Accomplished short story writer Monica Wesolowska discusses her new memoir, Holding Silvan, about choosing humane death over doomed life for her newborn son.
Zola: In a brief online review of your own book, you confess that writing it was “as mysterious…as conceiving and delivering a child.” Being, by now, a seasoned mother and author, are there any other ways in which you would compare the experience of having and raising a kid to that of writing and publishing a book?
Monica Wesolowska: It’s funny hearing you quote me on that. Parenthood and writing are obviously different things, but I’m still compelled to compare them. Yes, I’d say the comparisons continue. Now that the book is out and my own living children are old enough to write stories themselves, I face the whole scary truth that our writing and our children come out of us and go on to live independent lives from us. They go out and meet other people and have dialogues with them. I’m just hoping that, having devoted so much love and attention to my children and my writing in their infancies, the dialogues they generate out in the world without me are good ones.
Zola: You wrote your book through consulting almost decade-old diary entries from when Silvan was alive. What was it like re-reading those entries? Did you still recognize yourself in them, or did you find you had evolved substantially throughout the years?
MW: What startled me most in going back to those diaries was my sense of gratitude to my younger self, almost as if she were not me. This other mother had described our time with Silvan in such great detail that I remembered him with a fullness that would otherwise have been impossible.
The eerie thing is that I knew even while Silvan was alive that someday I would look back on that time and judge myself for it, and so I had tried to live through it with as much integrity as I could. It was almost as if, instead of narrating the past, I was narrating myself towards the future.
And what I saw when I went back and read that past was how much that other mother had loved Silvan. I was so relieved to see her love alive on the page, to see that she truly had loved him as much as I still love him today. Because of that love, I felt I could write this book.
Zola: For decades you had published only fiction. But after years of trying to capture Silvan in fictional form—as in, briefly, your 2005 short story “Lenny, My Poet, and I”—you ended up writing a beautiful memoir in a mere three months. What was it about the memoir versus the fiction format that ultimately won you over?
MW: Thanks for referencing “Lenny, My Poet, and I.” That’s one of my favorite stories, and it was the first piece of fiction I completed after Silvan died. But for the most part, I found myself frustrated by fiction after he died. I’d get through several drafts of a story and suddenly feel as though I were playing a game. I had trouble reading fiction as well—and that had never happened in my reading life.
Instead, I kept looking for memoirs of loss. Memoir was a genre I’d pretty much ignored, and I was electrified by how much good stuff there was out there. I devoured memoirs by Isabel Allende, Vivian Gornick, Genevieve Jurgensen, and Abigail Thomas. I loved how they shaped the randomness of life. Fiction does that too, but in memoir I felt more aware of the chaos that was being shaped. That felt very powerful to me.
I’m not sure that memoir has permanently “won me over,” but it’s true that this story finally demanded to be told as memoir. I realized that my problem in trying to write fiction and even to read it was that no story felt as sad as mine. I had to write my own story first to regain enough empathy to make the leap back into fiction.
Zola: Throughout the book, you emphasize the importance of community. You have also taught group fiction at Berkeley for years and claim that your own writing group was key in helping you edit your work. For those who claim writing is a solitary process, what can you say about the importance of literary community?
MW: Writing is strangely bifurcated. As a writer, you have to find a balance between solitude and community.
When I’m deep in a project, I need more solitude than I can ever get. My mind is just always busy figuring out what I’m doing and other people interrupt that solitary thinking. I had to hole myself up to write this memoir—as much as any mother can “hole herself up”—and my husband had to take up the social slack.
But at some point—usually after a rough draft is done for me—I need readers. Community raises writing up from the level of diary to the level of art. It’s impossible for a writer completely to see with fresh eyes what they’ve written. I feel very, very lucky that I have a good writing group. And I tell my students that they will have to do both on their writing paths—learn to write alone for themselves, and find those who can help them write for others.
Zola: Your book has been praised for its honest treatment of death and crisis. Are there any writers whose honesty in conveying “tough subjects” has particularly inspired your own?
MW: I’d say that the writer who most electrified me as I was floundering around before writing this memoir was Marguerite Duras. Strangely, I’d never been able to get into her novel The Lover when I was young. But in this period, I read that book over and over. It’s called a novel, but it’s also obviously her way of dealing with a very disturbing episode from her youth. I love the power of her language in it, how she’s not afraid to repeat herself, to come at the story from different angles, to reveal herself and her family, both the horror and love in it. I wanted the honesty of her voice as well as the ability to weave different stories together into one book.
And yet, I wasn’t thinking about her or any other writers at all when I wrote Holding Silvan. In fact, I felt great relief when I got the voice for the book because it didn’t feel artificial at all. It was simply the voice I needed to tell the story. It felt necessary. And that brings me back to a sense of gratitude. I’m grateful that I found an honest voice for the story, and even more grateful that people seem to be responding well to it.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.