On Writing as Longing: An Interview with Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate is the kind of person who you can meet for the first time at a co-working space in SoHo, bond over both being indecisive Libras, and feel, because of her kindness and warmth, like you have always known her. Her writing leaves space for a vulnerability that can make you feel like you have always known her, too. In her essay “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” which inspired Filgate’s anthology of the same name, she writes about her relationship with her mother and abusive stepfather with graceful, precise sentences describing the ways in which trauma looks, feels, and sounds: “Here’s what silence sounds like after he loses his temper. After I, in a moment of bravery, scream back at him: You’re NOT my father. It sounds like an egg cracked once against a porcelain bowl. It sounds like the skin of an orange, peeled away from the fruit. It sounds like a muffled sneeze in church.” 

Michele Filgate is the editor of a critically acclaimed anthology based on her Longreads essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster. Currently, she is an M.F.A. student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult, and is the founder of the Red Ink series. She’s a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

In your essay “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” you’re writing about sexual abuse, trauma, and being silenced but the essay is also rooted in so many small details and concrete objects and precise images. I love the image of the jewelry box that your stepfather made for you. You write “I keep broken necklaces and gaudy bracelets in it. Things I want to forget” and later circle back to: “Where my stepfather makes me a box, and my mother teaches me how to keep my secrets inside.” How do you move between that poetic language and also the sense of telling your story and driving your story forward?

This essay took me well over a decade to write and when I first starting writing it—I was an undergrad in college at the time—I was really writing more about my stepfather being abusive. It took me many, many years to figure out that the real story was about the fracture that was caused in my relationship with my mom. The early drafts definitely didn’t have the jewelry box. They were more about just trying to get down an account of what had happened to me. It was so soon after those events had occurred. I was still learning as a writer and finding my voice. I think that those images took years to come to me because it’s so hard to re-enter a traumatic situation by writing about it. When you are writing a personal essay about anything related to trauma, you have to access those moments again. It’s really complicated and I was definitely struggling with it.

And then I was in the Tin House Summer Workshop and I studied with Jo Ann Beard, who is one of my heroes. One of the things that she said that cracked open the entire essay for me was that no matter who you’re writing about, no matter how dark they are, or how villainous they are, everyone has a light and a dark side and you have to show both. Most people are not all completely awful or all completely good. We’re humans. We’re more complicated than that. That made me think about a moment of tenderness from my stepfather. I immediately thought of how he had made this jewelry box for me as a gift. I think that the symbolism came out of that as I thought about what a jewelry box contains, what it means, and it seemed like a natural place to talk about the house where there’s so much tension and there’s so much silence occurring. What do you do with all that silence and tension? 

You write in the introduction to the book, “To live with the pain of my strained relationship with my mother is one thing. To immortalize it in words is a whole other level…” Publishing seems to be a level after that. How do you deal with publishing personal pieces? Do you feel a loss of control once a piece is out there in the world? 

It does feel like peeling of a layer of your skin when you publish anything personal. I think I got to a point where I felt like this is a story that had to be told. That permission has to come from yourself. I’m not sure I ever fully gave myself permission until it was published. As I say in the intro, the day that it came out in Longreads, I was on a houseboat in Sausalito visiting a friend and there was a really bad wildfire. The ashes were raining down and it was such an apt metaphor for how I felt in that moment in my life—when I saw this essay, the thing that was my deepest pain, up there published with my byline for the whole world to see, it felt terrifying. And I think that that’s a normal feeling to have. That said, I feel like a lot of my favorite writers are people who don’t hold back on the page, who make themselves vulnerable. I’m thinking of Lidia Yuknavitch who wrote my favorite memoir, The Chronology of Water. I think it’s important to take risks when you’re writing about your own life. I believe every writer, and particularly every woman writer, should be able to create art out of her own stories.

You’ve said in a previous interview: “At its heart, this essay is about longing.” Can you say a little bit more about that?

Several people have said to me, “I don’t see your essay as being mean or accusatory towards your mother; I see the longing in it.” And that is the ultimate compliment I can get. The essay is really written out of the desire for a daughter to connect with her mother. Sometimes we can’t have the conversations we need to have because one person might not be willing to even listen. And so denial, denial of abuse, denial of the truth — that can be incredibly painful. This essay was my way of speaking to her. As a writer, writing is the best way I know to communicate. To me it’s the ultimate plea for my mom to hear me. 

You write at the end of the introduction, “I wrote this for you,” in reference to your mother. I’m wondering about that as it relates to audience and your writing process. How often or at what point do you think about your reader or audience? 

I think that you can’t fully think about the audience in the early drafts because you just have to get the words on the page. You can’t worry about how people are going to perceive what you’re writing, especially if you’re writing something that’s about a difficult subject. I think because I wrote this essay for my mom, that’s the audience I was always writing to. Subconsciously, not realizing it. I think once I started to realize I was writing this for my mom, the essay made a lot more sense. I was also writing it for every other person who feels like there’s something that remains unsaid between them and their mother. As I say in the opening to my essay, “our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them.”  A lot of people want that nurturing and kind of love, and that’s something we seek our entire lives when we’re away from our moms, too. 

I’m always curious about what your writing process is like. Where do you write? When do you write? Do you feel like you have habits in terms of your writing process? 

I don’t have one set way of writing. Like any writer, I’m always looking to improve my routine. One thing I’ve found really helpful is writing with friends of mine, making writing dates like one would make a gym date. I really like to have that kind of accountability. I also really like The Pomodoro Technique, which is something I teach all my students. It’s a really basic thing where you set a timer for twenty-five minutes and don’t do anything else but write during that time and then you allow yourself a five minutes break. But doing those Pomodoros, there’s something about the bit size amount of time that makes it feel a lot more manageable. Especially if you’re writing about something that’s painful. But let’s just face it: writing in general is hard. It’s hard to keep yourself focused. I also like having deadlines. Being in grad school right now, one of the things I really like is having deadlines. 

What was the process of creating an anthology like? How did you choose which essays to include? It’s such a diverse group of voices and stories.

I think it’s the job of every single anthology editor to make sure that you’re not just having the same story told over and over again. It was really important to me to have a diverse list of contributors. Not just diversity racially-speaking, but also a diversity of different experiences and backgrounds. I didn’t want each essay to be about abuse. My editor at Simon & Schuster and I both thought that we needed to have other stories in here. We wanted to reflect a wide prism of what mother/child relationships can be like. And so that was why I had Leslie Jamison, who is so close with her mom. And why I ended on her essay because there’s a lot of hope and love there. It was important to make sure that each essay was different enough. But the funny thing that happened as I started compiling the anthology was that unintentionally some of the essays really spoke to each other.

What has it been like now that the anthology has been out for a few months? (It was published by Simon & Schuster on April 30th.) How does it feel to have this book out there in the world?  

It’s a very surreal feeling. Once the book is out, it is like giving birth in some ways. I haven’t actually had that experience, but there is some aspect of giving birth to a book, right? There’s a parallel. But there is also this idea that once it’s out in the world, does it belong to you anymore? It really belongs more to anyone who picks it up and is holding it and their interpretations of what they’re reading. Reading is such a collaborative act. Readers are bringing in their personal experiences. It’s really cool to think about all the different strangers around the world who might be reading this. 

One last question, unrelated to writing and the book. I like to ask as many people as I can this question: What are you waiting for? 

What am I waiting for? That’s an excellent question. What am I waiting for? Oh, man. Lots of things. World peace. Trump to no longer be our president. I’m waiting for the next presidential election. And also, so many things. What am I waiting for? … I’m waiting for imposter syndrome to go away. I feel like there’s a chance that it never goes away because so many writers I know who are really successful still feel that way. So I’m waiting for it to go away but I’m also okay with holding onto the thought that that must just be part of being a writer. 

That’s really interesting. I want to ask you more about that. With having a book out, has that made it easier or more difficult or both?

You would think that, okay, once you sell a book, you no longer have imposter syndrome, but of course not. Because then, there are a million other things you can be anxious about. I’m waiting to just be more comfortable with holding on to the possibility of not having imposter syndrome and sometimes feeling like I do. There are moments where it’s like I feel great about where I’m at in my career and I’m happy and I’m working hard and that’s all that matters. And then there are other moments when it’s a struggle. But I do think that that’s a feeling many writers have. 

And many female writers in particular. 

Exactly. 

So, I guess, it’s waiting for acceptance that that might always be the case?

But I have to give it to myself. Really that’s what I’ve learned more and more over the years: external validation is just going to make you feel hungry for more. That’s what social media does. Jo Ann Beard taught me that you have to separate the business side of writing from the craft itself. Otherwise you’ll never be happy. You can’t control the business side but you can control the craft side. So that’s something that I always think about. That’s what matters to me. It’s the craft. It’s continuing to learn. Continuing to write. Validation has to come from within yourself. 

About the author

Emily Weitzman is a writer from New York and an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where she also teaches undergraduate writing.

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