Steve Fellner

On Marxism, My Mother’s Body, and the State of Nonfiction

I wrote a memoir about my mother no one read. It won a contest no one entered. Except for ten people including myself. The memoir was published. The editors were nice people who wanted to start a press that focused on new minority writers. There was a small cash prize. There were royalties, but since no one purchased it, I didn’t make any money that way.

However, at the time, I was an Assistant Professor at a small, rural liberal arts college in Western New York. The memoir solidified my chances of tenure: the book was mentioned consistently in the chain of recommendation letters from the head of the department to the President. I was promoted with tenure. You could say that I made $50,000 a year (my salary) from a book no one read.

My own mother didn’t read it. She might not even have looked at the cover.

Revenge is never a solution. I know this. But it never stops me from trying. The striving to destroy someone feels good. If I convince myself it won’t have a positive result, I assume it’s because I’m too much of a coward (or lazy).

When I first started writing about my mother, I had to ask, “Am I doing this out of some sort of revenge?”

It wasn’t a mean book. But it did deal with her shoplifting, her disappointment with marriage, her taking me out of school just so we could go to the movies, etc.

Any decent percent asks why one reveals personal information. Once a teacher told me: “It doesn’t matter how they appear. On the page, you’re God. And you’ve got to decide how things go down.”

Another one said: “We always end up writing about people who have caused us problems. If they don’t like what you wrote, they should have behaved.”

There’re also all those other boring creative nonfiction debates that we talk about:  What is a fact?  Are sometimes metaphors more “accurate” than the truth?  Is there an ethical issue in having direct quotations in a memoir?  After all, you haven’t tape-recorded the conversations, etc.

I’m a simple person. My litmus test: if you feel like a complete asshole after you’re done writing, throw the thing away. Your heart knows the truth.

My mother is dying.

She is dying of uterine cancer and dementia and the aftereffects of a stroke. Part by part, her body and mind are dying. When people ask me what’s wrong with her, I usually choose to tell them about one of her afflictions. “Cancer,” I’ll say to one colleague. And then to a different colleague, I’ll say: “Alzheimer’s.”  Sometimes I get worried that people will exchange stories and think I’m lying.

This has extended into my writing. I fear editors will think I’m piling on the illnesses to get sympathy, publication.

At the same time, I don’t give a shit. It’s the truth.

Even before my book, I wrote about my mother. My mother is my currency. People love stuff about gay men and their mothers. When I first applied to MFA programs, I turned in a portfolio that dealt with my mother. I was accepted and received a TAship. Later I applied to get my PhD. Again, the work was about my mother. I received a substantial fellowship. You could say my mother was supporting me all those years even though she never gave me a dime.

“Graduate school?” she said. “How can you still be in school if you graduated?”

She never graduated high school. Until her breakdown, she worked three menial jobs to keep us afloat.

You could say I choose graduate school, because I didn’t want to be like her. I didn’t want to ever work for a living.

I don’t use metaphors when I write. No similes. I don’t allow my students to either. I forbid them. One semester I threatened to lower their semester grade if they did.

Is this a stupid thing to do?

Yes, of course, it is.

But I get scared of them. My mother will not be here much longer, I fear. Who has time for the “lyric” essay when the end is near?  You need to write as simply and as plainly as possible. Everything has to be free of any flourish, any hidden gesture. No add-ons. No substitutions. As plain and as exact as a dollar bill.

My memoir doesn’t include most of the important facts about my mother. Even in the section called “The Important Facts about My Mother.”  Here are some that I left out: She has undiagnosed bipolar disorder; she could be mean and violent; she was a foster child who was abused on a regular basis.

I never thought about putting them in the memoir. They seemed unimportant, I guess. I didn’t want to pathologize her. Plus some things are personal. They shouldn’t be written for everyone to read. Now after all these years later, I can say that if I wrote a memoir, those are things that I would include. Those are the things everyone writes about. Those are the things that could possibly make money. Those are things that could make my writing be read by more than a dozen people (if that isn’t a gross inflation).

But would it be more honest? And is honesty even the issue here?

I don’t think so. Maybe less. I wrote a comedy. The naming of things would make it a drama.

Both cost you something: one dignity, the other legitimacy.

I don’t know which impacts which.

My mother threw me out of the house when I was a teenager. It wasn’t because I’m gay. It was because my father divorced her, paid little in child support, and she couldn’t support two kids. I was the older. I was the one who should leave. It sounded reasonable.

I am now in my mid 40s. I saw her two times during a twenty-six-year gap. I always convinced myself that I was too busy to make amends. I didn’t want to intrude; I was scared. She and my brother live together. She lost everything and was homeless, unable to keep a job due to her unpredictable mood swings. My brother took her in.

Once I applied for a $3000 travel scholarship when I was a PhD student. I wrote a nonfiction proposal claiming I was going to do archival work in England about Joice Heth, who was one of P.T. Barnum’s first acts. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington.

It was a lie. I never had any plans of going to England. I was going to use the money for an extended trip to see my mother. I’d take her out on the town. Every night. I’d fix everything.

I won the fellowsh