Meaghan Winter holds a BA from Kenyon College and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City and is at work on a novel based on “Shame Story.” Her story “Shame Story” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Shame Story”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I think I was on the subway when I wondered what prompts certain involuntary memories. It was that early, misty part of spring that still feels like winter but worse because you can’t assure yourself everything will be better in spring, and I was living in small dark room where squirrels fought in the walls, in a terrible apartment. I’d just gone through a hard breakup. At first, I approached sudden shame memories as a potential nonfiction subject. I poked around in psychology and neuroscience journals. Then I got the idea to write a short story about a researcher who wants to end shame. Grandiosity and shame are sometimes linked, so a person who believes he can end shame interested me. I modeled the researcher after the man I missed, although he changed in revisions. Writing about him and my feelings indirectly—via other people, in a made up world—was a way of moving everything in me out. After writing nonfiction, working on fiction felt so liberating, so fun. My curiosity woke me up, helped me out of that dark room.
The hardest part was showing people, says the writer of “Shame Story.”
In Doris Lessig’s The Golden Notebook the protagonist writes to herself, “And so this is the paradox: I, Anna, reject my own “unhealthy art”; but reject “healthy” art when I see it.”
I feel that way. I don’t take much from fiction (or music or film) that conveys nothing of its creator’s emotional experience, but I’m also sometimes uncomfortable seeing my own failings and wants expressed through people and situations I’ve invented. Especially in early drafts, when the prose is still messy.
Shame is such an interesting concept, and an idea that seems to have lost some power in today’s culture. Did you consciously decide to explore shame through writing, as Marcus explores Lydia’s shame through science?
Definitely, I was interested in learning more about shame and memory right from the beginning. As I wrote above, I focused on shame to externalize my own feelings, not to make some social commentary. And I think I was working out for myself to what extent it’s possible to change and still retain a sense of self.
We all feel shame, though differently, which is one of many terrible/wonderful things I’ve learned in my reading and conversations. I’m not qualified to make sweeping comments, but since paying more attention to shame I’ve starting seeing it (and urgent efforts to prevent and mask it) everywhere: in conversations about money, performances of masculinity, the fact that most faces on Facebook are smiling, etc.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
You just have to give yourself something to revise. The process is not efficient. A draft doesn’t need to be any good at first as long as you take on the work of making it better.
Poker players have this saying, “It’s all one big session.” Loss is an inevitable part of the game. There are cycles. The whole arc is what matters. I have to keep reminding myself of that.
At a certain point I can’t see what I need to change. I’m grateful to my friends who help me. The immediate intimacy in a friendship based on trading stories is one of my favorite things in the world.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
It’s fun. I fall into a concentration that I love. Like most writers, I was a shy kid who just wanted to be alone with my imagination. Everything becomes more interesting, multi-layered when I’m writing. The sense of control I get when moving around words relaxes me. I become obsessed with whatever I’m working on.
Stories have kept me company my whole life, so I hope to send my characters out to keep other people company.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m working on a novel that has grown out of “Shame Story,” so I’m still writing about Marcus and Lydia, and they keep changing. I’m back in the revision stage.
Photo credit: Rose Lichter-Marck.