The Patterns of Paradox in My Unsentimental Education:
An Interview with Debra Monroe
In her latest memoir, writer and educator Debra Monroe pieces together the disparate fabric of her romantic and professional lives, with characteristic prose tighter than serger stitches. The result is a colorful assemblage of patterned paradox: how a woman reared to be a homemaker and mother became an award-winning writer, university professor, and single mother instead. My Unsentimental Education (Georgia Press, 2015) is Monroe’s sixth book, following up her acclaimed On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain (2010). Laced with intelligence, wit, and irony, Monroe details how her professional life and romances were informed by growing up in working class rural Wisconsin. Consequently, she made do with remnant men despite considerable professional and educational success: a Flannery O’Connor Award, two nominations for the National Book Award, and a Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching as a professor of Creative Writing at Texas State University – San Marcos.
Monroe retains the very qualities one associates with a rural upbringing: warm, no nonsense, and authentic, which is probably why she was surprisingly easy to engage for an interview. Despite her busy schedule, I caught up with Debra to talk about the new memoir, her thoughts on feminism, her relationships, and how a woman from small-town Wisconsin wound up writing critically-acclaimed books while teaching college and raising a daughter.
Blue Mesa Review: I love the title, My Unsentimental Education. How did the title come about?
Debra Monroe: It’s a riff on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, his novel about sexual mores in the bourgeoisie. Flaubert’s is a book about sex and love and social class. Mine is too. It’s about how I was improbably educated and why I was improbably educated: I kept heeding the prompts from my working class childhood that insisted a woman mate and marry. I worked harder at trying to mate and marry than I did at school or writing. Two headlines about the book I’ve loved (one on a review and one on a poster for a reading) are these: “She Was Told to Follow Her Man. She Didn’t.” “Misfit Refuses to Be a Housewife.” They’re great, but they’re not quite true to the book. I tried and failed to become the sort of housewife I’d learned to become while growing up, and instead became an author and professor. I knew the book would encompass my sexual-romantic distractions and account for my unlikely education. And I’d read reviews for my previous books that say my style is affecting but “never sentimental,” so the title seemed apt. It came to me as soon as I understood I was writing this book.
BMR: What motivated you to write this memoir?
DM: When my last book came out, a memoir about adopting my daughter as a single mother, one of the first transracial adoptions after the laws changed, during interviews I’d keep getting the same two “off-topic” questions. I expected to be asked about race, parenting, adoption. But a few paragraphs in that book describe my childhood, and I was adopting single. And people would ask: 1) How did someone who came from where you came from turn out to have your career? 2) Why aren’t you married? I didn’t have an answer for either question. After I pondered both, I realized they were two questions with one complicated answer. I’d been straddling two definitions of womanhood, and I’d been straddling two social classes. I didn’t marry because I fit nowhere, not where I came from, not where I was arriving. I was a bookworm raised by a Midwestern housewife and I saw Gloria Steinem et al on TV when I was an adolescent. I thought, idealistically: Women can have careers like men. But the world didn’t exactly welcome us, and with all that pushback, it was easy to wonder with the rest of the world if I’d made a big mistake. So I kept retreating from my career, but I’d be forced back to it.
BMR: What do you hope the reader takes away from your story?
DM: That we have our own “willpower” and ideals, but we are also created by forces larger than each of us, by time and place: geographical places and their values, historical moments and their values. How life turns out is partly “mind over matter,” but it’s also willingness to adapt. Mistakes matter. When you’ve painted yourself into a corner, you see a new way forward you’d otherwise never have seen. Good plans are overrated. Adaptation and a sort of buoyant flexibility matter more.
BMR: Memoirs often cover a much tighter period of time, or a particular period of a writer’s life. How did you decide to cover as much time as you did in the memoir?
DM: It was the story of how I got from there—a girlhood in Spooner, Wisconsin, where I was engaged to a telephone man at age 16—to here, my life as a professor and author. It couldn’t be told in a tighter time frame. But I used radical ellipses of time between chapters to cover the story succinctly. I even wrote a short chapter in the middle called “Intermission,” to look back and forward, to keep the reader oriented in the rapid forward motion.
BMR: The memoir begins with a prologue wherein you invoke the “angel of the home” motif, and as the memoir unfolds, it emphasizes that your career was, in part, a result of not finding satisfying relationships. But were you also simply following the road of the academy to its logical conclusion?
DM: No. I think I definitely would have stopped at any given time to marry well. After all, I stopped constantly to marry badly. Yet it always turned out that I was the breadwinner. So I had to keep pushing myself forward into a real career because someone had to pay the bills. God knows what would have happened if I’d have fallen in love with a good provider. You might argue that I chose bad husband-candidates so they wouldn’t hold me back. If so, I wasn’t doing it consciously. It was more that I was choosing guys like those I’d grown up with—blue collar guys, guys who barely worked, guys in local bands—because my new milieu, academia, felt estranging and foreign. I didn’t feel comfortable around more educated men, and so at night and on weekends I reverted to what was familiar.
BMR: One aspect of your story that I find interesting (as well as enviable and admirable) is that you didn’t “back seat” your career to a marriage like many women might, even today.
DM: The simplest answer is I couldn’t afford to quit. I was supporting myself. I was usually supporting some guy. I was ill at ease and often wanted to quit. I’d always give myself six more months to stay in the degree program. And then I’d have a little lucky break, and it was easier to stay in the degree program than to quit. The same was true about tenure-track jobs. And once I was tenured? I’m from the working class. I don’t have a starving artist inclination. And I love teaching, so there’s that. As far as never quitting writing: I’ve written my entire life. If it hadn’t become my career, I’d still write—maybe a column for a small town newspaper or a blog that no one reads. Writing is almost a compulsion for me.
BMR: Your memoir shows how you navigated the era known as “women’s liberation,” but though your career as an educator and author developed, you also wanted to be a wife and mother. Did you feel a tension between the two at the time? Were there moments when you felt you had to choose between them?
DM: I continually felt torn. In 1982, I felt so guilty getting a master’s degree as a new bride that I actually doubled down on the cooking, sewing, ironing, cleaning. Even now, in my mature life, married to a man who is a feminist in a boots-on-the-ground, real way, I feel torn. He’ll say not to cook because I’m in a busy week. And I’m like: No! Because my mother, who was my dad’s bookkeeper, put home-cooked meals on the table every night. I don’t feel so much tension between roles at this point. I feel overscheduled. But I wouldn’t forgo any of it: not my career, not my motherhood, not being in love in a good way. And I guess I wouldn’t have missed the crooked path it took to get to here because without it I wouldn’t have arrived.
BMR: How much do you feel “place” was a factor in the men you got involved with? In other words, had you moved to Seattle or Silicon Valley, do you think you’d have gravitated to, or attracted, the same kinds of men?
DM: I make a point of how much place was affecting me, this impulse to blend everywhere I moved. I married a country-western singer as I moved to Kansas to start a Masters Degree. When we split up, I dated a drug dealer and hog farmer. In Utah, I was so influenced by the ubiquitousness of the LDS church that I both succumbed and rebelled. I married someone I barely knew, because he was the one of first non-Mormons I met. In a city, I’d have met more sophisticated men, yes. But I didn’t feel sophisticated. I would have felt intimidated to have dated a sophisticated man. They likely weren’t interested in me either, then.
BMR: As a woman who used to sew, I was struck by your many references to sewing. I love the cover with the dress dummy! It reminded me of the old cliché, you can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but you can’t take the Wisconsin out of the girl. How did you come up with the cover?
DM: I sewed to costume myself to blend in ever-changing settings, for my ever-changing new self. The book designer and I searched stock photos for “sewing” and dressmaker’s dummies kept showing up, and I realized it was a perfect metaphor, a woman-figure waiting for her semiotically significant costume. I also love that the dummy is from my mother and grandmother’s era, but naked and wearing pearls, so she looks a little sexy, as far as dressmaker’s dummies go. So the image seemed to blend tradition with the so-called sexual revolution, my era. And she’s on wheels, transportable: on the move, in search of her identity.
BMR: One of the really satisfying moments of the book is when you state: “I’d lived my wits, making choices by myself. If I turned out to be wrong, having based my decision on who was locally available, on who suited my past if not my present or future, I alone was responsible, alone.” How does it feel to read that?
DM: Well, I lived in many communities, as a newcomer. And switching social classes rapidly: you don’t fit where you came from; you don’t fit where you’ve arrived, not for a long time. So “alone” is operative. But there’s safety in being alone. You own your successes. You own your mistakes. And mistakes and successes are inseparable. Mistakes lead to success, if you’re paying attention.
BMR: I think a lot of readers can connect to something you say late in the book: “In this era of late marriages to someone who has a past, this era of second and third marriages, a new branch of psychotherapy has sprung up devoted to mourning one’s previous mates.” Can you expand on this idea of “ambiguous grief?”
DM: I stumbled across it, googling “grief for someone you have unfinished business with.” And in an era when divorce is common, it’s not surprising entire psychotherapy practices are devoted to it. Two of the men in the book are dead now. I feel only tenderness for the young men they used to be. They were essentially decent. Yet if my second ex-husband were to die, I’d feel “ambiguous grief,” I suppose, because I’d remember his unkind and volatile nature, and I’d also remember that under all the bluster and anger was a scared boy who’d got sent down the wrong path and never had much help getting back. The term is generally understood to mean grieving someone you don’t like. But at this point, liking or not liking my exes is beside the point. It’s just eerie to know that someone you held, loved, “knew” in the most intimate way is no longer flesh and blood.
BMR: As someone with an (apparently) difficult to pronounce, and spell, last name, I loved that you kept “husband #1’s” last name for no other reason than it’s “euphonious” (and I concur that it is). You also adopted a child while unmarried. Those are the kinds of choices that some might assume were deliberately feminist while your memoir makes it clear that they weren’t “feminist” in the sense of having some kind of socio-political agenda.
DM: Choosing my first ex-husband’s last name was aesthetic. If I were a card-carrying feminist then, I’d have kept my own obscene-sounding last name. I didn’t take my second husband’s name—it was lovely too—because I liked “Monroe” better. And I didn’t adopt as political statement. I adopted because the first two careers I ever wanted were “mother” and “author.” So neither decision—to take my first husband’s name and hang onto it after the divorce, or to adopt single—were feminist decisions per se, but the fact I was even allowed to make them is the result of feminism.
BMR: How’s Marie doing these days?
DM: She’s wonderful. She’s 18, about to fledge the nest.
BMR: Between motherhood and your career, when do you find time to write?
DM: I wrote three of my six books as a mother, two as a single mother with a full-time job. I write in the summer. I worked faster and smarter once I had more constraints on my time. When she was little, I used summer daycare, those day-camps that go from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. She loved being with other kids, and I could devote myself to being a mother and householder when she came home at the end of her day. Realizing you’re going to have to pick up your kid in 40 minutes is a great cure for writer’s block. Suddenly a page writes itself. It would have been much harder if I’d had to teach during the summer. At times, I could have used the money, but I budgeted tighter and wrote. And in the end, writing and publishing earns you more money, just not immediately. And of course it was what I most wanted to do.
BMR: Do you have daily goals (words/day) for your writing?
DM: Daily tallies fluctuate. The first half of a chapter, story, or essay goes so much slower than the second half. But when I’m working early morning to late afternoon Monday through Friday, and then an hour or so on weekend days (so Monday morning starts faster), I average about 10 pages a week. Not fast. But over the course of a summer it’s almost half a book.
BMR: How much do you read these days and who are your biggest influences or favorite authors?
DM: Naming a favorite writer is like naming a favorite color. It depends on what you want it for. It depends on your mood that day. I could name a few influences, but the list is long and so incongruous, it would make you laugh, like: Richard Ford’s Rock Springs (for the bleak landscapes) but also Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (for the social comedy). Dozens of weird pairings like that. A few desert-isle favorites include Penelope Fitzgerald, Henry Green, Ivan Turgenev, Jane Gardham, Anton Chekhov, Howard Norman, Jean Stafford, Alice McDermott. But I’m always adding to this list.
BMR: Any tips about how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
DM: Turn the computer off at the end of the day—when the pump is more primed than it is in the morning—only after you’ve shut your eyes and typed three new pages, typed them blind, no revising allowed. In the morning, when you start, you start by tidying up and revising and reconsidering. Revising what’s rough is easier than creating something new. You trick yourself into creation the night before and then revise and sneak back up on the creation part.
BMR: What is the hardest thing about writing?
DM: When I was younger, believing I was good enough, that I had the right to “waste” time on writing. But now? Maybe a milder version of that. We live in a time in which books aren’t especially valued. On the other hand, were they ever? I don’t find writing hard at all. I find it absorbing. Even craft “problems” are so freaking interesting. You go to bed at night thinking you’re stuck and your brain keeps working on the problem in your sleep, and in the morning, voila, the problem is solved. I like the process of writing a lot. It absorbs me in the most complete way.
Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award, the John Garner Fellowship, the Violet Crown Award, and the Quarterly West Novella Competition, to name a few. She has been nominated for the National Book Award twice. Monroe’s prose style is admired for its sass and wit, and her characters for their grit and warmth.
Originally from Spooner, Wisconsin, Debra now resides in Texas with her daughter and husband and teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Texas State University.
Cat Hubka is a second-year student in nonfiction and is a two-time recipient of the Hillerman-McGarrity Scholarship in Creative Writing. Her hobbies include acting, fine art photography, and riding her V-Star.