Monday, December 21, 2015

Authorship, Parents, and ‘The James Frey Moment’

A Happier Hour with Rebecca Walker and Tracy McMillan

Rebecca Walker and Tracy McMillan sat in a cozy living room in Silver Lake Saturday afternoon and read passages from their respective books Adé: A Love Story and I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway.

Then they had the below conversation during the quarterly literary salon aptly titled Happier Hours.

Walker is the author of seven books, including Black, White & Jewish and Baby Love. Adé, her work of autobiographical fiction, is scheduled for filming, with Madonna directing.

McMillan has written for Mad Men and The United States of Tara, but her 2011 Huffington Post essay “Why You’re Not Married” went viral and led to the book Why You’re Not Married…Yet. (She’s been married three times.) Her Ted Talk on The Person You Really Need to Marry has nearly 2.5 million views, and her novel Multiple Listings is set for a March 8th release.

“I want to talk about authorship,” McMillan said. “‘Author’ is the root word of authority. I confer authority on myself. It’s the only obstacle to my success. You [Rebecca] wear this so well.”

“My authority,” Walker said, contemplating. “Growing up with a working artist helped a lot: her purpose; her right to speak; her need to speak. It was like growing up with a goldsmith.”

(Walker’s mother is the icon Alice Walker.)

“I have a connection with other people in my generation,” Walker said. “A calling to own my story allows other people to own theirs. [It’s about] being in sync with a sense of my people. Magic happens when your work meets those people. I didn’t doubt I was here to do that work.

“Am I done writing?” Walker asked. An audible gasp came from the audience. “What do I have to connect? What do I have to give? I don’t have the feeling I’m the only one to do that work.”

“I write about my dad. You write about your mom,” McMillan said. “We both write about our black parents. I’m not sure what that’s about.

“I’m having a mom healing [right now],” she added. “Ten-year-old Tracy was all fucked up by 31-year-old mother figure.”

But 51-year-old Tracy can handle anything that now-70-year-old woman can throw at her. This mother figure from Tracy’s childhood wanted to give Tracy’s 18-year-old son a substantial amount of cash. Her first reaction was to say no, but then she changed her mind.

“I accepted money I do not need.”

She put aside her anger for her son.

“I’m willing to see her now on my terms. I’m the grown child. I’m going to fly to Houston, have lunch, and get back on the plane.”

She advised, “Let it take as long as it takes. Then take action you don’t want to take. Then the healing happens.”

“I feel the longing to bring my father into the narrative,” Walker said. “I changed my last name to my mother’s name when I was 15. He was very hurt, but he got over it.”

He said, “It’s about love, not about my name.”

“He hated Black, White & Jewish at first, like my mother. Now he has like 20 copies in his office.”

“That’s a real parent,” McMillan said, “when the parent takes the hit, instead of the child taking the hit. You can’t write a lot about an ‘adult.’

“The thing about shame is you don’t want to be exposed. As a writer, you have to be exposed. It took me a lot of years. I didn’t write anything of my own until I was in my 40s. It’s some version of ‘there I am. There it is. It’s okay, sweetheart.’”

McMillan talked about cognitive behavioral therapy. For much of her life, she repeated the thought, “I’m not enough. I’m not enough. I’m not enough.” Now, she thinks “every permutation” of “I love you, Tracy. I love you, Tracy. I love you, Tracy.”

As a writer, what’s her biggest challenge?

“People are going to be mad at you,” McMillan said, without a beat. “There’s a sacred contract with the reader. Write the truth. I’m not even who I think I am, so who are [the readers] mad at? Be fearless and thorough; set the stage for other people’s healing.”

“I asked for three years for Black White & Jewish. That’s unheard of. That was the ‘90s,” Walker said. Writing that book, she was consumed with fear: “fear of retribution; fear of being compared to my mother; fear of reliving painful moments; so many fears.

“I would just cry writing,” she said. “I can’t believe that little girl lived through that. It was painful to make that conscious. But it was great. That little girl isn’t in me anymore.”

Returning to the idea that maybe she’s finished telling her story, Walker said, “I don’t know if we have endless stories to be told. I believe the story has to be told. Have I done it? Am I done? I’m not sure.”

“That’s a courageous question,” McMillan said, because writers are always thinking, “‘I need stuff on my Wikipedia page. I need cash.’ What you’re saying is it’s about service.”

“Who knows how long a writing experience has to happen,” Walker said. “I’ve started writing for television. I’m regaining a sense of service there.”

Maybe it’s about shifting mediums, she said.

“I grew up reading a lot,” McMillan said. “The relationship between the writer and reader is private. It has to stay between us. Sacred is the word that comes to mind. I get to say. I get to be. I grew up a foster child [hearing] ‘you’re nothing.’ I had to do a lot of therapy to let others have their feelings.”

“I’m telling my truth as best I can,” Walker said. “I’m [still] sad about the James Frey moment.”

(Frey admitted to making up large chunks of his addiction ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces in 2006.)

“What happened in the culture [as a result of that incident was] the contract with the reader and memoir was broken. It spoiled something for me,” she said. “The relationship is different with autobiographical fiction. Autobiographical fiction is a way to regain trust with readers. I’m trying to suss that out.

“At that time, memoir was selling for so much more money. [Frey and I] had the same editor and the same publisher. [The decision to call Frey’s book ‘memoir’] was driven by the industry. They weren’t as interested in it as a novel.”

The fault, she said, is with “the way we categorize stories. Maybe we’re growing toward greater fluidity there.”

Walker spends ample time thinking about ways to remedy this concept.

In a funny segue, McMillan asked, “Are we going to talk about hair?”

Walker recently cut her hair short and stopped dyeing it. Now she has “so much more energy for things that are important to [her].”

“I’m not there yet,” McMillan said. “You’re one of the most authentic people I know. I met the curling iron when I was 48 and thought, ‘Who are you, and where have you been all my life?’

“[Aging] is like wine: It could be wine with dinner or wine in the gutter.”

Or in this case, wine with two inspiring authors on a rainy day in Los Angeles. Not a bad afternoon.

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