There are parts of Kelly McMasters’ memoir-in-essays, The Leaving Season, that could have been written about my own life. We shared the experience of having left New York City with rage-prone, iconoclastic artists, and we both eventually had to get out of those relationships in order to maintain our selfhoods. We also both ended up writing books about these experiences, and as I read her essays, I thought a lot about the way writers process experience—in public, as art, on the page.
It is an easy thing to project yourself onto a well-written book, particularly if it allows you to witness the complicated and painful emotional zigzags that live within any narrative arc, as McMasters’ does. When she writes about the loneliness she experienced in a relationship where she felt—and, let’s be real, was—unseen, I feel it low in my belly, the same dull ache I have so often experienced myself. In the most arresting scene of the book, when McMasters confronts a threat in her home and realizes that she has nowhere to go and no way to leave, I feel it in my chest; a sensation I haven’t felt in a long time.
The Leaving Season is about a lot of things: the ways we change as people as we grow and become parents, the complicated stakes that come with parenthood, the claustrophobia of wide-open country, the price of making art. More than anything, though, the memoir is about a specific form of self-actualization that is earned at tremendous cost.
In the interview below, I asked McMasters how she was able to take her experiences and translate them to the page. Our conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Margo Steines: I read your book with a rush of identification—with many of the details of your life and with the way you simultaneously occupy and observe your own experience. That dual perspective is a skill I use, too. It’s a highly specific way to occupy the world. What do you think about the idea of being a participant-observer in your own life?
Kelly McMasters: I have never, ever thought of this as a skill. Thank you. I always assumed it was a kind of broken way of being in the world that happens to be helpful in this one way, on the page. I like thinking about it as a secret superpower instead.
I’ve often imagined this dual perspective as similar to a feeling I used to get sometimes as a kid on the ocean. I grew up on the south shore of Long Island and spent most summers on the beach—no one went to camp and one mother or another would cart the neighborhood kids down for the day, until we were old enough to get there ourselves on our bikes. I was scrawny, and the waves were sometimes huge, and on the best days I would ride the waves with my body and feel like part of the ocean, moving up and down easily, without much strain. Other days, it felt like I couldn’t time it right. I couldn’t read the waves, when they were going to break, how to make my body flex and bob; I’d kick up at the wrong moment and get knocked over or under, pulled into undertow, dragged along the sharp shells of the sandbar. I feel like this a lot during conversation—I don’t know when to jump in, can’t find my rhythm in conversation, am either in a swirl of awkward pauses or a rush of too many words.
There are a few times when I don’t feel that dual perspective: dancing; during a fantastic run or great sex; in an EMDR therapy session; reading particular books; being alone in the woods or on a hike. And when the writing is going well, that moment when you feel like the words are already there and you are just getting them down on the page. Motherhood, the intensity of it, the now-ness of it, especially when the children were small, also had the ability to shock me out of that participant-observer stance. The pain and pleasure of breastfeeding, or being chest-to-chest with a child, so that I could feel their heartbeat through my own—the animalness of it.
MS: To put this skill in context, I was struck by the anthropological tone of your work about living in the country, and by the way you were able to integrate with that culture without losing your ability to really see it. In “Ghosts In the Hills” you wrote of the town you moved to, “Rock Lake’s isolation also enforced its experience as a liminal space. . . . we were thirty minutes from a carton of milk, forty-five minutes from a doctor or the law, so the men became one another’s doctors and providers of sustenance, became the law themselves . . . Rock Lake did not exist on a map, and time stood still between the old farm equipment, the eternal forms of the men standing around the barn, and Old Man McGarry himself roaming the farmhouse he built, which was now our farmhouse, and yet never would be, not fully.”
I’m curious how you were able to so clearly see and write yourself as both an interloper and a genuine part of this culture that you stepped into (and continued, crucially, to step back out of as you needed to). You write those often-competing subjectivities with such nuance.
KM: So far, I feel uncomfortable every time I get close to the truth of this answer, which is: implicated. I did not want to write as an outsider, even though this was the only position I could authentically assume. Once I introduced the idea of the heterotopia into the book, it built in a distance that felt like a comfortable perch from which to write. But while I was living it, while it was happening, even as I knew I would write about it, I was in it. This was not some journalistic lark or reporting exercise. This was my life. These were my neighbors. They were good men. They were also bad men, men who were flawed, racist, complicated, rough. I think for a period I tricked myself into believing I was living among them, as one of them, but this was never true.
This was a productive place to be as a writer–as an outsider, as an observer, as someone new to the language and the customs and the routines, I was able to name them, feel the full texture of them, see them. The shock of a bouquet of tender green wild ramps folded into a paper towel by hands that pulled those shoots from some watery edge held a particular beauty to me. My inability to become part of that world is what made me able to see it and to write about it.
MS: This book is so vulnerable in so many ways. Writing a memoir of any variety leaves the writer vulnerable to all kinds of responses, to misinterpretation, to being seen in a way that can be excruciating. And writing a memoir that so thoroughly slices open an intimate relationship, a self, and a family for the reader to experience, that’s a whole other level of openness. You expose yourself emotionally, over and over again. What has that been like for you, as a writer, as a person, as a parent?
KM: I wanted to write a book that I hope my children will read some day. This was my main consideration with my book. I battled each essay and combed through every sentence, had multiple friends (writers and non-writers) read with the children in mind. When people asked what my next book was about, and I told them, they often said: but what if your kids read it?! I wrote it with that in mind, imagining them reading it at 17, at 26, and 40. I did my best to leave enough space in and around the book so that they could also choose to never read it, never engage with it. I also am under no illusion that it will be an easy or comfortable experience for them to read it. But they lived it with me, so I hope they see the love and truth stitched through the pages.
As a writer, I feel most confident and protected. The craft of memoir allows for—no, requires—the nonfiction writer to construct a narrator in the same way a novelist would construct their own main character on the page. For a reader to see the memoirist’s narrator, we need to cleave them completely from us to build them as a separate entity. This requires critical distance. It is awkward and painful at times and a very unnatural process, but it seeds in a layer of protection while writing because it really isn’t an unadulterated self on the page. This is not a diary. This is a work of art that has been revised (ideally) multiple times, edited by (ideally) multiple people. This does not make it less true, but makes the wall between narrator and writer less porous. This gives the writer control over what is being shared and how. You are right that this control does not extend past the page; the reader experiences the story on their own terms. But as a writer, I feel shielded rather than exposed. Memoir is an exercise in control, and I take comfort in that.
As a person, I think this book has allowed me to grow intensely, especially as a mother and a partner. I wanted to put myself under the same scrutiny that I do any other character on these pages. I considered my failures, my shame, my broken parts. This did not fix them, but it helped me see them. So much of this book is about seeing—truly seeing—and I hope I learned to do that a bit more clearly. I used to be terrified for anyone to see me. That doesn’t scare me so much anymore.
MS: I read Maggie Smith’s memoir right after yours, and I noticed that in very different ways you both write about being/feeling invisible as a mother, feeling like some essential part of yourself became lost or unseen, both at home and in the world. For example, you write, “I’d stopped wearing makeup or coloring my hair . . . I wore only clothes that had elastic at the waist and shirts that could be easily pulled down or lifted for nursing. I stopped reading.“
KM: Invisibility and isolation are intrinsically linked for me. Invisibility requires audience—there needs to be a chance for visibility thwarted. In this case, audience can mean other people, or this can mean the audience of self. I believe mothers often efface themselves; sometimes it is easier to be invisible. There is vulnerability in being seen. This is what so much of my book is about—the tension between needing to be seen and, at the same time, fearing being seen—which I still work on every day of my life. Often, especially in early motherhood, it felt like I was at the bottom of a very deep well. Each moment felt interminable, impossible to climb out of, and that’s what I wanted to get on the page.
As a mother, I often felt like that double layer was active in me. This is what I was striving to get on the page. That layer of cocoon between what is trapped inside and what someone else sees. This is the well I felt stuck in, the one I feared I couldn’t escape. There is nothing scarier than our inability to control time.
MS: I want to ask you about the scene that, for me, is the most intense and pivotal scene of the book: the scene with the gun and the pregnancy. As a writer, I’m curious about the craft choices you made in writing the scene—really putting the reader in the room with you.
KM: There is another essay in the book that involves a car crash. Those moments following the crash felt similarly slow and visceral as they were happening, all color and sound and smell. This is trauma, of course, and our body’s ability (or inability) to process it, to store it in memory, to catalog. I found myself taking both scenes apart in similar ways, layer by layer, sense by sense, line by line, until I could hear myself breathing. I was inside myself in these scenes; whereas usually I write with the reader on my shoulder, in this case I needed them to not be able to escape. I wanted them stuck on that web with me, in that impossible place, all the things I loved most in the world spread across these delicate fibers, my husband included. I could not get out in that moment, though I wish I had. But I did have the power to let the reader out, and to remind them that even if the girl on the page is still there in that room, the writer is not.
MS: You both did and didn’t explain why that was not a dealbreaker.
KM: This is the beauty of critical distance. It took years for me to accept that that happened, more years to say it out loud, and then many more to write it down in this form and be able to approach it with any level of calm. And calm is what you need when you write intense scenes, or, in my case, rewrite them. And then rewrite them again. And again.
I didn’t know at the time that it was a pivotal moment in my marriage. Everything really did go blank. These were the last weeks of pregnancy and our bodies and brains do certain things, put us in strange levels of emotional hibernation, for our own protection and survival (as you well know). Then, suddenly, there was this new body, unleashed and outside of my own, so alive with beauty and magic. He outshone everything. Even this. And that made it possible to forget for a while. But the moment was seared into my brain and heart in a way that only comes with these moments of tectonic-level shifting.