A Conversation With Ariel Levy About Writing a Memoir That Avoids ‘Invoking Emotional Tropes’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.

And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.

Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.

Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?

That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.

If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.

That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way.

The idea of people telling you that you were too forceful and fervent—“too much”—comes up in the book a couple times. Is this something that you internalized, or are there specific conversations that you remember where people literally said that? Who would say that?

It was a constant. It was the chorus of my childhood. Teachers and extended family and—you know, I just had a lot to say! [laughter] I just had a lot to say. I was a pushy, pushy kid. And that is not popular in a little girl. Or wasn’t 35 years ago.

My best friend, Emma, who is in the book, her daughter, my goddaughter, is a really forceful kid. Emma and I sometimes say to each other, “God, she’s so powerful, we’re sort of about to fall over we’re so challenged by her life force?” [laughter] It’s so intense. But I don’t think she is going to get tamped down like we did. I think we’ve made progress on that, at least in certain lucky parts of the country where we’ve redefined what it is to be a little girl to a great extent.

Was there any benefit to having it pointed out—for example, so you were prompted to reflect on it—or do you think it was just invasive and intrusive for people to be commenting on that?

People could’ve been not quite so mean about it. But also, I did have to learn how to regulate my energy and how to listen and how to be compassionate, and to realize that not everyone is so forceful. You have to step back sometimes and give other people who aren’t aggressive a chance, because otherwise you miss out on what they are about. You can’t just assume everyone’s going to go head-to-head.

So I think all that was stuff that I needed to learn. But I think if I were a little boy, it would’ve been a much easier lesson. I don’t think it would’ve come with quite so much disgust from adults. And I think about that with my goddaughter. Her mom and I both want to impress on her—like, there’s this song we sing about, “you gotta listen.” But the last thing on God’s earth we want to do is give her the message that there is something wrong with her, or she’s not feminine, or this makes her rotten. We just want her to, once a week, shut up for like four minutes. That would be great.

What’s the song?

It goes [singing]: “You gotta listen, we should sing a song. You gotta listen, all day and all night long.”

How does she respond?

She sings it. She sings it. I’m not saying it’s a work of art.

I think nevertheless this might be in my head for a long time.

I hope to fuck for your sake that’s not true.

Perhaps connected to the idea of bulldozing through fear is your tension about rules, and whether and when they do apply, and whether this is comforting or not. To enter into this huge topic, could you talk a bit about why unconventionality is appealing to you?

That’s how I was raised. There are aspects of the way that I was raised that I think are probably ill-advised, things that I wouldn’t repeat—I wouldn’t repeat raising a child in a non-monogamous marriage, for example, I don’t think that’s the way to go. But resisting convention and not assuming that something is right just because it’s handed down from a hierarchy, those are the values that I was raised with, and I’m still down with. Those are still my values.

There are a lot of things about the traditional family that were at women’s expense, you know? Interestingly, what I’m seeing now with a lot of my friends who have kids is that even though they’re living this unconventional family structure—many of my female friends in their early forties seem to be the breadwinners in their families, so they’re taking on the traditional role of husband—I do not see their husbands taking on the traditional role of wife. It’s not like all of a sudden, because these women are making more money, their husbands are doing all the childcare, the cleaning, and the grocery shopping and so on. Instead, they’re hiring wives—they’re outsourcing that role.

So it’s not like we’ve got it all figured out. It’s not like you take the traditional family structure and invert the roles and suddenly you’re in heaven. But I’m not just interested in being rebellious for its own sake. I think there were aspects of the way women were expected to live until very recently were unbelievably limiting and unfair. And I think that the result for society was that we lost out on the talents and contributions of half the human population. That’s in nobody’s best interest.

I want to step back from the big picture for a bit and go into some nitty gritty process stuff. Could you talk about adapting the original essay you wrote for The New Yorker, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” into a book?

I’m going to have to give you a weird answer because the truth is I don’t really know. The essay was the least conscious writing process I have ever had. I didn’t think much about it—it just came out of my fingers, if that makes sense. It just kind of came to me.

But in the book, I had a story I wanted to tell: a coming-of-age story. A story about growing up and realizing how little control we have, or I had. So I structured it that way, and there were themes that I would sort of pull from the essay and from other things I’ve written and work from, but those were more like jumping off points, if that makes sense.

Could talk a little bit more about how you structured it? The book moves back and forth in time in certain sections, which made me wonder if you were purposefully playing with narrative structure, subverting the rules.

That’s interesting. Yes and no. You learn a form and it kind of gets into your bones and you stop thinking about it. The only thing I can liken it to is when I was little and I learned to play piano. The reason I don’t play piano anymore and why I never got good at it is because I could never just sight-read the music—I always had to count the notes from middle C to know what I was doing. When I first started writing magazine articles, it was sort of like that—I had to really think it through. And then pretty soon it just becomes instinctive, right?

A book has really different demands; a book needs really different things from a magazine article. Plus, I hadn’t written a book in 10 years, and the last time I wrote a book, it had really different structural needs. Writing a polemic, which God knows I’ll never do again, is just a totally different project from writing a memoir. I have only written one memoir: this one. So I don’t know the form well enough that I could think, “I’m going to play with this form and do something experimental.” It was more like learning how to write a memoir as I wrote it, which is what was exciting about it. I know how to write magazine pieces. They’re hard sometimes, but when I start a magazine piece, I’m fairly confident I’m going to finish it and it’s going to be okay. But there were times when I was writing this book that I was like, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this!”

That said, in memoir, there are the same rules there are in all of writing, which is that you have to have a conflict. People are interested in a drama, and drama is conflict. So you have to have that. And then you want some of the other things I always want, like to be emotionally visceral without being sentimental or self-pitying. To be direct and clear, but still try to be subtle.

Why is sentimentality so disdained? What’s wrong with it, anyway?

For me, as a reader, it is an obstacle to being persuaded. What I mean by “sentimental” is: not subtle. Instead of being extremely precise and giving a fearless, believable explanation and exploration of what an emotional circumstance is like, it’s just relying on pablum. When I say sentimental, I’m thinking about something that’s just invoking emotional tropes. I, as a reader, am not going to get emotionally involved in that, which means I’m not going to have much of an experience. It’s just not going to be meaningful to me.

There’s plenty of stuff in my book that, if you verbalized some of the things I’m getting at, would be easy to make into a little bouquet of clichés, right? There’s plenty of things that verge on sentimental. I mean, what am I really saying? “That which does not kill you makes you stronger?” So the challenge is, how do I make a book out of this fairly dramatic story that I know a lot about, because it happened to me, and how do I convey that in such a way that’s emotionally accurate and really specific so that I can bring the reader into my experience persuasively? That was my goal. Does that make sense?

Yes, yes. The specificity undermines this.

Specificity. That’s the ever loving point, you know? Otherwise, what’s the point of reading it? If it was just this paint-by-numbers thing, and you could plug in whatever, why bother? What I want when I read a memoir is to be brought into a specific world, and a sense of intimacy with the writer. By “intimacy,” I don’t mean everyone has to write about their sex lives or the nitty-gritty of their birth. Different people let you into their lives in different ways, but I want to feel connected to the writer, or what’s the point?

Yes. Because intimacy, at least in my experience, is often misunderstood to mean prurient details. But you can share prurient details without garnering any intimacy whatsoever.

And I think that’s the challenge of doing a memoir like this, right? I’ll have to go on the radio or this or that and give a summary of my book. Now, if I just give you a list of the gory details, that feels really crass to me. That feels really sensationalistic and crass, and it’s not something I want to do. Whereas telling you with as much specificity as I can possibly muster what it was like in the bathroom in Mongolia—that, to me, does not feel like sensationalism. That feels like an opportunity to express the most profound and transformative experience I’ve ever had to a reader.

I’m very pleased to be able to talk about that stuff because I think that it’s a feminist project, frankly. I think that the incredibly intense and dramatic and life-changing stuff that goes on for women around pregnancy, birth, menstruation, menopause—all the things that happen to the human female animal around reproduction—has not been sufficiently explored in writing, in art, in comedy, although Ali Wong is a huge contribution to that effort. I think that that stuff is enormously important to the lives of half the human population. And I was pleased to be able to write about those issues.

When you come into an interview like this, is there anything you dread someone will ask you about what happened?

No! No, no. I dread someone will be a dumb-dumb, and we’ll have a dumb conversation. But I have to be honest with you, I mean the book isn’t out yet, right, but so far every single conversation I’ve had with a reporter has been fucking delightful! And I’m like, “You people are my people!”

What would a dumb interview be like, in your mind?

It would be like, “What do you think is the state of women today?”

I see.

You know, where you’re like, “Well, how the fuck am I gonna answer that?”

What would you say if somebody asked you that?

I’d say, “Girl! Come on!”

So let’s talk about your realization, or your narrative persona’s realization, through the course of the book, that the rules do apply. They do apply, although—

Well only one: nature, mortality, age, the body. There is that: nobody gets out alive. Like, that. Part of that is your fertility: your fertility will expire, particularly if you’re female; your body will deteriorate, you will age. That is never going to change, that’s life as a human animal. And I think that that’s one of the things that it means to be a grown-up is to slowly, slowly realize that. Remember when you’re a little kid and you’re like, “Yyyyeeeah, I’m actually not gonna die”?

Yeah.

You’re like, “I have a secret: I’m not gonna do that.” On a most basic level, part of being a grown-up is learning that no, you will. And your parents will and your kid could. That is mortality. The corollary of that is that we don’t have control, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of control we think we have.

And I think as a writer, where you spend all your time with this power of authorship, structuring things and figuring out the ideal way for a story to unfold, you can be particularly susceptible to the delusion that you’re in charge and that you’re writing your life. And this is the story of how I found out that I wasn’t in charge, that I wasn’t the author of this particular story.

Maybe this is a crass question because the discovery was in such a traumatic way—with the death of your just-born son—but I wonder if there’s a certain kind of comfort in that realization, a relief? I got the sense that there is that, also.

Absolutely. Absolutely. To realize that you’re off the clock? To realize, “You know what, it’s time to relax, because it’s not up to me. I don’t need to stay up all night trying to figure out if my spouse is an alcoholic and how I can make that not be true. You’re not in charge of that. You can’t cure that, so you might as well accept it.” That is something I really got from Al-Anon, but it’s also frankly to some extent the basis of every religion, right? It’s to acknowledge that there is something higher than you, that there is something above you. In religion, that’s God. I’m not someone who goes to temple but I certainly, based on this experience, thought, “I am not in charge, there is something above me.” To me, that something is nature. I don’t mean that in some kind of dream catcher-y way. I mean it literally. I mean: the natural world was here before, and it’ll be here after, and we’re creatures in it.

There were a couple of moments in the book where I got the sense that part of your bulldozing-through-fear approach is allowing yourself to dive into situations without feeling beholden to extreme preparation. I’m thinking of the Caster Semenya story, where you flew over to South Africa without even having lined up contacts, which was amazing to me. And I’m also thinking of your lunch meeting with David Remnick, before he asked you to work for him. It didn’t seem like you had spent hours outlining possible pitches for him; it seemed, instead, very organic, that your potential role at The New Yorker came to you as you were talking to him. So is that true?

That is true. To the best of my ability, that is an accurate representation of how that meeting went down. What you may not realize is I am kind of an idiot. Like, it didn’t really occur to me that I should go in with a bunch of pitches. It didn’t really occur to me. In retrospect, it seems insane, obviously.

With the Caster Semenya story, part of it was that there was an enormous rush: as soon as I realized I was going to do the story and had convinced David to let me do it, it just so happened that the University of Pretoria, where she went to school, was about to get out for vacation, so I had to get there immediately or I didn’t have a prayer in hell. I had to leap first and then take it from there.

That sounds so freeing.

It was very exciting. It was very, very exciting. I mean, it was terrifying, but it was also very exciting.

To step outside of the book for a moment, I read your Nora Ephron profile when it came out and I was so struck by your physical description of her. You wrote: “Ephron is more petite than ever. She is five-six (‘or I used to be’), and, at sixty-eight, she is as slight as a sparrow…When she is sitting, Ephron folds in on herself—she crosses her legs and holds her chin in her hand—and becomes very compact, a little origami of a person.” That stuck in my mind for however many years it’s been—almost 10 years.

Well, that makes me happy. I remember that one. [laughter] I liked that line, too, that origami.

It’s so vivid. How do you approach physical descriptions of people?

I don’t really know the answer. It’s like, I sit there and I think about it. No, but really, you know what I mean? There’s not a lot more to it than that.

If they are unattractive, would you feel guilty about being insulting?

Yeah, I would. Unless they were a horrible person. I wouldn’t feel bad about saying Trump looks like an orange monster that’s been left in a tank of formaldehyde. But in general, I would try to find ways to be precise without being insulting. I would worry about being cruel.

Have you thought about what the descriptor of you would be in a profile of you, or how you would write it?

[laughter] No! I haven’t. I’m inside of me, so I don’t even know what I look like. I’m always shocked when I see myself go by in a window. I always think, “Jesus Christ, your posture is egregious, stand up, woman!” No, that’s someone else’s problem, to describe me, you know? And thank God.

You said before that you don’t want to write a polemic ever again. Why is that?

Talk about annoying! Oh, my God. That is just not who I am. It’s just inauthentic for me personally. There is nothing wrong with polemics, I just found out by doing one that I was like this is not my authentic voice.

What about it, exactly?

Well, I want to tell stories, you know? I don’t want to make a case. I don’t want to be a talking head on a political commentary show. It’s just not who I am. That’s all. There are some people who write in that way and it feels completely natural and they’re great at it. But I’m just not one of those people, which I didn’t know before I wrote it.

Talking about control, there is something controlling in writing a polemic: it’s like, “This is correct. Believe this.”

Yeah, absolutely.

So maybe it’s part of this sense of relief we were talking about earlier: “Actually, I’m just going to tell this story, and people can take from it what they want.”

Well, but it isn’t just telling the story, of course. Because when you tell the story, you’re still trying to convince your reader to see things your way. It’s just more natural to my voice, to my personality.

I don’t want to ruin the narrative arc for people who are going to read the book, but I was curious how long ago you finished the manuscript and what you’re willing to share about what your life is like now, and also what your grief is like now.

I finished the last draft of this book this past September. And my life is pretty good. The events in the book took place four years ago, so it was a long haul of grieving, but I’m at the other end of that tunnel.

It will always be sad. It’s never not going to be a sad thing. But I don’t walk around on the verge of crying anymore, and I’m not preoccupied by this. It has become a part of who I am, instead of what it was before, which was this tunnel of a reality that I was living within. It’s now in me, instead of me being in it, if that makes sense.

Yes.

And I must say, I’m pretty happy now. I’m pretty grateful now. And the way I got through it was not only surrender and acceptance, but also by thinking, “What do I have, what have I not lost?” If you just focus on what you don’t have and what you’ve lost, that’s a recipe for an excruciating life. It would be very weird indeed if you didn’t grieve what you lost, but at some point you have to switch gears. It has to switch into, “What do I still have?” And for me that was a career I really value, doing the thing I’ve always wanted to do. And it didn’t just happen: I built it.

Also, I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but for me, getting divorced was such an enormous sense of failure, on the deepest level. I really felt like that I had failed as a human. I’d failed at love, which is a pretty bad thing for a human to fail at. It’s a bad feeling, it’s really not what I wanted to be. And to stop feeling like such a failure in that regard, I had to think, “All right, wait a minute, I also have this web of intimacy with friends who I’ve been in a different kind of love relationship with for decades,” and focusing on those relationships and valuing those relationships and feeling like, again, these didn’t just happen, I built them. I mean, we built them together, my friends and I, and they really took good care of me during this time; that helped me. So being grateful for those things that I still had, that I hadn’t lost, and for my family, that was really useful.

And then, I fell in love again, and I’m grateful for that.

Can I ask—is it with Dr. John [the doctor who treated Levy after her miscarriage in Mongolia, with whom she develops a correspondence and whom she flies off to visit in South Africa at the end of the book]?

Yup. You bet!

Oh, that’s so wonderful! I’m really happy.

It’s very strange. We are both like, “This is…crazy! It’s crazy!” But, that…it worked out. I don’t know what to tell you. I was just in South Africa for a month and he taught me how to ride horses. So I’m really sad, it doesn’t change that I am sad that I don’t have a four-year-old, I wish that that is what had happened, but I don’t get to pick. So given that there is no undoing that, given that the baby died and that’s not up to me, I might as well be grateful for the fact that I just spent the depths of winter riding a horse through the mountains in the sunshine with someone I love.

* * *

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/03/14/a-conversation-with-ariel-levy-about-writing-a-memoir-that-avoids-invoking-emotional-tropes/

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