Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette), and the author of a poetry collection Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point), and a number of limited-edition chapbooks.
Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, her third memoir, is coming August 2015 from Atticus Books.
When did you first start writing your new memoir Belief? Maybe the better question is how did you start writing this memoir? Did it start as an essay and it became a memoir or did you know what it was going to be from the start?
I started working on Belief a little over five years ago. Like pretty much everything I write, I started to write it because I was confused and curious and a little lost.
I’m adopted and my adoptive parents, who I consider my real parents, had died, first my father then my mother. I had questions – about my adoption, my adoptive parents, myself as a mother, my birth family. I hoped I might be able to answer those questions if I wrote through the muddle.
I was also grieving the loss of my parents, and grief makes everything muddled, of course.
I think, as an adopted person, I’ve always wanted to explore why family mattered and matters so much to me. I wanted to write especially about motherhood – what it meant to lose my mother as I became a mother, what it meant to be my adoptive mother’s only child, what it meant to be an adopted person with children as my only blood connection, what it meant to search for my birth mother after many years of not-knowing.
The main concern I had was finding a structure that could hold a story that was, at its roots, an adoption narrative, which by its nature is broken and fragmented. It’s like putting together a puzzle when you know a lot of pieces will always be missing.
Was it easy to find a balance in writing about your experience as a mother vs your search for your birth mother?
Balance – between sections and chapters and focus – was a struggle.
Maybe writing about my experience as a mother was a little easier because I had more first-hand material to work with — I knew the truth of my story, my experience. With my adoption search, a lot depended upon adoption records, which are full of holes, and other people’s versions of my story, which are full of holes.
An adopted person is always someone’s secret, and it’s hard to get a full story when that story’s surrounded in secrets and lies and midi-truths. A lot depended on which versions of stories I chose to believe were true. That’s something that’s carried in the title, I hope, the idea that at some point we all believe the stories we’re told about ourselves, that we believe what we want to be true about our lives. There’s a lot of grey there.
What made you look for your birth mother? Did you always know that you would go on the journey to find your birth mother some day?
My daughter was born with a congenital birth defect. She had problems with her hips and legs. When I was born, I had similar defects, though mine were worse. Doctors thought I’d never be able to walk, the birth defects were that bad. Then my parents adopted me, my mother was a nurse, and they took me to a surgeon named Dr. Charles Sankey in Pittsburgh, who rebuilt my feet and legs. I’m pretty much fine, though I’ll never be able to walk in heels.
But my daughter being born that way, with similar troubles, made me realize I didn’t have a medical history – not one thing – to offer my kids. So there was urgency there.
I was also grieving my own mother’s death, but I didn’t realize it. I think grief also played a huge role in my search. I think I was looking for something that might heal the loss I felt after losing both my adoptive parents.
What was your writing process while writing this memoir or with writing in general? While writing do you have an idea where you want to take the memoir or do you just see where it goes?
I rattled around in the dark a lot with this memoir, which might be why it took years to write it. I had a general sense of the story – or at least the subject and theme – I wanted to cover, but I had to work and revise a lot before the form appeared.
The book is written in vignettes, and I worried a lot about making sure the story kept moving forward for the reader. Vignettes felt right – adoption being a severed experience and all – but I wanted to be sure there was enough tension there to keep a reader who wasn’t me involved. I also wanted to pare the vignettes back until they felt raw, spare – but not so much so that I left the reader out.
I’m not sure they were the hardest, but there are scenes where I use fiction to imagine and recreate my birth mother’s experiences. I used my adoption records as a basis, then wrote fictional narratives to fill in the blanks. I created a fictional character who is and is not my birth mother.
I think this is tricky – genre-wise, especially. The concept of truth-in-memoir is important. But as an adopted person, there were and always will be factual and emotional truths I’ll never be able to access.
I wanted to try to feel what my birth mother may have felt. I wanted to feel empathy for her. Throughout my search, she wasn’t kind or good. She was cruel, but I wanted to believe there was more to her than that. I wanted to understand, from the inside as much as I could, what it might have felt like to make the decisions she did. I wanted to work toward forgiveness, acceptance, gratitude. The fictional sections helped me do that.
This memoir is partially about your experiences as a mother. Have your children deemed anything “off-limits”? If so, how do you honor their wishes?
Truthfully, my children couldn’t give a shit about my writing, my books most of all, but I try to be careful. I’m conscious that my children’s lives are their lives, their stories are their stories. I try to take only what I need to tell my own story. I try to be conscious of how my story affects them, too, but unless I’ve written something for a local newspaper and another parent mentions it in front of my kids, the subject seldom comes up. My story in this book is in part my experience of motherhood, which to me was and is a very confusing state, and so of course my kids are in the center of that. But my kids are central to every part of my life. I try not to chronicle their experiences in ways I think might be intrusive. I love them, and they love me back, and I always want that to be there. Part of the beauty of parenthood is that it doesn’t stop. I love that and want to keep it until I die.
How did you know the book was complete, that you were done?
As I was moving toward what I thought was the end of the book, the story turned on me. I started the manuscript by writing about my adoption search and motherhood and then the story opened into this bigger frame and became a question of family, of what it means to form a family.
I started writing about my father, who’d been a victim of abuse and never talked about it until he was sick and dying. I started writing about what people do to each other in the name of family, and these stories kept spiraling around. By the end, the book became a question of how people survive distorted ideas of family by building better ones.
I think I knew the book was finished when I realized that this question – what family means, how people survive, how we build our own lives – doesn’t have a singular answer. I think I knew I was finished when I accepted that some things are never finished.
Belief is the first memoir for Atticus Books. How did that happen?
I’d published some essays in Atticus Review and admired Atticus’s vision a lot. I sent Dan Cafaro the manuscript because I think he’s the goods – an indy publisher who really believes in and gets behind the writers he publishes — and I hoped he’d maybe consider it. It’s an odd little book – subject-wise, form-wise, the way it mixes the fiction chapters into memoir – and I felt Atticus would be the best kind of home for it. I feel lucky Dan felt that way, too.
What authors or books helped inspire you while writing Belief?
I love minimalism so I’m always reading and rereading books that even remotely fit that category, especially those early Raymond Carver stories. I read Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, about losing her own mom, which was a real catalyst for me to write about family. I read books by other adopted people to see how they handled this kind of story — Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? ; A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’s Daughter. I read some Bukowski to toughen me up. I read vignette-form books (Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution stands out; I read Richard Brautigan) to try to work through the problem of keeping narrative tension while using short fragmented chapters. I reread In Cold Blood to remember how to balance and interweave various story lines without losing readers. I discovered Scott McClanahan around this time and I absolutely love his books. I’m always re-reading Hemingway and Joan Didion, my two favorite writers. I read Bill Boyle’s Gravesend, a great noir crime novel, to help remind me how important narrative tension is, too. And my husband Dave Newman is always an inspiration. I read everything he writes and learn from it. He read the manuscript of Belief over and over, and was a tireless editor and a patient person. Lucky life. It’s important for me to read a lot while I’m writing. Joe Strummer from the Clash had it right: no input, no output.
When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to write?
I started when I was very young. I’d write terrible poems and my mom would put them on the fridge. Writing was pretty much the only thing I could do, other than play the piano a bit. There’s a chapter in Belief where my mother’s cousin, a barroom pianist, tells me I would never become a great piano player, that I should give it up right then, so I figured early on writing was it. I’m not good at math or science or any practical thing. I can’t do crafts. I can’t paint or sculpt or knit. I admire people who are good at a lot of things. I can cook a little. I like that. I make a mean meatball. And I write. That’s pretty much it for me.
Are you working on anything now?
I’m leaving soon for a month-long residency in Brussels, thanks to City of Asylum Pittsburgh. I’m so grateful to CoA and my family for giving me this time. I’m taking three rough manuscripts with me – a book of poems, a book of essays, and one very craggy novel. I’m hoping to finish at least one of these while I’m there.