Finding Distance and Going Towards Fear in Writing
An Interview with Heidi Croot
by Will McCrary, Mud Season Review Creative Nonfiction Reader
You mention that writing “widened the distance” between yourself and your mother, creating a space even though you were physically close by. Is that sense of “remove” in the written word more or less universal, or is it possible to reverse the trend?
In memoir, as in life, emotional distance is what matters. My mother and I were unable to relate with candour and vulnerability. Because we didn’t know each other, our letters could only widen that “remove.” Can the tragedy of broken relationships be reversed? Can bridges be built, space filled, remove replaced with warmth? A therapist once told me I could depend on others to meet me halfway, that repair and reconciliation were not all up to me. The seeds of an answer to your question may lie there. If both individuals are moved to walk partway toward each other, with one person having the courage to start that journey, then yes to the question, so full of hope and longing. Yes, a reversal is possible. But my mother was too emotionally damaged, perhaps too terrified, to respond to a daughter’s overtures. I say “a” daughter because I wonder if it would have worked the way it did for any child born to her. Sometimes, the path to healing lies in accepting that a relationship cannot be fixed. But here’s something else. It’s possible for the one who yearns to arrive at perspective, understanding and compassion through writing, that magical portal to discovery. A one-sided healing can take place on the page, even after the biggest distancing of all: death.
What does it mean to “go toward fear” in writing? How long did it take to internalize that idea, and what was the catalyst?
I learned the term from author Barbara Turner-Vesselago, my first creative-writing teacher, who ran “freefall writing” workshops around the world. In Writing Without a Parachute, she explains how “writing fearward” works in concert with her other writing precepts, like homing in on what has energy—stories of shame, confusion and truth that simmer below like magma. When writers tap into that heat, our subconscious, far bolder and wiser than we are, takes over the pen. And yes, it’s damn scary to give up control, and it can take years to trust the process. I still hide certain stories under my shirt.
How do you remain truthful to your subject – and to yourself – when writing non-fiction, even as you strive for engagement? Is there a hard line that you must not cross when thinking of the contract between yourself and the reader, or is that line more blurred?
In memoir, the subject is the narrator. The story filters through my lens, as it must. The hard line is my obligation to tell the truth. That said, writers of memoir and autobiography do not make a Proustian promise to share every single thing that happened. We curate our lives to meet the demands of the narrative. I’ve been asked what happens if I’m writing about people still living. I solve it this way: If the story event involved just me, it is 100% my story to tell. But if the event involved me and another person still living, or if the event did not involve me, yet I was enormously affected by it—then it is still my story to tell, but I am honour-bound to simply show what happened. I cannot make assumptions about the other person’s motives, thoughts or emotions. At the crux, is there even such a thing as one person having the one and only truth? All anyone can ask of a writer is to tell her own truth—knowing that others are free to pick up their pen and tell theirs.
How has such a fascination with death revealed itself in your work, or in general?
My grandfather fell to Alzheimer’s, a form of death. His misfortune shattered me. At 28, I kept asking myself if his life of adventure was worth such an ending. That experience led to 12 years in corporate communication with a long-term care company, where I hoped to do good for the elderly. There, I wrote an article for trade press called Nothing But the Truth? which explored the obligation, or not, of staff to divulge a terminal diagnosis to residents, even those gripped by cognitive impairment. It won the best feature of the year award. It was during this time that I trained as a palliative care volunteer at a Toronto hospital. I’ve also written deeply about my mother’s death and that single moment at bedside where, as an only child and disconnected daughter, confused and unsure, I caught sight of something authentic asserting itself within me. Books on death and grief line my shelves, most recently Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life, a potent treatise on the saving grace of hospice. Decades ago, I tacked a quote to my bulletin board, variations of which I’ve since seen everywhere: Death destroys us but the knowledge of death can save us.
What projects are you currently working on?
As a newly inducted editor on the Brevity Blog team, I’m finding huge joy in helping writers sculpt their essays and achieve publication. I’m also a developmental editing partner with book coach and instructor Allison K Williams, author of Seven Drafts. Besides writing essays like the one MSR published, my big project is my 80,000-word memoir about how my mother’s obsession with her father fractured every family relationship that should have been important to her. The memoir is waiting impatiently for me to gather courage to begin querying.
How did COVID affect your writing, if at all?
Covid came along like a big warm permission blanket with enough spread to insulate me from the busy outside world. I’ve been enjoying uninterrupted days at the keyboard—uninterrupted by social events and also by guilt at being so delighted about that—and just finished a forthcoming essay for the Brevity Blog about how introversion and the writing life can take a toll on friendship. Thanks for these questions, Will!
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