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Marya Hornbacher On Navigating Life Through Language

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Marya_Portrait_Couch_02_MT_020611_CenterStage.jpg(Photo by Mark Trockman/

Brazen memoirist Marya Hornbacher’s writes like she’s breathing. From “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” to “Madness: A Bipolar Life,” her books feel somehow both spontaneous and painstakingly considered. In person, Hornbacher is as brilliant, honest and witty as her writing; a delight to interview. Currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, Hornbacher spoke with Our Town at length about everything from her teaching style to her yoga practice.

Our Town Can writing be taught?
Marya Hornbacher You can’t teach an ear, you can’t teach talent, but you can teach people who have those things not to just fly by the seat of their pants. Part of it is reading good literature, deconstructing the way beautiful language works. There’s value to having a conversation with someone who’s been [writing] a while, who knows craft. I feel like I chat with my students more than I teach them.

OT Is it hard to switch gears from writing intensely vulnerable memoir to then having to show up and be this professional teacher?
MH The assumption that your teacher will not have a life—teachers believe that more than students do. My students know I have a life, they know I’ve written about my life. They know some detail, probably more than they know about their physics teacher, but I would’ve told them anyway! When you’re teaching creative nonfiction it helps to have written about your life in a very open way, because you can say, ‘look, how much are you willing to risk emotionally to write? How careful can you be with the other people you’re writing about?’ When you deal with nonfiction you deal with human characters. How do you characterize them fully? How do you deal with dialogue? You have a way of talking about those craft points which you might not had you never taken those risks.

OT Memoirist Vivian Gornick famously admitted creating composite characters in her memoir “Fierce Attachments.” What’s your take on the ethics of that sort of invention?
MH I’m kind of a hard ass on that. I feel like in memoir you tweak dialogue in order to characterize the people involved as accurately as you can, but in terms of conflating characters, hell no. Making up events, absolutely not. Memoirs are structurally more like novels than essay, so you elide and you cut and you pare. Memoir has a narrative arc [but] life does not follow that nice, neat path to resolution and hope. So memoir is neater than life, but you can’t lie. Why would you? Write a novel.

OT Speaking of novels, I read you trashed four years of work and then went back and wrote your novel, “The Center of Winter” in less than a year. Were those four years wasted?
MH Had I just taken my meds and approached my work in a rational fashion, I might have gotten it out in two years and not put everyone I know through hell. It was a valuable process in terms of teaching myself to write a first novel, but had I not been so sick, it would have been a harmless waste of four years and not really a waste.

OT Mental health issues aside, what as it like to write a novel having only published memoir?
MH There’s a wonderful E.L Doctorow quote, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” What I did was drive through the fog on that novel and when I reached the end, I was like holy s**t it worked, I got there! It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done, because it was harder than writing “Wasted” by a long shot, just creatively and technically. “Wasted” is essentially an extended literary journalism piece.

OT On the subject of “Wasted,” did you have any qualms about writing a book that might trigger people with eating disorders?
MH When you have an eating disorder, you can get triggered by magazines, television, billboards someone looking at you funny, your pants looking at you differently than they did the day before. Certainly a book about eating disorders can trigger you. When “Wasted” came out there was nothing out there that talked about the cultural context [of eating disorders]. In treatment, you get your nutrition and you get your art therapy, but you don’t get anybody saying, ‘you are living in a world that is congratulating you for dying.’ I wanted to bring that to people’s attention so they could rally around their own strength. I believe-- and the mail I get bears this out-- that it has helped more people than it acted as a ‘how to’ for. My favorite letter I get says ‘I couldn’t read it a certain point in my life, but then I went back and it kicked my ass and I got better.’ People talk about taking it with them through recovery as a companion. That’s how I intended it.

OT You write in “Madness” about your experiences with mental illness. Have you come to terms with managing your bipolar?
MH Somewhere along the line, I just kinda went, you know, you have it. Calm down. Quit fighting. The more I accepted it the funnier it got, not like ha ha isn’t it great I have a mental illness, but I can see the absurdity in certain elements and that helps a lot. Managing it gets annoying. I have to take piles and piles of pills; I have to work out every day, do yoga, I have to eat like six times a day-- the right foods. Not that there’s a magical formula, but there are things that help. At this point, it only makes sense to keep myself absolutely steady and stable because that’s when I’m productive. It’s been a long time since I was unstable, like years, but when I’m [unstable], the writing is first to leave the room. Then I really feel destabilized, because I navigate the world through language and story.

Hornbacher will read from “Madness” as well as share new work at Women and Children First, February 25 at 7:30 p.m. To read the extended interview with Hornbacher, ‘like’ Our Town on Facebook.

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Our Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on February 23, 2011 11:31 AM.

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