Diana Joseph is the author of the short story collection Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie Mellon UP 2003) and I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog (Putnam 2009.) Her work has appeared in Threepenny Review, Willow Springs, Marie Claire, Country Living and Best Sex Writing 2009. She teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota.
Superstition ReviewEditor Britney Gulbrandsen conducted this email interview with Diana Joseph. She says of the experience, "The titles got me—I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend To Man & Dog. This humor carries on throughout her book. It's a laugh-out-loud memoir, but it's also real and emotional in so many ways. She captures the truth behind real relationships between father and daughter, sister and brother, mother and son, boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife. I want to thank her for her time in answering my questions in such a thoughtful, honest way."
Superstition Review: The title of your book, I'm Sorry You Feel That Way, doesn't show up until the last essay in your book. Explain what drove you to title your memoir the way that you did.
Diana Joseph: For the longest time this book was called "Untitled Essay Collection." I didn't have a title in mind. When it came time to name this book I read through it, hoping to come across a phrase that would make a great title. And one did. I found a phrase that I loved. I thought, Here it is. This is it. This is the title: "The Feral Sons of Tarzan."
Nobody but me thought that was a good title. "I'm Sorry You Feel That Way" was another phrase that I'd pulled out of the book—it's a big part of the essay "Ten Million, At Least."
And as a phrase, it ranks, for me at least, as one of the most obnoxious and passive-aggressive things one human being can say to another. But as a title, it was the one everyone liked right away. I came around to it mostly because of the subtitle. I like how that subtitle hits all those roles I play, all those personas and versions of myself.
SR: You have such a distinct voice in your book. How do you keep the voice consistent, especially when writing the memoir one essay at a time? Did you write the essays all with the intention of writing a book, or did they all just fit together and mesh that way?
DJ: The voice in the essays is not the voice I use when I'm talking to my students or my family or even my friends. It wasn't the voice I used to sound smart in essay exams or to sound not-like-a-lunatic in tirades I've sent to my local congressman. But it is my letter-writing voice. It's how I sound in letters—not emails or IMs or text messages, but actually pen-scratched-on-paper letters.
John Edgar Wideman says "Stories are letters. Letters sent to anybody or everybody. But the best kind are meant to be read by a specific somebody." When I was working on these essays, I imagined them as letters. In fact, when I sat down to write a draft, I sometimes even put Dear Melanie at the top of the page.
Melanie is Melanie Rae Thon, one of my favorite people in the universe. I first met her in 1993 when I was a student in the MFA program at Syracuse University and she was my teacher. She runs a fantastic, inspiring workshop; I'm lucky I got to work with her. I'm even luckier we became friends. Over the years, Melanie and I kept in touch not by telephone or email, but through letters, lots of letters, mailed from Ohio, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota. So imagining each of the essays in this book as a letter to Melanie—a person who lives and loves and writes with empathy and compassion; who, when I am behaving in ways she isn't wild about, loves me enough to say I understand the impulse-made writing them a lot easier. Imagining her as my reader made me feel like I could tell these personal stories, especially the ones where I don't come off like a winner.
Letter-writing is the trick I played on myself to get to that voice, but I fretted a lot over how to structure the essays, and even more, how to make them mean something. Every time I told a story I thought so what. Who cares. Why would anybody care about that. I revised and revised these essays. I even gave myself carpal tunnel from all that typing and re-typing (which lead to my adoration of a chiropractor named Becca). But I wanted each essay to be something more than just a zany anecdote; I wanted each to have a clear emotional center.
SR: In "Tongue Twister, Tongue Tied" you write, "Am I remembering right? Can that possibly be true?" I love this. Creative nonfiction can be difficult to write because sometimes the truth of our memories is blotched out, blurry. Discuss how you overcome this.
DJ: Several of the essays in the book were worked on in real time—as I was living them—so the details were right there in front of me. All I had to do was pay attention. I've got scraps of papers and old receipts, little notebooks and bar napkins, upon which I jotted things down. Observations. Descriptions. Bits of dialogue.
Just now—because I'm thinking about this—I dug out a bar tab from September 6, 2006. It's from the night I hung out with Andrew Boyle, the guy I write about in "It's Me. It's Him. It's Them." I've written all over that bar tab, scribbled down great stuff Andrew said. Like this: I feel like Woody Guthery in the land of shoes. And this: It's the same trick I play on myself so many times. I think I'm going to clear up her problems. If I'm good to her, I'll clear up her problems and she'll stop being a freak. I also came across that dirty little drawing I mention in "Officer Frenchie," the essay about my brother Travis. I'd send a copy to show you but it's even nastier than I remember, and I don't want to offend.
But in other essays, like the one about my dad, I relied almost entirely on memory and its sometimes steady, sometimes slippery, path between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. I set out to write all the stories I knew about him. I made lists of everything I knew for sure and everything I didn't know. I wrote down advice he's given me-repeatedly-through the years. I wrote down conversations we had and conversations I only wished we had. I had pages and pages of material. Is it accurate? I say it is. Is it the same story my brothers would tell? I guess you'd have to ask them.
SR: In, "Humping the Dinosaur," you have a section about your constant worrying. It's probably my favorite section in the whole book. The writing is so raw, so real. How do you capture your thoughts in such a relatable way?
DJ: I went sorting through some old files the other morning and I came across a story I'd abandoned called "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear." It's about a guy named Clark Trask, whose wife, a kindergarten teacher, had been shot in the face by the father of one of the children in her class. I started this piece back in 2002. I was thirty-two years old, and every day for months and months, when I sat down at my computer to work on this story, I opened up a new Word document, and I centered that title at the top of the page—"And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear"—then I'd retype the part of the story I'd already written.
That part—the part I retyped—didn't take long to do. That's because I didn't have much written. In fact, I hardly had anything written. What I had wasn't even a scene. It was mostly a summary of Clark Trask's situation and particulars: he loved his wife, his wife was dead, he was devastated, grieving. He was also now a single father of three little girls.
And he liked to go bowling. That's no doubt because at the time, I was bowling a lot, about once a week, and though I was not very good at bowling—I had a terrible, terrible hook that I could not get under control—I went bowling enough to warrant the purchase of bowling shoes, a bowling ball (red, the word DIANA engraved above the finger holes), and a bag to carry the shoes and ball.
Every day, I'd retype what I had, then I would get up and fix myself some scrambled eggs or pour myself another cup of coffee. I'd smoke a bunch of cigarettes, and if it was after 12 noon but before 3:00, I might wander over to next door to see if any of the hippies who lived there were up and moving around, and if so, were they smoking pot? Because if they were, maybe they'd offer me some and then I could go back home and work some more on "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear." (I told myself this was good for my writing; it was not.)
I was having a lot of problems with writing "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear." I was having problems figuring out what should happen in the story. Something needed to happen, I knew that, but what? Think, think, think! I told myself. What, what, what.
I tried to think of things that could happen—think think think! what what what!—while I read about 9/11 conspiracy theories or played Minesweeper—both things I was pretty interested in at the time—and because I was stoned, I also thought a lot about my dog. I imagined that the dog disapproved of me or that if the dog could talk, he would reprimand me. Sometimes, I'd get down to the dog's level and fuss over him, hugging him and petting him, wrapping my arms around him and cooing at him and telling him how awesome he was until he'd had enough and struggle to get away. I always really liked being around animals after I'd smoked some pot.
I thought about giving Clark Trask a dog. Or having Clark Trask find a dog. That could be what happened. I could have a homeless guy knock on the door to Clark Trask's house, and when Clark opened the door, the homeless guy could thrust a little dog in Clark's arms. Here, the homeless guy could say, I found this dog and I don't know what to do with it.
That's actually something that happened to me one day while I was working on "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear." There was a knock on the door, and a homeless guy who thrust a little dog into my arms. The dog was wearing a collar and tags that said it was up-to-date on its rabies shot, but did not say its name or its owner's name or phone number. My work on "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear" wasn't going well that day—I still knew that something needed to happen in the story (what what what) and I still couldn't figure out what (think think think)—so I welcomed the distraction. I welcomed the detective work that getting this dog back to its rightful owner would require.
I called the vet's office on the rabies tags. The vet was a hundred years old and his secretary/wife was a one hundred and three—and it took a while for them to figure out why I was calling. They couldn't understand
- that the reason my name/number wasn't in their computer was because they weren't my vet;
- that I didn't know the owner's name or address or phone number or place of employment;
- that I didn't know the animal's name;
- how the animal came to be in my possession
- what I wanted from them.
As frustrating as it was to repeatedly explain the situation to Dr. and Mrs. Dawn-of-Time (but the dog got its rabies shot from your office, I kept saying), it also made me very happy. It was fun, great fun, a puzzle to solve, a mystery to solve, a problem that I could get to the bottom of, a problem that I did get to the bottom of by driving the little dog out to their office. Upon seeing the dog, Dr. Dawn-of-Time said, Oh, well, that's Pinky, and upon hearing its name, the little dog went nuts. Mrs. Dawn-of-Time called Pinky's owner, a realtor who lived five or six blocks away from me, and that night around suppertime, the realtor came by my house and retrieved her little dog, and I had what I thought was a good story to tell people, a story much more interesting than the one I was writing, the one called "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear," the one where NOTHING HAPPENED.
So that got me to wondering why was I writing a story about a guy whose wife was shot in the face, a story about an unpredictable world, a dangerous, violence world. What did it mean? Not what did this particular story mean, but what did it mean that I was writing it? What did it mean that I could tell the backstory no problem, but I couldn't make anything happen in the present? What did say about how I saw the world? About randomness, about violence. About grieving, about anger. I knew that Clark Trask was angry and grieving but I couldn't figure out what on earth an angry, grieving person could do besides be angry and grieving. Maybe there were limits to my imagination, but at age 32, I couldn't imagine that a grieving person could do anything but grieve. I couldn't imagine an anger that doesn't last forever.
Last spring, one of my favorite undergraduates and I got to talking about a story he'd written. I thought it was already a very fine piece of writing—this student has craft and control and he has heart, that thing that can't be taught—I thought it was only a few drafts away from being finished and I said so. But my student said something smart. He said he was going to keep working on it, but he didn't think he'd have a draft finished quite to his satisfaction any time soon. He said he didn't know enough yet. He was 23 years old, he said, and he didn't expect he'd have the wisdom he'd need to tell this story he wanted to tell until he was older. Like fifty, he said. Or sixty. But that was okay, he said. He was still going to keep working on it. He was still going to keep writing it—
—Wait. What was your question?
Oh, right. It was about capturing thoughts. How do I do capture my thoughts?
I thought about that student of mine the other day when I came across "And The Burden Laid Upon Me Was No More Than I Could Bear," and I wanted to hug him. Because while I'm not interested in working on the specific story of Clark Trask, I am very interested in working with the heart of the material, the story's emotional center. At age 32, I couldn't imagine that a grieving person could do anything but grieve and I couldn't imagine an anger that doesn't last forever, but at age 40, I can. It's a story I think I have it in me to tell. I think realizing where I am in the life long process of Getting-a-Grip, of Figuring-Things-Out lets me communicate a complicated feeling. I like thinking about capturing thoughts the way our seventh grade math teacher wanted us to solve math problems: by showing our work. The writers who interest me the most show their work, they show how their minds work, how they started by thinking about this and ended by thinking about that, and what you see is that they were thinking about a lot of crazy shit along the way, but somehow, all that crazy shit is connected. It adds up. It means something.
I don't think I answered your question but I had fun thinking about it!
SR: Your book begins with the epigraph, "A man is a god in ruins" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Explain why you chose to add this to your memoir.
DJ: I will admit I get a big kick out of guys. Not long ago, someone referred to me as "an Elaine"—like the Seinfeld character, one of those girls whose friends are mostly male. I've always had a female friend, a girlfriend, but just one at a time. Even now, at age thirty-eight, I've never been part of a female circle. I can't figure out how to speak the language or decode the signals or infiltrate the group. Maybe it's because I grew up with brothers. Or maybe it's because my father was such a mysterious (and god-like) presence in my life that I spent more time seeking out male approval. Or maybe it's got something to do with some insecurity on my part, some real or perceived flaw in my own character, some bump on my nose or dark spot on my brain. The fact remains: I'm a girly girl who enjoys a good fart joke.
I get asked a lot about the book's epigraph, and I think Emerson had it only halfway right: I think we are all gods in ruins. Men and women alike, all of us capable of compassion and vengeance, forgiveness and grudge-holding. We're a miserable species, but we're likewise amazing. I didn't want to demonize any of the guys I wrote about, but I didn't want to valorize anyone, either.
SR: In "The Boy" you describe many less-than-perfect aspects of your son, but readers are left with this picture of a charming young boy that you love deeply. How, amidst smelly feet, fighting, refusing to eat his dinner, and dirty clothes covering the floor, do you show so much love?
DJ: I am crazy-in-love with my kid even when he is driving me crazy. I don't think those feelings are mutually exclusive. So first it's a matter of allowing myself to feel both feelings, sometimes simultaneously, and then it's a matter of collecting the details that show both.
It sounds easy, doesn't it? Maybe for some people it is. I still struggle with it, not just with feeling contradictory feelings but also with telling myself it's okay to.
SR: "It's Me. It's Him. It's Them." You write, "It's me. It's them. It's me. It's Andrew. It's me. It's you. It's any man with greedy eyes. I've never stopped wanting to kick you in the nuts. Hard. When you least expect it." Describe your process of picking the right ending for your essays.
DJ: Ha. I am terrible at endings. By the time I get to the ending, I'm usually so exhausted and sick of what I've written that I just want to get it over with. My first go at ending always falls short.
My friend Sam Ligon—he edits Willow Springs and is also an excellent writer himself—taught me a trick about endings. Two essays of mine have been published in Willow Springs, and both times the endings were abrupt, and I knew it. I just hoped Sam wouldn't notice.
He did. Of course he did. So what he told me to do was write past the ending. Just one sentence past it, Sam said, then one paragraph, then a page, or even a couple of pages. Just to see what happens next, where you go. So I forced myself to answer the question of Then What? And it worked. So now that's what I always do: there's the first-but-false ending, then there's the second-but-true ending.
It's a mind game I play with myself. But so much of my process is.
SR: You write, blog, have two children, have an Etsy shop...how do you balance your time?
DJ: Ha again. I don't balance time well. I am easily distracted, the valedictorian of Procrastination. There's always something I haven't done, some bill I forgot to pay, someplace I was supposed to be, some task I haven't started, need to finish, holy-shit-that-should-have-happened-yesterday.
I drink a lot of coffee.
SR: In "Ten Million, At Least" you write, "And when our squabbling becomes bickering that grows up to be arguing about the position of the toilet seat or hair in the sink, about clothes on the floor and don't-talk-to-me-like-I'm-an-idiot, isn't one of us saying, Good God, you're irritating, while the other says, Oh really? What are you? Not irritating?" This strikes a chord with me. How do you capture something that all couples experience so perfectly?
DJ: I don't think it's just romantic couples who experience this. I think happens with anyday-friends, co-workers, family members. The exchange is about the struggle for power, for control, who gets to be the one who is right, who gets to be the one who is sane. That's interesting to me.
Squabbling and bickering interests me because on the surface it's always about the petty stuff but the subtext is always about the big stuff. When I'm squabbling and bickering with someone I love, I try not to get carried away by it (though I always get carried away by it) and I try to figure out why am I so invested in something so trivial (because it matters, damn it! That hair in the sink matters!) and I try to figure out what, really, is going on (I'm tired. I'm lonely. I need you to pay attention to me).
Also: I have had a lot of therapy. I've spent a lot of time learning how to think about this stuff. That's helped. I can't imagine that I'd be any good as a writer, a friend, a mother, or a human being without staying on top on my tendencies toward miserliness or pettiness or meanness.
SR: I love the FAQs section on your website. I think that having something unique on your website is important. How did you come up with something that drew readers in, entertained, and showed your craft all in one?
DJ: Ha once more!
When I first wrote the FAQ section, I thought I was sort of being an asshole, making fun of FAQ pages on author websites. I thought it was self-mockery to put one on my website because nobody was asking me any questions with any kind of frequency. In fact, nobody was asking me any questions at all. I was just goofing around with those questions and my answers but then surprisingly, people seemed to like them. There have been quite a few times when at a reading, the person introducing me will use a passage from them—especially the answer to What does Diana believe in?—while I sit and listen to my own words, come back to haunt and taunt me, and I think, Diana, you are an asshole.