Book Chat on Belvedere Square with Author Nancy Murray

by Holly Morse-Ellington

Nancy Murray has an MFA in Creative Writing and the Publishing Arts from University of Baltimore. In addition to her creative writing, she is a theater director and a playwright whose work has enjoyed full productions at Fells Point Corner Theater, Silver Spring Stage, and the Montgomery County One Act Festival where her play, Dying to Know, was selected as The Best of Festival. She is currently working on her second memoir, Waking up from the American Dream.

Nancy and I arrive at Belvedere Square to discuss her debut memoir, One Child For Another (11th Hour Press, 2015). The afternoon rush has just left and servers haven’t had a chance to clear the tables. Nancy takes matters into her own hands. She busses the dirty dishes and grabs a rag, I assume from behind the counter, and wipes our table clean. It’s just the sort of take charge spirit I’d expect from the woman who writes about her commitment to protect the child she became pregnant with when she was sixteen years old.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nancy to discuss beginnings, among them her first book and, of course, the birth of her son, Dylan. Here’s what Nancy had to say about memory and writing a memoir.

We recently polled our BR editors about what books are piled on our nightstands. What books are on your nightstand right now?

The Luminaries. My book club was supposed to be reading it awhile back. That was right when my MFA program was ramping up and I had to concede that I couldn’t do everything. I put the book down and it’s been eyeballing me and tapping its feet ever since.

I’m also looking forward to picking up some books from the CityLit Festival.

My cousin [S.G. Redling] is an author and I’ve got her next book on my desk too, Ourselves. She’s very smart and funny. Her stories are always a fun read.

Any guilty pleasures?

I don’t think there should be any guilt involved with reading anything. Whatever you’re reading, it’s fine, as long as you’re reading. I don’t judge. Any reading is good reading in my mind. Even Fifty Shades.

Are there books you read while writing your memoir that you chose to read more as a tool to guide your writing than as books you read for pleasure?

I did. I read a lot. I normally read fiction. I went into the program as a fiction writer, so I was a voracious reader of fiction. I had to read a bunch of memoirs to see how they are structured differently and how their tones read. I already had Patti Smith’s Just Kids on my nightstand. So that was one I was planning on reading anyway. But I did get maybe ten others that I read. The one that spoke to me most in terms of forming my own writing was This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. I thought his writing was simple, but the essence of his story was not. It was a real easy read, but there was still a lot to chew on. I tried to emulate the energy that he had in his book and that style of kind of casually telling the story no matter how intense the story got.

There’s a lot of pressure on writers to nail the first sentence. You start with a powerful one. How long did the first sentence take you to write?

Not long at all. It’s literal. I was literally leaning against the building. I was vomiting outside of St. Jude’s Rectory and I was leaning against the building. But that’s not a very good sentence, “I was leaning against the building.” So I said I was leaning against the foundation of the church. And then I thought, no wait, my body was leaning against the foundation of my church. That became my thesis: my body was up against the foundation of my church. I belonged to a Catholic family. A young girl and her sexuality is tucked away and it’s shamed in a lot of ways. My body was caught in the middle of that teaching and the reality of what was going on for me. I liked the sentence when it came out because it says what was.

What was important for you to convey about the rest of the book in that first sentence?

When I suggested it as a teaser for my book, I can’t tell you how many people hated that line. Because it made them think the book was all about religion and churches. So I didn’t use it as a teaser, but I kept it in the book. I tweaked it just the tiniest little bit by changing it to my body pressing against the foundation of the church. I didn’t deliver on the church, but we were that kind of Catholics.

In your preface, you discuss memories of a troubled childhood as being these flashes. What, in general, do you see as some of the obstacles in writing memoir in terms of memory? And, specifically relating to childhood trauma and your book, how did you go about fact checking your memories?

Fact checking was not an easy thing to do because the story was hidden from most of the people that I knew. It wasn’t like I could talk to a lot of people. I did ask my siblings what they remembered about it. I did send the manuscript to Dylan’s mother. I sent it to the Barker Foundation and asked them, “Do you see anything glaringly off about my memory here?” And then mostly I just really sat and listened to my fears, that little voice that said we can’t write this because so-and-so might read it and then I would look into that and question whether there is some discrepancy or have you cultivated something here that isn’t generous or true. Sometimes I said no and kept it in and other times I said, “Yeah, I think maybe,” and took it out.

We all have these mechanisms in our psyches that are completely designed to make us feel good in our skin. If you grow up and have experiences that are nurturing and supportive, you might not need to activate those mechanisms as much. But if you are shamed or if you are traumatized, you might find yourself needing these mechanisms like a little defense attorney in your head. And they’re constantly spinning things to present your case in the best possible light. As time goes on you can believe the spin and forget the details.

Trauma takes up so much of your brain space because you have to protect yourself, you have to always be hyper vigilant for when the next thing is coming, you have to cope with the shame that you feel. The traumatized kid has a very full brain so there’s really not a lot of room for photo albums. I used to say I would erase every day when I went to bed and start again in the morning because otherwise, I wouldn’t have functioned very well. I started every day with a blank.

When you’re struggling with so many external things, so many psychic threats, you really don’t have time to notice the details. So thirty years later when you look back, there’s nothing there. I had to go to St. Ann’s to know what it looked like because I didn’t remember.

You write about some tough, personal topics, from childhood abuse to teenage pregnancy. What were some of the challenges in writing so close to the bone about your private life?

I’ve been wanting to write this book for thirty years. But the book wasn’t here yet, I hadn’t figured out what it all meant. You can see videos of me twenty five years ago saying, “I’m going to write this book.” But there are other people affected by this story. When I first described how I got pregnant I was harsh. I described Dylan’s father in some harsh ways. I shared the manuscript with Dylan and we talked about where absolute truth is and where impressions are. It made me realize I couldn’t call him [Dylan’s father] out because it’s complicated. Life is hard enough without having your biggest mistakes thrown at you when you least expect it. Dylan’s father was just a kid too.

Did you know how strong you were at sixteen and seventeen years old? Or did you realize this about yourself through writing the book?

I think what I felt at the time was no. I did not know that I was being strong and assured and confident. The way I framed it, for the first time in my life there was something innocent inside of me. I’d been molested from the time I was three years old. I never had that sense that there was anything innocent inside of me. With Dylan, with the baby, and after talking to the people at Planned Parenthood, I determined that there was something innocent inside me. There became this obsession to keep it that way, to protect it. I wasn’t thinking about me, which is probably why things turned out so well. I wasn’t focused on myself. I was focused on this innocent that I had to protect.  

A common criticism of the memoir is that the writer is the hero of the story, but in your memoir your mom comes through as one of the main heroes, especially given the nature of your relationship prior to the events in this memoir. Tell me about that reflection process.

I didn’t expect her to be strong. The process of writing this was very interesting where my mother was concerned. I had blocks in terms of my memory. Your blocks often have to do with ego in a lot of ways. I found through writing the book I saw a lot of where my ego had taken over and where I was cultivating impressions that really sold my hero story. The story where I could overcome anything and the story where my mother didn’t love me. I did that whole thing and I did it convincingly even for myself so in the process of writing the book I had to filter out what wasn’t a fact. I also had to put the book through the process of workshopping where people said to me, “You say this about your mother, you show this about your mother, and they don’t line up.” I had to keep rewriting my mother until I found her. The impressions I had cultivated over the years to protect myself, to protect my ego, were erroneous. My mother did love me. She didn’t protect me from my father, but she did love me. She fiercely loved me. As I wrote this story I discovered that.

There’s a sense that you as the writer is discovering your mother’s love as you write. You do feel like you’re brought along on this journey of awareness with you as the writer.

When you work to let the story tell itself, that’s when that happens. If the story tells itself then we all have to go along with the growth of it as it happens. The whole experience of writing this was powerful in terms of discovering my mother. We didn’t have a great relationship before she died. It was contentious. I was angry with her. I was very disappointed when she did die because I thought we didn’t have a chance to work it out and fix it. After writing this I wish I could tell her what I figured out. I wish I could let her know that I get it.

There’s a theme that maintaining a distance is a good coping mechanism or survival technique. Did you realize at the time that you were avoiding certain situations at St. Ann’s as a personal safeguard, like the mandatory parenting classes, or is this an epiphany that came through the writing process?

I spent a majority of time by myself. I wasn’t comfortable with the group conversations. I did like the arts and crafts and the field trips. But when I was in the place I did stay to myself, partly because “we’re not going to be friends.” If we’re friends, I’m going to miss you when I’m gone. If we’re going to stay friends later, you’re going to have a baby and I won’t. I was very afraid that any kind of bonding would make me keep the baby. When it’s an experience you’re looking to put behind you it’s hard to maintain the relationships.

Were there other epiphanies about this time in your life that the writing process brought for you?

My mom was huge. That was huge.

When I was writing the book, I’ve told this story—Dylan and I’ve told this story, we were keynote speakers at the Annual Adoption Conference, we’ve shared the story and publicly done it all packaged up nice and neatly. But there was one part of the story that I never told and I didn’t realize this until I was writing and that was the experience of giving birth to Dylan. I knew it had to be part of the story, but I circled around that until the very, very last minute. There was a wall of fire I had to walk through before I’d even touch it. It was the eleventh hour before I finally forced myself down to choke it out. And then when I got it out I cried for hours. It was because I realized that the whole way I’d packaged the story, to tell myself that I was strong and brave, and that I was insightful and wise for my age and I’d made myself the superhero of the story, this is the moment when I wasn’t any of those things. I was terrified. I was sad. I wanted my mother. I was vulnerable. I was lost. I wasn’t a superhero, I was just a kid. It really struck me. I’d never picked it up and examined it before because it went against what my ego was doing to protect me from those feelings. I was crying for that kid that I was. That was the gift of the writing process. I’d cried for Dylan, I’d worried about Dylan, I’d looked for Dylan, I’d cared for Dylan. I’d shut the kid that I was out. But it was also necessary because I had to go on with being my adult self.

What do you hope readers can take away from your story and your experience?   

The thing about this particular story is that bad things don’t have to lead to bad things. Bad things properly handled can lead to really beautiful things. My intention in writing it was to show an example of how a really bad beginning can lead to a beautiful end, so keep the faith.

Through the process of writing that changed. Now I want people to feel full of love when they’re finished reading it. I’d like to think they’d reconsider their mothers. This is a story of three mothers and one baby. Three totally different mothers having three totally different difficult times going through three totally different experiences. Getting some things right, getting some things wrong, but definitely with lots of love. With Mother’s Day coming up I’d like everyone to read this story and forgive their mothers for what they got wrong and appreciate their mothers for what they got right.