On weekends, when she was a child in small-town Wisconsin, Melissa Faliveno would wake before dawn and travel with her parents to roadside gas stations and rural convenience stores to tally every chocolate bar, loaf of bread, and pack of sugary peach rings. On top of their full-time jobs, her parents had an inventory business. “It was meant to be a way to reach financial independence,” Faliveno writes, “but it never turned out that way.” Her description of this work appears in “Meat and Potatoes,” an essay exploring midwestern food and BDSM, in her debut essay collection, Tomboyland. Faliveno’s brilliance lies in her ability to find meaningful connections between seemingly disparate topics. (When your safe word is “asparagus” and you’re a writer as gifted as Faliveno, you probably don’t need to think twice about linking food and BDSM.) In one of my favorite essays, “Of a Moth,” she finds intersections between the moths infesting her Brooklyn apartment and cultural assumptions about gender identity:
Unsurprisingly, I deemed my moth he. I did what it is we always do when we speak of creatures whose sex is uncertain—of insects, birds, and animals; of dark figures behind tinted windows, driving cars that cut us off. Of humans like me, for whom it’s simply hard to tell: creatures who may be one thing or another, who may be both; whose bodies, regardless, we assume the power to name—like we know them, like they’re ours to possess.
In that same essay, she also reflects on subjects as complicated as home and love and language.
I assigned Tomboyland to my writing students last fall, shortly after it was published, and again this past spring. After students read it, their essays became more lyrical, more vulnerable, more complex in their connections. During office hours over Zoom, one undergraduate said, “I needed her book. Really needed it.” They held up their copy of Tomboyland and flipped through it, showing me the multicolored tabs and highlights. I asked them if they could read a passage that spoke to them. They quoted this one:
I’m not straight. And my gender identity is complicated. I never really had a coming-out—in part because I never thought I had the right, and in part, as difficult as it is to admit, because I’m still terrified to say some things aloud. But it’s also because I so often feel like I don’t have the words. There are words I use sometimes: words like bisexual, which attempts to define who I am attracted to and who I seek intimacy from; words like genderqueer or simply queer, which attempts to define the ways my body doesn’t conform to traditional notions of gender. I use these words because they’re the best words I have. But sometimes they make me uneasy. And sometimes I feel like I’m still seeking the words that fit, that feel more right, that might help me feel like I belong.
“I know you like to change some of the assigned books every semester,” the student added, “but consider keeping Tomboyland.” I promised I would.
Tomboyland’s oldest essay, “Of a Moth,” appeared in DIAGRAM in 2012. Her other work has been published in Esquire, the Paris Review, Bitch, Literary Hub, Prairie Schooner, No Tokens, and elsewhere. She has taught nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where she received her MFA in nonfiction, and Catapult in New York City, and was the 2020-2021 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC Chapel Hill. She and I spoke over Zoom about her decision to pursue a writing career, the ways that socioeconomics influences the creative process, and (of course) Tomboyland. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.
THE BELIEVER: When did you first learn about the essay as a creative form?
MELISSA FALIVENO: I went to college thinking I’d study to become a high school English teacher. I started taking creative writing classes, and at the time I was writing mostly poetry—really bad poetry and bad fiction—and I decided to take a creative nonfiction class. They didn’t offer very many at UW. One was with a professor named Martin Nystrand who’s still at Wisconsin, I believe. But the one that really sticks out was with Rob Nixon who is a South African writer. He was the Rachel Carson Professor of English at Wisconsin. He writes predominantly environmental work that has this really beautiful narrative thrust. He was teaching a creative nonfiction class that blew my mind open. I immediately felt that this—nonfiction—was the thing I wanted to do.
I remember writing my first couple of first-person explorations—I hesitate to call them essays, but just sort of like these journalistic first-person explorations—of some things that I thought were funny. And I really tried to be funny, to do these sort of humorous observations about what was happening around me. We were reading Megan Daum’s My Misspent Youth at the time, and I thought, I’m going to write like her. I’m going to be this plucky, incisive feminist writer, and that was my introduction. Also, we were reading Barbara Eirenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. I don’t even know what else we read, but I remember those two books standing out. Reading Nickel and Dimed was when I went from funny, David Sedaris-y essays, to more serious interrogation.
Shortly thereafter I started writing features for the alternative weekly in Madison called Isthmus.
I was working in a coffee shop and a guy, a regular, came in and we were talking about writing. He asked me about my writing, and I told him about the kind of essays that I had been toying with. He asked if he could read one. So I gave him one to read, and he came back the next day and said, “You should pitch this to Isthmus.” I was like, “No way. There’s no possible way I’m going to do that.” I was twenty-one years old. And he said, “Just do it.” I know the editor and I think that he’ll like this. And so I emailed it to the editor and said something like, “This guy named Tony said I should send this to you. So I’m sending this to you.” And the editor at the time was like, “Great, let’s do this.” And that’s kind of how I got the ball rolling.
I was still studying nonfiction at the university and writing these features about various subcultures in Madison. So that first piece that I pitched was an article about coffee shop culture. A Barista Spills the Beans, I think, is what they called it. They put it on the cover. And I was like, Holy crap. And then all of my next features they put on a cover. The editor’s note referred to me as the intrepid Melissa Faliveno and said something about how I was always entering these subcultures and investigating these communities. And that’s how I realized, I guess that’s what I do. It was such a great gig because they let me pitch whatever I wanted. I did a sports column on roller derby because I was playing roller derby at the time. And then they ran with that too. And it was really kind of extraordinary when I think back on it—that I got that opportunity at such a young age. So it was really my first home as a writer.
BLVR: Was there any anxiety about pursuing creative writing? Your parents were supportive, but you also were a first-generation college student from a working-class background. Even with their support, did you put pressure on yourself, asking, What am I doing? Is this going to lead to anything?
MF: Definitely, definitely. Yeah, my parents were super supportive and never asked, What are you going to do with an English degree? I knew, though, that I needed a real job, and that idea of a real job was in my head all through college. Actually, I took classes part time and worked full time. So I worked two jobs for at least three years of college to pay my way through. My parents helped, but I took on all of the debt afterward. Even though I went to a public university and I had in-state tuition, I still have debt from college, which is insane as a Pell grant recipient. Anyway. I worked and knew that regardless of what I did, I would have to, you know, get a real job. Even if I wanted to write. So when I was still finishing—I think it was my fifth year, I was on the five-year plan—I got an editorial assistantship with this editor who worked for Tor, the science fiction publisher. He lived in Madison and worked remotely. He hired an editorial assistant every year from the English department. We worked in the attic of his house, and I hated most of the job, but it got my foot in the door, and I knew I could be an editor.
After that I got another job, also in Madison, working for a nonfiction press. We focused on travel and culture and sports based in the Midwest. I worked as an editor there for two years and then it was bought out, and that’s when I decided to go to graduate school. I thought I would get an MFA to really deepen the writing practice and then continue my career as an editor while still writing—and that’s what I ended up doing because then I worked at Poets & Writers for about eight years. So it was always editorial work. I knew that would have to come first and then writing would have to come second. Which meant that I wasn’t writing for a lot of it. So this is the first time in my life that I’ve actually been able to focus on writing. I changed course when this book came out. Writing and teaching is now hopefully the path, though I’m still interested in and open to editorial work. But I really like teaching and it obviously allows a little bit more room and time to write.
BLVR: Judging by your visit to my classes, I’m sure you’re an incredible teacher. One of the students told me afterward how grateful she was that you addressed the financial challenges of being a writer, which rarely gets discussed in writing workshops—even though money affects pretty much everything, including the creative process. Money’s relationship with social status plays a big part in your book. When did you know you were writing about that?
Faliveno: Not until really well into the process of writing these essays. I worked with Jo Ann Beard at Sarah Lawrence, and she was my lodestar in terms of personal essay writing. I think she was the one who helped me realize that that’s what I was doing. Some of the essays that I was working on in her class—I thought I was writing about my family’s relationship with drinking, and that was kind of when it cracked open. Drinking is not mutually exclusive to socioeconomic status, but the way that people drink is different—what they drink, where they drink, and how—and it was in concert with this experience of moving to New York and realizing very distinctly that I came from a place that was much different from all of these other people, especially people who are at Sarah Lawrence who had come from much more educated families and who had a lot more money. Hearing about their experiences growing up and hearing that their parents were doctors and how everybody went to therapy—all of these things were just so foreign—I just felt like people don’t talk about specifically the ways that class really impacts all these other elements of identity. I was also curious about this word class and remember feeling very much like I didn’t have any class. I remember thinking that I was just a yokel, especially when I started going to literary parties. Oh my god, I felt like such a podunk idiot. I hadn’t read the things that people were talking about. I remember being at a literary event while I was still in graduate school, and somebody was talking about some author I should have read. I felt very uneducated, very out of my element. I felt like I wasn’t even a poser because I didn’t feel like I was passing. So I was also thinking about the ways that class is not limited to how much money you make but the kind of education you have, the family you come from, the language you use, the things you read or don’t—the sort of cultural education beyond school. And then I started feeling kind of defiant. Instead of feeling like I don’t belong here, I decided: well, maybe I can belong here and still continue to resist this need to prove to people that I am something that I’m not.
BLVR: I still remember the first literary party I went to in New York. It was at The Paris Review’s offices. I was an unpaid intern there while also working all of these different odd jobs at night and on weekends to scrape by. And I used some of that money—money intended for groceries—to buy a dress for the party. I left the tag on it because my plan was to return it the next day. And someone at the party saw the tag and said, Oh, your dress still has the tag on, and ripped it off.
MF: Oh no!
BLVR: It’s so interesting that the person hadn’t even considered that the tag might have been left there deliberately.
MF: That’s perfect.
BLVR: You mentioned therapy a little bit ago—about how that wasn’t something people did where you came from. In your book you write about a therapist you started seeing in your twenties and her influence on you. I’m wondering how therapy has been helpful to your writing process.
MF: I’m still seeing her, that same therapist in Madison, though not as regularly as I used to. She and I have known each other for—god, thirteen years I think we’ve been seeing each other. Is that true? God. That’s got to be right because I started seeing her when I was twenty-three or twenty-four. She has been totally instrumental in the way that I see myself as a writer. She also has a PhD in literature. She used to teach writing. So she knows this life and she is very good at validating the practice of writing as work. She was the first person who helped me believe that writing could be a thing I might do and also that it’s a practice and you have to continue to practice it just like any other practice. And then obviously she was hugely impactful in understanding some of my questions of identity. She’s also a queer woman and she really pushed me into some of those corners where I was afraid to go. I had a troubled relationship with my own sense of self and identity, especially in those years. So yeah, therapy itself and she, in particular, have been a huge part of my life as a writer, actually.
BLVR: I highlighted what she said about identity: “Identity isn’t what people think of you. It’s how you think of yourself. It’s how you live your life. It’s how you carry yourself in the world.”
MF: It sounds so basic, but there was something so profound about it at the time. I remember thinking, Oh, right, of course, this is all just my internal understanding of myself. I can see myself literally stopping in my tracks as I was on my way out the door. I felt this bodily kind of understanding, and I love writing into those moments—of trying to see an understanding take hold.
BLVR: One of my favorite essays is “Switch Hitter.” When you visited my class, you told students that you almost didn’t include it. You said it scared you to write, and it still scares you to read. My students and I were examining how seamlessly you shift from the first person to the third person and back to the first person. Was the third person a strategy you used during the writing process? To distance yourself from traumatic material? I’m glad you left the point-of-view shift in there. The first time I read the rape scene, I wasn’t thinking, Oh, how interesting to have a point of view shift. Instead I felt the emotional immediacy.
MF: That means a lot to me and I’ll tell you why. Basically the arc of writing that piece was that someone invited me to write a piece for a sports-themed anthology. And I thought, I know I’ve got a softball essay in me, and so I started writing this essay about softball that was just going to be about softball and my relationship with it—this trajectory of failure, what it means to fail at something, and rebuilding a life after failure. I was going to be an athlete and that was my identity, and then I didn’t make it as an athlete at Wisconsin. As I was writing it, I realized there was so much more. And then all this shit came out that I had never written about before. And it was really kind of, I think, therapeutic—which I never say about writing, but it was because I was making these connections that I had never really made before. I mean, this thing happened that I had not been able to define or make any sense of.
And as I moved on to writing about college, about failing at these tryouts, I started digging into this pattern of behaviors that I was engaging in: self harm, heavy drinking, drug use, having a bunch of anonymous sex with men—mostly older married men. I just made all of these connections about the story and realized, God, this is so much bigger than I thought it was. And then I ended up submitting it, and the editors were probably like, What the hell? What is this? So I shelved it for a long time and couldn’t look at it. And then when I was putting the book together, I was still including all of these elements that were important to the story but without getting into many personal details and indicting people because I didn’t want to do that—more for me than for them. And then I got to the scene when I experienced this sexual assault at a college party. And what happened is I was thinking about it and writing about it and I kept calling it a sexual assault. What’s interesting is that if anybody else told me this story, I would call it a rape. And so I was kind of writing around that, and I just had such a hard time with it. I couldn’t say it, the word rape. I couldn’t say it on the page. So I did exactly the thing that you said: I put it in the third person. I put a problematic relationship in the second person. To distance myself from the events, because they were too hard to think about. I couldn’t write about them in any other way.
So then I got into edits. And my editor said, “You have to write these in first person.”
And I tried, and I tried, and I just—it felt so, I don’t know. I don’t even think it felt too vulnerable because it was already vulnerable. On a craft level, I really liked the shift because what I wanted to do most of all was affect a feeling of dissociation—because throughout that whole period in my life in college, I was struggling with dissociation, constantly having these out of body experiences. And especially for that scene, I realized, as I was trying to write it, that when I think about it—and I spent a lot of time not thinking about it—but when I think about it, I think about it like I’m watching a movie, like it’s some other person who’s experiencing it, like it’s not me.
And then after doing some very basic reading, I realized that this is totally a natural thing that happens to people who have survived traumatic experiences. Dissociation is a defense mechanism, a way to protect yourself from the experience of it. And so what I wanted to do by writing that scene, particularly in the third person, was make it feel separate, make it feel like I always imagined it—like when you see the narrator somehow in your mind when you’re reading nonfiction and then you see the narrator separate from the person on the page. That’s kind of what I wanted.
BLVR: It works. It works extraordinarily well. Did your parents learn about some of your traumatic experiences from reading the book?
MF: Yeah. Well, so this was late spring of last year. I think we got the advance review copies in February or March, and I put off giving them to my parents. My plan was to take two copies home to Wisconsin, give them the copies, sit them down in the living room, and say, Okay, here are the things that you’re going to learn from this book. I’m sorry I never told you. This is why I never told you. It’s going to suck to read some of this. But then Covid happened. And I couldn’t do that. And I kind of waited because I thought, Well, maybe this will just pass and it’ll be like a flu season, and by June it’ll be gone. And I can go home. I can do this. And by May it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen.
So then the trade reviews had already come out—Kirkus and Publishers Weekly—and I didn’t send them to my parents because there were some words, like queerness, that showed up, and my parents didn’t know that I identified as queer, for instance. It was a coming-out book in a lot of ways. And so I felt that it was increasingly urgent to get the book to them. I felt like they needed to read it and know this material before the world did. So I sent them two copies, and I wrote them a seven-page letter, and in the letter I said all the things that I would have said in person. I really tried to make sense, for them, of why they were finding this out some fifteen or twenty years later. But I’ve also done this to them in the past. I sent them a copy of my graduate school thesis, which also revealed some things that they didn’t know. So I felt like that was a warm up.
So they took it pretty well. I mean, as well as they could. There were some things that they had a really hard time with. They read it in tandem. My dad was silent the whole time. But my mom sent me little texts after she read each essay. They were like mini reviews. She read “Switch Hitter” and her text to me said, Yikes.
They finished it around the same time, and then we had a three-hour phone call. I processed some of the stuff with them, and that was hard. It was really hard. We talked a little bit about sexuality, and that was okay. They weren’t surprised. You know, I think they probably kind of had a hunch. Anyway, my dad was really so sweet. He said, Who cares what anybody thinks? If people don’t like this, if they don’t like who you are, screw them. He talked about how he had trouble with the word queer because it’s what the Italian wiseguys called each other in New Jersey growing up, and it always sounded so hateful, but he said, I like bisexual. I like that word.
But the hardest thing for them, I think, was the “Switch Hitter” material. It was really hard for them to find out about these things. They asked me, Why didn’t you tell us? And it’s like, Why do you think that I would have? I think there was a lot of internal blame going on, especially on my mom’s part. That conversation got a little dicey. But I think we came out of it pretty well.
BLVR: This seems like a good time to talk about silence and writing into silence. You write about the silent treatment that your family has shown one another. Your grandmother, for example, stopped speaking to her only sister completely—and that lasted for forty years. And then your mother and grandmother went for a year without speaking. You and your mother once did the same. I’m wondering if you can talk about silence—because I think on some level, silence can be incredibly generative for a writer. I’m wondering if you think that being a writer— especially being so vulnerable on the page—makes you more resistant to silence within your personal relationships. And I’m wondering what this book has done for you in terms of personal relationships—now that you’re not silent about some of these subjects.
MF: I love that question. Actually, this kind of miraculous thing happened in terms of silence with my mom. So we have historically struggled in our relationship. We’re in a pretty good place now. But for many years that good place has been predicated on silence, on not talking about the problems in our relationship, and some pretty traumatic stuff from the past, and I think after years of my trying to talk about it and being shut down and receiving the silent treatment at least once, I stopped trying. We never talked about it. And I came to this understanding with the help of my therapist that sometimes if you can’t solve a problem—a familial or interpersonal problem—you can make the choice to leave it, or you can make peace with the silence and make peace with the knowledge that we’re never going to fix this. It’s never going to be a thing that we can resolve or even talk about. And so that’s kind of where I’d landed. And so, when I sent my mom the book, I told her that I wish I had read my high school journals before I wrote the book—just to make sure that the things that I remember, and the ways I remember them, are real because all I have are the memories that I have built in the twenty years since high school. Our memories are so fallible, and they change. I could have rebuilt this entire narrative, because there’s also repression and trauma and who knows.
So she said, I still have your journals somewhere. They’re all in the closet of your bedroom. Do you want me to send them to you? And I said, I guess. Yes, I do. And so she sent me a stack of journals and diaries from high school. And with them she sent a note. The note was basically naming, for the first time in our relationship, a huge issue that we never talked about, that was always met with silence and denial. Naming it felt like an opening for us—maybe to be more communicative and more honest with each other. It was a letter I never thought I’d get. And it made me so happy—because part of my goal of giving them this book was to help them know me a little bit better. I think—I hope—that maybe writing this book has opened up a new channel of communication for us.
But in terms of the way that I relate to silence, it goes back and forth. I still have a real predisposition to bottle it up, to not talk about what’s really bothering me. And then, when it inevitably comes out, it comes out as anger, because that’s what happens.
But on the other side of that coin, I think that I also have less tolerance overall for not talking about something that’s hard, for not having really difficult conversations—even when they’re tremendously painful. I try to make sure that my relationships are not based on a dynamic of silence. I just don’t have the tolerance to live with silences that way anymore, which is not to say that it doesn’t happen sometimes. But I think that I have more of a resistance to it and a response to push against it.
But also, after putting the book out, I went through a period where I was doing a ton of interviews. And at a certain point, I was like, Oh my god, I’m saying way too much about myself and my life. The interview process started feeling as vulnerable—or more vulnerable—than the book. And I felt myself start to curl into myself again and just didn’t want to talk to anybody.
BLVR: Interviews are hard because I think there’s also some element of, I wrote the book. What else do you want me to say?
MF: Yeah, and I think probably—particularly for nonfiction writers—the inherent questions are about your life. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, but at a certain point, you just want to be like, Look, that’s the art, and this is my life now, and so much of what you’re finding out for the first time and you’re reading for the first time happened twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, and I have lived an entire life since then, and I couldn’t write about it unless I had done the work to process it and make it into art. I think that gets lost—not from interviewers who also write and understand craft. But I think from general reading populations, and certainly family.
BLVR: There’s an appetite for summary and story, but there isn’t that discussion of, Oh, how interesting that you switched points of view for these emotionally charged scenes.
MF: Exactly. Like I’m learning all these things about you and oh my god it’s so shocking and blah, blah, blah. It’s you, you, you, and not the book, the book, the book. Instead of someone saying, What a beautiful thing you did there, it’s like, Oh my god, I didn’t know you were into BDSM. There’s this value judgment about my life and not about what’s happening artistically on the page, which is why I love when anyone asks me a craft question. But I also think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m more comfortable talking about the content too—because I think that’s part of the product. You know, that’s part of the process of making a book like this. It’s about figuring out how the content and the craft live together.
BLVR: Well, I’ve got a very craft-y question for you. It’s specific to “Of a Moth.” I’m wondering about your writing and revision process in the context of this essay. I compared the version in your book with the version that ran in DIAGRAM. Revising an essay to improve it as a standalone piece is different from revising an essay to fit within a larger collection. The revisions, by the way, are excellent. I mean, I love that original version, but the one in Tomboyland fits perfectly within the context of the book’s larger arc. There are new and crucial pieces of reflection, such as the part, “I’m someone who leaves quickly. And while I’d like to say I don’t look back, the truth is that of course I do.” And the part when you write about not connecting with your roommates, and you adding, “This was more my doing than theirs.” One of the most interesting additions is your reflection about deeming your moth he. You write, “I did what it is we always do when we speak of creatures whose sex is uncertain—of insects birds, and animals; of dark figures behind tinted windows, driving cars that cut us off. Of humans like me, for whom it’s simply hard to tell: creatures who may be one thing or another, who may be both; whose bodies, regardless, we assume the power to name—like we know them, like they’re ours to possess.”
What can you remember of the revision process? For revising it for DIAGRAM—and I realize that was almost a decade ago—and revising the DIAGRAM version to work within this larger arc of Tomboyland.
MF: I’m so glad that you identified that because “Of a Moth” is still one of my favorite essays in the book. And then that revision process was interesting. “Of a Moth” and “Driftless” were the two essays that I felt like I really had to shape to include in the book, but “Of a Moth” in particular. It’s the oldest essay in the book. I wrote it while I was in graduate school in a writing workshop my second year. So it was probably 2010. I don’t know that I’ve actually been as bewitched in the writing process as I was when I wrote that essay. I haven’t used that word to describe it before, but that was how I felt: bewitched. I wrote “Of a Moth” for a workshop with Vijay Seshadri, who’s the nonfiction director at Sarah Lawrence, though he’s mostly a poet. He’s a brutal workshop instructor. I love him, but he’s brutal, and he said something like, This is great, but you need to do some research because I feel like you’ve never read anything about moths before other than this Virginia Woolf essay. And I replied, Well, do I have to read everything about moths? And he said, Yes, you have to, you have to read everything about moths. And he gave me some suggestions. So from the time I wrote the draft to what was included in my thesis, which I believe is what I submitted to DIAGRAM in 2011, involved mostly cultural research. I was reading the Book of Job and I was thinking about all of these cultural touchstones about moths. So really it was during the research process that the first revision happened. So then I submitted that to DIAGRAM and it was published in the early winter of 2012, I think. And then I left it alone. People would come out of the woodwork—no pun intended—and contact me randomly and say, I read this essay in DIAGRAM and it’s my favorite thing. I got so much great feedback on it from strangers. I felt like it was kind of my life-defining piece. So when I decided to include it in the book, I think my first drive was just that I love the essay—and it’s a rare thing for me to say that I feel so much love for an essay that I wrote, but I just love that piece and I wanted it to live in this book.
But it existed on a different plane than the rest of these essays I was writing, and I still kind of think it does. But what I knew I needed to do—on a basic level—was somehow incorporate more about gender because the book’s connective tissue has to do with gender. So I wanted it to have at least some concrete connection that readers could grab on to. And I remember thinking, Well, it’s about sexuality and it’s about a woman being alone. And so I wanted to really dig into that feeling of a woman in isolation and what it looks like to be a woman alone. And some of these traditionally male-ish expectations of what male writers do alone: they drink whiskey and get moody and whatever. And I was just a woman alone: heartbroken but really enjoying aloneness, while at the same time feeling very lonely and drinking a lot of whiskey and having these weird interactions with insects in my room. So I was really interested in the womanhood element of it, which I don’t know that I was necessarily that cognizant of when I was originally writing it. And then, as I was looking at the essay, I realized I had gendered the moths in my mind. I thought, That’s interesting, this weird thing that we do in society. When we can’t identify any sort of gender or sex, we use he. So that’s how that new section came in.
But that line you mentioned about looking back, that was, I think, really important because when I originally wrote that piece, it wasn’t untrue, but I think I had rebuilt the narrative of that time for myself—this narrative that I had made this decision to leave, that I had moved forward alone to be alone. And that with the aloneness came all this sadness, all these dark nights, but that I had made the decision. And what’s more true is that my partner at the time and I had broken up—and I hadn’t wanted to break up. He drove me out to New York, and I don’t think I had that part in the original either.
BLVR: Right. In the DIAGRAM version, you drove to New York and there’s no mention of him in the car with you.
MF: I realized that the true narrative is not that I had struck off on my own and decided to be alone, but that the relationship had ended and I was continuously looking back on it and longing for it in many ways. I remember feelings of desperation, of wanting to call him and say, Can we please just be together again? Can you just come back? Why don’t you move out here? We can make this happen.
Having those feelings and then trying not to act on them, trying to move forward but constantly looking back, I thought that was important to say—because yes, I leave quickly sometimes, but in a way I don’t, because I’m constantly thinking back and clinging to the past. It also ties to the way that I think about Wisconsin, my home in the Midwest—this sort of push and pull of longing, of wanting to return, of wanting that comfort, but also wanting to keep moving forward, to being able to do it on my own, not relying on this magnetic feeling of home.
BLVR: Absolutely. It accomplishes all of that, of also linking back to the land in Wisconsin. This brings me to the title. It’s a made-up word, which I love, because it gets at this idea of what are the things we don’t have words for. How do we find those words? You do this beautifully within your essays. You explore the etymologies of words. I’m thinking about your reflection on the word driftless, how it suggests motion while also implying stasis. And your reflection about the words reclaim and androgynous and the history of the word tomboy. You’re using language to get at new or deeper understandings of language, which as an observation sounds so obvious. But I’m wondering if you can talk about that process of searching for the words we don’t have.
MF: That was a huge part of the process of writing this book. I mean, this book is about a lot of things. Usually, it gets described as being a book about gender and class and the Midwest, but I think it’s also a book about language and the words we use to make meaning of life and experiences and ourselves—and how kind of absurd that is because we created these words. We gave them meaning. So how do you give meaning to something that is so indefinite and intangible and not easily defined. I’ve always been fascinated with morphology and the ways that language changes. I dated a linguist. For a long time actually. The person who I broke up with before moving to New York. He studied morphology and we talked about the ways that language shifts. This was at the height of when people thought it was hip to be grammarians, and we really resisted that and talked about how language is made up. I’ve always been really curious about that and really interested in that process of words becoming words. Usually, when we don’t have a word for something, we create a new one. Or a word changes over time because of colloquial usage or slang or whatever. And so when I started really thinking about gender and this question of gender, which was kind of radical and new to me—in my late twenties was really when I started thinking about my gender and what it means that I call myself a woman and what it means that I think of myself as genderqueer—I didn’t really know how that fit into other people’s definitions of genderqueer. I started to think about gender fluidity and about the ways that gender can occur. It has all of these inherently fluid aspects to it—like it is not one static thing. It’s this thing that changes based on what we’re doing and how we’re living in our bodies and how we see ourselves and how we dress and how we cut our hair—all these basic things—but it was kind of a miraculous thing to think about fluidity in terms of gender and also class. I think a lot about the ways that class is this fluid thing, the ways that you can move in and out of class or socioeconomic status. You can strive and climb and get somewhere and you can fall and land back where you were, and I saw that happening in my family. I’m actually writing about that now, about this constant movement between categories and definitions of class. And so every time I interrogate anything, it’s through the lens of the language that we give it. I like to read the dictionary and research a word and usually that process triggers something that’s fascinating to me and that I can then write into. In Tomboyland, I wanted to explore the ways that language, like gender and class and identity, is this fluid thing that’s constantly shifting because we make up words to find meaning, to make better sense of things. Because that’s what language is. It’s a code. It’s communication. And it’s meaning-making. And that’s the work that we’re doing as humans, just trying to make meaning of our lives and ourselves and the work that we do in it.