In her memoir Poor Your Soul, which will be published by Soho Press in January, Ptacin reflects on what it felt like to keep quiet about what was happening to her. “I won’t be bringing this story into workshop class,” she writes. “If I did, they’d ask me where the story is going. I’d tell them I don’t know, and they’d explore the possibilities from a writer’s point of view, turn it into some narrative. They’d have to examine elements of the story. The components: Daughter of respectable Catholic parents gets pregnant out of wedlock. Baby will not live. Here lies the conflict. So whom are we rooting for?”
Not long after she returned home to New York City, Ptacin would terminate the pregnancy, marry her boyfriend, and set about reckoning with everything that had happened. In part, that meant writing about it. While her book delves deeply and powerfully into the reality of abortion—with a detailed account of undergoing a prolonged, painful medical procedure, one that’s as politicized as it is misunderstood—it’s about much more than that. Ptacin weighs all kinds of choices and all kinds of loss.
Alongside her own story, she untangles her mother’s experience of immigrating from Poland to the U.S. and making a life for herself, marrying and having children, and losing one of them, Mira’s younger brother Julian, in a car accident. Beautifully and candidly, Ptacin parses the strength of attachment, the afterlife of grief, and the often-tortured path to becoming a grown-up.
Today, Ptacin lives on Peaks Island, off the coast of Portland, Maine, with her husband, young son, infant daughter (who was born just a few weeks after we spoke), and two sweet dogs. Until its recent (and hopefully temporary) closure, she taught writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies; she also teaches writing to women inmates at the Maine Correctional Center. Ptacin’s recent article about the shackling of pregnant prisoners was published in Elle Magazine. Among other publications, her writing has also appeared in The Rumpus, Poets & Writers, and Guernica. She is founder of the Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series.
Your book tells different but closely connected personal and family stories. From your early sense that these were stories you wanted to tell to your later understanding of how the pieces fit together—how did the narrative that became the book come together?
After everything happened, I went back to grad school [at Sarah Lawrence]. I was totally shaken up, and it hit me what the fuck had just happened in my life: I was 28, had just lost a baby, and gotten married. Before that, I was just a 28-year-old doing her thing. I couldn’t write about anything else because I was so depressed. I couldn’t really think about anything else. I was so angry. And I was sort of in denial that I was using writing as therapy, but I think I was. Once I had written these different stories about my experience, and about my family, I was discussing them with a great instructor I had, Suzanne Hoover. I didn’t see it at the time, but she said, “You’re writing about women who lost a child who they wanted to save.” And she was talking about my mom and me.
I was writing essays that became chapters. I spent probably two years looking at everything like a structural engineer, and seeing how the stories fit together. And then I started writing in the rest, which was easy because it had all already happened and all of it was true. You know those posters, you stare at them for a while and a 3D image comes out? It was kind of like that. I just had to sit with it for a long, long time and see how the major events in my life led to this, which led to this, which led to this.
What has it been like to be getting ready to publish a book about a very different (if not so very distant) part of your life, when the parts of your life that figure into that story have changed so much?
If all this hadn’t happened—and I’m not grateful it did, it was horrible—but I wouldn’t have all of these things that I appreciate so much. It was kind of like the misery was worth it. Part of the reason I am where I am now is because of where I was then.
When I first tried to sell the book I was not at peace; it was just so important for me to have it happen—like it would make everything worth it. I would take rejections personally, and it would make me so upset. I thought that I would feel validated by someone accepting the book—accepting my life and my story. For years, I didn’t feel complete without the book being sold, but I knew it was unhealthy of me to feel that way. I had a therapist at the time who told me to literally put the book in a box and bury it in the yard. But I kept sending it out.
So last October, when I found out the book was going to be published, I was like: Okay, you got what you wanted, so now you have to be a big girl and handle it in a very healthy, balanced way.
Because it deals with abortion, the book has an inherent a political dimension. How important is that to you?
I’m not hugely involved in political action. My friend Kassi Underwood is coming out with a book next year about her abortion, and it’s more of a journey of healing. She’s very involved in pro-voice groups; she’s a spokesperson for Exhale. I love that she’s doing that. I decline to do that kind of stuff because my beat is a little broader—I want to keep writing about all these different parts of women’s lives. I don’t see my book as an abortion book; I just hate the labels. It’s a topic that’s usually shelved in feminist studies or under political genres. To me this is a trade book, just as much as any book about finding a husband or a book about any kind of journey.
The other day, I was texting with a friend of mine who’s pregnant, and she went into labor. And then I got a text from another friend who was pregnant and just found out that she had had a miscarriage, and she had to go in for a D&C the next day. So both these women are sitting in the hospital, and when they’re in their cars driving home, no one knows what their stories are or what they’ve just been through. That’s why I don’t want to pay much attention to whether this book is commercially successful, as long as women can relate to it and it makes certain women feel less alone.
A teacher of yours in grad school first identified your beat as “the uterus and the American dream,” and it’s description you’ve really embraced. It can be hard to nail down your own area of interest in such a pithy way. What did it spark for you?
It was Vijay Seshadri, in Sarah Lawrence’s MFA writing program. He’s a poet, and the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life. When he said it I was resistant, because I wanted to write about everything. But he was always 15 steps ahead of me. Now I realize that rather than identifying a genre, he put a label on the glasses that I see the world through. I can still write about anything I want to write about, but I can’t help but see it this way. I can’t help but take this angle.
The book I’m working on now is nonfiction about a group of mediums or spiritualists—psychics—who live on a camp in Northern Maine. It’s a community of little cabins that’s been around since the 1800s. People have been coming there for years and years, mostly women, to practice communicating with the dead. When I started doing research, I started to see whom these women were connected to: the suffragettes and abolitionists and other progressive groups. From there, I started seeing it as a story about women’s intuition. Whereas someone else might be writing about people going back to the land, or whether its really possible to be psychic.
A little while ago you tweeted “Today is good, you guys! I’m ENJOYING writing!” What was making the writing so enjoyable at the time? And was that enjoyment unusual?
I write really well when I know what the hell I’m talking about it. I wait until I know what I have to say or when there’s a question I’m trying to solve. To me, writing is thinking for a really long time, reading, subconsciously gathering what you want to pour out onto the page. When I’m writing I try to draw it out first, I use pen and paper and make outlines and then move things all over the place, and at the same time I have a list of scenes that I want to make sure are included. I’m a big proponent of the thesis statement, so I make sure I have either a thesis statement or a question that everything that’s included is going to answer. With the book I’m working on now, I’m looking for some kind of answer, and that’s what the book will be.
That moment was good timing: I wasn’t rushing guiltily, at the last minute, to finish a story, I was emotionally motivated to sort of vomit my words onto the page. I’m not sure what I was working on that day: I just finished a thing for Tin House about the spiritualist camp. And I just finished a piece for Elle Magazine about the illegal shackling of pregnant inmates. That story just wrote itself. Now I’m working on this other piece, about writing about trauma. When I was teaching in the prison, every single one of those women had been traumatically sexually abused—and now they all happened to be in prison for some reason. I found out some crazy stories about why they were in jail. Out of ten students, I think six of them have murdered their husbands. But these women are not defined by what they’ve done. They all have stories that led them to that.
What does it mean to your work to live on Peaks Island—this kind of magical, remote island—especially having lived in New York and having it left it looking for a certain kind of life?
Being here definitely changes the urgency. When I was in Brooklyn the literary scene was like cocaine to me: who’s who, who wrote the latest book, do I have it. Instead of going for fun, going to readings would be about making sure someone knew I was there. When I was doing Freerange it was really fun at first, and then it became this machine that was taking over my life. Now I feel pretty out of touch with that scene, but that’s okay, because at the end of the day it’s about writing good stories.
The literary scene here is small, but healthy. The writers here are legit. There’s stuff going on—it’s kind of the same writers again and again—but I don’t go to readings anymore. I can be human again and observe things without feeling like I’m doing it for other writers. Here I’m just doing it for myself and hoping somebody wants to read it. But I do miss my New York writing family. I come back sometimes and it’s really good to connect and gossip.
In a sort of easy (if irresistible) shorthand, I’ve seen lots of people compare writing and publishing a book to having a baby. You’re due to give birth to your second child in less than a month and your book comes out soon after that. What do you think of that metaphor?
I know what it’s like when you birth a baby: You go into this nesting mode where it’s just you and the baby, and you hide out. And you take care of it and make sure it doesn’t die. People will want to visit you, and you don’t want them to, really, because it’s just too much. But with birthing a book you’ve got to go out there and give it to the world. It’s kind of scary; it’s not yours anymore.
Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m actually having a baby; I can really put my love and energy into the next thing, rather than still holding on to the book. I know everything that’s in there is truthful and sincere, and now it’s time to move on to the next thing so I can focus on what’s alive and real and present in my life.