Creativity, Emotion, and Memory:
An Interview with Leigh Stein by Shannon Perri
I FIRST HEARD about Leigh Stein through her work advocating for women and gender non-conforming writers—Stein is the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit, Out of the Binders. When I saw she had a book coming out that partially takes place in New Mexico, a state I happen to adore, I knew I’d have to read it. I’m so glad I did. Stein’s beautiful new memoir, The Land of Enchantment, chronicles both her emergence as a writer and her complicated relationship with a troubled young man named Jason, who dies unexpectedly. The memoir explores topics such as mental illness, digital mourning, young adulthood, partner violence, female icons, the artistic process, and more. In this interview, Stein discusses her creative process and how emotion can affect memory, often by staining our minds with every detail; then again, emotion can also have a way of inspiring us to hide the truth, especially from ourselves.
Your memoir, The Land of Enchantment, spans across time and place, exploring memories starting from your adolescence, up to your late twenties. That said, the events are not always presented chronologically. How did you decide on the book’s sequencing? What was your process for writing the first draft of the book, as well as any following drafts?
I started writing the book in the summer of 2012, a year after Jason died. I had the first chapter (in which I get the call about the motorcycle accident) written pretty early, and it didn’t change much over subsequent drafts. The book is structured with a forward timeline from 2011 to 2014, and then alternating chapters of what came before. At first, I had the forward chapters written in present tense, and the back story in past, but I ended up not needing such a device to keep the timeline straight, once the pattern of back and forth was established. So I rewrote it all in past. I wrote one chapter at a time around a theme or a particular scene, workshopped it with my writing group in Brooklyn, and then revised it when I had a bit more distance. Toward the end of writing the manuscript, I just had two close friends reading complete drafts. I also sought feedback from a new friend who hadn’t known me at the time I was going through the events in the book, for a fresh perspective on my character, or persona.
In some ways, this book could be titled: A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman. You examine your path to becoming a writer, as well as your introduction to the arts through theatre. (As a fellow theatre nerd, I squealed audibly when I read that you participated in an Andrew Lloyd Weber fan chat room.) And yet, tightly linked, this book is also the story of your complicated relationship with Jason. My question: had you considered writing a memoir before Jason’s death? If so, how did Jason’s death impact how you decided to shape this narrative?
I never thought I would ever write a memoir. I didn’t need to tell the story of me and Jason when he was alive because I had him to reflect my own experience back at me. “Do you remember when…” And he’d always say, “Of course I remember.” When I lost him, I lost the validation of my experience. I wish I could say I didn’t need that, but I do. I thought about getting a tattoo after he died, so that every time someone asked me what my tattoo symbolized, I could tell the story. Then I thought, this story is much too complicated for two sentences of party banter…it could fill a whole book. If he hadn’t died, I never would have written this book. For one, I was afraid of him (at the same time I was compulsively drawn to him). The other reason is that our story seemed like it would never have an ending or closure. I still wonder today if some day I would have gone back to him again, had he lived.
Your memoir often refers to past journal entries, old blog posts, Facebook statuses, and more. What was this process of personal excavation and “research” like for you? How did you decide what to include in the book?
I wrote the scenes as I remembered them. A lot of details are still so vivid to me: the color of the t-shirt I was wearing on a road trip, what I ordered at a restaurant, the way he said something. After I wrote all the scenes, I went back and fact-checked myself in old emails and diary entries. There were some things I found that I don’t remember. Then it was a sifting through of what was essential to the story and my readers. I’d put some detail in a chapter and my workshop would say “Why is this in here?” and if I couldn’t answer that question, I’d take it out. Ultimately, yes, this is my story, but it has to also interest the most disinterested reader (I’m paraphrasing Vivian Gornick). The strangest thing I found was an old Livejournal entry about Jason slapping me in the face, before we’d even moved to New Mexico. I don’t remember this at all. The story I’ve told myself for years is that he wasn’t physical with me until we got to Albuquerque, but that isn’t true…by the time I found that scene, I was so late into edits with the book that I decided to leave it out. Did something happen if I wrote it down but don’t remember it?
Your descriptions, particularly of people, throughout The Land of Enchantment are so lovely and precise. When describing an image, whether of a landscape or human being, do you have any special methods, such as looking at a photograph while writing?
Nope. Mary Karr has written about how intense emotion sears memories in our mind. It’s all in my head, I don’t have to look at photographs to remember. It’s like I had my mental video camera rolling, the whole time I lived in Albuquerque. I memorized it all.
One of the many strengths of this memoir is your ability to present characters that inspire a multitude of emotional reactions. In regards to Jason, I found myself feeling sympathetic, especially when learning about his trauma-saturated childhood and adolescence. And yet, the book does not excuse his abusive behavior or let him off the hook. By the end, even after the scenes of his funeral, the way he hurt and manipulated other people still upset me. Was this something you consciously thought about when writing – how to best present complex characters?
I’m glad you say that you felt sympathetic toward him at times. It’s interesting to hear different readers’ reactions to him. Some are like “UGH THIS GUY WE CAN SEE IT A MILE AWAY GET AWAY FROM HIM!” and others are like, “Yeah, I totally get the allure.” From the very beginning, my goal was to make him a real person. I didn’t want to write a book about a bad guy who ruined a good girl. That’s not how I see myself, or him, at all. I wanted to show my real attraction to him, and the choices I made. Some readers take this to mean I still haven’t come to terms with my identity as a victim of abuse. But if it were so black and white, we wouldn’t have the problem of women staying with their abusers. On average, it takes a woman 7 times to leave. Even when I was living on the other side of the country from him, I felt this dramatic pull. In hindsight, I can recognize patterns of abusive behavior (the isolation, gaslighting, and manipulation) but when I was inside it, I saw no patterns. I only saw what I thought was this special “true love” that no one outside could understand.
Throughout the memoir, you investigate the influences, both on your work and your identity, of several female artists, including Sylvia Plath, Georgia O’Keefe, Joan Didion, and pioneer women of the west. Who would you say are your current muses, and why?
What a great question! I think I have to say that currently my muses are women who are juggling a lot…I run a non-profit organization, write books and articles, work as a freelance proofreader, and teach writing. I’m often working 7 days a week in order to fit everything in. (I’m typing these answers at 7:01pm on a Saturday night.) So I’ve been reading a lot about productivity and leadership lately. So many books in the “business” or “management” section of the bookstore are by men, or they’re by women and have titles like “Being a Woman in the Workforce.” Some other women I admire for juggling a lot on their plate with grace and a sense of humor: Roxane Gay, Porochista Khakpour, and Lisa Lucas. I also love the Being Boss podcast.
In your persuasive New York Times essay, “Millennial Days,” you defend the notion that young people can write literary memoirs. You state: “While time and distance can add depth to personal narratives, the assumption that the young memoirist is too naïve to know she must wait to tell her story excludes one key possibility: She is choosing to capture a story through the lens of youth.” Can you elaborate more on the advantages—or potential challenges—the young (which you define as under forty) memoirist may face?
Advantage: emotion! I was so emotional in my twenties, it’s how I thought about, or processed, everything. My creativity was ignited by my emotional state, I wrote poems like a machine born to write poems. Now I’m older (32) and my process is different. I second guess myself. I know how much of a commitment (and risk) everything is. I think a challenge for the young memoirist is to define why their story matters to the disinterested reader. Especially with memoir, a personal experience can feel so valid, immediate, and important, but unless you can answer the question of why someone else is dying to hear your version of that story, maybe it’s meant to be written, but not necessarily shared. For me, I answered that question for myself after reading an essay about grief on the Internet, and met this young woman at the reading who told me her best friend had just died, she couldn’t stop checking her Facebook page, and I was the only person who could understand her. I saw a hole that I could fill by telling my story. So for two years I basically told everybody I was writing a book on digital mourning…until I figured out it was really about this intense relationship and first loss.
You serve as the Executive Director of Out of the Binders, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the literary careers of women and gender non-conforming writers. First off, thank you for your dedication to this important movement. Secondly, what are some of the organization’s strategies to achieve its mission? What would you like more people to know?
We provide tools, strategies, and connections to women and gender non-conforming writers, primarily through our bicoastal conferences called BinderCon. I just wrapped up our 3rd New York City con last weekend; we had about 550 people there, and I moderated the opening keynote with Anna Quindlen, who was an incredibly inspiring, optimistic speaker. Our next event will be April 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. We’re a professional development conference with a social justice mission, and we try to level the playing field with a generous scholarship program, opportunities to pitch agents and editors, and career-focused workshops on topics such as tax write-offs for freelancers, writing and selling personal essays, and applying to grants and residencies.
– Shannon Perri
Working at the intersection of literature and activism, Leigh Stein is the author of three books, and the co-founder and Executive Director of Out of the Binders, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers. Her debut novel The Fallback Plan made the “highbrow brilliant” quadrant of New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix,” and her poetry collection Dispatch from the Future was selected for Publishers Weekly‘s Best Summer Books of 2012 list, and the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Land of Enchantment, her memoir about young love, obsession, abuse, and loss, is just out from Plume. She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Allure, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, The Cut, Salon, and Slate.
For her advocacy work, Stein has been called a “leading feminist” by the Washington Post, and honored as a “woman of influence” by New York Business Journal.