Marcia Aldrich describes the darker side of garage sales — and what we learn when we learn to let go in “Walk on By” (Issue 3). In her interview, Aldrich discusses inspiration, how having a child influenced her writing, and her motto.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.
What inspired you to create this piece? The inherent irony in the situation. I had long resisted garage sales, didn’t understand why people would sit in their driveway for days to make a paltry sum. (I still don’t.) My mother and Thoreau, in that order, had taught me it was harder to get rid of things than acquire them. I seemed to have forgotten this lesson and needed to relearn it. The possibilities of self-critique and cultural critique in finding myself sucked into a garage sale were just so alluringly funny.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts.) Fast and furious. The thing just spilled out as if it had been waiting to be written. A gift, really. And often I find in the successful humorous essays I manage to write that they spring spontaneously and have their own rhythms which I don’t like to mess with too much for fear of flattening them.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? There are so many writers to point to and so many who have been and are an influence upon my work, but if I had to pick one, I would say Marilynne Robinson. She is both a nonfiction writer and a fiction writer and unlike any other living writer I know. I sometimes think she has more in common with some of our American forbearers—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson—whose writings blend narrative, imagination, and idea in such authoritatively stunning shapes. Housekeeping is for me the best novel I have read by a living writer, a meditation on female life and emotional economy like no other. It is the Wuthering Heights of our time.
We asked Marcia to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
When and where were you happiest? The six months after my first child, a daughter was born while I lived in Seattle. She born in late April when everything was blooming and that period was a time when I felt the sensuality of life more powerfully and euphorically than ever before.
What is your greatest extravagance? Buying lipstick.
Which talent would you most like to have? I’d like to be able to sing very, very well.
What is your motto? I have two mottos and I’ve had them for a long time. The first was born in first grade: I’m rough and ready, tough and steady. The second came later and is not original to me: Waste Not, Want Not.
How did having a child influence your writing? I have two children and they have changed everything about my life for the better. I was someone who resolutely did not want to have children in my early adulthood because I feared I would repeat the poor mothering I experienced as a child. I did not feel competent to take on that responsibility and I felt unanchored in my own life. In my late twenties I fell in love and gained more optimism that I could rewrite the bad script I had been mired in for most of my life. And so it has been. As corny as it may sound, having children has been the great gift of my life. That isn’t to say that having children doesn’t complicate the writing life. In my life I’ve had three major roles: mother, teacher, and writer, and I’d have to say that order reflects what I’ve attended to first. During many of the years of my career, it has tough to try to do everything fully and my writing has often fallen to the wayside. You could say I am haunted by the sense that I haven’t devoted myself to my writing and don’t really know what I could have accomplished if I had. It seems possible, though not certain, that the story of my own writing life would have been different or could have been different if I had made other decisions than the ones I did. I’ll never know. Here is one episode from my life that captures the complexity of having children and a career. When I was taking my doctoral exams I was also pregnant with my first child. I had terrible morning sickness during the first trimester which coincided with the first two of five exams I had to take. The first exam covered three major authors from three different periods, I had one author per day to cover over the weekend. I was fine the first day writing on Wordsworth. I was ok on the second day writing on George Herbert but when Sunday rolled around and Shakespeare was my author, I was done in. I was spent, nauseous, and I did a weak job writing the required three essay questions. Clearly being pregnant had negatively affected my performance and there was nothing to be done about it. I passed the exam with the qualification that I would have to retake the Shakespeare part later. I went on to pass all of the five exams, including a retake on Shakespeare, and rolled into my oral exam five days before giving birth. While the physical demands of being pregnant at times hurt my performance, I felt that there were surprising benefits as well, benefits I hadn’t predicted. Because I was happy in my pregnancy, full of optimism and expectation, I did not agonize over the exams as almost everyone else I knew. Most other graduate students were putting their lives on hold to get through the exams, and anxious to a much higher degree than I was about how they were doing. Being pregnant defused much of the anxiety, gave me a healthy perspective on what living a full life means. This was the first experience of what would be defining for me—that I was someone who above all else would try to juggle children, career, and writing and take my chances.
Can you explain the origins of your motto? As best I can remember I came up with this motto for myself in first grade. Since I’m a writer it is possible that I have created the memory, imposing it back on scenes from my early life. Over time, I certainly have created a persona for my child-self embodied in that motto—a swaggering, tom-boy girl who didn’t like people messing with her. I wanted to be tougher than I was and felt a real need to toughen myself up. That was true in first grade and it’s true now. I wanted to have the freedom of boys, wearing shorts, not dresses. My mother tended to dress me in frilly dresses and fancy shoes. She also thought I should be playing with dolls and not running around like a wild child, climbing trees, running through the fields down by the river. My mother and I were at odds. One day in first grade, despite my protests, she sent me off to school in a fancy white dress with a black velvet sash, white lacy socks and black patent-leather dress shoes. The outfit completely compromised my ability to play on the play equipment during recess. I refused to let the dress define what I could do and hung upside down on the jungle gym whereupon a bunch of boys gathered round to taunt me saying “I can see your underpants. I can see your underpants.” This infuriated me and I jumped down and punched the leader boy in the stomach. Then all hell broke loose and by the time one of the teachers arrived on the scene I was lying in the dirt and my white dress was dirty and torn. I was sent to the Principal’s office and my mother was called to be told about my troubling defiant behavior. That’s when my motto was born, and my scruffy self.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.