A Conversation With Glynnis MacNicol, Author of No One Tells You This

"There is very little ritual around a woman’s life after marriage and childbirth and it is ritual that reflects your place in the world. It is the evidence of progression and value. It’s not the experience itself, it’s that there is no way to talk about it."
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Amanda, our founder-in-chief here at The Fold recently turned me back on to memoirs after a bit of time away. She curated a memoir box last spring for quarterlane and since then I've gone all-in with this genre that I first fell in love with in my twenties. What grabbed me so deeply then, and continues to do so now, in terms of memoir is our human need for shared experience. That profound sense of feeling seen when you find bits of your own narrative reflected in another's words.

My favorite memoir this year, the one that I believe belongs on everyone's bedside table is Glynnis MacNicol's powerful new book "No One Tells You This," in which she chronicles the year following her 40th birthday -- the incredible highs and lows alongside the joy and power that she felt during this year, at an age -- 40 -- that continues to carry so much cultural baggage for women. As women, consider this our new guidepost for 40, a narrative that reflects us, as women, now. As Glynnis shared during our conversation,

Women are conditioned to feel shame around their lives for reasons that don’t benefit women. We internalize this and all think “Is it me? Am I crazy, this is not a shared experience.” We all feel bad.

I had the incredible honor of chatting with Glynnis MacNicol, and am thrilled to share our conversation below.

Elizabeth Lane: I loved every second of your memoir, “No One Tells You This”, thank you, Glynnis. In one part you said, “I’m really good at friendships,” and I have to admit, I agree! Throughout the book, I felt like I was your friend walking alongside you in this journey. The warmth, the immediacy...I would love to hear about the process of writing and how “No One Tells You This” came about. From journaling? Did you have a sense while living through these intense experiences, that you would be helping so many, through the visceral pain and questioning but also through the growth and beauty lived through that year? 

Glynnis MacNicol: Thank you and no! I have kept a journal for most my life and I still have the journal I kept when I was six years old. I read Little House on the Prairie and thought Laura Ingalls had actually written it during the age she was writing about and so I decided I, like her, would write the story of my life.

The year I write about in the book was intense for a lot of reasons. I write primarily about my mother’s illness and I was operating in emergency mode for so much of that year that I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t keep a journal for most of that year which is unlike me. I took notes once or twice when I was travelling, but largely it was the one year of my life that went most undocumented.

Yet we now live in a world where we have text messages and emails and all of that fills in the gaps of what a journal might have been, so I definitely had things to reference. I had no sense that I was going to write about that year other than the handful of essays or travel pieces that I had done, I was just living it in both good and bad ways – In ways of trying to cope with everything that was going on and in ways that I realized, "Wow I’m having a good time at 40 and no one told me that this could be enjoyable and I am pissed off about that". But then I had too much going on to think much more than that.

It wasn’t until the week before I turned 41 . . . I was in Wyoming and on a hike and remembered how anxiety ridden I’d been the year before I was about to turn 40. I thought, "My God, I am walking through empty Wyoming in such a state of bliss, I’m feeling alive and satisfied. And I am pissed off that no one shared that 40 could be like this". That there was even a possibility that it wouldn’t be all terrible and that I wouldn’t just be an object of pity and invisible.

I texted my friend Jo and I said, “I think this might be what I write about. I think I might write about the year of 40, because it felt like a danger / do not go there as a woman, and I was having a different experience.” And when I said it out loud, it made so much sense. Then, I spent 6 months writing the proposal which proved so much more difficult than I thought it would. Even though, when you think of memoir, the life is lived and you have the essential story, creating a narrative arc around your own experiences is very difficult. Choosing what to include and exclude is a challenge.

It was a hard and intense lesson. I sold the book in June of 2016 at a time when we all had a much different idea of what the next few years in American would look like. After the election, that sense of optimism and exhilaration, particularly around being a woman, and the agency of being a woman in power, shifted so dramatically.

I had a few weeks of wondering what the point of the book was within this new climate. I had to rethink what I was saying. Not changing the book, but rethinking the book. The election happened and then my mother died 20 days after I handed the first draft in. Much of the book was written as a revision. It isn’t exhilarating, but it is fulfilling. It was hard in ways I wasn’t prepared for, and exhilarating in ways I wasn’t expecting, but ultimately, I was trying to get at the truth of the experience.

I was writing it from a place of weird grief, a very raw place. The prologue and epilogue I wrote in one sitting and I haven’t reread the epilogue. There are parts of this book that were written in the raw. And sometimes I wonder if that was the best decision because you have so little perspective, but I’m glad I captured some of those feelings because I am not sure I would have done them justice had I left it a few more years.

EL: The epilogue does carry that -- the rawness and immediacy -- and I felt, reading it, that I was right there with you and I think that is the power of the book, that it feels so alive and present and real. I imagine women of all ages and situations can find themselves in these pages. Have you found, when you’ve talked to readers, that they are drawn to one element or another? And were you surprised to find how large the scope of readers is with whom your book resonates?

GM: Yes. I sort of got an inkling of that with some of the articles I’d written that the book grew out of. I wrote two pieces for The Cut about not wanting kids and enjoying not having kids. The responses to those articles, in particular, were a good preview of the responses for the book.

I heard from my agent and editor that single women in their 40s will get this book, but they were unsure whether it would extend beyond that demographic and I responded, “I think you might be surprised”. The responses came, and continue to come, from men, from married women with children. So many women in their 20s reached out in response to the book.

Because my twenties took place before social media, the pressure of career and job did not fully hit me until my thirties. The anxiety I encounter in women in their early to mid-twenties is overwhelming and I feel so much empathy for them. Many reached out with some version of this sentiment: “Thank you for writing a different version for what my life could look like.”

The feedback has been largely positive. I haven’t dealt with a lot of anger or that people feel that I was judging them, or the things you expect to incur as a woman writing about being a woman.

EL: One of my favorite scenes was when you go to Rockaway beach for your birthday. I have to admit I was bordering on jealous because I turned 40 in August and I feel like the last two years, I have been mentally preparing for this. From 38 – 40 I was terrified that I hadn’t figured IT out yet. I hadn’t figured out life. I would talk to friends about turning 40, and I would laugh and joke that “I thought I would have achieved enlightenment by now. I just thought I would have some earned wisdom and in reality I couldn’t have felt farther from that. And so I envied your moment of clarity that you found on the beach. This was my favorite quote, that I read and reread, practically repeating like a mantra:

“Just then I remembered seeing Patti Smith, two summers before, reading an old poem at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the city aflame behind her in the setting summer sun. I’m gonna get out of here, she said, as if she were once again that young girl who’d written those lines decades ago. She was going to get on that train and go to New York City. She was never going to return, no never. She was going to travel light. How I loved that. Oh watch me now, she’d said. As if she was about to perform the world’s greatest magic trick. Oh, watch me now, I thought. . . .”

GM: There are parts of the book I’ve forgotten I’ve written! I love that Patti Smith quote. And I felt exactly that way. I felt victorious. I remember waking up that morning and feeling amazing, that I’d won the lottery. I felt untethered from fear and expectations and judgments.

Part of it was that I’d somehow I’d gone off the radar. One of the reasons we feel terror around this age is because terror has been attached to it. It often represents the end of fertility .There is simply no way around the fertility question, to unhook the clock that we’ve been on since puberty. So 40 exists as this deadline or cliff, an endpoint or even a beginning point, in some sense.

But the problem with all of this comes with who has been in charge of the storytelling for so long. This story, what a woman’s life looks like after 40, has been told primarily by men and they have little interest in a woman’s life after she is useful giving birth. We have no narratives around women’s lives after this point. We become less interesting to the storytellers and it’s no wonder we are all terrified. We don’t have a road map. Our stories aren’t being shared. It’s the same way we would be terrified to sail across an unmapped ocean.

The only examples we see are surface depictions of lives that are often objects of pity or derision. They are always side characters, coming in from upstairs. You don’t walk into a magazine store and see the racks filled with covers celebrating a 45-year-old woman who is living a full life. You walk into a magazine store and are told all the things that are wrong with you because you don’t look like you’re 25. There is a reason why we struggle with shame and uncertainty and we internalize it. There is encouragement for us to think like this.

Women having been leading these lives and yet we have very little cultural narrative around it. We have to really dig to find examples of this phase of life that doesn’t present it as something to dread. Women are conditioned to feel shame around their lives for reasons that don’t benefit women. We internalize this and all think “Is it me? Am I crazy, this is not a shared experience.” We all feel bad.

When I turned 40, I realized that I felt strong. I felt powerful. There was a power that came with this age. All of the voices that I had been contending with – the voices of culture – had no power over me anymore and that felt great. And it can also feel exhausting and terrifying when you don’t see yourself represented in the world, but it felt great to me and feels great more often than not.

There is very little ritual around a woman’s life after marriage and childbirth and it is ritual that reflects your place in the world. It is the evidence of progression and value. When that doesn’t exist, how do you value yourself and value your place in the world? How do I measure progression of my life when there is no ritual around my life, no cultural thing that we all share. The lack of ritual feels hard. Sometimes at this age, the drive to have a child can be as much driven by desperately wanting to participate in the cultural ritual and have a blueprint for your life for the next 18 years.

There is a freedom for me to not make plans, but it is also exhausting and scary and deserves to be recognized. I thought of this book as a report, notes on the ground. I was offering the dispatch from the no man’s land of a 40-year-old woman. This is my experience. I wasn’t looking for it to be prescriptive, but wanted to simply provide a snapshot of what is possible; how our 40s could be.

EL: I have found that my 40s can be a very lonely time, as we are figuring our place and yet feeling alone. One of my favorite scenes is your solitary oyster, steak and two gin martini dinner. I was there with you and as you opened Instagram, I felt the same pit in my stomach that you did. We feel so alone because it is hard to talk about and share these stories – the real stories. We don’t know, we don’t have it figured out and it feels like uncharted territory.

GM: There’s no language around these experiences. There’s no language around the sense of loss or grief when your friends get married. It doesn’t mean you aren’t happy for them, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you are jealous. But because there is no language to recognize this enormous shift that takes place in your life, it makes you feel so alone and that is the problem. It’s not the experience itself, it’s that there is no way to talk about it. When you don’t have language around an experience or when the language is so disassociated from the reality. As the single friend at my best friend’s wedding, you get shoved into the trope of Julia Roberts at the best friend’s wedding. It’s so silly and not true, which, in itself, is enraging and makes a difficult experience worse.

And so, I wanted to contribute a language to these experiences so that it would give us a new way of thinking about these times; a different way to see these things. There’s no movie for this experience, and I wanted something to relate to! And so with this book, I wanted to help bring a language to this.

EL: Another part I wanted to chat about was when you are at your sister’s house holding Connor and reaching that thunderclap moment where you decide whether you want the child, the pregnancy. And you decide you don’t, that you are perfectly fine as you are right now. Yet, it was so interesting that while you were deciding whether to be a mother, in that way, you were also nurturing so many people: your sister, your mother, your friends. What was that like?

GM: I was doing what a lot of women do. This is true of many women. We step into these roles: the emergency phone call, the supportive friend, and what feels so difficult is a) I don’t have a language to talk about this and b) because of that, as a person playing a supporting role within a person’s major event, if they were to write memories from the day, I might not even be mentioned, which is traditionally how it goes.

Yet, when your life is overwhelmed by those supporting roles, how do you talk about the emotional toll of that? Because what is happening to you is not primary to you. But when they happen at the same time, it is so overwhelming and destabilizing, especially when you are not operating with a support system of your own. I wanted to write something that, again, recognized that experience. That recognition sometimes is lost and needs to be seen. Let’s recognize everyone that is participating in these moments. There’s no version of what my life looks like in the world and the toll it takes to take care for an ill parent or being that emergency call. And often it does happen all at the same time.

Asking for help as a woman is often difficult and now I tell people when it is too much, when I’m hitting my limit, which comes down part to maturity and part to experience.

EL: I realized in the past few years that if anyone asked me to do anything, and I was physically able or capable to do it, I would always say yes, regardless of whether or not it was good for me to do that thing. I’ve only now begun to say no and preserve my energy and time when I need to, and it is still a struggle to not over give in a sense. . .

If I could read a passage from the book about your mom . . .

“I knew immediately this wasn’t her illness talking. My mother was the direct product of a 1950s upbringing: assertiveness or thwarting convention was not allowed. She had never been able to overcome this. . . We seemed to have moved into a phase, who knew for how long, where carefully contained, pleasant smiles and gentle accommodation were a thing of the past. It was the singular blessing of an otherwise relentlessly cruel disease, but all I was able to think of as I watched the gleeful look on her face was what a waste of time all the good behavior had been. . . .”

GM: The thing about this book that I’m realizing the further I get away from it – on the one hand I’m glad I wrote it when I did because I think I captured a certain messiness to it, and truth and immediacy. On the other hand, had I waited a couple of years, I would have had a clear idea, particularly in the case of my mother. A lot of the things I was grappling with: her illness, turning forty at the same time she was coming to the end of her life -- a life that had encompassed all these different decades for women’s experiences. Had I waited to write the book, I might have been more clear in my understanding of how I was looking at her almost as a warning sign for myself in this really intense moment.

Seeing her cycle through these decades, the assumptions and insecurities of her experience as a child of the fifties, a young woman in the sixties, a mother in the 80s -- all of these iterations of womanhood that we fast-tracked during her lifetime. And understanding what that meant for me, I was trying to see myself. My mother was always so invested in the appearance of good behavior and politeness. I found it very suffocating.

EL: I remember attending a writing program my senior year in high school and reading aloud this short story I’d written whose action revolved around me having lunch with my grandmother and using the wrong soup spoon . . . it was the appearance of things and the necessity for politeness and I still rub up against this feeling of good behavior vs. being and expression . Do you think we are the last generation to deal with this expression, this stuff?

GM: The children who are growing up now may not grapple with the same social norms around women, whereas the decades my mother and grandparents lived through, the social upheaval around women’s place was so extreme and required so much iteration. Hilary Clinton had to be seven different versions of a woman and then was punished for all of them.

I always feel very lucky to have been born when I was, but we are at a very strange place, and so who knows anything? Behind all these conversations, now, is really the question of the environment. The social problems are so enormous and it’s keeping us from dealing with the enormous environment problem and who knows what anything will look like. The concerns I have for my niece are both around her rights as a woman, but also literally, is she going to have drinking water? So it feels very overwhelming and these questions feel tinged with one significant question: will our world in the near-future be able to support human life?

EL: I have loved our conversation, so much, thank you, Glynnis. I’d love to close with a few quick questions: What are you working on now and what are you reading?

GM: Simon and Schuster is putting out a new series called Masters at Work, in which writers profile someone who is top in their profession, and they asked me to write a book about midwives which is super interesting and is turning into an all cap feminist manifesto right now, because I’m enraged. They just want it to be a simple book, and it hasn’t turned out to be simple at all. It’s due in a couple of weeks so we’ll see how much of my version makes it to the final!

Right now I’ve been reading Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, I’m really enjoying it and I have meant to read it for years. It’s what Cabaret is loosely based on. I just read Crudo: A Novel by Olivia Laing which I really loved.

And I just started Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman which I got at the Well-Read Black Girl Festival a few days ago . . . I’m reading too much all at the same time!

Purchase "No One Tells You This

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