Diana Joseph‘s ardent, often hilarious memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way comes equipped with a breathless subtitle: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog. True to her word, the author gives us the down and dirty details about the male characters in her life. She pulls no punches, from her humping dog and her son’s less-than-ideal hygiene to weekly breakfasts with her Satanist neighbor and long phone chats with her shockingly crass policeman brother. In these collected essays, some previously published in Marginalia, River Teeth, and Weber, Joseph alternates the many hats the subtitle implies. After the jump, Boldtype’s Sarah Gonzales gets in touch for a mini-lesson on writing nonfiction.
Boldtype: Your memoir is arranged as a series of chronological essays, each one focusing on a different male influence in your life. How did you come up with the concept?
Diana Joseph: I’d written an essay about my son, and had such a good time that I immediately wrote another about my first husband. I realized the person I adored could also be the person who drove me bananas. I didn’t intentionally sit down and say to myself, “I will write a book about the various men in my life and the influence they’ve had in the construction of my identity.” That thought would have made me cringe.
BT: Your style of describing a character involves a series of short sentences relaying facts about the person — his likes, dislikes, wardrobe items, what you know or don’t know about him. This unadorned description seems to be particularly male. Was this a purposeful style that emerged when writing about men?
DJ: You’re pointing out a tic in my style: my love of a list. Lists are everywhere, from Letterman’s Top Ten to the Facebook meme “Twenty-Six Things about Me.” A list lets you organize a lot of information in a short space, impose order on chaos, make big leaps, and juxtapose strange details. But I think my lists are less about gendering writing and more about my interest in how prose sounds — its cadence, its rhythms, its starts and pauses and stops.
BT: Some of the stories in the book are absolutely hysterical — the guitar recital in “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” your son’s run-in with his friend’s cat in “The Boy, Again.” These scenes could have been “you had to be there” moments, but your writing allows the original hilarity to come through. How did you accomplish that?
DJ: That’s the thing about an anecdote, right? It’s usually only hilarious if you were there. Sometimes, though, the story is interesting even if you weren’t there, and for me, that happens when I care about the people in the story. My students and I call this “Species Recognition.” Readers need to recognize these people as fellow humans.
But while the story needs to be good, and the characters need to be developed, there’s still the matter of what it means and why should the reader care. In order to push the anecdote beyond “You had to be there,” the writer needs to reflect. The writer needs to answer to the question of, “So what?” And the best answers go beyond the obvious, the clichéd. For me, a good piece of writing will lead me to two reactions: recognition — I know exactly what you mean — or revelation — I never thought of it like that. The best writing gives me both.
BT: You criticize many of the male characters in the book, sometimes harshly, but your compassion for each is also readily evident. Did you actively try to strike this balance?
DJ: I never want to demonize the people I write about, but I don’t want to valorize them, either. I’ve always loved that what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about men: “A man is a god in ruins.” I think we’re all gods in ruins, men and women alike, all of us capable of compassion and vengeance, forgiveness and grudge-holding.
BT: Is it easier or more difficult to write about characters who actually exist? And how much dramatic license did you allow yourself?
DJ: In nonfiction, people have already done what they’re going to do, and said what they’re going to say. Several of the essays were worked on in real time, as I was living them, so the details were right in front of me. But in other essays, like the one about my father, I relied almost entirely on memory and its sometimes steady, sometimes slippery path between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. Is my memory accurate? I say it is. Is it the same story my brothers would tell? You’d have to ask them.
BT: The title of the memoir is an actual quote uttered in a devastating moment, when you knew that your first marriage was over. Why did you choose this as the title?
DJ: “I’m sorry you feel that way” is, for me at least, the most obnoxious and passive-aggressive thing one human being can say to another. But as a title, it’s good. I came around to it mostly because of the subtitle. I like how that subtitle hits all those roles I play.