By Caroline Leavitt.
This is an excerpt from interview I did on the incredible Caroline Leavitt’s site. I am still giddy about it. Pinch me! Here’s a teaser…
I first heard of Jennifer Pastiloff because everyone on Facebook was talking about her essay on dealing with her hearing loss. It was so brave, so beautifully written, that I wanted to talk to her. Jennifer also is the creator of Manifestation Yoga and Karaoke Yoga (how fun does that sound?) and she runs writing and yoga retreats. I’m so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jennifer!
CL: What sparked you to write such a brave essay now?
JP: I was leading one of my retreats. It was November. The Galapagos. It was a hard time for many reasons; one being that I had recently gone through an ectopic pregnancy. I started writing the essay while I was there on th Santa Cruz Island.
I’d be sitting on my bed, sipping on Galapagos coffee (deliciously strong), and I kept thinking about how hard it was for me to hear during the tours of the various islands. The guides often had thick Ecuadorian accents, and if I wasn’t right up in front with my hearing aids turned up, I couldn’t hear what they’d be saying about lava or iguanas or tortoises. I felt disempowered and frustrated and sorry for myself. I’ve written about my hearing loss before but never really tried to describe it like I did in this essay for The Nervous Breakdown. I write a lot about loss- which is kind of funny because I have a reputation of being “positive” (you know, being a yoga teacher and all) and I write, what I think to be, some really dark things that almost always have an underlying theme of loss. It’s like this quote by Mary Oliver that I love: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
My dead father seems to enter into every thing I have ever written. He won’t leave. Recently I was leading a retreat in Costa Rica. My assistant and I were really moved by this older man who ran the retreat where we stayed at on our last night in San Jose. I called him Grandpa. He was so kind to us that we kept tearing up. “Look at us with our pathetic father shit,” I’d say.
But really. Look at us with our pathetic father shit, I keep thinking.
So, the pathetic in me needs to write again after so many years of hiding from it in a restaurant. The pathetic in me has something to say about grief and the way we put it in our bodies and move through the world and how we assimilate it and how it changes shapes. The pathetic in me wants to talk about how losing a parent so young can break you and shape you in all sorts of ways and how there isn’t a narrative for that because once you’re say, my age now, 39, you’re meant to kind of like get the fuck over it. The pathetic in me wants to say that I am not pathetic at all, that I’m human, like you, and that we’re in this together. Yes, hearing loss is also on that loss-spectrum for me, as is my history with anorexia. I’m fascinated by how we move forward from loss.
So I’d be sitting on the bed with this little journal I had taken from Canyon Ranch the month before (I’m the guest speaker there a couple times a year and I always leave with a bunch of “Canyon Ranch” notebooks which end coffee-stained and bent) and all hopped up on caffeine, I’d try and turn my pain into art. It took me a few tries with this essay.
I lived many years in denial about my hearing loss. I was ashamed. It made me feel like less than a person. Which, looking back is ridiculous, but it’s how I felt for a long time. Sometimes I still do. I get flack for not paying attention when the truth is that I just I can’t hear. I can’t hear when I am in a group or a class setting or a movie. When I am the teacher, it’s a different story since I am in control.
As far as brave goes, thanks for saying that. I try and write as honestly as I can. I usually wake up the next day (if it’s been a published piece) and have some kind of panic attack. Like: What have I done? I wrote this piece for Salon on struggling with depression, and I wanted to hide under a rock after it went up. But ultimately, I was glad because it created a dialogue about depression and mental health that often still has a stigma. I also realized that people decide things about us (we all do it- we make up stories, we create things in our mind about others) and that people looked at my life (especially on social media) and thought it was perfect and amazing. Looking at my Facebook it seems that I am always going somewhere new, I get to travel and get paid for it, I sell out workshops all over.
But they aren’t there when I am hemorrhaging on the floor, or so depressed I can’t get out of bed, or helping my sister deal with her son who has special needs, or helping to support my family or any of the other things that I don’t post. And that’s okay. But I thought I would tell the truth. Here’s who I am. I think that’s important. I am not suggesting that everyone walks around vomiting their secrets or over-sharing (which is sometimes mistaken as good writing) but rather, they tell the truth. Most of us hide who we are for way too long. If it’s done right, an essay or memoir, or whatever it may be, the person reading it will be pumping their fist to the sky going Yes Yes, because they recognize some truth, either about themselves or the world. Anyway, I aim to be brave. Sometimes I get scared and fall short but I want to have that be my legacy. I want to leave a mark that says Truth teller.
CL: What’s your writing life like?
Well, today I am working on my memoir. What does that look like? Well, it looks like answering your questions. Ha! I am wildly disorganized and chaotic
I have been going through a hard time the past few months- I was depressed (I had recently gone off my anti-depressants to get pregnant and to see if I needed them for certain) and then I broke my foot. The foot break was shitty, sure, but it was like I was perched on this cliff of despair and the break just pushed me over. I was in the pit of hell with a hideous pair of crutches and a boot cast. It wasn’t the break, per se, it was just that it was the proverbial straw. Me being the camel. So the past couple months I haven’t written anything and I feel guilty and bad about that so I spend many hours lamenting that instead of actually writing. The Jew in me loves/hates/loves this cycle of obsessing.
I am finally emerging from the darkness and getting back into my writing life. I write whenever and wherever I can. Best on airplanes, which I am on a lot. The white noise, which drowns out my tinnitus, the lack of internet, the fact that I can’t get up and make a sandwich or go lie in bed or clean my ridiculous desk.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Various titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines.
Her ninth novel, Pictures of You, went into three printings months before publication and is now in its fourth printing. A New York Times bestseller, it was also a Costco “Pennie’s Pick,” A San Francisco Chronicle Editor’s Choice “Lit Pick,” and was one of the top 20 books published so far in 2011, as named by BookPage. Pictures of You was also on the Best Books of 2011 lists from The San Francisco Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and Kirkus Reviews.
Her new novel, Is This Tomorrow is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick/Editor’s Choice, a Jewish Book Council Bookclub Pick, a WNBA National Great Group Reads, a May Indie Next Pick, A Best Book of 2013 from January magazine, on the longlist for the Maine Readers’ Choice Award, and the winner of an Audiofile Earphones Award.
Her many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Times Modern Love, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting,The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies.
She won First Prize in Redbook Magazine’s Young Writers Contest for her short story, “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” which grew into the novel. The recipient of a 1990 New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction for Into Thin Air, she was also a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay, and she was awarded a 2005 honorable mention, Goldenberg Prize for Fiction from the Bellevue Literary Review, for “Breathe,” a portion of Pictures of You. As a screenwriter, Caroline was a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist, and is a recent first-round finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab competition for her script of Is This Tomorrow.
Caroline has been a judge in both the Writers’ Voice Fiction Awards in New York City and the Midatlantic Arts Grants in Fiction. She teaches novel writing online at both Stanford University and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as working with writers privately.
Caroline has appeared on The Today Show, Diane Rehm, German and Canadian TV, and more, and she has been featured on The View From The Bay.
She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, New York City’s unofficial sixth borough, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenage son Max.
*photo of Jen Pastiloff by Jenni Young of Simplereminders.com