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.