Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Author Interview with Nancy Davidoff Kelton on Her Memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein

I met Nancy Davidoff Kelton about 15 years ago in her one-day personal essay writing class in Manhattan, and then I signed up for her weekly workshop. I liked her brand of "tough love" critique balanced by genuine interest in her writing students. Since then, we've stayed in touch through reading each others' work.

I'm happy to have her here today and ask about her recently published memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein. Nancy's six other books include Writing From Personal Experience. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, Parents, Redbook, and Working Mother, among other publications. Nancy teaches at The New School in Manhattan. 

Please welcome Nancy Kelton.

Q. First, we must discuss the title, which I just love. (If I were to write such a book, I guess I'd have to call it Finding Mr. Baccagaloupi!) Where did it come from? Was this the title from the start?

A. Finding Mr. Rightstein was always the title. I don’t remember how it came about. I was probably caucusing with my unconscious, which is how I think my favorite things come out of me.

Q. I remember in a class of yours, you once said that if you aren't willing to empty your gut on the page, there's no point writing essay or memoir. With this book, were there times when you didn't quite want to spill your guts? Did age makes it any easier or harder to be so vulnerable on the page?

A. I am not sure if it is age or from many decades of writing, but I seem to have easier access to my emotions and an easier time saying what I want to say.  Also, I never would have written this book when my parents were alive.  

But in terms of emptying or spilling one’s guts: yes, you have to be willing to reveal yourself, get under your skin and there were times when that was not only hard, but downright scary. But: 1.Writing is NOT therapy. Therapy is therapy. That’s where you spill guts directly. Writing is a discipline, an art form, a difficult one.  2. Although I am able to reveal what is in my heart, I certainly to do NOT spill out everything.  That would be nauseating.  Boring.  You can’t do that to your readers.  In first drafts, I get out the kitchen sink. Revising enables me to get rid of what’s not working, clean up the clutter and the uninteresting parts.  Each revision means deepening what I want to say.  

Q. I recall that you wrote a series of essays for the AARP website about dating as a senior. How much of the book grew out of that experience?

A. Not much. My book is not a dating memoir. It’s a story about growing up, getting older, getting out of my own way, finding the love inside myself, and coming to the love of a good man. Some of the men I dated figure into my journey.  I hope I captured the challenges and joys I faced.  

Q. You've published dozens of personal essays in magazines, newspapers, and online media. What particular challenges did you face in writing a full length memoir instead of an essay collection?

A. Facing myself and facing the blank screen consistently for such a long period of time.

Q. You've infused even some unpleasant events of your life—a depressed mother, your divorce, losing parents—with humor. How do you make those writing decisions and why is humor important when writing about serious matters?

A. The writing decisions: I think with each draft and eventually with good editors, I saw what parts flowed, sang, or were just ho-hum.

Humor: I think humor is important in every aspect of life. It is among my best survival tools. It’s among my strengths. I think the best humor comes from pain and having a perspective.  Or as Charlie Chaplin said, “From seeing life from the long shot." When what I write comes out funny, I can’t say how or why.  That is how I see it.  And say it. I am very blessed I have that ability.

Q. Your last book, Writing From Personal Experience, is a great resource for those who write personal essays. It comes off my shelf frequently, tagged with sticky notes, marking tidbits I share with my students. Do you have one or two additional insights, maybe particular to writing personal essays for the web, that you can share?

A. Write from your heart. Have courage. Pretend you are on a brightly lit stage. Show your readers how and were you started out, where you are going and where you arrive. Do NOT tell them. Telling is off-putting. Distancing. And do NOT show EVERYTHING you went through. That is really boring.

Q. Speaking of your own "Mr. Rightstein" (the man you married in 2009, after years of living single), do you have any kind of understanding with him about when or how you include him in your writing? Did he, or others, read the manuscript as you were working or before it went to press? 

A. My husband reads my work right before I send it out because he is a good editor. Somewhere in the course of writing Finding Mr. Rightstein, I asked him how he felt about my writing about him in my work, and he said, “This is what you do.” Period. That was that.

The only people who saw Finding Mr. Rightstein for content were my daughter and son-in-law and only the sections in which they appeared. Again, I could not have written this book when my parents were alive. I don’t write to do a hatchet job. I write to tell my story with my struggles, wounds, and glories.

Q. Is there a new large writing project on your desk (or in your imagination) right now?

A. Yes! I am into a new book. It's about half written. 
Learn more about Nancy by visiting her website.

Images: Courtesy N. Kelton


Liane Kupferberg Carter said...

Great interview -- and what a treat to see two of my favorite writers on one page! said...

Great interview. I will be ordering her books!