Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Was this book hard to write?"

by Laura Flynn

I just arrived in San Francisco (my hometown) from the frozen North of Minnesota (my adopted home). May I just ask all of you Bay Area dwellers to take a moment to look up at the sky today and properly appreciate how good you've got it.

I am thrilled to be home -- and especially to be here launching my first book, Swallow the Ocean, a memoir of my childhood set right here in San Francisco in the 1970's. The book is about my family's struggle with my mother's mental illness, which came on around the time I was five or six, and proceeded to pretty much level everything in its path. Lest that description scare you off entirely, I should add that the book is also about the power of imagination to carry us through the most catastrophic circumstances.

Since the book was published last month I've been doing readings and interviews and traveling around a bit. The first question I inevitably get is something along the lines of, "Was it difficult to write about this topic -- to write such a personal or self revealing book?" I usually say yes the book was hard to write -- it took six years and a fair amount of inner struggle. But then all books are hard to write. And any book that matters, be it fiction, or memoir, or poetry, seems to require the author to struggle with whatever haunts them, obsesses them, with whatever is at the center of their psyche.

As I said, it's a fair question. But this morning when an interviewer posed it yet again, I wondered if I had written a book about losing my mother to cancer would I be getting the same question? Is there something about the shame and stigma that still today hovers around mental illness that lies behind the question? If I had written a book about my mother's cancer, would people say it took a lot of "courage"? Perhaps twenty years ago yes, today though, probably not.

The truth is when I began writing I did feel a fair amount of shame over my mother's illness. She did and said a great many strange and creepy things when I was a child. She heard voices and she laughed out loud, and she communed with JFK. But the more I wrote the less I cared. Writing is a great antidote to shame. And shame is a funny thing, once it is gone, it is really gone. And what I am left with is the conviction that mental illness, which is of course physiological in nature like cancer or diabetes, is a part of life, and that it is like love and death and any other kind of illness a subject worth writing about -- the painful stuff of life out of which we make art.

OK, enough of that serious stuff. Perhaps I will come back to this later in the week. In the meantime I am honored to be reading at Book Passage - a store I've admired (and patronized) for years. Hope to see you all there on Sunday March 16th at 4pm.

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