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Original Essays | June 20, 2014

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The Powell's Playlist | June 18, 2014

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Original Essays

Living Room

by Rachel Sherman
 
  1. Living Room
    $1.48 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Living Room

    Rachel Sherman
    "[A] funny, scary, dirty, and, in the end, a very moving, generous book." Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
  2. The First Hurt: Stories
    $12.75 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The First Hurt: Stories

    Rachel Sherman
    "Rachel Sherman writes stories like splinters: they get under your skin and stay with you long after you've closed the book. These haunting stories are both wonderfully, deeply weird and unsettlingly familiar." Judy Budnitz, author of Nice Big American Baby
In my novel Living Room, I write about the pain of mothering — about mothers who do not know how to be mothers. I finished my edits on the book a week before my first child was born.

I was focused on motherhood, though, even before I became pregnant. It has been what defines me in many ways. After years of therapy it is what you are left with: everything happened in your childhood.

These things make being a fiction writer blur into the soupy mix of what my mother calls "the difference between fantasy and reality." I've used the shield of the page — "as soon as you write it down, it becomes fiction" — since I began to write.

What is most important is not whether I have done the things I write about or not. When I write about "what I know" I am writing about feelings and emotions. The ones I have not felt directly, I imagine. I morph the ones I have felt into others.

Therefore, it should be taken as a compliment when someone asks me at a reading if what I just read really happened. It means I am doing my job.

So why, you might ask, does it bother me? Perhaps I have just read something I wrote in the first person, about a girl with long black hair (like myself), who comes from Long Island (where I grew up), and who has been in lots of therapy. Perhaps the moderator asks if there are any questions. And perhaps the first person to raise their hand says, "Is that true?"

On one hand, you might say, I am asking for it. Why not write about a blond man with many friends and no angst? Well, I might answer, that would not be writing about what I know.

So there is the catch-22. I have often written about women who have things in common with myself, but what I have written is fiction. I have written a few essays, and for those I take full responsibility for what I say. But fiction gives me the freedom, not only to change reality, but in some ways, to tell an emotional truth I might not be able to otherwise.

I teach fiction writing to college students, who have the opposite instinct. They seem to love to tell their peers and me how the stories they have written actually happened. Or else how they were inspired to write their stories.

I try to make it a rule in my classes on the first day: "It doesn't matter if the story is true; we have to believe it is true." This doesn't stop my students, however. They tell me again and again.

I can understand my students. I was once their age. I wrote about sex, wanting people to think what I wrote really happened, or if it actually did, wanting my classmates to know that too.

The funny thing is, my students think I'm old. When they curse, they cover their mouths. When I reference the characters smoking weed in their stories, they blush.

I tell them to write about what they know. I also tell them: lie, lie, lie!

It doesn't matter what I say. Really, all they want — in one way or another — is to tell the truth. Just like I do.

÷ ÷ ÷

Rachel Sherman holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her short stories have appeared in McSweeney's, Fence, Open City, Conjunctions, and n+1, among other publications. Her first book, The First Hurt, was short-listed for the Story Prize and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and was named one of the 25 Books to Remember in 2006 by the New York Public Library. She teaches writing at Rutgers and Columbia Universities and lives in Brooklyn.

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