WNBA-NYC member Sandra Hurtes has recently self published a new memoir, The Ambivalent Memoirist: Obsessions Digressions Epiphanies. She and Blog Editor Jenna Vaccaro recently chatted about her path to writing, the memoir genre, and the decision to tell her own story.
Thanks so much for sitting down with us here at WNBA-NYC Chapter, Sandra! Congratulations on your new book, The Ambivalent Memoirist: Obsessions Digressions Epiphanies. The WNBA is proud to support your work, and we are so happy to share your story with our members! To start off, could you tell us a bit about your book?
Hi Jenna! This is the point where I wish I had taken a course on elevator pitches. It’s hard to put into few words, but I’ll try. The book’s core is an homage to the simple pleasures in life. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, getting to that simplicity is a complicated path. In concrete terms The Ambivalent Memoirist is about my search for home, as a single woman at midlife. I’m the ultimate “late bloomer” and also very shy. It seems I’m often at a crossroads that is common for twenty and thirty-year olds who are still figuring life out.
As a memoirist, there must be a constant struggle between revealing personal details and keeping some things under wraps. How do you decide what to share and what to keep to yourself?
This is my deepest writing struggle—how to reveal the truth without crossing intimate boundaries. I grapple with this conflict in my book. I’m by nature a personal essayist and was born into stories that needed to be told. But my intense love and compassion for my parents made that very difficult. And so, I wrote carefully. I wrote of the fissure inside of me—ambivalence about living my own life, but without excessively exposing my parents. I wanted to be a memoir warrior. I envied memoirists who wrote with abandon. But I could not. When I got my MFA and was in a memoir program, a professor told me I didn’t have to write everything. She said memoir isn’t autobiography. That helped me a lot. On a basic level—if something makes me squirm, I don’t share it.
What was the most difficult part of your book to write?
The hardest scene to write was the last conversation I had with my mother. I couldn’t get the tone and emotion right. Re-entering the feelings I had when she was very ill was difficult for obvious reasons—re-experiencing the loss. But I also worried about how I would come off. The scene doesn’t have a lot of context. I’d like to rewrite it because the scene deserves greater attention.
What influenced you to share your personal story with the world?
My biggest influence is that I was raised in a pre-women’s lib mentality—to be pretty, acquiescent and definitely not smart. My older brother had a voice which he made sure was heard, as did my mother. I did not. I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say until my late twenties. I was divorced then, in therapy, separating from my parents. I discovered I wasn’t stupid. I discovered I could write. I discovered I had a lot to say.
I was very fortunate that editors published my early essays and validated me. I love that I can be a part of public conversations, maybe even begin one—that’s a big part of what drives me. I recently had a Letter to the Editor published in the Times. That was more exhilarating than having my articles published. I teach college freshmen. I always tell them, “Be one voice. You count. You can make a difference.”
What do you love about memoir as a genre, and what are some of your favorite books of this style?
My favorite memoir is Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. I was foolish enough to think I could emulate her style; I read the book at least ten times. Then I taught the book in a memoir class. Each reading was fresh because the prose is gorgeous, intelligent, and psychoanalytic. What I love about memoir is twofold: it gives me permission to tell my own stories and gives me others to relate to. Through reading, I discover that no one gets an Easy Pass in life. We all struggle in different ways. Memoirs make me feel my idiosyncrasies are okay.
How did you become a writer? When did you decide to make this your career?
I started writing poetry and keeping a journal when I got divorced; the act of writing helped me grow emotionally. I started writing essays but wasn’t disciplined and didn’t believe in myself. Years later, in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the Jews’ liberation from concentration camps, I was overcome with the need to tell my story. I worked obsessively on an essay which was published. That was it for me. I knew then that I was a writer.
You are a New York Native and a teacher to boot- how has the writing scene and style changed over the course of your tenure in the Empire State?
When I started out I was an active member of the National Writers Union. I volunteered, went to social events and made lots of writing buddies. I also took classes at The Writer’s Voice (which is now The New York Writers Workshop, which I’m a member of). I was completely immersed in all things writing—I read all the industry magazines, kept up to date about the business side and wrote all the time. I loved it. Slowly, I became less involved; writing itself took on a different meaning. It was one thing I did, but not my identity. Life changed. I went back to school. I’m now an adjunct at two colleges and teach from four to five courses a semester. My most creative and thoughtful writing is often class agendas. I’m also very interested in yoga and spend free time at a class as opposed to the laptop.
What are some of your favorite stories or books about New York, or NYC based writers?
Sophie’s Choice, particularly since the protagonist is from Brooklyn, where I lived for a long time (pre-hipster days).
Did you enjoy the self-publishing process? What made you go this route, and did you find it at all difficult to make a book on your own? I’m sure our readers would love any tips you have on this!
Self-publishing has pros and cons. On the plus side, because my current book has a quirky style (short chapters that jump ahead and back in time), I didn’t try to find an agent or publisher. My first book is a collection of previously published essays. I looked for an agent, but was told essay collections are a very hard sell. And so, through self-publishing I got my work out. The first time around was easy; the work already had found an audience. I knew it was good. It also was publish-ready. My goal was very simple: to contribute a body of work to the literature on the Holocaust. My current project was more complicated. I revised a blog I kept for three years into a book. That involved a lot of revision and working with an editor and copyeditor. My goal was to put the work out into the world, and also, to sell it.
My advice is to work as hard on your manuscript as you would on a traditionally published book. Hire an editorial team. Proofread like crazy. Nothing says “shabby” like misspelled words (especially proper names, which I had, in spite of all the proofreading). Don’t rush to publish, simply because you can. I published my book a bit too soon; three months later I fixed typos, revised and republished. If you want sales, hire a marketing person or dedicate yourself to learning everything—so much is online—and putting in a lot of time. Don’t downplay the amount of work and professionalism involved.
Describe your writing process: do you have any unusual habits?
I love to write at 4:00 a.m. and drink a hot mug of coffee. Then I go back to sleep for an hour.
Who are some of your literary heroes and favorite books?
My favorite books include everything by James Kirkwood, especially There Must be a Pony. His perspective—finding the silver lining in the midst of chaos—speaks loudly to me as a person and writer. The Joy Luck Club is very meaningful. Amy Tan is Chinese American, but her stories are universal—especially the conflicts of mother/daughter. Italian writer Elena Ferrante is brilliant. The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter are compulsively readable. She’s shocking and intense.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud which I’m teaching in a writing class. It was written in the mid nineties, and is a great example of early-day memoir. No dirty laundry. No crossing boundaries. This is a tightly written true story of Gunther’s search for a cure for his son’s terminal brain cancer.
What advice do you have for those who aspire to write?
If you’re inspired by stories within or outside yourself, you’re lucky. Don’t wait for the right time. Get them down—words, ideas, fragments. Stay committed to what you have to say and keep returning, drawing out the story, revising. If you want to write, but don’t feel inspired, stop waiting. Sit down. Start something. Don’t expect it to be easy. Don’t expect it to be great, or even good. When it is, settle in and enjoy. When it isn’t, know that you are part of a large community of writers with the same issues.
Could you point our members to some of your other previously published works?
www.sandrahurtes.com is my website; there are articles plus a link to my blog. My work can also be found at ducts.org, feminist.com, phillynews.com, nytimes.com. My books are available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.