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Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Tour #16: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

You know how tearing off a band-aid is supposed to make it hurt less? I think I employed a similar technique to reading this memoir, sitting with it for two straight days to finish it quickly. Because it was so damn painful. It was also beautiful and eye-opening and moving and even, once in a while, funny. I read a lot of passages aloud to Josh, which, to me is a sign of the quality of writing in the book. The words were meant to be released from the page, in fact, the reader could not help but read them aloud.

On pages 79-80, McCracken speaks of losing a friend after Pudding's death. I was struck by the way she wrote this passage because it clearly expresses her feelings about the conflict and about her former friend, replacing the silence that she used to break off the friendship (I suspect the friend in question has read the book by now). Have you lost friends during or after your infertility/loss/adoption? If so, how much of the blame for the loss do you place on communication and/or miscommunication? Does your former friend know how you feel about him or her and the loss of his or her friendship?

We formally only lost one friend and I always thought it was due to infertility--it was certainly their insensitivity that broke the camel's back--but in speaking with them in passing this year, I wonder if we were just looking for an excuse to break ties with them. The husband is a cruel person in general and his wife is unfortunately sucked into his orbit.

Our former friend doesn't know how we feel at all and I've often wondered why she hasn't asked or pushed it. We are obviously still friends with other mutual friends (we saw them, for instance, at a mutual friend's house) which should give them some indication that it's them and not circumstances. In other words, there are people that we don't see often not for any reason other than time and distance. But these people still see us with our mutual friends.

I wonder if she doesn't ask because she secretly knows the answer.

I understand the author's need to let us know at the beginning of the book that she had another (live) child. Generally, I liked her matter of fact tone and writing style. However, I sometimes felt like I was missing some of her raw emotions about the loss. She rushed over the first few months after the loss and hurried towards the second pregnancy, writing about the affect that the loss had on their lives through that second pregnancy. This could be because she did not want to dwell on it, or because she did get pregnant again so fast (within a year). I wondered what it would have been like to read the book not knowing about her successful second pregnancy (if that was even possible to separate out from the loss). Did you find that it took something away from the way you took her loss or took her book as a whole?

We've had a question similar to this with other books we've read: did knowing the final outcome make you read the book differently. Infertility and loss books tend to be written by those who are in a different emotional space--usually holding a child. I think some of that is because when you're in the middle of the crisis, you're not using your energy to try to understand the experience or explain it to others. You're using your energy to breathe, put one foot in front of the other, keep moving. It's only when you're out of the crisis that you can begin to process what happened, set it down in words.

Of course, being out of the crisis of loss or infertility doesn't necessarily mean that you're holding a child. Joan Didion wrote a gorgeous book about loss (albeit a spouse) that is simply about loss. She isn't in a different space in terms of situation though she was in a different space emotionally when she began writing the book.

I think the big difference is that time and resolution gives you the ability to look at the world with distance And books so seeped in emotions, the hurt of the experience, are difficult to read because they're not accessible to the reader. They're too personal. They're too narrow. I think if she tried to write it while she was in the first days of grief, we would have a book about her grief. But, with that distance, she was able to write a book about her grief and have it speak in a larger sense to all grief.

So how to blogs differ? I think it's mostly due to the brevity of the post. A book drags you in and keeps you in for a long period of time and if the author doesn't speak outwardly towards the audience, they keep the reader ensconced in their own story rather than allowing their story to be a springboard to the reader exploring their own thoughts. With a blog post, the writing can be inward but length provides a cliff for the reader to run and jump off. Does that make any sense?

There are obviously books out there (Didion's, for instance) where there isn't a "happy ending." I think McCracken could have written a book without having a baby. But she would have needed a level of resolution and perspective to convince the publisher that it was about the author and reader simultaneously rather than being just about the author. Unfortunately, I think publishers--like so much of the greater public--equate a baby with closure and a lack of baby with a lack of closure. Which isn't the case.

Have you ever wished that someone wrote the book on the "lighter side of losing a child" (or IF, loss, insert your situation here)? Have you ever found that book? Have you found it in a blog? How have you used humor to work through times of grief?

Humour is such a hard line to walk. Of course it helps with the processing of the experience. For instance, I read A Little Pregnant, which I think of as one of the most humourous blogs out there and I think it walks on the same side of the line that McCracken successfully walks: it is funny without losing the weight of the experience. You do not think either author is making fun or dismissing emotions, but instead, there is a wistfulness; a feeling that if you don't laugh, you'll cry; a head nod to the ridiculousness of life.

On the other hand, I have read a book that was presented as a "lighter side of infertility and loss" book and it crossed that line from laughing with me to feeling like it was laughing at me. I felt like the author was completely dismissing the range of emotions inherent in infertility and pushing this one note. If you're in the mood for that one note, it can be interesting to hear. For a bit. If you're not in the mood for that one note, it can be grating and insensitive. The whole message I took from that book was "it's no big deal."

I think the point is that humour only works when the person isn't trying. When humour is a natural extension of their being. Julie's wryness and McCracken's humourous moments can't be borrowed. Either you express yourself well and can use humour to add depth or it becomes the opposite--a painful exercise that ends up pushing away the reader. McCracken does lightness very well because it is always balanced on the other side with the weight of the situation. I wouldn't necessarily want to see someone without that level of skill try to balance the subject matter.

Jump along to other blogs discussing An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by scrolling up to the post above this one. Join along for our next book: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.


luna said...

I think it's true what you say about how time and space enables the perspective one needs to write about a crisis -- to process the emotional journey of grief, for example.

also love what you write about humor. it can definitely push people away if you feel disregarded, but also when the audience is unsure whether it has permission to laugh. I wrote about an example of this, though upon reflection, maybe it wasn't so funny at the time...

my answers are up at:

loribeth said...

Every bereaved parent I know has a story to tell about breaking or drifting away from certain friends or family members, post-loss, mostly because they felt unsupported or were offended by an insensitive comment. It's sad. :(

I love your comments about time & loss -- and how new baby = closure; no baby = no closure. As she said in the book, "Closure is bullshit." lol

Cassandra said...

I also read the book in a couple of days -- IVF #2 egg retrieval day and the day after! Some people might not read a dead baby book in the middle of IVF, but I figured that I might as well read it when I was already unstable, rather than bringing down my mood on a happy day (which I actually don't think would have happened, no matter what day I'd read it).

What you say about McCracken writing about her grief alone versus her grief plus all grief is a crucial distinction between books and blogs. To me, the majority of blogs are focused on the personal, but the best blogs transcend the personal and speak to broader human experience. That's one of my top goals for my own blog.

Another Dreamer said...

I liked the statement you made about Publishers, as well as others, thinking that having a baby is closure (even though we know, "Closure is bullshit.")

I think that often people think that way about everything else as well, whether adoption being closure, pregnancy after child loss, etc... Sometimes they don't acknowledge that you are fundamentally changed from the experience, and they think that finding a resolution makes you "all better" neat and tidy happy go lucky... and it's not true.

I am with you on the necessity of distance when writing such heavy pieces. I actually wrote a little about that in my response. You can't be too close to tragedy and still write about it well enough to bring people in, without pushing them away at the same time. Or, as can happen, sucking them in too far.

I too think Humor is a hard line to walk. Besides the reasons you stated, I also have difficulties with it because if I am humorous I wonder... am I being bitter and sarcastic, or looking on the lighter side of things? This too is a hard line, I find.

Tash said...

re: humor: I'm a big believer in bringing what has worked for you in the past to the situation at hand. If you are at your core a person with a good sense of humor who then uses humor effectively to get through bad times, I see no reason not to use through the absolute grimmest of times. Ditto religion, or little-f faith, or romance, or optimism, or sentimentality. Frankly, I think you can mis-use any one of those turns in your writing -- it tends to come through if you're not used to using it or living it to begin with.

Thanks for the opportunity and organization and words, Mel! My answers are up.

Annie said...

I love how you described the fine line with humor and loss--being funny without losing the weight of the experience, the feeling that if you don't laugh, you'll cry. Her story about the woman asking for the book on the lighter side of losing a child was something that really touched me since I have often found myself hoping for the same thing. Sometimes things are so terrible, the things people say are so ridiculous, that I desperately want someone to make me turn it all into laughter just so I can get through it.

and Another Dreamer, I like what you said about closure here in the comments. I do get the feeling from people that if I just had another baby I would feel better about my losses and I would get over it and be happy and my life would be this wonderful happy little miracle. What you said is so true, they don't get that the experience fundamentally changes you. I will never be the same person again.

The Steadfast Warrior said...

Your thoughts regarding the friend you lost and how you suspect she knows why. I wonder if on some level, it's like that for most of the peeople who leave our lives because of a seemingly lack of understanding or sensitivity. Is it a choice, or are they really oblivious? I have a hard time believing that those who repeatedly cross the line do so innocently, so I guess the question is why? But I don't really have an answer.

I too am intriugued by your discussion of time and introspection. I think a lot of our discussions regarding closure comes from having had time to realize that resolution of our grief doesn't mean that everything is "fine".

I also think that your distinction between books and blogs interesting in this regard, because you're right, blogs have the ability to be more intense. They don't always allow the distance form our emotions as they often are about things happening in the moment. But they are no less valuable.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your thoughtful responses to the questions, and especially found your answer to the second one thought-provoking: the idea that most loss books are written by those who appear to have closure, to publishers at least. I remember hearing about Didion's book on NPR when it first came out, so thanks for bringing it back into my mind so that I can put it on my "to be read" list.

Elizabeth McCracken said...

McCracken here-thank you so much, Mel, for the book group and for writing so wonderfully about Figment. I love A Little Bit Pregnant, largely for Julie's razor sharp and dark dark dark sense of humor.

& you are right about having to convince a publisher. I didn't write the book intending to publish it, and I was absolutely incapable of writing about my first son in those first dark months (directly, anyhow; I wrote some fiction which clearly comes directly out of that much more raw grief). & even so, one editor turned it down because she wanted--did she even use the word redemption?--anyhow, she really wanted Heartwarming Lessons from a Dead Child. & other people turned it down because they couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read a book on such a sad topic. & I thought, Well, this is the book I wrote, but under different circumstances it could have been much much much sadder...

Stacey said...

I recently purchased this book and it's on my reading list for the year. I can't wait to get to it. Thanks for the review!