Feelings Are Facts: A Life (Writing Art)

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Rick Moody’s New Book Takes on Marriage, for Better and for Worse

“In order to have a second marriage you can believe in,” begins Rick Moody in The Long Accomplishment, “you may have to fail at your first marriage. I failed spectacularly at mine.” In this, his second memoir, Moody comes clean about his resistance to monogamy and an adult life marked by sexual compulsivity, self-destructiveness, and “a long list of regrets.” But something shifts in him around the time he meets visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and when they decide to get married, he is prepared to commit to the vows of marriage with someone he deeply loves.

As soon as their marriage begins there are troubles, but this time the nature of the troubles is external to his marriage: the ongoing “contaminating” legal matters of his divorce; deaths and health crises of loved ones; some terrible situations involving his homes; and a long, soul-crushing struggle with infertility. How much can early marriage withstand, and how can hardship teach of the strength that marriage offers? The Long Accomplishment offers an answer to this question: It is a raw and candid account of the power of committed love to combat life’s sorrows.

I spoke with Rick Moody about marriage, artistic collaboration, infertility, and how he approached the structure of memoir when writing The Long Accomplishment.

The Millions: The basic structure of The Long Accomplishment is the first year of your second marriage, told in chronological order, each chapter organized by a month in this year. Beyond this framework, what thought did you give to structure as you embarked upon this project?

Rick Moody: With my prior memoir, The Black Veil, I had a lot of thoughts about the nonfiction novel, the way, e.g., that Mailer tried to structure certain nonfiction works as though they were novels, and about the whole theory of formal hybridizing between and among the genres, between fiction and nonfiction. These were really rewarding ways to think about memoir writing for me, but in the case of The Long Accomplishment I didn’t want to overthink or to labor for an idea of form. I wanted to tell the story, because the story was most of what I was thinking about in 2015 to 2016, when I first really started bearing down on the manuscript. I didn’t want to have a structure that called undue attention to itself. I have done that a lot in the past, preoccupying myself with forms, but I have sort of been repenting of it lately, trying to locate near at hand forms that are more organic. So in this case, beyond the chronological, there weren’t really many ideas about form, though it was a sort of solidifying and emulsifying thought that a solid year was the form chosen by a certain 19th-century transcendentalist for his memoir. In my case, the calendar year was also a valid form because I really was talking about a year, from my wedding day to the dark events of exactly one year later. The form was natural, at hand, and pretty obvious, and that seemed valid enough to me.

TM: The Long Accomplishment is a memoir about a marriage. Of course, any memoir is primarily about the experience of the person writing the book, but in this case, you are also telling the story about your partner, Laurel, and her experience of your first married year. Can you talk about approach to the main point of view of the memoir? Was it your experience as an individual in a marriage, your marriage as the primary persona, you and Laurel as two separate individuals with a common life vision, or something else?

RM: Perhaps the perfect way to write the book would have been to write it with Laurel, dividing the labor evenly, had Laurel been the kind of person who does such a thing. I talk in the book a little bit about the overlap between our creative lives, and it may be, yet, and according to the stealth influence that exists between her and me, that Laurel recasts some of these themes in visual art somehow, and then her point of view will be more exactly rendered than it is in the refracted version of her in my book. In the absence of her full participation, however, it could not, from my point of view, have been a perfect portrait of her there, because it is my portrait of her, and though I spend more time with her than anyone else does now, she is her own person, and even in marriage there are spaces that one inhabits alone. I am, I think, perhaps marginally more gifted at this than the average guy in rendering a woman on the page, and I believe in the attempt, but neither am I perfect. The Laurel in the memoir is the result of all these collisions of form, history, the politics of gender, which make her other than the actual Laurel, and that is interesting, and it is the truth of the matter. I am the writer in the family, most of the time, and it is, therefore, a portrait of myself in marriage, and, I hope a portrait of one’s vulnerabilities in marriage, one’s failures, one’s aspirations, and the way that marriage rises to meet the participants where they are, if they really want to be married. I hope I pretty well captured Laurel and myself together, at least in the moments of crisis, which make up a fair amount of the plot.

TM: What part did Laurel play in the revising of the book?

RM: She did read the galleys very closely, and had a lot of opinions, and thus in a late stage, she actually did help quite a bit with the text. We have a tradition of staying out of each other’s creativities, by and large. I don’t tell her what to do with her photographs, and she doesn’t tell me what to do with my writing. But she did have to be involved, this time, for all the memoir reasons: She is in the book, her family is in the book, our life together is in the book, and so she had to read it pretty closely when I had a finished manuscript. I think she read it twice before we got to the fifth pass, which was when I started to feel good about the whole.

TM: In a discussion with the LA Review of Books in 2015, you told the interviewer: “I like novels best when they have nothing at all in common with the tradition of the American realistic novel. I like when they don’t really seem like novels all that much.” Do you have any similar feelings about the memoir genre?

RM: I’m sort of bored of myself and my passionately held opinions, of which this is one example. These days, what I want from a book is simply to care deeply about it, in whatever condition it is to be found. And mostly I care about things that thoughtfully observe, and which note what there is to say about human emotions and human consciousness, about the great convolution and mystery of consciousness and being. It doesn’t really matter, anymore, what the shape is. Whether it is revolutionizing the form or not. It doesn’t matter what genre it is in. (Though it is also true that there are non-fiction and memoiristic books I love that are expansionist with respect to genre: Cheever’s Journals, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Nelson’s Argonauts, Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, etc.) I have made some attempts to revolutionize, in my way, and I’m glad for my attempts, but how many books do I have left now? Six or seven? I don’t know. I want to make something lasting and meaningful, and I’m tired of aesthetics and aestheticizing all the time, I’m tired of debate, a sort of artistic fiddling while Rome burns, and I’m tired of the sort of self-regard that goes with my own interviews. What does the heart want in a story? Something like the truth. I am trying to head there now, where the human emotions find their genuine evocation, however complicated.

TM: You sometimes offer your services as Rick Moody, Life Coach. Now that you’ve “failed spectacularly” at your first marriage, as you write in the opening of The Long Accomplishment, and written a meditation on how a strong marriage (in your case, your second) can weather all kinds of storm, what “life coach” advice can you offer people about how to enter into marriage? Is it about where you are in your life? About what kind of partner you choose? Luck? All of these things?

RM: The book is probably a terrible primer on marriage. I am not holding myself up as any kind of model. (Indeed, my position on why I am a good life coach is because I have failed so badly at so many things. I have broad-based and intensive experience at failure, especially interpersonal failure.) In so many ways, in life, I am sort of hanging by a thread. That said, I believe in being honest about marriage, that is at the heart of the book, and I simply wasn’t any good at it, and wasn’t going to be any good at it, until there was a person, a time, and an age of life, when I really wanted to be here doing it, being in a marriage. I never thought I was commitment-phobic, really, it bears mentioning, I was just intensely interested in my work and didn’t want anyone in the way of it. But then the middle of life’s journey comes, and one sees how little time might be remaining, and the poignancy of attempting to love and be loved, accepting love, these all become things that seem rather precious. I counsel people to avoid marriage if it is in the least a result of normative pressure, or because your parents want you to, or because you think it is what heterosexual couples do, or because now you can marry because it is now permitted for people of the LGBTQ community to do so, or howsoever. Marry only because you want what marriage offers, which is a crash course in intimacy and support and responsibility and community.  When you want those things, for uncontaminated reasons, and you believe you have found a person with whom that seems feasible, then of course go for it. But if you aren’t there yet, there is every reason to wait. There is no shame in waiting. All things are possible in time’s fullness, and according to the mysterious road forward.

TM: You describe the emotional toll of assisted reproductive technology in detail in this book, which is something a great number of people experience when trying to have a baby later in life, but which male partners in particular don’t frequently talk or write about. What did you learn about IVF, fertility, pregnancy, etc. that you think people should know more about? (There is a movement to encourage young women who want to be parents in the not-near future to seek fertility testing, educate themselves on fertility and age, and potentially freeze their young eggs, which I personally think is an idea that should spread, having gone through IVF myself.)

RM: Really Laurel should answer this question, as she was the more educated of the two of us on the fine print. There was a period in which she had a lot of acronyms at her command, and I was frequently having to look up these acronyms so that I was sure I knew what we were discussing. I know that she believes strongly in freezing (eggs and embryos, where relevant), as I do, too, and she has counseled people of our acquaintance who might need what we needed to freeze. Obviously, she might have done so herself earlier, had she known sooner what we were up against. We sort of blundered into the whole world of assisted reproductive technology, adjusting to our difficult circumstances as they got more difficult, and we would spare some others the floundering, if we could, which is one reason for the book. The percentage of people who experience infertility is extremely high, of course. I think the CDC says 10 percent of women experience infertility, and I believe the number is trending up, for reasons that are not yet a matter of settled science.

The part of the saga of assisted reproduction that I would want to reiterate here for the lay people in the audience is the idea of infertility as a “silent disease.” So-called, because those in its grip don’t often talk about it. It’s pretty obvious, if you dig in, think about it a little bit, why it doesn’t get talked about, but if you do think about it, attend to it, the affliction is more sad, more harrowing, the more you learn. Our story, in comparison to friends we met along the way, is not that bad. We know well people who had to terminate pregnancies very late, so-called stillbirths, we know people with twice as many losses as we had, and worse. In every case, these stories involve women and men who then went back to work and pretended it was all fine. Who lost children, not potential children, mind you, but actual children, and then went back to work—since few, if any, employers, give time off for miscarriage. They discussed their grief, mainly, with other people going through it. Not with friends and family. Their strength and dignity, it seems to me, is a thing to be revered. Their sorrows should be our sorrows.

That men discuss this even less frequently than women do is in some ways not surprising: first, it is women who disproportionately do the work, and thus who perhaps have a greater share in the way the story might be told; second, where the men themselves are afflicted with infertility, it is in a way that men are often particularly sensitive about; third, there is the politics of men talking about a subject that has in large measure to do with women’s bodies. I am obviously acutely aware of all these problems, these traditions of male silence. But just as one has seen men, in recent years, coming to feel that they have a role in the discussion of choice, a voice in support of women, so do men have a voice, it seems to me, in a discussion of infertility. Let me describe the nature of my support. Laurel was not alone in her struggle, and I too wanted to have a child. I didn’t want to have a child so that Laurel could go through it and do all the work. I wanted to have a child because I love children and love being a father, no matter how ridiculously hard it is, and I wanted to do it with Laurel and to share in it with her, at every step. That means the story, in some impossible-to-quantify portion, is also mine. I too had feelings about it, had, for example, feelings about the twin boys we lost (and by saying this I am not overlooking the daughter we lost, but am just not belaboring the discussion). My feelings, and the biological root of these feelings, cannot possibly be identical with Laurel’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean that I have no part. And, since I am the writer in the family, it is logical that I could try to tell this tale. If we can help one other couple not feel alone, if I can help one other guy not feel alone, if I can help a few more people who don’t know about the real, tumultuous grief of infertility to see how intense is the suffering of those who are afflicted with it, and in many cases how immense are the sacrifices that people make in the world of assisted reproductive technology (we are a very privileged couple, it bears mentioning, and we couldn’t even get close to being able—as citizens of New York State, where there is no coverage for IVF—to being able to pay the fees), then it is worth it. (And: I know you know about this too so I hope it’s obvious I’m not saying it to you, but with you, I think.)

TM: What was the most surprising or important thing you learned about yourself during the writing of this memoir?

RM: In a way, a lot of my thinking lately has been about gender, and about a sense of myself in near constant conflict in the matter of my own gender. I don’t mean in the sense of traditionally dysphoric, as in I don’t have the right body, but rather simply I am terribly conflicted about what it means psychically, ontologically, to be a man. On the one hand, I am satisfied with the idea of difference within masculinity, and I am happy saying: I am not conventional at being a man, at least according to popular preconceptions, and that is fine, because my saying so, that I am unconventional, helps others who have the same experience, who might not identify with masculinity (though I would probably use stronger terms for my inner feeling). But at the same time there is for me an insurmountable interrogation of self that has accrued to me, that has been internalized, for my lack of ability to conform, psychically, ontologically. It was the basis of my depression in the ’80s, or one of its bases, and was a not infrequent topic in my earlier memoir, The Black Veil. But my intense discomfort about one chapter in The Long Accomplishment (I will keep to myself which, for now, as I don’t want to skew the reading experience), my discomfort about my own conduct, has stuck with me, and my feeling about the book, sometimes, about this one portion, is of shame. I think I am enough self-aware to know that this is who I am now, I am a person who has these issues, and the goal is acceptance and appreciation of and respect for the soul in discomfort, with an eye on wholeness, at the end of my journey. But in the meantime, the work, again, has indicated some of the ways that I am not whole, am, in fact, rather injured, and I bring this injured self into my marriage. And though to many people I look, act, and have all the privilege of being a certain kind of man, a white straight guy, inside I have a rather stark dislike of this kind of masculinity, and can’t seem to let it go, nor to avoid feeling accountable for it. It’s like having been burned in one spot, and still having the sensation of the burn, the burn being called forth, as it were, on every sunny day. And I know this is a sort of heavy answer, Alden Jones, but you asked, and because the subject is this book, a nonfiction book, I am honor bound to tell the truth.

Alden Jones is the author of the forthcoming bibliomemoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and the previous books The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors. She teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College and is core faculty in the Newport MFA program.

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