Like so many books, for so long now, I read Courtney Zoffness’s Spilt Milk while mostly isolated with my family. I’ve spent much of this year thinking about what books are worth, why any of us keep bothering. I felt disconnected from fiction that seemed too invested in its own intelligence to engage with characters’ flaws or vulnerabilities. In this time, Spilt Milk enacted a particular sort of magic on me. It’s nonfiction, memoir, a series of essays, unabashedly interested in the quotidian. As a mother, Zoffness worries that her child worries too much, just as she used to and still worries. In another essay, Zoffness, as a freshly minted M.F.A. student, finds herself doing research for the memoir of a Syrian Jew because she needs a paycheck, and so begins tracking the persecution and forced departure of ten thousand Jews from Aleppo. Yet another essay centers on raising her young white son in brownstone Brooklyn, a son who is obsessed with visiting the police precinct close to their home, and the arrival of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.
What Spilt Milk helped me to remember was how intimate books can feel, at a time when intimacy feels so hard to come by; a single consciousness unfurling through all the spaces that lack easy resolution, willing to lay itself bare. It’s a strange time for all of us, trapped as we are in our own ways, so relentlessly isolated and afraid. Books are not a cure, and yet books like Spilt Milk remind me that there is a way to feel closer to other people, to feel intimate with them, to see all the ways the individual is so often the surest path to understanding the universal.
One of the things that I sometimes find challenging, or just less true-feeling, about nonfiction is its desire to land somewhere specific. I think so much of life is messier, more about questions than answers, than this idea suggests. You do a gorgeous job of giving us the satisfaction of an essay that feels whole and nourishing while allowing for ambivalence and uncertainty to still feel alive at the end. I wonder if you could talk about how you think of endings? How do you know your pieces are finished and how do you think about the sense of understanding you want your reader to leave with?
Endings are so deceptive. That final period gives the illusion of resolution or conclusion when my thoughts and feelings on nearly every subject and experience in Spilt Milk remain unresolved. I think that one of the aims of an essay is to ask questions, not necessarily answer them, and I try to embed this spirit of inquiry in each piece, to be transparent about my own internal conflicts or uncertainty along the way—whether over parental choices or astrology or my feelings about other people. I want to show messiness. This approach hopefully trains readers not to expect a resolution, but it can also make it harder for me to discern the right endnote. Several of these endings gelled through trial and error.
“I want to show messiness” is a thing that I would say about my own writing as well, a thing I think lots of writers would say, and yet so much of writing is about precision and control. You dip in and out of scenes so quickly and seamlessly. How do you navigate the relationship between the mess you wish to portray and the precision with which you convey it?
I think a carefully composed container can make the mess easier to hold—for the writer, as well as the reader. Sometimes pointed questions can help me chart a course, like trail markers. Other times, questions will emerge from the material. In “Boy in Blue,” for example, about my young, white son’s cop obsession, I write about simultaneously honoring his love of dramatic play while wrestling with his preferences. Readers hear both my attempts to educate him and the limits of his comprehension. A question grew out of these scenes that I hadn’t been able to articulate before I began: How vast is the harm society will do to my sons, and the harm they will inevitably do in return, while their mother waits for them to grow up?
A common thread through many of these essays is ritual and religion, but then the rituals are often absent of their intended weight. You are Jewish and in the book you grapple with your Judaism, but do not have a relationship with a specific god. How do you think of ritual both as a subject and as a practice?
I think ritual can be beautiful and important. I also don’t think the same ritual necessarily means the same thing to each practitioner—or even the same thing to a single practitioner each time. I believe the meaningfulness of any act depends on the human performing it. I may feel nourished singing certain songs on a particular holiday but the nourishment doesn’t come from feeling close to a god, as it may for others. It comes from an awareness that so many people are doing this same thing at the same time—and have for centuries. It comes from hearing the voices of my younger selves singing this song on holidays past, and the sound of my sons’ voices blending with mine in the present.
I wonder about the particular ritual that writing demands and also the faith inherent in making things. How do you relate these in your work? What sort of faith can be felt outside the spiritual?
This question reminds me of a conversation I have with a doctor in Spilt Milk who notes that a patient’s belief in treatment is part of what makes it effective. She says, “Every time you take a pill, it’s an act of faith. You’re accepting the possibility that you can feel better.” I want to say the same holds true for the literary arts, even if I don’t consciously conceive of it this way when I work. Every time we write a new sentence, we’re accepting the possibility that we can write better. Artistic progress depends on practice, and also a subterranean faith in the process—and ourselves.
Yes! I so agree with this, and using the word practice feels useful as a way of thinking about all of one’s work as a progression. I wonder about the specificity of your practice. Do you write everyday? Do you have any physical or thought rituals around how you work?
I’ve attempted to adhere to a writing schedule, but ultimately I think I’m more of a binge writer. When a literary idea sinks in its teeth, I will work on it fanatically, mull over it constantly, take notes on any paper scrap in my vicinity. I am similarly obsessive about sentence-level shining in the final stages. Then there will be a fallow period where I’ll twiddle on a few different things but prioritize other parts of my life. Maybe the lulls between the sprees are restorative?
Yes. I wonder if this is particular to parenting in some ways. I often describe this to people as dam building, followed by a breaking, but it also has to do with knowing that I can’t actually sustain the level of obsessiveness that I perform.
It’s possibly connected to parenting and I find consolation in this explanation. If I’m really honest with myself though, I’ve always had a hard time regimenting the practice for a sustained period of time. I admire the hell out of other writers who stick to a schedule. Did you have different writing habits before kids?
My practices have stayed similar but the intensity has shifted. I used to get up “early” but that was 6 A.M. and now it’s 4:30 A.M. As a writer who writes about motherhood, how does your role as mother inform your work? How do you navigate writing about your kids?
Curiously, I’ve been writing about motherhood since before I became a mother, though primarily in fiction. One of my first published short stories when I was a young graduate student was about an older woman pregnant with twins. I remember asking a friend who had kids to vet my descriptions for accuracy. That said, becoming a mother transformed my work, not only because it curtailed the time I had to write, but because I started seeing everything through a maternal lens. Everyone was somebody’s child. My kids are really young in this book, mostly under five, so I felt okay including their likenesses on the page. They’re a little older now. If I want to write about them, I ask their permission.
Yeah. My kids are not yet old enough to read my books, but even their ability to sneak a peak over my shoulder now has been a reminder of how their relationship to my work can and will shift. Connected to this is how our various beliefs, and maybe sometimes pathologies, are passed down. There’s the sort of flip, common talk about children being similar to their parents, but for a certain type of person, the idea of our children having to deal with some of the same internal battles that we dealt with can be terrifying. What were the problems and questions you sought to explore in that first essay, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” and what, if anything, felt clearer to you after the writing?
The opening essay morphed and evolved over many years. Earlier drafts were really research heavy. I went down a rabbit hole of scientific studies on the parent-child transfer and was studiously deciphering medical jargon. At one point my therapist told me she thought chasing answers to this heredity question was a symptom of my anxiety, which I found hilarious and perfect and probably true. “This Essay is a Symptom of My Anxiety” was a provisional title. I suppose what became clear as I watched my children grow and reworked this essay is the formula-less-ness of parenthood. Even if I found a study or statistic that “proved” some kind of inheritance, would it have mattered? What would it ultimately change? What light could it shed on my distinctive family, or our unique dynamics?
I wonder about the power of language to make us feel in control of an experience that is itself defined by our lack of power. Do you find deploying language around these moments of powerlessness difficult? Energizing? How has writing about parenthood shifted your relationship to the powerlessness inherent in loving another human being this way?
In the same way endings can falsely signal resolution, I think language can falsely suggest control. There’s a difference between describing or dramatizing parental concerns and navigating them with your children. Describing these moments may help me make connections within my own life, and to the world at large, but I don’t think they make me a more effective mom.
Ha. Yes. Speaking of all the roles we fail at as women, in your book there is also a sense of powerlessness around gender more broadly. After a student makes sexual advances at you in front of the class in “Hot for Teacher,” you write, “He’d still felt the need to exert sexual power over me. I was still a woman.” That we can see and name our powerlessness as women often does us very little good. And yet, we both write books. Is there power in naming these dynamics, in grappling with ideas that feel immutable, but still laying them bare?
I think animating these moments of powerlessness sheds light on what contemporary womanhood can feel like, which is worthwhile for all kinds of readers. It can generate awareness and empathy. One aim of that essay was to show the continuity of this experience over time—an aggressive nine-year-old male classmate, a high school jock who cornered me in the dark, the sexually predacious OB-GYN who assaulted dozens of patients. I am a mother of sons. I think a lot about the messaging they receive about boyhood and manhood—and, perhaps more importantly, girlhood and womanhood. When does the indoctrination begin? How can I run interference?
Your essay “It May All End in Aleppo” engages with so many different spaces in which we have so little power—the particular and unrelenting tragedy of Syria, the attacks on and exodus of Jews from Aleppo starting in 1947, this repeated idea about our “struggle to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined.” Does the writing in these spaces have a different weight or texture?
It does seem like there are concentric circles of powerlessness and the further out we go, the more abstract they become. I find it easier to write about moments of personal vulnerability because I can translate their weight and texture. I can’t rely on firsthand observations to describe sectarian violence in Syria, a country I’ve never visited, even if, as that essay makes clear, I ghostwrote the memoir of a Syrian Jewish refugee. Powerlessness is a big part of Sol’s history—all the ways in which Aleppine Jews were persecuted after the formation of Israel. They couldn’t own property and had to abide by curfews and were arbitrarily arrested and assaulted. I was moved to learn that a Muslim neighbor saved Sol’s family’s lives when an anti-Semitic mob came calling. Then, in a gutting twist—one that speaks again to powerlessness—Sol voted for Trump in 2016. He didn’t object to Trump’s executive order banning foreign nationals from Muslim countries. Here I had done all this work to get close to his experiences only to have him declare, We all have bigotry inside us. You do, too. It was brutal.
I think there is a sort of strange pressure on writers to talk about “right now,” as if it were possible to make sense of the hot white fact of this moment. Where are you in relation to that impulse as you sit alone in your apartment with your family in the twelfth month of quarantine in 2021? What feels solid about right now? What’s making you feel less afraid?
Having a less sadistic president in office feels pretty solid, as do the vaccines going into more and more arms every day. All of this suggests less death and less suffering. America is just as racist and the planet is still intensely endangered, but there’s room for optimism, too. I’m encouraged by the youth vote surge in 2020. The next generation is showing a commitment to activism and justice of all kinds. Maybe what I’m saying after all this talk about motherhood is, I am less afraid because of the children.
Lynn Steger Strong is the author, most recently, of the novel Want.
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