and again. Why does memoir get written? Who cares about my stupid life? I live a very ordinary life. I’m like what you said earlier, like first World problems, I’m like this housewife. And who cares? Why should anybody read about my problems? The reason that people want to read about my life is because I go into the most insecure, uncomfortable part of my personality and I dramatize it. So it’s like seeing your own negative self, your own insecure, uncomfortable self. You see it on the page because I’ve dramatized it, and that is what I’m interested in with memoir. This way in which you take the less comfortable parts of ordinary human experience and make it into story and show it to people, and when they read it, they say: “Oh my god, I feel exactly the same way.” I’m a very well-rounded person, so when you meet me, you’re not going to meet that insecure side of me first. In terms of putting your character on a page, if you can go to that place where you know you’re the biggest dork in the room, that’s the place where the reader’s going to relate to you. So it was all done very consciously, and that’s how you turn the reader. The reader knows you’re nobody. When somebody picks up the memoir, before they start reading, they’re suspicious because they feel like, “Why should this person get to write a memoir and have it published?” I’ve heard that a thousand times. What you have to do as a memoirist is let the reader know that youknow you’re nobody. Let the reader know that you know that you’re a goofball and that you’re unimportant and ridiculous and funny. Then the reader gets on your side and goes through your story with you, it’s a way of disarming them. That’s the rhetorical strategy, but there’s a larger component, which is a way to reach out to the reader and say that these uncomfortable dark experiences are something we all share, and that’s the important thing for memoirists to do. To let the reader know, “You’re not alone there in the dark with your common, house-wifey problems. There’s somebody else out here articulating them and bravely saying them.” But if you’re going to do that as a writer, you’re going to have to abase yourself a little bit. That’s just the way it is, it’s very hard to write memoir without doing that.

LH: Right.

CD: At least the kind of memoirs that I like.

LH: I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley over the summer and it was one of those things where you knew that Steinbeck started out having this romantic vision of rediscovering America in his road trip, and that he knew he didn’t know his own country anymore. But about halfway through the book, you see him start to really get how out of touch he is with this landscape that he wrote about years ago and he seems disenchanted by that. It’s a little sad, but you know it’s the truth. It’s a travel narrative but it becomes very personal at that point, and he seems quite aware of it.

CD: You have to be aware of it. Everything that you’re talking about in terms of the contrast between my “self” that you met and the “self” that you read in Poser is all very conscious. The idea that there is a character separate from me was very consciously done. If someone was beginning in this craft, I wouldn’t say you need to embellish but you need to have a very clear idea of who the character is on the page because your own self that you live inside of is totally multivalent and many-sided. Whittle that down and find the character that is going to be your protagonist on the page, do it very consciously and do it with no pride. Just be completely shameless and make it the best, most interesting, dark narrative that’s a part of your self.

LH: There was this topic proposal called “Mem-wars” for a writing conference coming up. I hadn’t read the proposal or anything, but the title itself brings to mind this idea of sort of viewing the memoir as juggling fact vs. and fiction and finding out how you make the story from what is true.

CD: See, I’m not that interested in the question of fact and fiction in the memoir. Everything in my book is true and I could go back and write another completely different book with a completely different tone, idea, and message about the exact same true events. You can have factually true events, but it’s in how do you change the perspective of your book and how your character shapes your book.

LH: It’s all about the writing of the book, not the facts.

CD: Exactly, like David Shields in his book Reality Hunger—which is his manifesto about memoir, truth, fact, fiction—I love how he defines memoir. He says you can only write one autobiography, but you could write a thousand memoirs. That just makes so much sense to me.

LH: Do you think a lot of memoirists, on a sub-psychological level, feel this certain brand of neurosis—what you called “anxious chatter” in your craft talk? Like in Poser, you talk about developing a persistent tremor in your hand. Do you think this might be a sort of trait that binds all memoirists?

CD: One way to describe it is writing about the thing you don’t want to write about, but being alive to complexity and wanting to problematize everything. We’re the kind of people that other people often say make things too hard or we think too much. I think we’re just more interested in the emotional and intellectual problems in every day life. If you don’t have that urge to say the horrible thing and don’t have the thrill of saying the horrible truth, you’re not a memoirist. Of course it is terrifying, but once you find that truth and write it down, it’s a moment of triumph not of hell. Publishing it can be hell, but the writing of it is not.

LH: A lot of newer memoirs are about some really fucked up things that the person has done or the fucked up things that has happened to someone—thinking in particular about the popularity of someone like Augusten Burroughs. What do you think is the driving force behind a person writing about that and what do you think about the popularity of these stories?

CD: Memoir is a developing form, which is why it’s exciting. We know the old forms of personal narrative—Montaigne, EB White—but now it’s a trend that has grown into something else. During this wave of memoir in the 90s, a lot of books told horrible stories that have happened to them. Those are important because they bear witness to these things and tell people that they aren’t alone. Now that memoir has grown into a thriving, large genre, it contains more narratives.

LH: What is your daily writing routine, and what would you do when/if you get stuck in the midst of writing a piece? Do you have any ways you bribe yourself to write?

CD: Oh sure, of course. Written on top of one of my notebooks is “Candy=Good”

LH: It’s true, candy is awesome.

CD: Right, so candy is good. I sold Poser in proposal so I had to write it on a deadline. When I was writing it, I got up and wrote for eight hours a day, every day. I was literally just grinding it out. I actually feel better when I can go away and be alone and work insane all-night hours. To me, the routine I’m in now is the better routine, but for the book, I really did want to write it out in the eight-hour day to complete that book on time. Now, my normal routine is two to three hours a day and I’m variable with when I do it, I don’t have a time of day. Then I go away about once a month for a couple days and stay up all night and write, because I’m a night person. So I try to get away from my normal schedule to be able to work in that time of night that’s really productive for me. And I recently read something that said that night owls have higher IQs than early birds.

LH: I saw that! It made me feel a little better about staying up so late.

CD: I know, it was like this awesome “Suck it, early birds!” moment for me.

LH: I feel like I get inspired more, late at night. During the day, I just think about getting this done and getting that done, and at night it’s like this burst of creativity. I realize I’ve just written thirty pages and think, “I couldn’t have done that during the day.”

CD: I’m a big believer in creating an environment of intensity around your work every once in a while. I think that’s really important.

LH: What are you currently working on?

CD: Well it’s kind of a secret project. I’m not sure what shape it’s going to take, but it’s on top of my normal freelance work.

LH: “Secret project” sounds exciting, could I ask at least what phase—in terms of your writing routine—you’re currently in, with the project?

CD: It’s in the painful, sitting down and facing it every day and producing words so that I can figure out what it is phase. That’s the phase I’m in. Making mistakes, trying again, returning to it until I feel like I’m going to start bleeding.

LH: You know that saying about the writer sitting at the typewriter—computer, whatever—and opening a vein?

CD: Exactly. But it won’t feel like bleeding when you’re reading it.

LH: Of course. But that process doesn’t apply to your freelancing.

CD: No, that’s what my husband and I do every day. We’ve supported ourselves for fifteen years with our freelancing, so there is no such thing as writer’s block. You just do it.

LH: Who do you read, or who are you reading right now, and who inspires you to write?

CD: Geoff Dyer. He’s probably the most important writer to me right now in terms of the way he approaches and moves easily between fiction and nonfiction and memoir and critical writing. He’s constantly on the move between genres and subject matters and I’m really inspired by his voracious appetite for whatever comes his way, he’s just incredible. A writer that I always return to is Laurie Colwin. She’s little known but I think she is just such an elegant stylist, I go back to her just to be reminded of how things ought to sound.

LH: Lastly, what advice do you have for any new writer, and what advice do you have for new memoirists? Do you think there’s a divide between the two?

CD: I just found the best quote for this. It’s something Ira Glass said.

LH: I love Ira Glass! “This American Life” is the best.

CD: Yes, he was talking about, basically, when you start making stuff, it’s just not going to be that good. But what Ira Glass says is “your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. Your taste is why your work disappoints you.” So the idea is you can see the gap between what you like and what you’re making, and that gap does exist. Your work is not as good as the stuff you like. The only way to close that gap is to produce work. Volumes and volumes of work. Four or five thousand words a week is what you need to be producing as a young writer to improve. Then you start to meet your own ideals. So that feeling of disappointment, that feeling of “oh, I’m not that good” that you get at the beginning, there’s only one way to solve it. And that is just to keep producing massive amounts of work.

Click here to read an excerpt from Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses

Click here to go to Claire Dederer’s website.

Lauren Hurston received her BA in English from James Madison University, an MA in English and Publishing from Rosemont College, and she is a first year Creative Writing MFA student at Old Dominion University. She has contributed to Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, VA, Ticket Weekly in Montgomery County, PA, andPhiladelphia Style Magazine. Her fiction has been published inMidwest Literary Magazine, featured in the anthology Bearing North, and her short story “Amor Fati” will appear in the upcoming issue ofBig Lucks; her nonfiction has won the William Brenner Nonfiction Prize and the Agnes L. Braganza Award. She lives in Norfolk with her boyfriend and a pug named Reggie, and on weekends she teaches fiction to teenagers at The Muse Writers’ Center.