by Jeff Bernstein
Melissa Cistaro is the bestselling author of Pieces of my Mother (winner of the “Best Nonfiction Book of 2015” by The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association), a memoir which recounts her difficult childhood and attempts to make sense of her illusive mother. Her book is a testament to the power and healing that comes from embracing our past. Melissa’s stories, essays and interviews have appeared in The New Ohio Review, Brevity, Publisher’s Weekly, PBS: To the Contrary, Good Housekeeping, among other places.
We caught up with her to talk with her about memoir craft, her inspirations, future projects and her Memoir Class starting this Sunday, May 22nd.
Why did you decide to write a memoir and how did you get it published?
I come from a long line of women who wanted to be writers but never had the opportunity because they died too young or didn’t have the confidence to believe that their voices mattered. I thought about my mother who left behind her folder of “letters never sent” and often confessed that she wanted to be a novelist. I couldn’t stand the thought of growing old saying, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish’ I’d written that book.
How did your family react to reading about themselves in your book?
The book was especially difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of my childhood that he wasn’t aware of, and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous in their responses. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood. Our emotions and memories will never be the same as our siblings and parents and lovers. Their stories are ultimately their own. This is always a great conversation that surfaces again and again in every memoir class.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
If there is a story you must tell, find a way to tell it. Writing my own memoir has been a long, painful and ultimately healing journey, and I’m glad I stayed with it. I am especially grateful now as I hear from readers from who express how much the book has inspired them to tell their own stories. I love this passage by poet Mary Oliver, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”
You’re passionate about horseback riding. Is there a tie between riding and writing?
Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways. So I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting, writing, or riding a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.
How did you find your voice as a writer? Was there a moment where everything clicked?
I like to say that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. In college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes and writing workshops and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice, and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write.
What’s the best thing you’ve read lately? Do you normally read a lot of memoir?
I really love when authors write in concise vignettes, like memoirist Abigail Thomas, author of “What Comes Next and How to Like It, and of Safekeeping.” She writes in chapters that can be anywhere from three sentences to three pages. One of the most moving (and difficult) memoirs I have read recently is “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala. I also read a lot of Joan Didion, and fell absolutely in love with Bill Clegg’s novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family?” It’s a powerful, condensed narrative about the aftermath of terrible family tragedy.
Why are you excited to teach at Writing Pad?
I really believe in the transformative power of storytelling. I spent 12 years working on my memoir. There were so many questions and false starts I had over those years. Whenever I reached out to mentors or took a writing class, I came out of it not only with renewed inspiration, but with a set of tools specific to telling my story.
Finding the structure of our stories is one of the most challenging aspects of memoir and also one of the most vital. How can we put together the pieces of our past and find the courage to craft our narrative truths? This is where my passion soars. I also really believe in the power of specific in-class writing exercises and prompts that can help you to dig deeply into your life experience and find ways into your story you may not have considered. I can’t wait to share all that I have learned about writing and publishing memoir at Writing Pad.
Thank you, Melissa for such a stimulating interview!
Don’t miss the opportunity to take Melissa’s Memoir Workshop starting this Sunday, May 22nd in San Francisco.