Candy Schulman is an award-winning essayist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, Newsweek, Parents, Salon, The Washington Post, Writer’s Digest, and others. Her essay Raising My Mother received the 2013 Outstanding Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA). She has contributed to several books and anthologies, and has completed a memoir called Raising My Mother, about how her mother’s illness, Lewy body dementia, reversed their mother-daughter roles. Schulman has been a writing professor at the New School in New York City for more than 25 years, where she teaches creative nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir. In spring 2015, Schulman mentored Literary Mama’s social media editor, Caryn Mohr, through the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ (AWP) Writer to Writer mentorship program. In this conversation, Schulman talks with Mohr about the craft of essay writing, making the jump to memoir, and writing about mother-daughter relationships.
Caryn Mohr: You’ve published a number of essays about your roles as a mother and daughter. How do you write about mother-daughter relationships in a way that preserves the truth and also relationship loyalties?
Candy Schulman: Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “Every writer writes from one address.” My address has been my relationship with my mother. Her traumatic childhood had lasting effects on our relationship. My first attempts at writing about my mother were fueled by anger and disappointment. As I learned more about who she was and why, I was able to portray a more well-rounded portrait of her limitations and strengths. Personal writing might start off as venting, but the art is to elevate your emotions into a story that has a distinct theme with an epiphany that’s believable and generalizable to many readers.
CM: Can you talk about your award-winning essay “Raising My Mother“? What feedback did you receive from the judges?
CS: The judges remarked how much they felt the deep emotional impact of the essay, especially the identifiable theme of role reversal when a daughter begins to care for her mother.
CM: You have also written a memoir called Raising My Mother. Did the memoir grow out of the essay?
CS: Yes, the memoir grew out of a series of essays I’d published, mostly in the Chicago Tribune. I kept writing about my mother: her memory loss, physical incapacities, and the reversing roles when an aging parent begins to depend on a daughter. The consistent theme that emerged was the challenge of being “sandwiched” between caring for an aging mother and raising a young child. As I talked about these issues with friends, I realized how many of us were in the same difficult situation.
CM: How did your approach to the memoir differ from essay writing? What stage of the process are you currently in?
CS: Essays are different from memoirs. Each essay is complete, a compact type of prose poem, leaving the reader with “one provocative thought,” as William Zinsser advised. Expanding into a memoir, I began to think in terms of chapters and subplots, adding scenes and information as I wrote. I’ve finished the memoir, but I am currently tweaking certain parts of it, resulting from essays I’ve published about Lewy body dementia, a little-known illness my mother had that may also have contributed to Robin Williams’s suicide.
CM: How have family members reacted to your writing?
CS: My mother’s reaction to my essays often surprised me. Once, she called me after her friend read a very flattering essay I’d written about my mother, where I mentioned her age. Her friend was surprised to hear the actual number, as my mother had told her she was several years younger. It turned out that as a writer, I was telling the truth, but as a friend, my mother was not as honest with her peers.
I’d been writing essays about my mother for decades before I had my own daughter. When she was small, I felt free to write about every aspect of being a mother: childbirth, breast-feeding, toilet training, terrible twos. As she grew older, I knew there were certain personal themes that I didn’t want to share in public. When she was a teenager, I showed her everything I wrote before it was published for approval and edits (I’m proud to say that she is an excellent editor).
Now I’m on the other side, as she’s written about me. Publishing an essay in her college newspaper last year, she recounted a robbery at her team’s soccer practice. Recalling the city street safety guidelines I’d taught her in middle school, she said these rules had “stemmed from the troubled conscience of my Jewish mother.” I didn’t know I had a troubled conscience until she wrote that, and I found her viewpoint both flattering and amusing.
CM: What do you hope your students at the New School take away from your classes about the craft of essay writing? In your opinion, what makes an award-winning essay?
CS: Essays are not just a recounting of real life in real time. They are artfully crafted stories with a narrative arc, combining scenes, dramatic conflict, and personal reflection. Dialogue and the use of lilting language and metaphor enhance the reading experience. The story must be identifiable and generalizable. It must move from one place to the next. A writer must tell the story only she can write. In my career I’ve written both humorous and serious essays. I love when a reader tells me she laughed. When a reader tells me I made her cry, I feel like apologizing, but I also know that means I’ve done my job as a writer.
CM: What have you learned about creative nonfiction writing and inspiration from reading your students’ work over the past 25 years?
CS: Everyone has a story to tell, and you can find a unique viewpoint or twist on themes that have been written about many times. At the end of every semester, I can pick up an essay written by one of my writing students and identify the writer without even looking at his or her name. Editors say “voice” is so important in personal essay and memoir. My students develop and strengthen their written voices in a very short time.
CM: Your tenure as a writing professor and essayist has spanned many stages of motherhood, from your daughter’s birth to high school graduation. How has your writing life changed over the years? Were there times when writing and mothering took on a different balance?
CS: Before I had a child, I worried about finding time to write. Would I feel resentful that my writing time was sacrificed? Balancing motherhood and writing is challenging, but certainly not impossible. If J.K. Rowling could write Harry Potter in cafés where she was simultaneously trying to urge her young daughter to fall asleep, then all mothers can be prolific writers with babies and children around.
Since I live in a Manhattan apartment where space is cramped, my writing desk is in the corner of my living room without a door for privacy. I hired a part-time babysitter, who was energetic and enthusiastic about taking my toddler out to the park so I could write. Rather than feeling it was a sacrifice to have reduced writing time, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to go away to an office and not see my daughter for ten hours a day. When she came home and interrupted me with a hug, I embraced her affection.
I began publishing a series of personal essays, often humorous in tone, with Parents and other parenting magazines—a new market for me. My daughter was my inspiration, providing me with ideas. When a writer has less time to write, she often gets more accomplished.
After my daughter left for college, I had even more time to write. Now that SATs, soccer practice, and college applications were done, I found myself revitalizing my writing career once again. My first published piece during this phase of my writing career was about how my husband and I were facing the empty nest.
CM: You have talked about the importance a writing mentor played in your life. I recently benefited from your belief in mentoring as your mentee in the AWP Writer to Writer mentorship program. What do you see as the benefits of mentorship to emerging writers, and what are the ingredients of a successful mentoring relationship?
CS: Thank you, Caryn, for your kind words about our mentor relationship! Of course, the right “fit” and chemistry is essential for any mentoring relationship. It’s difficult for writers to live in a vacuum, especially at the early stages of their careers. I would not be the writer I am today if not for my mentor, who became a close friend as well as an inspirational teacher. But I had studied with other writing professors before I found Hayes B. Jacobs, director of the Writing Program at the New School, where I am now a professor. There isn’t an equation for finding the right mentor. It’s like going out on a number of blind dates before you fall in love with your soul mate.
CM: What are you working on now?
CS: After writing darker pieces about my mother’s aging and illness, I took a break and wrote about travel adventures. I’ve just finished a travel piece about Florence, Italy. I spent a week there with my daughter after she finished a semester abroad studying French in Paris. As a journalist I’ve always loved to research, and I had so much information to share about Italy. Now that the travel piece is done, I’d like to examine the more personal aspect of reuniting with my daughter after being on different continents for five months. We’d both changed—her much more than me.
CM: What advice do you have to emerging creative nonfiction writers?
CS: Write. Revise. Write. Revise. Every day. Even on vacation. My writing mentor used to loudly proclaim, “Produce manuscript!” Inspiration doesn’t come from a magical place. Writing discipline generates inspiration and ideas, not the other way around. Show your work to a mentor, either privately or in a workshop. Be open to criticism. Research the markets—there are more opportunities for essay writers now than ever.