Mary Laura Philpott explores reinvention in her wonderful debut memoir-in-essays, I Miss You When I Blink. “One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind,” she told me. “There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.”
But Philpott’s collection isn’t only a guide for reinvention. It’s the kind of book that shapeshifts into what each reader needs most. Some essays are laugh-out-loud funny; others are affectingly tender. Many are both. Seriously, read “This is Not My Cat” and “I Miss You When I Blink,” and try to explain the reason for your tears. Whether she’s writing about home, work, or family, Philpott’s essays show life as it truly is.
Philpott and I spoke via email about, among other things, cathartic writing, wise words, and literary citizenship.
The Millions: One thing I admire so much about I Miss You When I Blink is how open you are in discussing different parts of your life. Among other topics, you talk about your family, your health, and your insecurities. Did you find being so open about your life and experiences to be cathartic?
Mary Laura Philpott: That’s a great question. I think the cathartic parts of the writing process come early on, at least they did for me, when I was just blabbing things out and getting drafts on paper. But in the stages that came after, when I took those drafts and dug deeper into those personal stories, it became more about finding something bigger than just my own experience, as in Okay, so I hated my first job. What does that say about what it’s like to be that age or the way perfectionists tend to prioritize work in our lives? I wanted to ask and try to answer those questions, so that the experience of reading the book would be somewhat cathartic, too. The challenge was to verbalize those thoughts and observations in such a way that other people would feel like they’d finally gotten the words for something they’d always been thinking.
TM: Were there some essays you hesitated to write because of how open they required you to be?
MLP: There were definitely parts of my life that I hesitated to write about, mainly the parts where my experiences and feelings overlapped with the experiences and feelings of other people. While I don’t feel nervous about being open with the pieces of myself I’ve chosen to share, if there’s a story of mine that’s very much someone else’s story too, I erred on the side of not telling it—or not telling that part of it. In the parts of this book that deal with family, for example, I really tried to keep the focus on my own experience, the adult side of it, not stories about my kids themselves. I mean, they’re hilarious and I could tell you stories about them all day long, but that’s not what this book is. My spouse is a very private person, too, so I initially tried to write this collection without ever mentioning him, which was kind of ridiculous. So, he’s in there now, but as minimally as I could get away with.
That boundary ended up being really useful to the purpose of this book. I wanted to write about the internal conflict, the loneliness, and the absurd private bargains and humor—the inside jokes so “inside” that they happen only in our own heads—of being a person, and how the human experience often feels so solitary, even or especially when we’re surrounded by other people. Staying focused on my own piece of each experience helped me do that, I think.
I’m reminded of something Dani Shapiro wrote in a fantastic essay about the difference between the memoir as a piece of literature and the more private openness of a personal conversation: “My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires.”
TM: Do you have a favorite essay in the collection?
MLP: I don’t know — I’m proud of all of them for making it out of the mess of my mind and into the world. But one of my favorites to read aloud is “A Letter to a Type A Person in Distress.” It’s shorter than the others (which are all pretty short), and it’s a different format from the rest. I wrote the first draft of it in one sitting. It directly addresses the reader, and it was something I needed to hear and suspected a lot of other people needed to hear, too: You’re trying so hard; I see you; you’re doing great.
TM: You pack I Miss You When I Blink with lots of wisdom. Seriously, I feel like I highlighted a quarter of the book. In “Wonder Woman,” you write, “When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you,” and just a few pages over, you add, “Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.” Similarly, in “Everything to Be Happy About,” you have this great line about what it means to be fortunate: “But being fortunate doesn’t mean you won’t reach a certain point in life—many points, actually—and panic. It doesn’t mean you don’t periodically wonder how you got where you are and if there’s any way to get out.”
But it’s “Mermaids and Destiny” that I marked up the most. It discusses the ways in which we, especially as young people, develop and dream and create goals for ourselves. It ends with this paragraph: “The picture you get at the end of a connect-the-dots activity really depends on which dots you decide to use. So try things and go through phases. Put down a lot of dots. Later, you can look back and pick any of those dots to create a picture of how you became who you are. And if you don’t like the picture you end up with, you can always choose different dots, which just goes to show destiny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” That’s so brilliant. I imagine people seek you often when they are in need of advice. Am I right?
MLP: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad those parts resonated with you. People do ask me for advice a lot, which is funny, because I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, much less have enough wisdom to help anyone else know what they should do. But maybe that’s what this book is—the scraped-up bits of any wisdom I do have. Sometimes as I was writing it, I felt like I was trying to go back and give advice to my younger selves.
TM: Your memoir offers proof that we don’t have to ever settle on a previously established identity. Here’s my question: Which do you think is more difficult: settling into someone we don’t want to become or starting over to become who we want to be?
MLP: It’s frighteningly easy to settle into being someone you don’t want to be, because that settling can happen so gradually. Starting over is what’s hard. And I didn’t realize until well into putting this collection together that the theme of reinvention ran through so many of these essays. One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind. There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.
TM: Whether I’m thinking of “Lobsterman,” which tells a funny story about your interpretation of a writing prompt when you were in high school, or “Nora Ephron and the Lives of Trees,” which is about your interest in the characteristics of animals, your memoir displays a sincere appreciation of imagination and what it can do to better our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, how do we adults remember to keep imagination prevalent in our lives?
MLP: I think my imagination is my mental safe-zone. As soon as the real world gets too horrific to witness, my brain just flips an emergency switch and goes, “Nope, let’s imagine a squirrel trying on shoes.” Animals are a big part of my imagination, maybe because while we share so much with animals—we’re all breathing, we all need to eat and sleep—they’re oblivious to most of the bullshit of the human world. They’re not listening to politicians bicker, they don’t care who won the Oscar for what, they don’t know to be terrified of the gun violence epidemic. So being around creatures who aren’t focused on all that inspires me to let go of it for a little while. Also, juxtaposing the animal world with the human world in my imagination—like, okay, what would the deer in my yard say if she had a Twitter account?—makes me laugh, and I definitely need to locate my joy in order to access my imagination. So, I guess that’s my answer. Go outside.
TM: At this past year’s Southern Festival of Books, you brought up a topic that I haven’t been able to get off my mind: literary citizenship. Although it’s a concept I have thought about often, I’d never really heard of that phrasing before. Do you mind talking about what you think makes someone a good literary citizen?
MLP: Ah, yes! I love this subject. I was chatting with someone recently who said, “I don’t have time to read every new book when it comes out—am I a bad literary citizen?” No, no, no…literary citizenship is as simple as valuing the written word and the institutions that support it. Check out books from your library or buy them at an indie store; tell a friend about a book you enjoyed; give books as presents; whatever. Show up and sit in the audience when your favorite authors go on book tour. Join a book club. Subscribe to a literary magazine. Literary citizenship, like just plain citizenship, largely comes down to what we do locally—it’s about supporting the groups and businesses that keep literature alive in our communities. Be a part of the cultural ecosystem in whatever small way you can, so it stays healthy.
TM: You work for one of my most beloved bookstores, Parnassus Books in Nashville. So, I have to ask for recommendations. What’s on the horizon in memoir that you recommend?
MLP: Oh man, you’ll have to cut me off on this topic. Just in the next couple of months, there’s Once More We Saw Stars, which Jayson Greene wrote about the aftermath of a tragic accident that killed his little girl; it’s heartbreaking but also surprisingly life affirming. I’m absolutely in love with Out East by John Glynn, which is one of my favorite new entries in the “we’re still becoming who we are, even as adults” category. I really enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, which shares a pub date with my book. Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis is a brilliant and hysterically dry essay collection. If I may go into summer real quick: My writing group friend Margaret Renkl has a poetic, memoir-ish meditation on nature and grief coming out from Milkweed Editions called Late Migrations. I guess I should stop there? But there are more coming in the fall. There’s also so much good literary fiction coming out this spring. Novels are popping up like flowers. Right now is a great time to visit a bookstore.