The Divining Wand

Discovering authors beyond their pages…

Guest Alice Eve Cohen on
The Occupational Hazard of Memoir Writing

November 30, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[Alice Eve Cohen is a memoirist, solo theater artist, and playwright. Her memoir, What I Thought I Knew (Penguin), won Elle Magazine’s Grand Prix for Nonfiction, and Oprah Magazine’s 25 Best Books of Summer. She teaches at The New School in New York City. And, in today’s guest post, Alice shares what is probably the most difficult part in writing about one’s life.]


Write your memoir…

Confess to your husband or __________ (fill in the blank: wife, lover, doctor, parent, child, yogi, ex-boyfriend, masseur, etc, etc, etc) that you’ve just written a book about the most personal experience you’ve ever had together, and that you hope to share it with the whole wide world.

This is the most dangerous occupational hazard of writing memoir, and it must be approached delicately…as follows:

I waited a long time for the right moment to tell my husband about my book. The kids were at summer camp, and Michael and I were enjoying a rare, just-the-two-of-us vacation in Maine. The perfect moment finally arrived: A romantic evening, a glass of wine at the hotel restaurant, overlooking the moonlit bay:

“Michael, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Maybe that wasn’t the best opening line. Michael’s look of adoration morphed to defensiveness, as he waited for me to continue.

“For the past year, I’ve been writing a book… about us…about our terrifying year.”

Long pause.

“You did what?! You wrote a book about our incredibly personal, and—I assumed, until now, private—family experience? I feel completely exposed!”

He slammed the wine glass on the table and walked out of the restaurant.

That didn’t go so well.

I understood why Michael felt exposed. What I Thought I Knew (Penguin, 2009) is a memoir about my unexpected and terrifyingly pregnancy at the age of 44, fourteen years after being told I was infertile, a year before Michael and I were married. During an emergency CAT scan for an abdominal tumor, I discovered I was six months pregnant. Pretty personal stuff.

I sat at the table, wondering how I’d managed to wreck the closest moment we’d shared in years. Finally, I paid for the wine and went up to our hotel room.

“It’s not just that I feel exposed,” said Michael, as soon as I opened the door. “I feel usurped! Until tonight, I thought this was our family’s story. It’s no longer ours. It’s your story. My experience—the most difficult and the most important experience of my life—which I used to think was as important as yours, will be irrelevant.”

That didn’t go well either, but I knew that once he read it, he’d understand that at the heart of this book about our family crisis was a love letter to my family.

I finished the first full draft of my book that September, and asked Michael if he’d read it.

“Put a copy on my desk.”

The manuscript sat on Michael’s desk, untouched, all fall. I replaced it every few weeks with a new draft.

“Please read it,” I implored him, when I signed with an agent in January.

“Put a copy on my desk.”

“Michael, it’s been on your desk for five months!”

Two weeks later, my agent had lined up several interested publishers, and scheduled an auction date.

“Michael, you have to read it! This is your last chance to vet the book. I can change anything you want me to, but not after it’s sold.”

The next morning, Michael climbed sleepily into bed, as I was getting up.

“I read your book overnight, Alice. Good job.” He closed his eyes.

“Good job? Wait, don’t go to sleep yet.”

“Okay, okay,” he yawned. “I have to admit, it wasn’t as hard to read as I thought it would be. But… I come across as really bland! You made me this boring, saintly guy. I think I’m a lot more interesting than I sound in your book. I’m really tired. I have to sleep.”

With Michael’s help, and with Viking’s blessings, I added his imperfections. Ultimately, Michael became very supportive of the book, though in some ways we’re still dealing with the aftershock of our very personal story becoming so public. From time to time, he gently suggests I might have more fun writing fiction.

Despite the occupational hazards, I continue to write memoirs. In fact, I’m now in the middle of writing a new memoir. I just have to find the perfect moment to tell Michael about it.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Ann Wertz Garvin’s On Maggie’s Watch in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Ann Wertz Garvin and On Maggie’s Watch. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EST with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

The Revealing of Alice Eve Cohen

November 24, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

In July, 2009, playwright and theater artist Alice Eve Cohen added author to her roles when What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir was published. Now, out in trade paperback, the memoir is described in the following sentence:

In her unflinchingly honest and ruefully witty voice, Alice nimbly carries us through her metamorphosis from a woman who has come to terms with infertility to one who struggles to love a heartbeat found in her womb – six months into a high-risk pregnancy.

And then there’s the Praise — from Oprah to The New York Times — for What I Thought I Knew:

“Her darkly hilarious memoir is an unexpected bundle of joy.” O, the Oprah Magazine

“About what happens when crisis or change in fortune upends what someone thinks she knows about herself, or about how life works … Her memoir, which is shot through with humor, touches on … the stormy mix of ambivalence and love that many women bring to motherhood.” —The New York Times

“A gripping story about one of the most wrenching decisions a woman can make.” —People

“Gripping and deeply moving.” —Elle

“I could not put this book down. I got to the last pages, and I had tears in my eyes. It is a remarkable story.” –Harry Smith, CBS, The Early Show

The Divining Wand has scheduled a presentation/review of What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir for Monday, December 6, 2010, but, in the meantime, let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

Alice Eve Cohen is a solo theatre artist, playwright, and memoirist. Her memoir, What I Thought I Knew (Viking /​ Penguin, 2009) won the Elle’s Lettres 2009 Grand Prix for Nonfiction, it was selected as one of Oprah Magazine’s 25 Best Books of Summer, and has been optioned for a television movie by Lifetime. She has written for Nickelodeon, PBS, and CBS. Her plays have been presented at theatres throughout the country, and she has toured her solo theatre works internationally. Her writing about arts in education has been published in nine languages. The recipient of fellowships and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, she holds a BA from Princeton University and an MFA from The New School. She teaches at The New School in New York City.

Now how thoroughly impressive is that? Still, since that only lists what the author does, it’s time to discover who Alice Eve Cohen is — upclose and personal:

Q: How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A: Freelance writer, performer, mom, liberal, Jewish, nature-loving city-dweller.

Q: What is your motto or maxim?
A: I don’t have one, but I love this quote: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” – Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali poet, Nobel Prize-winner)

Q: How would you describe perfect happiness?
A: Such stuff as dreams are made on.

Q: What’s your greatest fear?
A: Death

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A: Costa Rica, hiking in the rain forest, surrounded by wildlife

Q: With whom in history do you most identify?
A: Louisa May Alcott

Q: Which living person do you most admire?
A: Barack Obama

Q: What are your most overused words or phrases?
A: The F-word, and “um.”

Q: If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A: May I have two, please? Playing piano (classical and jazz) and playing tennis…both brilliantly!

Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: Raising my two daughters to be thoughtful, generous and happy.

Q: What’s your greatest flaw?
A:I worry too much.

Q: What’s your best quality?
A; My sense of humor.

Q: What do you regret most?
A: Nothing.

Q: If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A: Me.

Q: What trait is most noticeable about you?
A: My sense of humor.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A: Wilbur, in Charlotte’s Web

Q: Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A: Humbert Humbert, in Lolita

Q: If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A: If I could meet the first marathoner, in ancient Greece, at the beginning of his run, I’d suggest, “You might want to slow down just a bit.”

Q: What is your biggest pet peeve?
A: Materialistic greed.

Q: What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A: Teaching – I love my college students!

Q: What’s your fantasy profession?
A: I’d like to be Jon Stewart. I don’t simply want to host The Daily Show. I want to be Jon Stewart.

Q: What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A: Kindness, generosity, humor

Q: If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A: Sushi

Q: What are your 5 favorite songs?
A: Changes daily, but here are 5 of my favorites:
“Blackbird” and “Because” by the Beatles—both so brilliant!
“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. When my high school boyfriend sang it, he sounded just like James Taylor, and when he broke up with me, I played it over and over and cried every time. Still makes me cry. Great song.
“Con Los Años Que Me Quedan” by Gloria Estefan. My husband and I danced to it at our wedding, and whenever it comes on, we dance in the living room together.
Every song from West Side Story. I grew up going to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, and I’ve always loved his music.

Q: What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A: It’s impossible to choose just five! I love each of these books, because reading them is a transformative experience, and because each one, in its own way, is mind-blowing and perfect.
• Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
• The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
• The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
• Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
• Angels in America, Part I, by Tony Kuschner
• The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
• Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

Also there’s the bonus revelation that yesterday was Alice’s birthday and The Divining Wand wishes her a Happy New Year! To learn even more about this multi-talented author, please become a friend/fan on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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Announcement: The winner of Bill Warrington’s Last Chance by James King is Michelle. Congratulations!

Please email diviningwand (at) gmail (dot) com with your mailing address and your book will be sent out promptly.