By Amy Danzer
In her new memoir, “My Unsentimental Education, ” Debra Monroe—author of “On the Outskirts of Normal, ” “Shambles,” “Newfangled,” “A Wild, Cold State” and “The Source of Trouble,” whose work has won numerous awards—uses her characteristic dry wit and stylish prose to give us glimpses into pivotal instructive moments in her life. She takes us through different stages in her edification by way of formal education, jobs, career and relationships—from her working-class roots in Spooner, Wisconsin to where she now teaches writing at Texas State University, San Marcos. As she navigates these different terrains and phases in her life, she learns much about the influence people and places can have on a person, but also the power of one’s own wanting. I recently had the privilege of talking with Debra via email about her new memoir.
At the beginning of the book, a young Debra is asked to consider what she wants to be when she grows up. And you write, “I liked the infinity of possible futures at the end of the checklist, a blank labeled Other.” Do you think this category of “Other” is particularly attractive to artists and writers?
As a kid, I didn’t realize that not wanting a profession on the approved list of future careers for girls would make me an outsider. I guess I should clarify that this use of “Other” isn’t like the sociological term. It was in a scrapbook called “My School Years,” followed by a blank to fill in about future career plans, so it’s the equivalent of “none of the above” because the standard career suggestions in the scrapbook were “Mother, Nurse, Teacher, Secretary, Stewardess.” I wanted to be a mother, but even in the 1960s I didn’t see why motherhood should eliminate an interesting profession. And the standard career suggestions sounded unimaginative. I read everything I could get my hands on then, including biographies: Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, Amelia Earhart. I wanted my life to be story-worthy, I suppose. So it was a bookworm’s instinct that made me answer the question as “Other,” not a desire to live outside the mainstream. In fact, I have fought to be in the mainstream, to be perceived as “normal,” not “unique,” because “unique” sounds like a polite version of a slur, at least where I grew up. I realize this is all contradictory: that I wanted to pursue a calling that wasn’t typical for girls and be considered normal too. But I didn’t see the contradiction then. Being “Other” wasn’t appealing for its own sake. And probably shouldn’t be. Trying too hard to be unusual can’t lead anywhere interesting, even in art, especially in art. It’s important to be authentic, clear-eyed. Yet writers are detached, if not “Other,” as we notice ordinary behaviors and customs, their hidden contradictions and side-effects.
In your book, you regularly allude to your many iterations of self—starts and stops of selves contingent on location, station and people—often men. What are some other directions you feel you could have gone, other selves you could have been?
I could still be in my hometown, a divorcee, or the widow of a hard-drinking but essentially kind telephone man. I could be the ex-wife of a drug dealer or hog farmer. I am the ex-wife of a country-and-western singer and the ex-wife of a mostly unemployed sociopath. But once I left my hometown, who I was when I was with those men wouldn’t have become a permanent self because, first of all, no one is a permanent self, especially if you are fairly often changing where and how you live. Second, it’s hard to stay married even when you have friends in common, hobbies in common, aspirations in common. I had none of those commonalities with my exes, so it’s safe to say that, while I might have lasted longer in a relationship at a given point, eventually that man and I would likely have split up because there was little to hold us together and plenty to pull us apart. What was crucial and lucky—a near-miss—was that I didn’t have children with these men. Having a kid with one of those guys would have changed my life for the worse. I would have been a single mother with debt, without a living wage or reliable child support. I would have stalled out with an incomplete degree, no time to work, and I probably would have stayed where I was then. Where you live influences how you act, even if you consciously try not to let it: even the “trying not to” is a feature of yourself elicited by environment. I know how much less happy I was in certain places, where hanging onto my values as they chafed against local values made me tentative and uncertain.
One reader told me he was struck by the fact that winning the Flannery O’Connor Award when I did, in the last year of my PhD program, while I was married to the man who had what we might politely call “anger management issues,” was a life-changing stroke of luck. True. Hundreds of people enter that contest every year. I couldn’t get my stories accepted by magazines. What were the chances a manuscript of my stories would win that prize then? It meant I was employable in a stable way at age thirty, so I was able to move, which made it easier to extract myself from a dangerous marriage. Jobs the award made possible encouraged me to keep writing, or in fact stipulated that I keep writing.
All this leads to one point: work. Work is why I would have always left those former iterations of myself behind. Work led to successes, and successes change you. I outgrew old versions of myself. Another reader said my book reminded her of how much of her youth she’d wasted—when instead she should have been launching herself professionally—working on romantic relationships, none of which lasted. She added facetiously, “So where did you get your work ethic, from your schizophrenic grandmother?” I did inherit, or absorb, a working-class work ethic. If I had writer’s block, I’d remind myself that my dad didn’t always feel like going to the auto parts store, that waitresses don’t always feel like going into the restaurant, but to be adult is to suck it up and go. And work was a helpful distraction from the stress of bad relationships. You can work hard on a relationship and won’t necessarily be rewarded. But if you work hard at school and your writing, you’ll get good grades and, in time, become a better writer.
While reading your book, I found myself writing “d-bag” in the margins quite a bit. What do you think were your best defenses against patriarchal d-baggery you’ve had to contend with while navigating your education, career, relationships?
Your experience reading about sexism in the book—because you’re reading now—is different from my experience living through that sexism. It was the norm. I had no glimpse of an alternative. I often didn’t notice it. A woman graduate student said recently that it’s too bad nothing’s changed about sexism since I was a student. I insisted that, while sexism is alive and well, a lot has changed. Professors said things to female students then that would be actionable today, or at least good cause to file a formal complaint. But if some comments from my professors sound sexist to us now—for example, warning me that a PhD is not a good choice for a woman because it doesn’t mix with marriage—at the time these comments were emerging out of confusion. Professional opportunities for women were so new that we all wondered what the future would hold. I give career advice to students that probably won’t be applicable to how the profession will look to them in twenty-five years. Some of what seems blatantly sexist to us now was bewilderment about how this would play out, since large-scale movement of women into the profession was recent. A few male professors were lecherous toward female students, but most were not. Some were dismissive. But many were wonderful mentors.
As for sexism in relationships, I was complicit. I actually doubled down on cooking, cleaning and sewing while I was earning my master’s degree because I felt uneasy, even guilty, that I wanted a degree that would make my job more high-status than my then-husband’s. That sense I was pushing against gender norms wasn’t easy for me. People preferred the traditional versions of female power: the power of being attractive; the power of being the little woman behind the big man. I was reluctant to be considered “brainy-powerful,” as I say in the book, until I was almost forty. It sounds heretical to admit it, but it’s history. Women’s history. A lot changed in a few decades. I wasn’t from a family of educated women. Women weren’t in public positions of power. I was too young to have attended “consciousness raising” seminars. The desire for a career that might surpass a husband’s felt experimental. What you saw as sexism was to me at the time the world’s fixed and unavoidable structure. I had to live and work in that world.
Can you speak a little bit about how you came to title the book as well as how you determined its organizing principle?
I understood early that its central tension was between two definitions of womanhood derived from having lived in two different social classes: a working-class housewife; an educated, professional woman. For decades, I had two selves: one that was from my past; one that was my aspiration, a self so new it required me to pretend I felt at ease. I started to think about how to tell this story and realized I was going to have to tell the whole story, a long stretch, in a linear way, therefore with radical ellipses between the chapters.
The structure became this: every chapter is a new geographical and professional setting where I’m higher up in my profession, yet I’m in a new (bad) relationship that fits my past better than my present or future. So the professional story ameliorates, but the serial boyfriends stay the same, the same, the same (each is idiosyncratically singular, of course). If anyone is wondering why about the serial bad boyfriends: work was work—not just literal work, but pretending I belonged—so I didn’t want love to feel like work too, more pretending to be someone I wasn’t yet. At night and on weekends, I dated as if I’d never left home. Making each chapter a new higher-up gig with a new bad boyfriend seemed like the best way to tell the story, and it built mounting tension into the narrative because, as time passed, the split between my daytime self and my nighttime self became unsustainably wide: a crisis. As for the title, it’s a riff on Flaubert, and it seemed right for a book about how my literal education was complicated by my romantic education, and I needed to be rational or maybe just deadpan (not sentimental) as I told the story.
Was there a particular audience you had in mind while writing this book and what do you hope they’ll walk away with?
A few sections were published as essays first, and youngish women responded enthusiastically, remarking that a lot has changed, but not enough, so I hoped its audience would be women, ages twenty-five to forty-five perhaps. I assumed it might speak to women who made careers in the same era I did. One of the pleasant surprises is that men who have been curious enough to read about a woman’s life seem to like it too. One wrote to me that it told his story too: social-class jumping, that leap from the known into the unknown.
What do I hope people understand when they finish reading the book? That most of us have impostor syndrome at first, that no one is “expert” starting out. Even a good life is like evolution: a non-repeatable series of accidents that led to this outcome. Mistakes are part of the alchemy of who we become, and we shouldn’t waste much time regretting them.
Growing up, you didn’t have much support in your pursuit of a higher education in the humanities. As someone who has had to forge her own way through academia pretty single-handedly and who now teaches for the institution, and in light of the current student debt crisis and the push for young people to take up more practical pursuits, what pitch would you make for the value of the humanities?
For anyone who is the least bit creative about shaping her or his resume to fit an employer’s job description, a humanities degree is ideal. It teaches critical thinking and good writing. You’ll be the most tactful colleague and best communicator in your organization. Beyond that, a degree in the humanities means you have researched the human condition. Having studied centuries of literature becomes honey in the larder for tedious or difficult stretches of life ahead. It makes you good company for yourself.
Being from the Midwest originally, are there any Midwestern writers of whom you’re particularly fond—who have taught you a thing or two, moved or inspired you in some way?
There are so many Midwests. It’s a term that covers parts of the Rust Belt, the Great Plains, the land of the frozen chosen: Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa. There’s differences between the Midwest’s cities and its rural areas too. Yet, for people who don’t live in the Midwest, it’s one massive stretch of flyover country. Unlike the South or the Northeast or the Northwest, it’s not culturally cohesive, not insistent about its identity. So the Midwest often seems like a place to have come from, not a place to read or write about. Midwestern writers that have mattered to me include Louise Erdrich, Jo Ann Beard, Stuart Dybek, Carol Bly. Martha Bergland’s “A Farm Under a Lake” was so welcome when I was a fledgling writer: a lyrical novel set in an otherwise unremarkable part of the Midwest (unless you live there of course, and then it’s full of nuance).
I’m fallow at the moment. I don’t write until a voice in my head insistently starts narrating. Every time I finish writing a book, I have no idea what’s next. I always feel I might not ever write again. But that hasn’t turned out to be true. I’ve averaged a book every five years for thirty years. But surely that will slow down at some point. Maybe now?
“My Unsentimental Education”
By Debra Monroe
The University of Georgia Press, 224 pages, $24.95