An Indies Introduce Q&A With Dawn Davies

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Mothers of Sparta by Dawn DaviesDawn Davies is the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Flatiron Books), an Indies Introduce Winter/Spring 2018 selection and a February 2018 Indie Next List pick.

“To use a favored phrase, Dawn Davies had me at hello,” said Lynn Rosen, co-owner of Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Indies Introduce panel that selected Davies’ debut. “She tells of her life, but she probes deeply and makes her insights universal, and her use of language is spectacular. I felt like she was speaking directly to me, as if she had written this book to meet my personal emotional needs as a mother. She’s honest, she’s real, and she’s a talented writer.”

Davies earned her BA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her MFA from Florida International University. She lives in Ft. Lauderdale and teaches creative writing. Her work has received a Pushcart Special Mention and has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Davies’ debut is a collection of some of those essays, which explore the author’s experiences in life and motherhood.

Rosen recently had the opportunity to talk with Davies about some of the themes in Mothers of Sparta as well as the author’s writing process.

Lynn Rosen: The subtitle of your book is “A Memoir in Pieces.” Can you explain what you meant by that? What drew you to the form of memoir and personal essay?

Dawn Davies, author of Mothers of Sparta
Photo by Mariya Wai

Dawn Davies: One side of this answer is that I don’t know why I’m a memoirist. I shouldn’t be. I’m a private person. I don’t need a lot of friends. I’m introverted at parties. I feel uncomfortable when the lens is pointed at me, and I am somewhat content when lost in the world of fiction. In fiction, no one can blame you for anything, and you aren’t putting anything personally intimate on the line. You are making stuff up. I went into grad school as a fiction writer. One semester, after I slept through my online registration time and the fiction classes filled up, I had to register for a nonfiction class. This came at a time when I was examining patterns and experiences in my life and trying to write about them through fiction, and I didn’t want to waste time, so I took the veil off and kept writing in essay form.

What I found was that I liked the persona I created and was interested in seeing what she would do within these essays. I also liked the essay as an art form. So, I suppose the second side of this answer is maybe I’m not that introverted, because I have now spent several years examining my experiences and writing about them for others to read, and I show no signs of stopping. I guess I don’t mind the lens pointing at me when I am the one controlling the lens.

For me, an essay is an attempt to make sense of something that needs reckoning. At first, I thought it was selfish and a little audacious to write about myself as a “nobody” without a platform or body of work, although I grew up loving Studs Terkel and other oral historians who have captured the stories of “regular people.” But, when I strung a few of these essays together, I saw these experiences were connected by emotions and behaviors that had developed because of earlier experiences, and I was able to look at things with a sharper focus. And I’m no different than anyone else. I believe that each of our lives is constructed in pieces, from memoir bits strung together by emotions that ultimately make a mosaic of something worth examining, no matter how “regular” we are.

LR: In your book’s acknowledgements, you mention the Hall & Oates (Philly boys!) song “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid.” You say that these words are a musical warning for the memoirist. Do you feel that you said anything in the book that should have remained unsaid? Was it hard to “say” (as in, write about) the topics you chose to address?

DD: First, I love that old song! Second, I left a lot unsaid in Mothers of Sparta. Writing memoir is like writing in a minefield: you must make extra-careful decisions about what truly contributes to a memoir, or your risk explosion and ruin of more than yourself. It’s a different type of editing than in fiction, where, although you are supposed to kill those darlings, it doesn’t really matter, because the darlings aren’t real. With memoir, you craft a story to be as meaningful and artistic as you can, without manipulating the truth of it, while also considering the lives of other people who might be affected by your publication and who didn’t sign up to be your darlings.

I almost changed my mind about publishing Mothers of Sparta on the day I got the contract in the mail. I knew that once I signed, there would be no turning back and many people would now be able to make assumptions about my family and me — about decisions I have made and the thoughts I have admitted to struggling with — without really knowing the whole of what went into those decisions and thoughts. You can’t ever know a memoirist by what they reveal in an essay. It is a small fraction of who they truly are, and no essayist ever “says it all.”

At the same time, with the title essay, “Mothers of Sparta,” I could not have left things unsaid and still convey the depth of my struggles as a mother trying to help with my son’s issues. I had to name all the things because the combination of all the things is what made our situation impossible.

Also, sometimes the hard truth is important, especially if you are writing to make a change in the world, which is the only reason why I chose to publish the “Mothers of Sparta” essay. This essay is a reckoning with something no one seems to know how to deal with, and my son, and the many, many other people out there with similar issues, deserve to have a plan of care that includes something other than “wait until they offend and the prison system will handle them.”

Memoir truth is always subjective. No two people experience an event in the same way. This memoir is a reckoning with my subjective truth, a demonstration of how I processed certain life experiences, and, in fact, how I interpreted these events to be valid and appropriate to share. It is a memoirist’s job to examine how truth looks. I can’t feel bad for operating within the parameters of what memoir is supposed to do here, though if you think it didn’t break my heart to write “Mothers of Sparta,” you’d be wrong.

LR: Speaking of songs, what is the relationship for you between music and writing?

DD: Music is what I turn to when the words aren’t there, whether they have temporarily dried up, or are simply not yet formed. I regularly go down musical rabbit holes, which might include listening to major artists within a genre or era while also reading their biographies, or it could mean listening to only one song on repeat for, say, three weeks. I have a version of synesthesia that allows me to see colors when I hear sounds, and somehow, I connect feelings (even physical sensations in my body) with these. So, music gives me extra-credit sensory input, which I use when writing. And, of course, music is a memory trigger for many people, so listening to music helps give me access to feelings, thoughts, and memories that I use. I keep a record of what music I listen to whenever I write anything. Interestingly, I can’t listen to anything while I write…I listen around when I write, and I start off almost every writing session by watching a YouTube video of Jaco Pastorius playing “Third Stone From the Sun.”

LR: You talk a lot about the relationship between motherhood and loss, or letting go. In the opening section, you describe watching your daughters swim and knowing they will grow up and leave you one day. Are love and loss inextricably intertwined for you?

DD: Sadly, I think so. I think the heaviest thematic takeaway from my book is “don’t like it too much,” which implies that the things you love will always leave. Nothing stays the same. I have the type of imagination that will take something all the way, and, honestly, what “all the way” ultimately means is someone or something’s deathbed, whether it’s a literal or figurative death. It doesn’t have to be the death of a person; it can be the death of a job, or a season in life that you loved but must change, or a friendship, or a family structure. This is sad, but it is also helpful to think of this when I am in the middle of something exhausting or boring or impossible that I wish would be over. It helps to forecast the feeling of what it will be like when it is over, which allows me to be careful of what I wish for. It sounds like I am not living in the present, but thinking like this reminds me to try and live in the present. Now when I say this gloomy thing, it sounds brutal, but when I put it into action, it sometimes comes out humorous, which is always a goal of mine, since humor is one of the best ways I’ve found of coping with the tough stuff.

LR: In the title essay, you ask some very powerful questions that are inspired by your experience with your son. You also wrote about how hard this chapter was to write. How do you think it will be received by readers? What does it mean to you to be a Mother of Sparta?

DD: I do not know how “Mothers of Sparta” will be received. I’ve prepared for the worst. I know the essay, in part, defecates on the ideals of motherhood and the loving stereotypes of how mothers should think about their children, but I use this to illustrate my desperation during that time in my life, and I hope people will understand that. I did not know how to help my son, and everywhere I turned we were told there was no hope. No one wants to hear “no hope.” “No hope” is the worst, especially when combined with the worry that my son might not ever be able to control his impulses and might end up hurting someone.

After I wrote this essay, I shared it with my son, who was brave enough to give permission to publish it. He hopes that his story — our story — will help bring awareness to the fact that there are conditions in life for which no medical or social system is prepared to help, and people can treat children with brain damage as pariahs without ever giving them a chance.

I think what it means to be a Mother of Sparta is to know that you will either always be in battle or preparing for it. That you can sleep, but one eye will always be open. That your role in society is to protect it as best you can, though this can manifest in different ways. For me right now, it includes “outing” my child with the hope that we will get help, and perhaps make a difference in the way children like my son are treated by the medical, education, psychological, and social service communities. It might one day mean turning my son in to the police. It might mean that my worst assumptions were wrong and that once my son’s brain development “catches up,” as one doctor told us might happen, I will spend the rest of my life eating crow for having assumed the worst. That last one is the one I’d like to see come to fruition.

LR: “Kicking the Snakes” is about you overcoming your fear about becoming a writer. How does it feel to have followed that path? To see your book published? What’s next?

DD: I have battled crippling, mostly irrational fears my whole life, and never knew why. By following the writing path and by publishing this book, I began to face several of my primary fears: fear of being misunderstood, fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of failure. But everyone can use a leg up now and again, so when the book went into production, I went into therapy! Note: if you write a memoir and go into therapy, give your therapist a copy of your book; it will save you both a lot of time. I was quickly diagnosed with OCD, though I had lived with moderate to severe symptoms of it for most of my life without knowing what it was. Because I was ignorant of the dimensions of OCD, and didn’t have counting or hand-washing problems, I had never considered OCD. I thought it was “just anxiety,” or a personality weakness. In fact, I recall spending most of my life trying to “suck it up,” which really is a terrible way to manage OCD.

In post-diagnosis hindsight, it is obvious that these are OCD essays without the OCD label. I was trying to understand and describe the difficulty of living with OCD without knowing what it was. Even the “Fear of Flying” essay that talks about post-partum depression is actually post-partum OCD, according to a few professionals who have read it. I think it is interesting that my behaviors and thoughts are sort of dissected and laid out on the table for examination, without a label attached, which I think speaks to an unintentional theme of this memoir — living within your label or escaping it: Autistic, overthinker, divorcee, failure, psychopath, dreamer, new girl, new mom, welfare mom, soccer mom, pedophile, “Cap’n faggot,” or whatever your own label might be. Sometimes labels are damning, sometimes they are limiting, and sometimes, if you are lucky, they might help for a bit, though I think they are mostly damning or limiting.

I always wonder what’s next. I think that’s a great question! I have a second essay collection half finished; some of the essays have already left the nest for individual publication. I also spent the last six months revising a draft of a novel that I am starting to get seriously attached to. I have a few other books on deck when those are finished. I’m also teaching now, which I love doing, and which I plan to continue if the avenues stay open.

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces by Dawn Davies (Flatiron Books, 9781250133700, Hardcover Nonfiction, $24.99) On Sale Date: 1/30/2018.

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