More recently, Raeburn’s 2016 memoir Vessels: A Love Story explores how the loss of his daughter Irene impacted his marriage; in their grief, he and his wife became closer to their dead child than to each other. The book, which began as an essay in The New Yorker in 2006, has been widely praised as an “eloquently candid” and “strangely consoling” portrait of love tested by tragedy. Vessels opens with Raeburn, then an aspiring writer and self-described “thwarted artist,” meeting Bekah, a humble award-winning potter; the narrative follows them — in spare and hypnotic prose — through dating, marriage, three unsuccessful pregnancies, two successful ones, and a friend’s suicide. Deceptively simple in structure and style, Vessels is a deeply complex and beautifully composed work.
Raeburn teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Chicago. We recently corresponded via email about what it took to create Vessels, the advice he gives to his students, and current debates surrounding health care in the United States.
JEANNIE VANASCO: I love how you intertwine not-easily-answered questions throughout Vessels. So I’m going to start with a big, not-easily-answered question: how do you reconcile, as a memoirist, self-awareness with self-doubt?
DANIEL RAEBURN: I can’t, which is why I’ll never lose interest in nonfiction. The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness. Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Not completely self-absorbed. You’re walking a tricky balance beam. There are other paradoxes too, like narrative tone. You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. They’re what propel personal narratives.
That’s why it’s probably best to err on the side of those doubts. A good rule of thumb comes from Kafka, who said, “In the struggle between you and the world, you must side with the world.” Another good line came from my friend Mark Slouka. After he read an earlier draft of Vessels, he called me and said, “Less knowing, more wondering.” As soon as he said it I knew he was right. I’d been trying to sound wise.
Can you talk about what your writing process on the book looked like? How did you deal with the emotions while you were writing?
Good question. People often assume that it’s agony to relive the death of a child again and again. And it was, but that agony contained its own strange kind of ecstasy. It was hugely rewarding. In his book about music, Oliver Sacks talks about how, when we experience grief or sadness, the so-called reward centers in our brain light up, just like they do when we feel joy. This is why we actually cry for joy. Feeling deep grief or mourning is gratifying, like a prayer. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you to feel better. A good cry; there was that, at least in the beginning. She’d stopped living, but I couldn’t stop being her dad, and writing was the only chance I got to be that dad.
But over time the relationship between emotion and narrative got more complicated. More technical, more intellectual. It had something to do with trauma and my need to relive it again and again, but with a crucial difference: control. That’s what writing gave me. It was a lot like what the hero of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (2010) goes through. Long story short: It’s about this guy who wakes up from a savage beating with no memory of who he was before. He finds his old journals, reads them and says, Fuck that guy: I don’t want to be him. So he becomes an artist. He starts making these incredibly detailed and oddly beautiful narrative dioramas, set during World War II, which basically act and reenact the story of his beating, but with slight yet important variations. These tableaus are fictional, but nonfiction at the same time. And via these long, laborious, fascinating iterations he somehow gains control over his past and his own psyche. Or the illusion of control, which is the next best thing. The most you can hope for.
This is also the general idea behind Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), though his traumatized reenactor doesn’t use dolls but real people, and ends up in a darker, more sacrificial place than the protagonist of Marwencol does.
Writing and revising Vessels was something like that. It gave me control over my past and allowed me to find or maybe even make meaning where before there’d been nothing but random coincidence. I don’t think this meaning is any less meaningful because it’s invented. On the contrary, it’s more human, and in that sense more true.
You could call the process therapeutic, but I think that’s backward. The cartoonist Lynda Barry once said that people make the mistake of thinking that writing is an imitation of therapy. Actually it’s the other way around. Therapy is an imitation of writing. Narrative came first, and for a practical, evolutionary reason: it helps us to survive.
In your memoir, you write: “When I tried to talk about the birth it seemed more factual, but more unbelievable. Talking about it betrayed it. As long as I kept it to myself, I kept it alive. As soon as I tried to say it, it died.” Later you say that not writing about Irene was harder than writing about her. How do you feel now, having published Vessels?
This was a book that I had to write. Had to, seemingly against my will. And against a legally binding contract: Norton had contracted me to write a book about underground cartoonists, but I wrote this one instead. It was like being possessed. All books are, but this one more so. I think that that possession has to do with what I said about writing giving you control over the past. Once upon a time, the final line of my prologue was, “I can’t talk about this, which is why I’m writing a book about it.” The death of a child is unspeakable, and I still don’t know how to talk about it. Even now. I think that points out the real reason anyone writes: to “talk” about the things one can’t talk about. Because talk does feel cheap to me, even now.
Another really helpful note from Mark Slouka that might explain what I mean: “The grammar of silence.” I kept that on a Post-it note above my desk while I worked. In some ways it’s what the book’s about. My mom’s English, my dad’s a Midwestern Protestant, and I’m the product of a union between these two very reserved people. I bury things, literally but also metaphorically, and that’s why a lot of the book’s about me and my wife not talking. On one hand, I think our silence was respectful and necessary. There are good reasons why we honor the dead with moments of silence. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pretend like my daughter had never existed. Silence can dishonor the dead too. The book grew out of that tension, that paradox. That grammar, as Mark put it. I had a deep need to communicate without actually saying anything, without cheapening it with talk. Because I’m pretty inarticulate in person, and that’s where the written word comes in, both professionally and personally. Writing was the right medium for dealing with this because even though it’s language and therefore “talking,” it is in fact silent. Soundless. It’s the art of composition, not performance. And I’m not a performer. A lot of writers aren’t. That’s why this interview’s working: I’m writing, not speaking.
As for how I feel now that the book’s done? At peace. I finally did something tangible for my child. There’s a scene in the book where our midwife tells Bekah, right after Bekah finds out the baby’s dead inside her, to please consider giving birth. To not do a C-section but to go into labor and deliver her the way she’d planned. Because our midwife had noticed that something about the hardship of labor helped mothers in the long run. Those who suffered through it seemed to recover faster, at least psychologically. Which turned out to be the case. Bekah did the labor. What’s arguably the hardest, most terrifying thing in life. And ultimately she did find some peace, and long before I did. I had to spend years writing the book; that was my labor.
I appreciate how you integrate discussions of public health insurance into Vessels — and how issues of access to health care influenced and shaped your family. Can you talk a little bit about this, given recent debates about potentially repealing the Affordable Care Act?
I have a feeling that your readers have already heard many versions of what I could say about the Republicans in Congress. Congress — what a perfect word for those fuckers. What I will say is this: when Bekah and I didn’t have health insurance, we had two miscarriages and a stillbirth. When we did have health insurance, we had two daughters who lived. Those are facts. I’m not saying that there’s a direct cause and effect between the two, but I am saying that it’s not a coincidence.
I like how Vessels subtly includes lessons about writing memoir. For example, you say at one point:
I told my students that the secret to writing about their own lives was that it wasn’t about them. It was about their reader. I said, Think about this person you’re writing to, or for. Who is she? Someone you’re close to; someone you can tell anything to. And that’s because you don’t know her. She’s your familiar, but she’s a total stranger.
Can you say more about that?
Sure. I see so many people, students included, who confuse their experience of reading a book with the author’s experience of writing it. People assume that the two mirror one another; that’s why they think that writing a memoir is this self-absorbed, self-indulgent process. Which it is, but only because writing any kind of so-called creative work is self-indulgent. Especially poetry and fiction, where you can say whatever you want and never have to worry about being fact-checked. Anyone who’s written nonfiction, including memoir, knows that it’s nerve-wracking to constantly worry about whether or not everyone else involved in the story, including lawyers and judges, will agree with your version of it. You’re thinking about other people way more than you’re thinking about yourself. My technical point to my students is that this confusion of the writing process with the reading process may be why so many memoirs are too self-absorbed and self-indulgent. I tell them again and again that writing is communicative, not expressive. Yes, it’s inherently self-indulgent, but in the end the self you have to indulge is your reader’s.
I also want my students to think about what exactly happens when they sit down to write. Who exactly are they talking to? Meaning, who do they imagine hearing the voice in their head? Their second self? Their mom? Their seventh-grade gym teacher? There are pitfalls in imagining that you’re talking to a specific person. For one thing your narration can become too intimate, too specific, which makes the reader feel like she’s reading a diary entry or a letter aimed at someone else. She feels left out. On the other hand, addressing the world at large can make her feel like you’re talking to everyone at once and therefore no one at all, least of all her. The trick is to balance intimacy with universality — to assume a reader you can trust, but also one you know you have to explain the essential facts to. My trick is to imagine that I’m writing a letter to my best friend in the whole world — but the best friend whom I haven’t met. Not yet. The one who’s still a stranger.
Which is what my daughter was, and why that scene is in the book. There I was, giving this advice to my students, without realizing that I was really talking about my dead daughter, the girl I’d seen only once but could never forget. A person I never really knew, but who changed me more than anyone. Because of that I felt closer to her than I did to anyone; I had the same relationship to her that I would to a reader. Like my reader, she’s a stranger. She’s insubstantial, but she’s real. She exists, if only in my mind.
This is the main reason I addressed an earlier version of the book directly to her, kind of like the way Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me (2015) as a letter to his son. It didn’t work in my case. The tone was intimate, but too narrow. So I went through the manuscript, replacing the word “you” with “Irene,” and that solved the problem. It maintained the intimate, subjective tone, but it also allowed in more of the world at large, including the reader.
Also, I wanted to get the word familiar in the book. Irene was familiar because she looked like me and my wife combined. The weird thing is, I can’t really remember what exactly she looked like, only that it was familiar. She’s also familiar because in the Middle Ages a familiar was a supernatural spirit or being who followed you wherever you went. Who haunted you. Which is the real story of the book. It’s about discovering my own form of ancestor worship, except the ancestor in my case is actually my descendent. In an early draft, I called her my elder, which comes from the old High German word, alter. She’s my alter ego. So is the reader in my head.
Whose writing inspires you? And are there writers whose work you used to like, but don’t anymore? Or vice versa?
James Baldwin inspires me more than anyone. Not necessarily his novels but his essays, which I discovered in high school in Texas. Most of the kids at my high school were black and the school on the other side of town, Robert E. Lee, was mostly white. Discovering Baldwin in that context was like a bolt of lightning. He still is like lightning, in part because he’s so very relevant, but also because of his style, which I think Henry Louis Gates described as part Henry James, part King James. I’d add part Elmore James. I could never hope to imitate Baldwin’s style, which makes him a safe source of inspiration. Same goes for David Foster Wallace — his essays, though, not necessarily the novels. Although the essayistic parts of The Pale King (2011) are, I think, the best things he’s ever done. The most mature, anyway. His argument that boredom is a form of heroism really moved me, as did the “wastoid” section narrated by Chris Fogle. Also the faux memoir by “Dave Wallace.” And the opening page of the book, which is basically a stunning prose poem about rural Illinois.
Also Joan Didion’s essays, especially the earlier ones. I realize that this doesn’t make me original; when I judged some nonfiction contests recently, I was struck by just how many young essayists ape The White Album (1979) and Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968). But I can’t really blame them; I myself dip into her essays at least once a year, then spend the next few days trying and probably failing to fight off my urge to emulate them. I think it was John Leonard who said that the white space around Didion’s sentences is more interesting than most people’s actual sentences. It’s sort of true; she has a gift for framing, and therefore amplifying, what she writes with what she doesn’t write.
As Wallace used to say: And but so then. My two favorite American essayists are a gay black man from Harlem and a rich white woman from Sacramento. And a whole lot from in between.
As for books I used to like but don’t anymore, I have to say my own. Before I wrote this memoir I put out four issues of The Imp, which were novella-length essays about underground cartoonists: Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jack Chick. I was proud of them at the time but now my tone makes me cringe. I confused being a smart-ass with being smart. I put them up on my website anyway, as my own form of penance.
Were you ever a big reader of Raymond Carver?
Sure, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I was an undergrad in Iowa City. Everyone was. But my real hero of that time, the number-one influence on my 21-year-old self, was Denis Johnson. I remember buying Jesus’ Son (1992) at Prairie Lights bookstore the day it came out and walking across the street to the Deadwood Tavern, where I read it in its entirety. I’d spent more than a little time in the drug culture and I knew those apartments, those bars, those characters perfectly. In fact, I wound up later that night at the Vine, just like Fuckhead. I’d read a lot of books that I identified with, but this was the first that was about my actual context — my literal surroundings. The emergency room at Mercy Hospital, for example, where I’d been a few times. There was something transformative in realizing that you’d been living inside this spellbinding fictional world. Which was in fact nonfiction, which is I guess my point. When I met Johnson 20 years later, here in Chicago, he told me and my writing class that Jesus’ Son was actually nonfiction. That it was just a bunch of anecdotes from his life that he wrote down. I guess my point is that he, more than anyone, helped me to realize that literature grew out of everything outside of lit class. Carver helped with that too.
I asked about Carver because you have these mind-blowingly poetic lines, and yet they don’t stand in relief to the rest of the writing. Another way of putting it: They feel essential. They don’t give the impression of showing off. Here’s one example: “Standing under trees whose bare stalks branched like capillaries for brains that had gone missing.” And then there’s this one: “Her eyes were blue and gray, like the Great Lake I’d ridden next to to get there.” And this one: “I said something I’ll never remember and pedaled back to our apartment, past babies set like jewels in the hollows of their strollers.” How did you balance spare, matter-of-fact sentences with such lyrical ones? Was that something you were very conscious of?
I’d love to say that I was very unconscious of my lyricism so that I’d seem like a natural. Like Denis Johnson. But the truth is that I was pretty conscious of wanting to sound “lyrical,” at least in my earlier drafts, when I was pushing the 600-page mark and swinging for the fences with every sentence. I’ve always had a soft spot for similes, and I remember feeling pretty good about all three of those lines you quoted after I wrote them down. Which is why I’m surprised they’re still there. That I didn’t cut them. Kill your darlings and all that.
At a certain point I started to realize that my “literary” style was out of whack with my wife’s pottery, which was central to my understanding of her character and of the book as a whole. Long story short: She’s a fan of traditional wood-fired Japanese folk pottery, which is very earthy, very simple, very plain. No ornamentation, no frills, often no signature. Her pots look anonymous, like stones. I realized that that had to be my prose style too, at least for this book. That anti-style, or non-style, was why I’d fallen in love with her pots and with part of her in the first place, and it was why I read so much James M. Cain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Willa Cather while I was writing the book. John Williams too, who talked about the virtues of what he called the plain style. A no-frills, almost anti-“literary” aesthetic that went against everything I’d thought when I was younger, when I wanted to wow everyone with the way I was stating things, rather than with what I was actually saying.
But there were a few sorta fancy moments I couldn’t bear to cut, and those are three of them. Lyricism in prose is a little like adding violins to a film: less is more, and the more muted the better. At least in the plain, almost Shaker aesthetic that fits this book. Otherwise you’re telling the reader what to feel. You’re describing emotions, not creating them. My hope is that those more ambitious lines stand out because they’re surrounded by so many more straightforward ones. Not boring ones, I hope — just unadorned. I wanted the book to sound like me talking. Not writing.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.
Jeannie Vanasco, assistant professor of English at Towson University, is the author of The Glass Eye: A Memoir (2017) and other works of creative nonfiction.