A Conversation with Bill Eshelman

This month I have the great pleasure of featuring my uncle, Bill Eshelman - a retired General of the Marines, whose memoir Letters to Pat just hit the shelves! It captures his time serving in the Vietnam War using the letters he wrote to his wife Pat over the course of that year, 1967-68, as the foundation of his narrative. Originally, he says, it was just meant to be for friends and family, but then with some prompting, he reached out to a publisher who believed his personal testimonial has a broader appeal and audience. I feel so proud of him for committing his experience to the page and am honored to share his story with you!

Bill Eshelman graduated from the US Naval Academy and served 35 years as a Marine, retiring as a Major General in 1994. His career covered many different command and staff positions, but it was during his time as a military advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion in combat that he recorded his actions and thoughts on an almost daily basis in letters written to his wife.

Letters to Pat chronicles the day by day events of Bill Eshelman, a young Marine Captain writing home to his wife. Hoping to command a U.S. infantry company in combat, Eshelman is instead ordered to advisory duty with a Vietnamese Marine battalion. The ensuing months present new challenges: dealing with US headquarters, the Vietnamese way of doing things and contact with the enemy. The letters plus notes from his combat journal form the basis of his book written 50 years after his 1967-68 experience.


Karin Gutman: I never imagined interviewing you for a book!

Bill Eshelman: I've never imagined you interviewing me either.

Karin: Did you ever imagine writing a book?

Bill: No. This is the only book I've ever written. The way it started was, after the war was over and I was back in the States—so we're into the '70s now—then until now, whenever the subject of Vietnam came up people would say after we talked for a bit, "Why don't you write a book about that?" I had never thought very much about it, but I kept getting those questions, even from my kids. But more so from my friends and in particular a couple of my Marine friends that I had served with said, "You need to capture what the Vietnamese Marines did over there. Hardly anybody writes about the Vietnamese Marines. It's all about the U.S. Marines."

I'd think about it and say, "Well I don't even know where to start for that." And then I think it was December 2017, Christmas, I was at [my daughter] Cathy's home in Colorado, and for some reason, the subject of writing a book came up again. And she said, "You need to do this for the family." She pulled out this box of letters… they were the letters that I had written to [my wife] Pat. Pat had saved all of them.

Karin: Wow.

Bill: I was aware of the box, but I'd never looked at it or opened it over all these years. I didn't know she had saved all those letters. I opened up the box and looked at a couple which I hadn't seen in almost 50 years, or even thought about, and I got to thinking, “It's been 50 years since I was there. Maybe it's time.”

Cathy said, “Take these letters with you and see what you can do.” I brought them back here to Pensacola and spent all of 2018 a week at a time going through those letters day by day and then pulling out of the letters what I thought was relevant about the war and my thoughts on it. And then I located my combat journal that I had kept the year that I was over there, '67, '68. And I added addendums to each of the letters when I thought it would help, based on more detail that I didn't write home to Pat about but was in my combat journal.

The more I got into that, the more I thought, “You know I need to finish this.” And so I took the whole year, and I finished it in December 2018.

Then I went back and added my thoughts, now that the war was over and all these years have gone by. We know so much more now about the war than any of us ever did when we were over there. Back then we only knew what was being told to us or what we were experiencing firsthand. There was no television and we had no access to the news every night. We were just living life an hour at a time at some points.

I wrote an epilogue at the end trying to pull together all the thoughts that I had had from those letters in the way I was thinking back then and what I know and think now. That's how I end the book.

Then I told the kids that I've put this thing together and asked, “Do you want me to run some copies off for you?” I think it was Cathy in particular who said, “No. You need to publish this thing.” I said, “I don't even know what that means.”

So I started asking around. It turns out my next-door neighbor here in the condo had done some work in that area, and she recommended two or three publishers to me. I picked out one that had a reputation for publishing a lot of military kinds of books in Virginia Beach. So I got hold of them, and I said, “I'd like to send this to you. See if you're interested. I just wrote it for my family and friends and they came back and said, 'We think it's got a wider appeal.'” And that's how it started.

Karin: How many letters were in that box?

Bill: That's a great question. I should've counted. Sometimes I would be writing a letter every day for a week or two. And then other times, it was impossible for me to write because we were on the move or in a battle, or it was raining; we were in the muck. That whole year I was on the move—or my outfit was on the move—so it wasn't like we went back to the same place every day. Lots of times the place I went back to was a hammock I hung between two trees out in the jungle or things of that nature.

So sometimes it would be as long as a week between letters. But for the most part, it was almost every day, so what 365 days? I probably have 150-200 letters.

Karin: That's amazing. So you were deployed for 12 months?

Bill: It was a 12-month tour, October '67 to October '68.

Karin: Did you know at the time that it would be for a year?

Bill: Yes, I had already been overseas for a year in Japan before Vietnam started. In fact, the reason I didn't get over to Vietnam until 1967 is I had just come back in 1964 from a year by myself in Japan.

And of course, the war really kicked off in '65. So they gave me a couple of years to get to see my family again before they sent me over to Vietnam.

Karin: And the letters you include were specifically the ones you wrote to Pat?

Bill: Yes, but I did write letters to my mom and dad and other people occasionally. But I don't have any of those. I only used the letters to Pat. And they were the most important because I was trying my best to write to her about what I was feeling, what I was going through so she could sort of live it through with me. She was home with three small kids reading the newspaper and listening to the news every night. And I can't even imagine how scary that must've been for her because it was taking one to three weeks for our letters to go home and come back.

There were no iPhones, no computers, none of that stuff. It was just snail mail. And sometimes, I was in a situation over there where I couldn't figure out even how to get a letter somewhere where it could be mailed. So I'd wait 'til a helicopter came in for whatever, hand it to the pilot and say, “Would you take this letter back and get it mailed for me?”

Karin: Could you actually read them after all these years? I mean, the writing hadn’t faded?

Bill: All the letters are readable, even those that got wet before I could mail them! They were written in ballpoint.

Karin: On a legal pad?

Bill: All kinds of stationery. I would try to keep some in a little plastic bag with me so they wouldn't get wet, a pad of stationery with some airmail envelopes. But there are all kinds of envelopes in the stack of letters. It's whatever I could find.

Karin: I'm curious to learn more about this combat journal…

Bill: It was a requirement. I had to make reports after every battle and every time period that had been established. I had to report back the numbers: how many wounded, how many killed, where we were, what the objective was. We who were officers or in charge of anything had to submit these back to the higher headquarters and that's how they reported the war overall.

One of my big gripes, and it's in my book, is that an awful lot of that was inflated as it went up to higher headquarters. And it was just a real problem for the outcome of the war.

Karin: What was inflated?

Bill: The numbers, especially the numbers of the bad guys. I'd go through a battle and knew what had happened because I was there. We counted the people that were killed and wounded on both sides, and counted all the weapons that were captured. And these numbers were reported up the chain of command.

In some cases, I even had a little camera in a plastic bag with me sometimes so that I could take pictures. And then Pat would send me a newspaper clipping which I'd get two or three weeks later from the Washington Post, and I'd read about the battle. Well, it was hard to tell that was the same battle that I had been in because the enemy numbers had all been inflated to make us look good—make us, the U.S. look good.

So early on as a young guy over there, I knew there was a little bit of a problem here. We weren't being really honest in terms of our reports.

Karin: How did you shape the letters into the form of a narrative that would work for a book?

Bill: Well, I added in the letters to Pat a lot of my own emotion that I was feeling as these different things were happening from day to day and from battle to battle. Somebody else came up with this phrase, but I use it because it's very descriptive… that that year over there in Vietnam, or in any combat zone I guess, for me and I think for most people if they're honest, could be described as days and weeks of sheer boredom interrupted by a few moments of stark terror.

That’s the way I wrote the letters back to Pat. When things would go crazy, I wouldn't write for a while because it'd take me a while to get my act together. And then I'd just give her the outline of the stark terror part. But all the details would be in my combat journal.

If I had time just to sit there all afternoon and think about it, I'd have a lot of personal stuff in there. If I didn't, I just wrote her, “Boom boom. Here's what's happening right now. I got to go. We're taking off again.” Stick it in an envelope and hand it to a helicopter.

1968, Tet, Saigon

1968, Tet, Saigon

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son

Karin: So once you had a draft of the manuscript, did you share it with anyone before going to any of these publishers?

Bill: Oh yes. As I wrote the first few months, I would send chapters to the kids and ask them if they have time to look it over and see if they had any comments or, “Am I going in the right direction for something the family might want to hold onto?”

I got pretty good feedback from the kids. I did it with a few of my friends around here too that I've known for almost 20 years. And I even shared it with a couple of folks back in Arkansas that I had stayed in touch with, that I had grown up with since first grade. So I had a pretty wide audience to bounce this off of including some of my Marine friends that I had served with at various places. But I never shared the whole book, just the chapters as I was writing.

Then my next-door neighbor who recommended the publishers to me, since she had had some experience in the editing and publishing business, said, “When you finish with what you've got there, if you'd like, I'll be happy to look it over and give you some thoughts on it.”

So around Christmastime last year, I handed a whole manuscript to her, and I said, “Here it is in the rough.” She took a couple of weeks or so, brought it back and pretty well liked what I had written. She just suggested that I might want to say this or that slightly differently and that was about it. But it was a great page by page edit.

Even when I sent it to the publisher and they put their editor on it, all he really did was change around a few sentences.

Karin: How was the experience of writing it for you?

Bill: It was emotional. As I said, I took a year to write this book week by week. And sometimes I'd read a letter, and I'd have to think a day or two before I could actually write it down and add to it from the combat journal. It wasn't something that flowed. I had to take myself back 50 years to make that thing work.

When I left Vietnam, we went to Thailand for two years, so I was away from the U.S. for almost three years. My orders were from Saigon to Bangkok, Thailand. So essentially I hitchhiked home back to Virginia. Pat had already sold the house, sold the car, sold the boat. And three days, later, we were all heading back cross-country and across the Pacific. And then I didn't return to the U.S. 'til the end of 1970.

As a result I wasn't exposed to everything that was happening back in the States. I missed the RFK assassination, Martin Luther King Jr., all of the anti-war rioting. I'd read about it in the papers, and you'd hear people talking about it from time to time, but I was wrapped up in my job. And none of any of that hit me full face until I got home the end of 1970.

We moved back to the Washington area, and wow, it was almost like I arrived in a different country. The attitude, everything had changed.

Karin: In what way?

Bill: ANTI-VIETNAM in capital letters. I was starting to get a feel for that while I was still in Vietnam a little bit, but nothing like in 1970 when we went back home again. So all that was sort of a turn-off for me; we didn't talk about Vietnam, especially with our civilian friends.

I remember a cocktail party at a friend's home in about 1971, I guess, a few months after we had been back. I'd known a couple of these guys since high school days; they were both married with families now. But we hadn't seen each other since high school up in the Maryland area.

One of the wives that I'd never known started to engage me in talking about Vietnam and I started to tell her a little bit. I mean, I just responded honestly. And she said, “You're a liar,” and it stopped the whole party. She said, “You're lying. You don't know what you're talking about.” Now I'm thinking, “She doesn't think I know what I'm talking about? I was there.” So I just let it go. But that's an example of what I came back to.

Karin: What were you talking about?

Bill: I told her that I had lived with the Vietnamese for almost a year. I said there's some good points, nobody's perfect. I can't remember the exact words. But it didn't include the kind of things, I guess, that were on the six o'clock news back thenthat I was starting to hear since I'd gotten back. So those kinds of things did not give me any reason to think about writing a book.

Karin: So did you repress and bury the experience?

Bill: Those words may be a little strong. But it was that thought. “Yeah, I've got other things I need to concentrate on. If I'm going to stay in the Marine Corps, I need to concentrate on my job. And I don't need to let this bother me, that kind of thing.”

But I always kept getting comments every so many years from different people, “You ought to write a book about that,” whenever we started talking about Vietnam.

Karin: So when you decided to spend that year revisiting all of these memories and experiences, you say it was emotional. I can only imagine. Did you apply any self-care practices through the process?

Bill: I did. Sometimes I just had to put the letter down and wait a couple of days before I could finish that chapter. Yes, especially when I'd read the letter, then I'd read my combat journal, and get into the casualties and talk about some of the really bad stuff. It was better for me to wait a day or two and let it filter through rather than react to it immediately. And I found out it was much easier to write that way if I didn't rush it.

I didn't have any deadlines. I was just thinking about halfway through, “This thing is going sort of month by month just like I lived it 50 years ago. If this keeps up, I'll probably finish the book the end of this year.” And sure enough, that's the way it happened.

Karin: Did you at any point feel like, “Oh I don't want to keep doing this. This is just dredging up too much… too many memories, too many emotions.”

Bill: Just the opposite, Karin. The more I got into it, the more I felt like I've got to finish this. I need to do this for the kids and for my family. And I was not thinking of anything beyond family and friends.

Karin: And how about writing it for yourself?

Bill: I think it was always about my family and friends. I don't think I needed to re-live it again. It was pretty hard sometimes. But I did need to do it to finish the book for the family.

Karin: Where are you now, on the other side of it? Was the process of writing transformative for you?

Bill: How could it not be? I just can't tell you how much. In church, first week of September, the pastor has asked me to stand up at a Wednesday night dinner where they feature different folks to talk about their lives. And they want me to talk about this. And I wouldn't have done that a couple years ago, but I don't have a problem now doing it.

One of the reviews from a good friend of mine, a Marine friend of mine—he's retired—said something like this as he reviewed the book, “You said all the things that we were thinking about but never said ourselves.” And that really made me feel good.

Karin: That's got to be the greatest compliment.

Bill: I thought it was.

Karin: Now that your book is being shared with the world, what are you hoping the takeaway or message is?

Bill: Well, I guess I haven't thought about that very deeply, but off the top of my head, I'd like for families to understand what their loved ones are going through on a day-by-day basis when they're thrown into a situation like I was in, into a combat zone, which is still happening today as you know.

And the second thing I'd like for people to understand is the relationship with the third world country like Vietnam, and like so many other countries now that we're involved with. I'd like them to understand down at the ground-roots level where I was living with the Vietnamese, and most of the time by myself as the only American, what the challenges are and how that can just wear you out. The Vietnamese had been in this shooting war for a long time. It was just day by day trying to exist and make things work for them.

And that's what I was trying to explain to Pat in the letters. It's exactly what I was thinking back then. As I read a letter at a time, as I put this book together, I said, “That's right on.” And a couple times, I expanded on it just to emphasize it. That's all in italics in the book whenever I added to her letters.

I don't know that this book is going to be a success or not. I think it's going to be fun for my family and friends. But in terms of publishing a book to the world, I don't know anything about that yet. It might sell 100 copies, and then that's it. But that wasn't my goal, so it doesn't matter.

If it's successful, I think that's great because I think there's a story there for young Marines to read about and for families to read about. And it's interesting for non-military folks too if they want to get a sense of what military folks are going through and what the families then would have to be aware of.

Karin: It also certainly offers some perspective on the Vietnam War. Whether you're curious about what the families in the military go through or not, it's a personal testimony which is different, and perhaps more powerful, than a history book!

Bill: Yes, you're exactly right. The history component there is valuable, I think, because I've written it from the Vietnamese side during the 68 Tet Offensive which was one of the most horrific times... that was the turning point of the war it turns out, because everybody back in the U.S. thought we'd lost the war. Of course, I didn't find out about that until much later. I thought we'd won.

What I documented to Pat and in my military journal, and in some parts it's hour by hour for a few days, is how that battle went and how we won those battles during Tet 68. So there's a historical significance to this on the Vietnamese side that I don't think has been written about before.

Karin: Incredibly valuable. From your perspective at the time, why did you think we’d won the war?

Bill: Well, I was in three major battles over there during that year. We never lost a battle. We lost a lot of people, but we inflicted more damage on the North Vietnamese than they inflicted on us. In terms of numbers, we won every battle, so I had a hard time trying to understand when I'd hear from Pat or she'd send me newspaper articles about how we were losing after the 68 Tet Offensive. But I didn't think a whole lot about it. We just kept trying to win the next fight.

Karin: But I thought you said the U.S. papers were publishing better numbers?

Bill: No, the U.S. military was doing that. Saigon, General Westmoreland, and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam were inflating the numbers of enemy casualties as they were coming in and providing them to the White House and press. And I don't know if they were reducing the numbers of our losses or not. But they were certainly inflating the numbers of the battles that we were winning, and then that was going on the six o'clock news I guess to try to make us look like we were doing better than we were.

And then in the middle of all of that, with all these inflated numbers of how we're just winning this war big-time, the Tet Offensive happened, where at end of January and first of February in 1968, the whole South Vietnam exploded because the North Vietnamese had infiltrated over time the whole country. Like our New Year's here, we went on a truce where everybody stood down during the Tet which is their New Year's, and people went home. The Vietnamese went home. Everybody just took it easy. This was supposed to be a vacation for the North and the South. And the North then pulled the rug out from underneath us and attacked the whole country all at one time and caught us by surprise. Well, the papers back home made a big deal about how we got caught with our pants down and they created among us initially a whole lot of casualties. But we reacted and we fought back. And we won back every town and every hamlet that they had taken by surprise because they cheated on us. That's when the war turned around because the news folks back home, I guess, convinced a majority of the public that we were never going to win the war after that.

Karin: Now I understand...

Bill: But see that wasn't so evident to us there at the time. We had no six o'clock news. We weren't getting newspapers. I was primarily just hearing it from Pat from time to time. There were times that she could tell where I was and what was happening by reading the Washington Post long before she ever got a letter from me.

Karin: And now that you're done with the book, do you feel like writing anymore?

Bill: No, I don't. But I didn't feel like writing before, until it happened.

Karin: This is the story that needed to be told.

Buy the book!

To learn more about Bill Eshelman, visit his website.

See all author interviews


A Conversation with Jennifer Pastiloff

Jennifer Pastiloff visited the Unlocking Your Story workshop this spring and infused us with a kind of creative energy that felt invigorating and liberating. One of my students went home that day and whipped off an essay that had been brewing inside of her. Just like that, it flowed out of her. It's amazing to witness the power of giving ourselves permission, of transcending any negative self-talk, and simply embracing the story that wants to be told.

Jen's debut memoir ON BEING HUMAN hit the shelves last month and it is already a national best-seller. She has cultivated an enormous following on Instagram and travels the world teaching her On Being Human workshops. To glean some of Jen's magic and wisdom, scroll down to read our full conversation about everything from what it means to expose yourself in your writing to identifying your “bullshit story” - the thing that's holding you back. And if you want to experience her live, there are still a couple spots open in her France retreat next May!

Jen Pastiloff travels the world with her unique workshop ”On Being Human,” a hybrid of yoga related movement, writing, sharing out loud, letting the snot fly, and the occasional dance party. In addition to founding the online magazine The Manifest-Station, Jen leads annual retreats to Italy and France and co-teaches Writing and the Body workshops with author Lidia Yuknavitch. She offers scholarships to women who have lost a child through The Aleksander Fund.

Her debut memoir On Being Human (Dutton, 2019) is the story of how a starved person grew into the exuberant woman she was meant to be all along by battling the demons within and winning. She has learned to fiercely listen despite being nearly deaf, to banish shame attached to a body mass index, and to rebuild a family after the debilitating loss of her father when she was eight. Through her journey, Jen conveys the experience most of us are missing in our lives: being heard and being told, “I got you.”


Karin Gutman: How did this book come to be? I know it carries the same name as your popular On Being Human workshops.

Jen Pastiloff: Actually the book came first. I always was a writer from the time I was ... I mean, I started writing stories at six or seven. My dad died when I was eight, and I was doing that before he died. And then when I went to NYU, I was a poet, and I had a fellowship at Bucknell University for poetry. And then, when I had one year left of college, I was about 21 years old, I basically had a nervous breakdown. My mom had moved back to California from New Jersey, so I went there to take a semester off to feel safe, and be with my mom.

I got a summer job at this trendy Hollywood restaurant, and that lasted for almost 14 years, and I never went back to school. And I just got stuck. I got stuck in this rut of feeling worthless, and waiting tables but not doing anything creative, maybe writing one poem every God knows how often. I was doing a lot of yoga, which helped with depression, and I thought I would die there. I mean, I wanted to die. I was that depressed. But I also thought that was my life. I saw no escape route, I saw no possibility. I thought I was old, which is hilarious. I was by this point in my early 30’s—that's hilarious to me now, you know? I was pretending to be an actress during those years. And by pretending, I mean I was waiting at the restaurant for someone to come discover me. That didn't happen.

So, I had all these stories about myself.

I was doing yoga, and my friend suggested I become a yoga teacher. “Why don't you do that as a way to get out of the restaurant? Start doing that.” It did not sound appealing to me. I did not want to be a yoga teacher. And then I finally went on anti-depressants, and my whole life opened up. I thought, “Maybe I will do a yoga teacher training.” Not because I wanted to be a yoga teacher, but because I saw it as a possible way out of this rut of waiting tables at the same place.

So I went to yoga teacher training, and I started teaching yoga, and I got successful really quickly, because I was good with people, not necessarily because I'm this amazing yogi. And then, I started writing again, and I started writing blogs. And then I started writing personal essays, and really just telling the truth about depression. This is ten years ago now, and I was telling the truth about depression and anti-depressants, which nobody was doing back then, especially not a yoga teacher. It was so weird. I was this anomaly.

I was like, “I don't do yoga that much, and I drink wine, and I curse, and I drink coffee.” I was telling the truth, talking about grief, and anorexia, and my hearing loss. And then I started doing that more and more, and I developed this really popular blog, The Manifest-Station. I started creating this workshop, which was at first just yoga, and then I started adding writing prompts.

As my hearing was deteriorating more and more, I started really realizing what an amazing listener I was. I was learning other ways to listen with my whole body. I started getting more creative with this workshop, so it became less and less yoga. So now it's hardly any yoga at all. And I always wanted to write this book, this memoir, and I didn't know what it would be. That was the hardest part, that's what kept me for years not writing it, because I got so stuck in the ... What is it? What is it? What is the structure?

Finally, I sold the book on proposal, but my editors really helped me, saying, “Let's form it around the workshop. Let's use that as a structure.”

Karin: How did you manage to sell if off of a proposal?

Jen: Well, let's talk business. I was an exciting person I think to buy a book from, because they look at me as someone who already has this built-in following, right? So, I think the workshop was always going to be somehow some kind of selling point, because that's where my “celebrity” comes in, and I did not want to talk about the workshops, because again, I said to myself, “I don't want it to be self-help.”

So the first draft wasn't so much about the workshops. And then my friend Emily Black helped me, because my editor at Dutton asked, “Can you weave the workshops in?” And somehow we did it. And I was so not into doing that. But I listened, and it worked, and it ended up perfect. But really, I just didn't want it to be at all like any kind of self-help, I just wanted it to be memoir, or essays, you know?

But really the book always came first. The workshops were by accident. This was always what I want to do, which is really exciting for me. The other day I was thinking about making this meme, like, “What if your dreams all came true but they look different than you thought they would, and they happen at a totally different time?”

So, two weeks ago I was in New York, sitting onstage at the Center for Fiction, sold out, standing room only, standing ovation. And I was sitting there with this big thing behind me that says, Center For Fiction. And I thought, “My God, if my 25-year-old self—who's dropped out of college, who thinks that I'm going to be waitress forever, that I'm the worst garbage pile of a person—could see me at 44.” I just made up my own timeline. I just had no way of knowing how I was going to get there. But I got here.

Karin: You sure did. How does it feel?

Jen: It feels really, really good. The book launch in LA on June 4th was the best night of my life. And then, a couple of days later I went to Portland at Powell's, and I was like, “Wow, this is the best night of my life.” And then in New York, it also did. So those were the three best, besides my son being born, but vastly different, you know? It's going amazing. I hit a wall a week in, because the bad organizer that I am, I scheduled a retreat to France and a workshop in London. My book came out the day I got back. It was the highest high of my life.

And then I crashed. I got sick; I came down in bed, like “Oh my God.” It's a national bestseller, it's doing really well. The emails I'm getting are mind-blowing. It doesn't feel real. Just all over the world, people sending me so many messages.

Karin: Is there a common thread or theme?

Jen: Yes. Almost every single one says, “I feel like you're in my head. I feel like you wrote this for me. And also, I can't stop crying.” And also, people saying, “And this is my second and third time reading it,” which is really wild.

Karin: How incredibly rewarding.

Jen: Yeah. There's something that I talk about in my workshop all the time. I call it the 1 on the 100; it's a chapter in my book. And that's if there's 100 people in a room and everyone loves you except one, who do you focus on? I'm well aware of that tendency, and so I have to keep getting myself in check. Like the other day, I must have been following the hashtag ‘On Being Human’ on Instagram. I didn't even know you could do that. And somebody took a picture of my book from the library and didn't like it, but tagged On Being Human. And so it popped up on my feed, I wasn’t seeking it out.

And it said something like, “I really wanted to love this book. Yeah, not feeling it.” I thought, “Man, I don't need to see that.” But also, it got stuck in my head all of a sudden. So, I'm keeping myself in check with that human tendency, and also to realize that none of it matters either way, really, which is why when I get that email full of praise, to be touched by it, but not make it mean too much. Except, “Oh wow, human connection. That's wonderful.” But not, “Oh, I'm great,” or “I'm really successful.”

It's dangerous, because then my whole self resides upon how other people feel about me. My worth is all about what list am I on. We already live in a world that's like that. I'm not going to contribute to that. I'm here to say, “Actually, no. It's not that way.” So I have to really keep myself in check, because I'm also a human with an ego.

Karin: And what made those three launch events the best days of your life?

Jen: Well, first of all, I've never finished anything. Well I finished having a baby. It was incredible to see my book in the window. That is wild. And you'll never have your first book again. So that was just mind-blowing. And all those people gathered there to celebrate me, and to listen, and Lidia Yuknavich, who wrote the forward in my book was on stage with me, she flew in from Portland. And she started sobbing, because she was so touched, and grateful, and loved me so much. And so that was just ... Oh God, so profound, and intense, and beautiful.

People were there that I've known since childhood, new fans, people who saw it in the LA Times, whatever. But it was just this like, “Wow, I did this thing, and it's touched people.”

And then in New York, at the Center For Fiction, I was the most nervous, I think because when I was a poet, when I was at NYU, to me New York is always the literary end all be all, and my imposter syndrome was really kicking in.

So many writers were there, huge editors, my whole team. I was on stage with my friend who won a Tony the night before, and it just felt like ... I mean, I literally was shitting my pants. But then once I started talking, it was great. I even got them to do this thing called ‘dorking it out’. We played Journey, and everyone stood up and sang—all these New Yorkers, strangers. People in the audience were weeping. It was surreal. And the fact that I didn't float away, that I just stayed in my body, which is something my book is about, and just sat with it, was so wonderful. It just felt fucking wonderful.

Karin: Given that you were intimidated by this audience, was it still easy for you to dork it out and do and what you do so well in your workshops. Were you afraid, wondering if it would fly?

Jen: Of course I was like, “Give me a whiskey.” Once I got present, then it was. And once I just connected with people. And also, I told them how nervous I was. So that's the thing that I do, I said, “You guys, this is New York, and I'm so intimidated by all of you.” I was just so honest about it. And then, once I got them to dork it out and start singing, I was like, “Nah, they're just people. This is great.” The idea of the thing is always much scarier to me than the thing. So I was psyching myself out the first two minutes, but once I started talking and was just really listening and connecting, it was perfect and easy.

Karin: What about the exposure piece for you? In terms of revealing parts of your life with a wide audience and publishing it. I'm assuming that wasn't as much of an issue for you, because you are so open and transparent in your blogging and workshops. Is that aspect inconsequential at this point?

Jen: In a way, but don't forget, when I first started doing this, I wanted to throw up in my mouth every time I hit publish, every time I wrote something vulnerable. It's less so now, yeah, because I am so open in my workshops and in my writing. But still, it's still terrifying.

The things that I chose to share aren't random or haphazard. And not that anyone does in a memoir, but I felt really good about, okay these things I'm okay with putting out in the world. And there were things that I couldn't, and so I didn't, and probably won't until certain people are dead, you know what I mean? I wouldn't say it's inconsequential. No. But I'm okay with it. I don't want to die every time I publish something anymore.

Karin: I know you co-teach a workshop called ‘Writing and the Body’ with the great Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water among others. How is that the same or different than the On Being Human workshops that you do?

Jen: It is the same, except she's added to it. We really ricochet off each other and work so well together. So we do mine in the morning, and then we have lunch, and then we do hers. With hers, there's no body movement, she gives prompts, and it's just writing; whereas mine uses the body and then I have you stop, drop and write. We both know our bodies carry our stories.

I actually use body movement, whereas Lidia just has a way of tapping in with her generosity as a teacher, with the wacky-ass way she looks at the world. So she will give prompts, things that are just so out of the box, that are really dipping into the imagination, and breaking rules. But it helps when we do my stuff first. The reason I use the body is because what I discovered is, the more that we are connected to being in our body, the less cerebral we are, the less armored we are. And so your walls are down a bit more, you're not as guarded. You're more willing to be vulnerable. One of Lidia's questions she asks all the time is, “And what's underneath of that? And what's underneath of that?” And it's a lot easier to get there I think when you're fatigued, or you're more connected to being in your body.

In France, I did a poetry workshop, and it was so incredible because none of these people considered themselves “poets,” and some of the poetry that came out of it was just astounding. It's cool because a lot of people who have labeled themselves as not a real writer, or perhaps they don't want to write for any endgame, being published, but they still want to write or create art.

Karin: That comes up so often in my workshops, when people say, “I'm not a real writer.”

Jen: It’s so insidious. I talk in the book about bullshit stories, and my big bullshit story was, “I'm not a real writer.” And so, now I'm holding up a book by a big publishing house, so can I say that anymore? But what I said on a podcast last week was, I was always a real writer. Unfortunately, it took me having a book to realize the fallacy of that. I don't know how to type. I type with two fingers, that's one reason that I'm not a real writer. I don't have a college degree. I don't have an MFA…

Another thing I talk about in the book is the ‘Just A Box’, like, “I'm just a yoga teacher.” “I'm just a mom.” “I'm just a memoirist.” So when I started doing all this work and started becoming successful with these workshops, it was so tricky for me, because everyone was like, “Yeah, Jen's this yoga person.” When in reality, I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. It's just hilarious. So I got labeled. And now, I swear, I could give a shit how you think of me. That's your business.

Karin: How did you let go of that?

Jen: I really started listening to the people that I was affecting, and it had nothing to do with putting a label on me. I started thinking, “Oh, you know it's about human connection. It doesn't matter.” Somebody sent me a stupid review—the person wrote, “This is not a literary memoir.” Well first of all, I beg to differ. But also, I never said it was. Nowhere is it marketed that way.

Another way I let that go too—and this is stuff I learned just from putting a book out there and going through the process—at the end of the day you want to sell books. So after I wrote the book, I said, “It doesn't matter to me what you call it. Just get it and read it.”

Also, I really work on being congruent as best as I can, meaning, if this is what I'm teaching in the world, then I have to do whatever I can to really walk the talk and believe that. I have to, otherwise I'm just full of shit.

One of the ways I healed from an eating disorder was… when I was teaching yoga and I started doing these workshops, all these people were coming to me, because I was writing about it as if I was healed, and I was not starving myself anymore, but the mental stuff was still there. I thought, “Oh, I'm just an asshole, because I'm still hating myself, and doing all this bullshit.” And I realized, “If I want to be who I say I am…” which is why this mantra, “May I have the courage to be who I say I am,” is my most important. Because everything I teach, and I say, and I write, I believe, at least in that moment. And a great epiphany of my life is, you get to change your mind. So I look back at things I wrote ten years ago, and I've changed my mind. So that's okay too.

Karin: How do you manage being a mom while writing a book and traveling around doing your workshops?

Jen: That's the hilarious part. I'm in a one-bedroom, we co-sleep. We share a bed, my husband, my son and myself in a fucking one-bedroom. I'm happy, and I'm blessed, and I'm content. Do I wish we had another bedroom? Yes. So it's hard, you know? When he was still breastfeeding, I brought him everywhere. Before he was one, he had 20-something flights, literally.

So I bring him as much as I can. Next week I have a reading in Denver, and I'm bringing him for a couple days; in Massachusetts, D.C. and North Carolina in July. But when I do the retreats to Europe, I can't bring him, because I pay a shit ton of money for his school, and because it's so much money to fly; it's also harder to do my work when I also have to be a mom. And so, I have a couple moments of guilt, but then I really do think, how cool, that my son came to my launches in LA and Portland. He won't remember most likely, but that'll be in him somewhere.

How cool that he gets to see his mom out there doing stuff, living, and her whole identity isn't a mom. I think that is so important, and it really makes me proud. I had a kid older. I was 41 when he was born, so I do think I'm wiser. Do I wish I was younger when I had a child for reasons just like it would be easier and I wouldn't be as tired? Yes. But I like myself so much better, and I feel like I have insight, having him at 41 that I would not have had at 31.

Karin: I recently watched your Love Forward Talk and I really appreciated you talking about the power of being witnessed and bearing witness to others’ stories.

Jen: I always talk about that.

Karin: And yet it’s often such a foreign idea to people, this idea of ‘holding space’.

Jen: This is why I'm successful, this is why my workshop works, exactly because of what you said, because it is so powerful. So, I don't do any magic tricks or anything, I just provide the space where people are able to really feel seen and heard. And it is so rare, and magical, and disarming, and amazing that people want more of it. I think because most of us walk around with so much armor on, and we're so afraid that someone won't like us if they know the real us, so we have just gotten used to not being fully ourselves.

And so, when we sit and just listen to someone without an agenda, like, “I'm not trying to fix you, I'm just here.” Which I really think, especially for grief, is what people need. It's the most powerful thing ever, because there's nothing for the other person to do. Oftentimes when someone—especially with grief—tries to placate you, or make you feel better, then you have to end up making them feel better. Like, “Oh no, it's okay.” The way we live in the world, we're not used to letting ourselves be seen because we're so afraid of being judged. We're all so addicted to being busy that we don't stop and just listen.

We don't realize how powerful silence is, that it's like, “Oh, you just listening is so huge.” Everything is about being busy, and as long as I'm making noise, or bullshit. I mean, being heard is everything. And the irony of me, I am deaf without my hearing aids, is beautiful. My favorite words are, “It's going to be okay.” And so to me, when someone is listening, or seeing you, however you want to phrase it, that's what it feels like.

I think most of us are afraid. We're afraid to really take our armor off, and then when we do, that the person won't stay because they won't like us or they'll turn away or whatever. And so when someone just sits there with us, and they don't vomit because they think we're a disgusting person, because that's what we've been telling ourselves, it's so powerful.

Isn't it amazing, the most simple thing is the most powerful, and it is so rare. And that's just to be seen and heard.

Karin: What do you think the key is to unlocking your story?

Jen: What I say in my workshops—which are always in yoga studios mostly— is, you only need two things. Forget yoga. You only need two things: Listen and tell the truth. What does that mean? Well, listen to yourself, listen to quiet, what happens when you sit down with a pen and paper or open a blank document. And tell the truth. I'm not suggesting that you overshare or tell everyone everything, because that's not right, that's not memoir. But tell the truth as it pertains to you, and as it feels true to you.

And then, the third bonus really would be to release yourself from the opinion of others. Which is hard, and I haven't done it yet. But I'm working on it, of letting go of, “What will they think?” So one of the things I say to myself is this. “It's worse than you think. They're not thinking about you at all.” Have a sense of humor. You have to have a sense of humor. If you don't have a sense of humor, you're dead.

I used to be obsessed with Wayne Dyer. And he used to say, “Release yourself from the good opinion of other people.” I don't know, it just sounds holy.


On Being Human Retreat

with Jennifer Pastiloff


May 30th - June 6th, 2020

Only three spots open

Wake Up, Live Real, & Listen Hard during this wonderful retreat, On Being Human. We will spend time ‘going deep and embracing all the things that consume us’. There will be yoga and meditation with Elizabeth Conway and we will also share time with other guest teachers. For the yoga practices, no yoga experience is required. Jen always says, ‘stop being assholes to yourself’ so you'll spend this time together learning to stop. By the way, Jen owns the domain ‘DontBeAnAsshole.net’.

For more info or questions, complete this form with France Retreat in the subject line.


To learn more about Jennifer Pastiloff, visit her website.

Buy the book!

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A Conversation with Tristine Rainer

This month I had the opportunity to interview someone I've long admired. Tristine Rainer is a trailblazer and well-known expert in the field of memoir, having written two classic books on the subject: The New Diary and Your Life as Story —both of which have provided enormous inspiration to me as well as a wealth of practical tools on the craft of writing memoir. I am forever grateful to Tristine for pouring all of her heart and knowledge into these master works. For anyone serious about the art of journaling and memoir, put them on your reading list!

Tristine and I enjoyed an extensive conversation on everything from the ethics of being a memoir coach and her approach to working with writers, to the unique structure and process behind writing her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, which is about her relationship with mentor Anaïs Nin and is being released in paperback this summer!

Tristine Rainer is a recognized expert on diary and memoir writing and the author of two renowned classics on autobiographic writing continuously in print.

Her mentor Anaïs Nin wrote the preface to Tristine’s first book The New Diary, calling it revolutionary. Published the year of Nin’s death, 1977, The New Diary popularized contemporary journal writing and created its lexicon. According to Amazon, after hundreds of offshoot books on journaling, thirty-eight years later it is still the bestselling book on journal writing.

In the 1970’s Rainer taught literature and writing in the English departments at UCLA and Indiana University, co-founded the Women’s Studies Program at UCLA, and created that university’s first Women’s Lit courses.


In 1997 she published Your Life as Story: Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tarcher/Penguin-Random.) The book anticipated the rise of contemporary memoir writing, and Tristine returned to lecturing and university teaching, at University of Hawaii and for eleven years as a faculty member in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. Privately, Tristine has coached many authors to publication.

As founder and Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies, a nonprofit since 1997, Rainer promotes the creation and preservation of autobiographic works, teaches, lectures and consults.


In her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, eighteen-year-old Tristine Rainer was sent on an errand to Anaïs Nin’s West Village apartment in 1962. The chance meeting would change the course of her life and begin her years as Anaïs’s accomplice, keeping her mentor’s confidences—including that of her bigamy—even after Anaïs Nin’s death and the passing of her husbands, until now.

She “blends memoir and imagination in this engaging examination of her relationship with author Anaïs Nin,” an intimate look at both the blessings and risks of the female mentor-protégé relationship and “a fascinating personal journey” (Publishers Weekly).

The paperback will be released July 16th!


Karin Gutman: How did you become a memoir coach?

Tristine Rainer: I think I invented the job. The first time I used the term "memoir coach," was in Your Life as Story and I added, "Say what?" because it was such a novel idea then. Certainly, there were editors who had worked with, usually, well-known people in publishing memoirs. But the whole field was being increasingly democratized. And we began to see the beginning of people who simply had a good story, or something important to say, who didn't have any name, begin to get published and to write literary memoirs.

The first time I worked as a memoir coach, I had been teaching autobiographic writing—memoir writing—at UCLA Extension. I think it was the first time they ever had a class on it.

Karin: What year was that?

Tristine: Probably 1988. There was a woman who was a well-known Brentwood psychic in the class, and she was writing about her life and how she became a psychic. She came up to me, and said, “Would you work with me individually on this?” And I said, “Well, I don't know. I've never done that. And I wouldn't know what to charge you.” So she said, “Well, how about $100 an hour?” I said, “Okay, let's try it.” That was the first time I did it, and she had sensitive material.

Karin: We’ve talked about the importance of ethics in being a memoir coach. How did that evolve for you?

Tristine: I don't think I was aware then. I think at that time, it was instinctual for me that if people were confiding in me, and they were within the protection of just writing, at that point, for themselves, that I would have to create some standards for myself. But I don't think they were conscious at the time. I think that I am a person who keeps confidences. It's just my nature.

Karin: We know that from your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus. 

Tristine: Yeah, I kept Anaïs Nin's confidences for more than 30 years before writing about that material. It has always been true that people feel comfortable confiding in me. And I've always taken it as, you know, somebody says, “This is between us,” and I say, “Yes,” I consider that a contract.

But I actually made a mistake once. And that's when I became conscious that I needed, at least for me, to formalize my ideas about what the ethics and procedures of being a memoir coach should be. I had a newsletter for the Center for Autobiographic Studies. This was way back; I mean, we didn't have the internet for sending out newsletters. We actually folded and sent them out with stamps. 

Karin: That's awesome. 

Tristine: People loved getting them that way. It was somehow very intimate. So each time, I would write on a theme related to autobiographic writing, and for one, the theme was about ethnic identity. I used an example of a woman who had consulted with me. I didn't think that I'd revealed anything intimate, but I had revealed that this was a theme of her work. And she came back to me, and she said, “I trusted you. You've now given away my theme.” And I said, “Oh gosh.” I immediately realized, oh, I really had done something wrong. And I refunded her money. And I then, at that point said, “Okay, I speak about autobiographic writing, and I like to include examples, but I'm going to have to have permission anytime I do that.”

So in terms of confidentiality, I thought that the best thing to adopt is the same standards and ethics that psychotherapists adopt. Because the work is so very similar, though, I think, for me, far easier. I would not want the responsibility for somebody's mental health without having the tools of writing to direct them to. That's just me. Because I think that it is a, you know, “Don't give me a fish. Teach me how to fish.” Somebody then can use those tools and take them forward with their own writing.

For each of us our story is precious to them, and there's an energy in keeping it within the creative cauldron when you're working on it. I'm of the belief that neither they nor I should talk about it much. But they're free to talk about it as much as they want, and some of them do.  

I think the best example was Elyn Saks, who wrote The Center Cannot Hold. I was teaching memoir writing at USC then and she was on the faculty. She came to me and said, “Would you work with me privately? I have a memoir. But I don't know whether I want to write it.”

So she told me her secret, which I now can tell because she's published it herself, and also gave me permission to talk about having been her coach, which not everybody does. Not everybody wants anybody to know that they even were coached. In her case, she was a highly functioning law professor, psychoanalyst herself, and has schizophrenia. And she felt the need to write the book because it really was not known that somebody who has schizophrenia could be very high functioning. She, even though she had tenure, was terribly afraid of how the knowledge that she had schizophrenia would affect her colleagues, her job, and her life, and she wasn't ready to come out with it.

So we worked provisionally, that she might never publish it, share it at all. She was going to see what it would look like if she wrote it. We went through a draft and she decided at the end of that draft that she didn't want to do anything with it. So she went her way, and years went by. Eventually she got to a point that she had an agent, and she decided it was time. And really, I was so delighted. The book that we did is pretty different; it's gone through evolutions since that first draft we did together. I, all that time, felt this was such an important book, but that it wasn't for me to make that decision to publish or not.

When she did, it was so liberating for her. She ended up getting the MacArthur Genius Award as a result of publishing the book. It was on The New York Times Bestseller List and turned out to be a wonderful thing for her life. She's helping so many people now, people who have schizophrenic children will write to her, and she always writes back. It fulfilled herself and her purpose in life.

Karin: Do you think it’s more helpful to write for yourself or with an audience in mind?

Tristine: I feel that anticipating audience in a first draft can create blocks, writing blocks. And so I suggest, even if somebody has to write on every page, “This is for my eyes only.” They don’t have to show me everything they write. This goes back to the question of privacy, which has been flipped around on the internet, where people write the most intimate things, share the most intimate things online, and they don't care about it. But I feel that for reaching the myth, which is what I'm going for, the healing myth inside each story, that there has to be a safe place for that. 

Karin: What do you mean by myth? 

Tristine: I guess I mean the story, and the story in its simplest terms, that leads to a realization. That realization is either for oneself, to change oneself, or to expand oneself to grow in new ways, and to be a different person, or it's to be shared and given to the community. So in Elyn Saks's case, it was to share and be given to the community, and I do think that that's very appropriate at the level of a second or third draft.

Karin: How do you coach people about writing sensitive, often deeply painful, material?

Tristine: Emotional flooding?

Karin: Yes, when you’re concerned someone may head down a rabbit hole. I believe you use a tool called ‘containment’. Can you talk about that?

Tristine: It's related to what Kathleen Adams has done with journal writing, with working with people who may have psychological problems, where the idea of just free and unlimited journal writing is not a good idea for them. She has them set a timer and only write for 10 minutes. So I suggest they deal with it in the same way. Time it. Maybe do it in the morning, write for 25 minutes. And then it's important to stop writing.

My daughter and I are working on a memoir now that's going to have a lot of dark and difficult material in it …

Karin: That’s so exciting.

It really is exciting. I mean, she is just such a wonderful writer. It's such a gift to me. We haven't gotten to the really tough stuff yet, but we've already talked about containment. And the very way we're doing it has containment built into it because it's just one scene at a time. We also talked about looking for the light, the moments of beauty, of love, even in the darkest times.

I watched the film Beautiful Boy. I had read the memoir and I think that the memoir worked for me because the author's intelligence as a journalist, and his personality, kept me safe. But the movie really did not. It was so hard to watch. It's an important movie about an important subject, and brave, but just not enough light in it to allow the audience to stay. And that's hard when you're dealing with a subject like addiction, which doesn't have a lot of light in it. 

So my daughter has a good way of writing that may help her. And by the way, in terms of confidentiality, she's given me permission to say anything. She is so brave. She really wants her life to have purpose, and she is doing so well. But she does not stay in the present moment. She writes very free association style and she will move through time so she can bring in almost anything she wants. I mean, you can move through time very easily in memoir writing if you have the right voice. And therefore, even if it was an extremely dark time, you can bring some light to the reader while they're going through it.

Do you mean by invoking other moments from her life in the darkness?

Well, it can be from another time, but it can also be from that time itself. I mean, even in the darkest times of her addiction and her homelessness, there were moments when she and I got together, and our love was still there. The desire to connect with love was still there, and it's a thread. In my case, we are writing a spiritual memoir, so we're looking… You know, God isn't absent even in those times.

The way I see it… if someone is writing about a difficult time or memory, they are writing about it from the perspective of having arrived here. So there must be a light force in them, even in darkest hour, that got them through.

Yes, completely. If there isn't that, then people are dehumanized. But nevertheless, they need the right circumstances to heal and finally be able to get that.

What is your approach when working with people, particularly someone who knows she has a story to tell, but is unclear how to tell it?

I work differently with everybody. But I do like to use Your Life as Story. I like them to have the book and be able to direct them to certain exercises to do, or chapters to read, so that I don't have to repeat all that material, and say, “Okay, this would be a good time for you to read the chapter on writing dialogue because you need some dialogue in here.” I like them to do the story structure exercises and refer back to it.

Frequently, it seems that they'll have already written several chapters but they got stuck because they don't know where they're going. So I like to read what they have before we start working together. And maybe correct in those chapters, where they haven't found the voice yet, to lead them to find the voice. I find that once they have a structure and the voice, and they can identify it, they then can run through a whole first draft and I don't need to look again until the first draft is finished. 

I kind of tell them when they've gotten enough from me. Once their momentum is going, I like to let them loose and say, “Don't contact me until you have a problem.” Because, boy, once that motor gets going, I am amazed how quickly they can write.

Somehow structure is the thing that eludes people the most. Do you find that?

Oh, yeah. And for some reason, my gift is to tell them their story. I will tell it back to them. “Here's what I hear, I think your story is…” I think that comes from all the years that I worked in television movies, and pitching stories. I mean, I was dealing with five stories a week that I would go and pitch. I was constantly taking material, true material, and trying to figure out how to shape it into an entertaining story, and looking, “Is there a genre that this fits?” In working with clients I get excited about the story, then they pick up my excitement and then they take it and run in ways that I never could have imagined. 

Do you talk in structural terms, using the three-act structure?

Yes, and most of all, it seems to be giving them an ending; for them to understand what a crisis, a climax, and the realization is. Understanding that they think they know what it is, but they don't. Really understanding what the climax of their story is, which doesn't always happen exactly the way it needs to be expressed in a story. So I think I add my imagination as a storyteller for them and then we find a way to make it real.

I carry their story with me once I get their material. I carry it with me when I'm taking a shower, when I'm going for a walk. It's working its way through my imagination. And so by the time I talk to them and tell it to them, I've got an excitement about the story that they pick up. That seems to be what works. People get themselves so tangled up in their story, because they don’t realize what they can leave out. We figure out, "This is the story. All this other stuff doesn't need to be in it. That character doesn't need to be in there, who's still alive, who's going to give you trouble."

The structure of your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus, is so unique and eye-opening—the two voices, weaving your story with Anaïs Nin’s.

Oh, it was so hard. For me, emotion comes last. It’s like an Asperger's thing almost. I see structure and I wanted to do something very difficult in the structure of my book. I had to play more fast and loose with memoir, in terms of chronology and freedom to imagine where something could be placed, more than really anything I've ever worked on with somebody else.

But I had said for myself, “I want to see how the myth, the story inside one person's life, can change the trajectory of another person's life,” and that’s what Anaïs and I did for each other. I wanted to tell her story not as biography, but as it influenced my story. And so, to interweave them, boy, I just had to leave so much out, and jump through time, and pick out those moments where one of her turning points would influence me, even if it influenced me in a way where it was a misinformation that influenced me, or carefully revealed information that would make me go in the wrong direction.

Your memoir really pushes the genre forward. Do you feel like that’s happening elsewhere, in terms of the evolution of memoir?

Well, it's happening in France. It's happening as autofiction. That's their term for it. It's the most popular genre in France. They're frequently ahead of us, in terms of experimentation, and having a readership for experimentation.

Do you think this new territory makes memoir more interesting? Or do you think traditional memoir, being as true as you can be to your story, is just as valuable?

Well, with Anaïs, people have written straight stories about knowing her. People have written biographies about her that were carefully researched. So if I was going to write about Anaïs, everything has been kind of used up. So I wrote the book for myself, to see what I could do with this genre, which was taking it as far as possible, and to have fun with it for myself, and for the reader. And now I'm working on a book that's going to be strictly non-fiction. I'm not going to make up anything. I don't need to.

Sometimes what is a great idea, or inspired by a true story, doesn't fulfill what you need, in terms of story structure. But if you go deep enough, I often find that it does. Certainly, I'm not encouraging my writers to fictionalize. I'm encouraging them to look within the emotional story, what could be brought out in terms of making a true story more powerful. Sometimes those may be things in one's imagination. One's imagination is true too. “I dreamt that this would happen.” “I wanted this to happen.” Those are real. And they allow you a great freedom without lying to the reader.

The perfect example is Mary Karr's Liar's Club. She's in the car with her mother and she writes “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only so so now. The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.

“Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both…” You forget that she's saying it should have happened that way because you get the emotional relief of it happening that way. What's important is the emotional release for the writer and the reader. But that is the power of fiction. The power of fiction is, “What if?” And I don't see any reason why a memoir writer can't use, “What if?” as long as the reader knows that's what they're doing.

Speaking of Mary Karr… In her book The Art of Memoir, she shares a quote by Philip Gourevitch who says that his works of memoir are just as great as his works of fiction. Still, the publishing world seems to hold fiction in higher regard. Do you think memoir has gained more respect in recent years?

I think that's it gotten better in quality because it has incorporated the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, story structure, thematic unity, character development, character arc. That's what the new autobiography is, and that's what interests me.

One of my favorite writers is Pat Conroy, who was writing autobiographic novels long before there was such a thing as autofiction, or what I call novoir. He admitted that he was writing autobiographical novels. He was so committed to language and craft that, for me, it's tremendous that it's coming out of this man's experience who experienced of all macho sides and damage of being a man, and that he has the ability to write emotionally about it, and artistically, and with the craft that really makes it into a satisfying story with multiple characters.

And what about the evolution of publishing? Do you recommend following a traditional publishing path or self-publishing?

Most people that I work with, and that I like to work with, have a sense that this story has been given to them, and they have a life purpose in sharing it, realizing it, for themselves, and for others even if that might be a limited audience of family or self-published. I probably have a lot more people who are writing for publication, and I like to recommend them to a commercial publisher. Because I just think, for a writer, that getting somebody else to do all the things that are involved with publishing a book, it's just really nice to have somebody else do that for you. Self-publishing, well you just have a huge learning curve, but I greatly admire those who self-publish.

What advice would you give to someone who knows they have a personal story to tell, but might not be sure where to begin?

Well, I still think I have the best book on memoir writing, in terms of giving concrete advice on craft and covering the subject. So I'd tell them to get Your Life as Story. I think it untangles a lot of knots for people and gives them a roadmap and encouragement.

In terms of Apprenticed to Venus, which I hope people will buy in softcover, now that it's more affordable, I would say read it in terms of the freedom of how far you can go in experimentation. It's got two different voices in it, and it’s sort of funny. When I ask people, “You want me to tell you what I made up? Where I changed things?” People will say, “No, don't tell me.” They want to keep for themselves the story as I told it.

To learn more about Tristine Rainer, visit her website.

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