It’s always exciting for us at Longridge Review to get publishing news from one of our essayists. Dorothy Rice’s memoir, Gray Is The New Black (Otis Books, Seismicity Editions, June 2019), is a memoir of ageism, sexism and self acceptance. It’s also a wonderful portrait of an intelligent, beautiful woman struggling to confront her past in order to have the present and future she wants and deserves. Read on for insight into her process!
Q: I find elements of your essay here, Prom and Other Fairy Tales, in your book. Your relationship to your sisters and your mother, feeling trapped by other people’s expectations, being conflicted about your role in the male desires around you. When you go into the past with your writing, what do you find the most difficult? And how do you deal with it?
A: I love writing about the past. Perhaps because these are stories I believe I know. Meaning I know what I remember as having happened and that’s where I start. But what I am always astonished by is how, in writing the scenes that I remember, that are born anew. When I take the time to go deep into memory, I find things I had forgotten or, even better, the past is revealed to me in new ways.
This is a simple truth and goal of memoir writing, of course. When we recount childhood experience as adults, we both remember how it felt as a child and now, years later, we are looking at that experience with very different, ideally more reflective, generous and perhaps even forgiving, eyes.
That is what I love about Longridge Review – your focus on essays that explore exactly this broadening, this expansion, complexity and different understanding that emerges when we re-examine early experience.
This is my wheelhouse, a place I could hang out in for days.
My mother, sadly, is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. If she were cogent, it’s quite likely I wouldn’t have written of her in many of the ways that I have, if at all (she was pretty prickly). As for my sisters, I share any writing that includes them before seeking publication. Over the years, it’s lead to interesting comparisons of our memories of the same event, colored by our differing personalities (I’m the Eeyore of the three).
Q: You write a lot in this book about struggling to gain control over your weight throughout your life. Many people with a similar struggle say they only gained control over their body’s literal weight by dealing with the hidden weight of some kind of personal trauma. Was that true for you?
A: That was my hope and a main impetus for writing this book. I thought of 2017 as my year to fix whatever it was that ailed me and to write a book about the process. On the most simplistic level, I was dissatisfied with my appearance and my marriage and sick and tired of feeling that way. If not now, when? Edging up on 65, that was the mantra that urged me on.
It’s no surprise that diets and exercise proved no more effective in 2017 than in any prior year. I began digging for the roots of my body dissatisfaction issues and quickly stumbled into old trauma territory (rape at 15 and its lingering aftermath).
I still struggle with weight and body acceptance. Revisiting and reflecting on the trauma didn’t “cure” me. But it moved the dial and sharpened my focus. I hadn’t realized the extent to which I harbored shame, guilt and embarrassment over mistakes made in adolescence. Those uncomfortable feelings are closely aligned with how I’ve long felt about my body, sexuality, and desirability as a woman.
In other words, writing about it wasn’t a quick fix (I don’t believe there is such a thing), but I’m more conscious now. When I’m beating myself up, I can often stop the shame/eat/repeat cycle before its hooks are into me. I work at being kinder, gentler and more forgiving with myself, which I hope makes me the same with others.
Q: Anyone writing creative nonfiction has to grapple with the reactions of those we write about. Sometimes others even question the veracity of your memories. Have you had this happen, has anyone said, “That’s not the way it happened”?
A: If anything, it’s been illuminating rather than divisive. My sisters laugh when I recall a scene with dark and dreary overtones that for them was happy, or neutral.
I am often asked about the general veracity of memory. How am I comfortable recreating dialogue (which I love to do)? How on earth do I know what Dad said when I was six? There are some conversations I remember (or believe I remember) verbatim, but I don’t claim to have total recall. I go for the emotional truth and work from there. I also believe in “method writing” (akin to “method acting” where the actor really climbs inside the character’s skin). I create a little movie in my head, immerse myself in whatever the scene is, press “play” and start writing.
In all the essays I’ve written with family-member and other’s dialog, no one has yet complained, “I never said that.” I don’t believe it’s because they ever said exactly those words, but rather the writing captured enough of where they were coming from emotionally and what they intended to communicate or accomplish.
My parents found my memory for the details of every awful thing anyone ever did or said to me pretty irritating. To quote my dad,”Your mind is like the Roach Motel (a cockroach bait device that was featured in TV ads when I was a kid). Whatever makes it inside that head of yours, never comes out.”
Of course, these traits have proven useful as a writer, or perhaps they explain why I write. I have to get it all out of there somehow or my head might explode.
Q: You write a lot about what I would call the way things appear, the way things feel, and the way things are. That’s a lot of angles! Where do you think that comes from, those conflicts that you seem to always be trying to resolve?
A: That’s an interesting question! Thank you for that.
On one level, that’s what the book is about. How one’s thinking about self and others–the various perception lenses through which life’s experiences are filtered–impacts everything. Our appreciation and enjoyment of life. The ability to experience joy and gratitude. The ability to be in the moment, living life, rather than dissecting what it might have been, could or should have been, and wasn’t. The ability to accept love and affection, to believe in it.
Deciding to write this particular book post-60, I had a sense of if-not-now-when, both in terms of the writing itself, but also in tackling what I perceive to be my personal demons head on. I wanted to bring my own awareness to the mental contortions I put myself though on a daily basis and to, to the extent possible, make peace with myself, who I am and how I am.
The mind is a noisy place. Writing down some of what’s rattling around in there can bring a moment’s peace. It feels like tidying up, making some sense of a vexing or irksome memory.
Q: You write about writing itself. What was the most helpful piece of advice you received that influenced your writing process for this book?
A: Before beginning Gray Is The New Black, I had enrolled in a write-a-book-in-a-year class with NYT best-selling author Ellen Sussman. Both the structure of the class and the accountability provided by having deadlines and others to report to periodically were huge in terms of writing this book.
I really needed that.
As for specific advice, Ellen was great at several junctures. Within the first month of beginning the memoir, I tapped into the material about my high school trauma and how that experience colored all my future interactions with boys and men. Once I’d turned the spigot, I couldn’t stop the flow. I literally spewed words, something like 150,000 in a matter of six weeks or so. I worried it was all garbage and that I was on the wrong track. Ellen reassured me by saying something along the lines of, “Just keep going. Get it all down. This is the stage you should be in. The generative stage.”
Legitimizing what I was experiencing helped me a lot, as my tendency is to self-edit as I go. If I’d stopped to judge the value of recording these painful memories and impressions, I might have been mired down for months or years. Much of it got cut way back or eliminated during the various edits of the draft manuscript. But I needed the freedom to let it rip and not worry about form, shape, narrative thread or anything but the words that, after so many years, were finally finding their way out of me and onto the page.