Ronit Plank is a writer, teacher and host and producer of the award-winning podcast “And Then Everything Changed.” When She Comes Back, her memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, which she first wrote about in The Atlantic, is her first book. Her short story collection Home Is A Made-Up Place won Hidden River Arts’ 2020 Eludia Award and will be published in 2022. Her writing also appears in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and Brevity among others.
Meredith: What is the difference, for the writer, between being honest and emotional honesty?
RONIT: In memoir the truth is a moving target. You can be as honest as you believe yourself to be but you may misremember events or your interpretation may skew the story. That is also part of what makes memoir fascinating and, in my opinion, necessary. No two people will tell a story the same way and thank goodness for that.
But emotional honesty is being able to tell the truth about yourself, even the parts that are unpalatable or you would rather hide. In fiction you can make your protagonist or any character you write about the hero. But in memoir you probably will reveal aspects of yourself you wish weren’t true, parts you feel are less desirable. But that is part of what can make a memoir rich—the tension between what we want to believe about ourselves and the reality of who we are. When you explore your past behavior and the beliefs that led you to act the way you did in all their complexity you fulfill this unspoken agreement with the reader. You become heroic because of your emotional honesty.
Meredith: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming? And by acceptance, I mean self-acceptance.
RONIT: When I first began writing stories in a weekly extension program at the University of Washington, I got some positive feedback that carried me enough to think I might have ideas with potential and helped see me through the many weeks and months of learning and trying to get better.
Then after many rejections from literary magazines I got my first yes and that was a huge breakthrough for me. Then I got another one which helped me feel the first wasn’t a fluke. Those were huge affirmations that I should follow the impulse I had to write. I was lucky enough to have teachers and workshops that nurtured me and were honest about where I needed to improve and I kept at it. My kids were young but I had just enough time while they were at school to take classes and write.
I remember being restless and wanting to “get there” already, to have a sense of when I was writing well, when I could trust myself, when I’d know a piece was ready without sharing it in a workshop first. And that did come after time. I was impatient and I still am but I know it’s the long game when it comes to writing. We’re never as good as we think but we’re never as bad either.
Meredith: The Talmud (in one way or another) says something to the effect that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’.” Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you and for your work?
RONIT: I believe if we don’t tell our stories no one will. Or rather others might but not how we’d tell them, not the way we know them. This is why I love interviewing guests for my podcast and why I like to teach; we can learn something in every relationship, in almost every story. I think sharing stories and listening to other people tell theirs creates a kind of communion.
Listening, really listening can be the most generous act if you’re patient and unattached to an outcome or expected ending. Sharing stories in a vulnerable and honest way can be healing and empowering and might even change the way someone feels about themselves. So, my work is interviewing and writing and teaching but the connecting thread is listening, tuning in, holding space for others’ experience.
Meredith: When you are in the middle of a project that feels the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub, and the only thing you can do is row (put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard), how do you sustain you?
RONIT: Sometimes structure is the thing that pacifies me. For example, with my memoir I was unsure where to begin. How do you wade through so much material to find the pieces that need to stay and those that need to go—that’s daunting and initially immobilized me. But on the advice of memoirist Debra Gwartney I concentrated on the 10-13 scenes that really needed to be there; the cornerstones of my story.
Then, once I had those scenes nailed down, I got caught up in chronology—trying to decide when and where to put what. It’s funny that I got distracted by the order for my memoir because my wiser self—the one who advises other writers—would say, “why are you worrying about that now?—just write already.” But I think those are little tricks my logical mind plays on me to halt my progress, or maybe I’m afraid of the work involved in diving deep so I allow myself to get sidetracked by questions of structure and chronology. Luckily, though, once I hit upon what feels right, I can plug away and work hard.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. Some view them as entities entirely separate from themselves. Sometimes it feels to me like our creations are more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?
RONIT: My writing does represent very specific times in my life. When I wrote an essay about the fragile health of one of my children we were just out of the most painful and critical times—safe enough to write about but not so long ago the worry and fear were gone. That essay “I want to heal my son so badly” which Salon published is still close to my heart. I see myself, a younger mother than I am now, trying to take some of the narrative about her child back, trying to control if not the specific outcome, the organization of the experience. I see vulnerability borne of an understanding that I had already taken a lot and was strong enough to withstand more.
I also think that each piece I’ve written is much more about the process of making it and less how people respond to it. When people read your work and respond positively it’s such a good feeling and yet, the act of creating and revising and revising again to get it to a place you are proud of or content with seems to be the real experience.
Before you have a reader or a publisher for a piece you have hope and also uncertainty. You might wonder if you’re actually on to something because you feel like you are, but what if you’re way off base and need to quit while you’re ahead? You work the material until you’re satisfied and you send it into the world and you wait. A positive response can be very affirming for me. It’s this feeling that I was able to express something that others can relate to and depict it in a way they understand or feel. So yes, these essays, short stories, my memoir are like pieces of me taken apart, put back together, and reconfigured in new ways every time. And every time they find a home or a reader I in turn feel more seen.
[Thank you, Ronit.]