After receiving glowing praise and positive reviews for her debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, Maya Shanbhag Lang was working on her second novel when everything changed. After her mother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, Lang became her caregiver while also caring for her own young daughter. It wasn’t her plan to write a memoir, but then again, she didn’t plan the experiences that led her to write What We Carry. The result is a memoir that explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Impactful and poignant, What We Carry may not have been what Lang wanted to write originally, but it was clearly meant to be written.
Switching to memoir
I never intended to write a memoir. I didn’t set out to do this. I was actually working on a novel, taking care of my daughter, and trying to build my career. My mother had early-onset Alzheimer’s, and her health was declining rapidly. She came to live with me, and I became her full-time caretaker. To give myself some relief, I’d sit down and write a Facebook post about our day or something that happened. It might be humorous or it might be about a struggle. My editor saw the posts and said, “I think this is a book.” And I said, “I can’t write a memoir.” But that first night, I wrote the first 70 pages. I realized that I did need to write about this stuff. There were things in me that were activated by the process of caretaking.
Nonfiction vs. fiction
It was hard. With fiction, you’re shielded and protected. You’re a few degrees removed with fiction, but not with nonfiction. Fiction is like listening to someone’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. Memoir is like open-heart surgery and holding someone’s heart in your hands.
Fiction starting point
When I write fiction, I know nothing ahead of time. With my first novel, it all started with the opening sentence, which popped into my brain. I didn’t know a thing about the characters. I wrote the book sentence by sentence, like building a house plank by plank. For me, fiction is an exercise in uncertainty, in venturing into the dark. The mystery is what keeps me going. I’ll write pages and pages that don’t wind up in the final book, but they help me to learn my characters.
I edit way too much as I’m going, which is ridiculous. It’s sort of like I feel the need to make the intro perfect, which is like picking the perfect wallpaper for a foyer before the house is built. It’s not efficient. I’ll hem and haw over a certain paraphrase and later might cut that whole page. The most important thing is to get a draft written and then take a look with fresh eyes – as a reader would receive it. I’ve gotten quite ruthless with editing. I’m willing to cut if something isn’t working.
When I’m in a groove, I try to write according to my daughter’s schedule. I write between 9:30-3:00. I really try to be in the work and not distracted by social media or email. Sometimes I have a day where I don’t produce much writing. But I look at what I have and absorb it and sit with it. And I think that time is necessary. It doesn’t yield a lot of results. There’s no pileup of pages, but you need those days of tending to the soil to get the harvest.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.