I first met Gayle Brandeis in an online workshop taught by Lidia Yuknavitch. I had no idea who this woman was, that she’d written multiple books, but I knew her prose made me sit up straight and take note. It was only later, when I became Facebook friends with her, that I realized how accomplished she was. Brandeis has written several novels, including The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns; the writing guide Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write; and a book of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her newest book is a memoir entitled The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving my Mother’s Suicide. Brandeis is that rare writer who can write fiction, reportage, nonfiction, and poetry—and do it well—and this is apparent in her memoir.
Knowing Brandeis as a person, and having read the book and its themes of motherhood and daughterhood, I am so glad that she is kicking off this series. She found the time to do a little back-and-forth with me to discuss the memoir, as well as the confluence of writing and motherhood.
Given that this is an interview series about writing and motherhood, I’m honored that you’re the inaugural interview. Not only are you a writer and a mother, but your book centers on experiences of motherhood and daughterhood.
I’m so incredibly grateful to be your inaugural interview—thank you so much! I’m eager to read your future interviews; I’m endlessly fascinated by how other writers balance parenting and writing. And I know other writer parents are, as well!
Before we get into your book, what have you done to maintain a space for yourself and your work within motherhood?
Writing has been an important part of my life since I was four years old—it’s been at the very core of my identity—so there was never any doubt I would find a way to prioritize it after becoming a mother, although of course I was nervous about figuring out the balance, and I’ve been better at it at some times than others. I did become adept pretty quickly at finding ways to steal writing time—writing while I was nursing the baby, smuggling a notebook into the bathroom to take advantage of a few minutes of quiet, later letting the kids watch too many videos so I could finish writing a scene. If I ever go for too long a stretch without writing, I become a much crankier mother, a much less satisfied human.
Yes! I, too, am guilty of letting my son watch an extra show or two on the iPad so I can get some reading or writing in… in fact, that’s what he’s doing right now!
I know you have 3 kids of very different ages. How has motherhood affected your writing?
Motherhood has definitely grounded my writing—before I had kids, my writing was so much more idea-based; after having kids, it became much more rooted in lived experience, rooted in my body. I had my older kids when I was 22 and 25 (they’re 27 and almost 24 now), and my life was much simpler then than when I had my youngest at 41 (he’ll be 8 soon). In those early days of motherhood, I was balancing only (only—ha!), writing and mothering, and I often likened this to being a mermaid; when I wrote, I would dive into the ocean within myself, and then surface and grow legs again so I could be present for my kids (although sometimes it felt like I still had seaweed in my hair, like part of me was still underwater.) It was a fairly fluid dance between the elements, the diving in and out between my writer self and mama self (although again, this balance was easier at certain times than others). With my youngest, I am juggling so much more with my writing—teaching, freelance writing and editing, public events, etc.—and haven’t found quite the right metaphor to capture this round of motherwriterhood. It’s all good stuff, but there’s a lot of it and I’m exhausted much of the time.
That is such a wonderful—and apt—image of trying to go back and forth between the creative realm and the realm of motherhood. How does being a writer affect your experience of motherhood?
As a writer, it’s important to me to be present in my life—to keep my senses open and attentive so I can take the world in, so I can feel things fully, so I can write with authenticity. I think that helps me be present as a mother, too; helps me want to soak in all the little details of the experience. At the same time, writing provides a welcome relief from mothering—it gives me an escape valve, helps me feel less stuck in the daily grind of parenting. I’m sure writing makes me less present as a mother at times, too; makes me spacey and harder to reach. I remember Toni Morrison saying that sometimes it felt as if her kids were talking to her through a scrim of water when she was in a writing space in her head; I know that happens to me, too.
Agreed; I have to believe that the times when we are perhaps a bit “under the surface” or muddled, are balanced by the larger calm we get by being able to tap into that world, and the resulting completing we feel. But sometimes the motherguilt is real.
Yes, yes, I love how you phrase this—the “larger calm” and the “resulting completion” are such gifts. Motherguilt is definitely real, although I feel committed to taking on less of it than I once did; that propensity for guilt is a lasting legacy from my mom, one I would rather not keep alive inside myself.
What was the impetus to write this book? Was there a single moment that inspired you?
I knew I wanted to write about my mother—her delusions, our complicated relationship—even before her death, but she had asked me not to write about her when she was alive. After her suicide, I knew I had to write about her for my own well-being, my own attempt to make some sense out of the shock of her death. Writing is how I best understand myself and my life. That said, it took a while to work up the nerve to really dive in to this project—it was super scary, especially in the midst of grieving and mothering a newborn. I had to wait until I felt ready.
Do you think she’d be happy that you wrote about her now? What do you think her reaction would be to your book?
There is a sinking feeling in my gut that she would be furious about it, but I think I’m thinking of her in a delusional and defensive state. If I take a deep breath and allow myself to imagine her in a more ideal state, as her most loving self, I hope she would understand why I needed to write the book and would appreciate the way writing it helped me feel closer to her, helped me even come to feel proud of her creative, entrepreneurial spirit in a way I couldn’t when she was alive. I can picture her jokingly saying “It’s about time!” and cocking an eyebrow at me.
I’m a big fan of unconventional forms, and the structure of your book could be called unconventional—dated brief entries, transcripts of your mom’s movie, the Re:Search diagnoses sections, letters to your mom, and so forth. How did you decide on this approach?
This approach really chose me. Suicide is such a complicated form of grief, and it made sense that my family’s story would demand to be told through a complicated structure. The present tense narration made sense as a way to capture the intensity of the time around my mom’s death; the letter to her, suggested by my therapist at the time, offered a way to reflect upon our past; the film transcript gave my mom her own voice in the text; the research allowed me to step back a bit from my own story and gain a wider perspective. The pieces presented themselves in a very intuitive way, but then of course I had to carefully craft them so they fit together and created something whole.
Although this is a book very much about death, it also manages to be very much about life—birth, struggle, illness, healing, and surviving. At some points, life and death are almost opposite sides of the same coin. The scene where you lay your mom’s clothes around you on the floor, and mention that you did that with baby clothes as well, comes to mind. Did you make a conscious effort to strike that balance, and how so?
This is such a cool observation—I think that much of this balance came about naturally; since my mom took her life a week after I had given birth, that span of time brought such a profound confluence of life and death, and that couldn’t help but come through in the text. I don’t know if I ever articulated this consciously to myself, but I’m sure I wanted the book to be as much about—or more so about—life than death. I never really had a healthy model for grieving, at least not within my family, and had been so terrified to face the loss of a loved one, so part of the process of writing this book was my own figuring out how to live with death, how to allow life and death to coexist within me.
The Art of Misdiagnosis was also the title of your mom’s film. Can you talk about why you chose to use that as the title of this book?
It didn’t occur to me to use her title as my own until I was re-diagnosed with the illness my mom had thought was a misdiagnosis when I was a teenager, and I started to think about how the title could work on so many different levels. It took a while after deciding to use the title that I even considered weaving the film itself into the book; once it became clear to me that I needed to do this, the title felt all the more apt.
How has motherhood affected your tastes as a reader? What books inspire you, and what are you reading right now?
After I became a mother, I had a very hard time reading anything in which a child gets hurt. (It’s still hard for me, but I can handle it now. At some point, I realized that hiding from scary things wouldn’t actually protect me from the world; in many ways, it kept me from engaging with life fully and honestly. Better to face the scary things head on, or at least acknowledge their presence.)
Reading, like writing, has always been a way of connecting with the wider world, a way of maintaining a sense of inner autonomy while raising children. I am most inspired by books that take risks in some way—personal risks, creative risks—books that break silences, books that help me see life freshly. Right now, I’m reading an advance copy of I AM, I AM, I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death, a memoir by novelist Maggie O’Farrell. The title comes from Sylvia Plath—“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” I’m only a couple of chapters in so far, but I’m loving it; it’s a gorgeously written meditation on mortality, on embracing and appreciating life by facing death (which feels so appropriate for this conversation!).
What advice would you give to a writer trying to juggle parenthood and writing?
I am hesitant to give too much specific advice, since there is no solution that is right for everyone—we each have to find what works best for our own situation. Maybe that means getting up half an hour earlier to find quiet time to write; maybe that means sneaking a notebook into the bathroom, like I used to; maybe that means trading childcare with another creative parent to give each other time to write or do other art; maybe that means carving extra space inside yourself to begin to dream up a story; maybe that means putting stuff like cleaning lower on the priority list (cleaning is always low on my priority list, I have to admit). Remember to nurture your inner world as you nurture your children. Raising a child is a sacred, important job, but so is creating art. Life goes so fast; writing can help us slow it down a bit, can help us bear witness to the mess and glory of it, can help give greater meaning to our days, can help us appreciate it all. And be gentle with yourself—there are times when the balance is difficult, when you might be too tired to fit writing in. Allow yourself some down time without guilt or shame—if writing is important to you, you will find a way to let it back in.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.
Author photo by CameraRAWPhotography.