“Conquering the Poppy Fields!”: An Interview with Bonnie Friedman 

Interview conducted by Cary Ann Siegfried

In her new essay collection, Surrendering Oz, Bonnie Friedman touches on the subject of envy, just as she did more extensively in her previous work, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life.  Ironically, as I read these essays in her new book, I could not help, as a writer of essays myself, feeling quite envious of her mastery of the form.  Others obviously share my admiration, evidenced by the fact that Surrendering Oz has been named to the longlist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, as well as being named to the shortlist in the Creative Nonfiction CLMP Firecracker Awards.

Friedman’s essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Writing on Writing.  Her first collection, an exploration of emotional issues in the writer’s life, was a widely anthologized bestseller.  Reviewing her new book in The Rumpus, David Weinstein says: “Friedman’s peripatetic thoughts constitute an essay in its purest form – more like Montaigne than the typical collection today.”  He goes on to note: “[her] earnestness is refreshing when so many memoirists today bury their insights in irony . . . Each of Friedman’s observations is microscopic in its precision, but her collected wisdom, prolific and sprawling among so many topics, could fill a sea.”  Library Journal calls Surrendering Oz “a must for students of creative writing.”

I interviewed Friedman at the University of North Texas where, as it happens, I am one of her graduate students, and where the envy occasioned by reading her book is fortunately tempered by my hope that she will be able to help me learn to write with the same penetrating wisdom and exquisite attention to detail that she employs.  While reading these new essays, I was often reminded of her insistence that we, her students, think all the way through our writing, to not stop with the easy or pat conclusion and to show that work, to allow the reader to see us “thinking  (and feeling) on the page.”  She holds herself to these same high standards.

The theme of Friedman’s new book is learning how to surrender the poppy-fields of pacifying delusion and fantasy for the excitement of being a “grown up grown-up,” which entails accepting the force of eros and the inevitability of mortality, as well as the power that each one of us possesses to alter his or her life.  Cumulatively, the new essays could also stand as a model for writers on the craft of the personal essay.

Interviewer: The subtitle of your new collection of essays, Surrendering Oz is “a life in essays” and it’s obvious that the collection follows along a journey toward discovery that you’ve taken in your life.

Were you always intending to assemble these essays in a book?  Can you talk a little about how and when you realized that the essays might relate to one another and work together?

Friedman: Thank you for this interesting question.  I wrote each essay as a standalone piece when there was something in my life that I needed to figure out or when I’d had an experience that was so rich in some way – sensually, intellectually – that it seemed almost blasphemous to lose it by not committing it to the page.  What else does life have to give us if not important experiences, and how careless and upsetting to lose them to the sheer ongoing daily sweep of time!

The essay about living in Greece was like that, and the essay about my sister and the graveyard rabbis, and the essay about having a secret, uptown life – all were attempts to catch key experiences and to find out the deeper meaning which had disturbed me at the time.  There’s something marvelous in the longitudinal quality of written sentences.  Without the tool of writing, many of us have the notion that we’re thinking something through when actually we’re just thinking something to the middle.  Or two-thirds of the way.  Writing helps you actually to complete the fraught and thickety thought, to glimpse its implications.

I knew I had a book when I could see that I was no longer the person I was at the beginning – insecure, indecisive, squirrely, needing always to merge with those around me to feel okay.  I felt I had a book when I could see I had become someone else, when my awareness had shifted and actually expanded.

Interviewer: I know that this is a frequently asked question regarding any collection of prose or poetry, but the answer always fascinates me.  So:  while there is obviously some chronological ordering of the essays, especially the first two and the last several, they don’t give the true feeling of being ordered as you wrote them or ordered in true chronological order.  How did you determine the order and what impact do you think the ordering had on the collection as a whole?

Friedman: Yes, it’s true that the essays aren’t in strict chronological order.  It was more like making a playlist of songs.  I wanted there to be an emotional crescendo and a turning-point in the book, and for certain refrains to come back, and for the reader, at the end, to feel satisfied, like it was really worth the trip.

One of the themes of the book is how we sometimes don’t show up for our lives – how we dissociate, some of us more than others.  And I wanted to show both the small and big ways one can stop doing that.  A friend of mine once said that anything that stops you from feeling is something that you can get addicted to: television, food, rage, whatever.  Books and the life of the mind were like that for me.  I had to find ways to show up despite the temptation always to read more and to think more.  In the short run it always feels virtuous to read and to think – at least, from where I come from it does.  And that’s what makes the reading and thinking life so dangerous, actually.

Interviewer: These essays obviously reflect what you consider to be a journey in your life moving toward self-discovery and emotional awakening.  What similarities and differences do you see between your journey and Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey?”

Friedman: Campbell talks about the desire many of us have not to surrender what we already possess in order to set out on the journey.  We don’t want to pay the price by risking loss.  He talks about the tyrant Holdfast as the big enemy of the adventure.  I had a big Holdfast within me, and this manifested itself in a craving for stability and in a blindness to the fact that what is clung to and clasped is lost anyway: the act of clinging to it changes its nature.

In my own life journey, I needed to be stunned time and again by beauty, by loss, and by the discovery of my own latent powers, which I’m sure are much like the reader’s own.  In some of the essays I venture forth, like Campbell’s archetypal hero, and in others the adventure comes to me where I am hiding out.  I believe there is an act of ravishment in all of the essays – an experience of being seized and disoriented, and needing to become re-oriented and to locate meaning once again.  Campbell’s hero journey often starts out with a world that has come to feel drained of significance.  By the end of the journey, life is re-infused with importance.  That held true for me, in these essays.  By the end of each there is a sense of quickening, of things being alive again. And there is a sense, too, that before the journey, one had misunderstood the true value of things.

Two of the essays in the book—“Beauty from the Underworld” and “Becoming Visible” deal with slight gradations in subject matter relating to a significant event in your life.  What factors made you decide to write two essays rather than putting them together?

Friedman: These essays are about that affair I had, and I appreciate your tact in leaving it to me to choose to name it.  The first essay takes up the subject in a way that was necessary but that I ultimately felt left too much unacknowledged.  It captured one aspect but it was almost as if the unconscious of the experience was lacking, the out-of-control quality, the being-seized-by-something-I-hadn’t-known-was-in-my-nature, the gravitas.  The first essay made the experience seem more volitional and even playful than it in fact was.

And yet I didn’t want to lose that first essay.  It seemed the necessary corridor to bring the reader to the second piece.

Interviewer: And a related question: In “The Masquerade Guest“ you write about the necessity of disclosing this important and painful event in your life and how this was necessary to your work, to not just do it once, but in several instances.  Can you talk a little about how you realized this and how repetition and learning and re-learning play a part in this collection?

Friedman: I think for most normal people having an important secret is taxing.  But, for the very reason we were driven to have the important secret, we feel inauthentic if we don’t share it.  The secret acquires symbolic, even fetishistic importance – or at least so it was for me.  If I didn’t acknowledge it, I felt like a sham.  And my writing felt like sham writing.  And so, for a few years, I had to tuck this electrified piece of information into any personal essay even if only for an instant so that, to me, the essay felt valid.

About the need to re-learn things, yes, that is one of the themes of the book.   I think many of us over the course of our lives are invited to learn the same things over at a different level, a deeper and riskier level, and so in a way they aren’t the same things at all, they have a different feeling-tone and consequence.

Interviewer: You write in “The Button King: The Discipline of the Notebook“ about keeping a journal.  Your essays are so full of finely detailed imagery and emotion from your past. What part have these journals played in your ability to depict and reflect past images and events with such life and color?

Friedman: Thank you. I found that the practice of learning to draw life on the page sharpens the eye, and in my twenties and thirties I kept writing journals and also wrote detailed emails to friends that had the quality of diary entries.

But I didn’t consult those journals to write the essays.  In a way the essays were my journal, my writing sketchbook: I tried to allow the spirit of physical things to find expression.  Proust has that image of the trees in the countryside trying desperately, heartbreakingly, to convey their message as the little boy Marcel in the carriage is rolling away from them, perhaps never to see them again, and the sense – which he articulates in Swann’s Way – that physical things have a soul, have memories, which they might never divulge if not properly, inadvertently summoned. He says that the necessarily involuntary moment of realization must be coupled with the conscious and even demanding work of identifying precisely what it was that one experienced.

I recognized when I read him that I felt a similar way, as I suppose many of us do: that everything around us is a kind of envelope containing a message, a significance, often one of some complexity, and that even a close physically rendering of our world carries us a great distance toward identifying that significance.

Interviewer: Thanks so much for sharing your journey with readers and for taking the time to answer these questions.  At the conclusion of this collection the reader perceives that you’ve traveled out of “a shadow life,” that you‘ve gained a sense of power and an understanding of yourself that will lead to even further self-discovery.   That achievement makes me wonder what the next challenge is for you and what you’re writing now?

Friedman: Fiction!  That’s what’s next.  There’s a novel I have in the drawer that I didn’t previously know how to structure.  Now I think I know what to do with it.  I’m no longer the character all these things happened to, so the story can acquire its necessary shape.   It will be good, I hope (one never knows, of course), to begin.

Cary Ann Siegfried is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas, focusing on both creative nonfiction and poetry. Her “day job” is Director of Libraries for the City of Arlington, Texas. The first half of her life (as a librarian) has been devoted to ensuring that people have equal access to information and literature that supports and enriches their lives.  She hopes for the second half to be spent creating (and helping others create) new works of literature that readers will want to have access to.