Have you ever just read something at just the right moment and think, “How is it possible to be reading this at exactly the time I need to hear it?”
Finding those moments are rare, but let me tell you. I felt that in at least half of the essays that comprise Mary Laura Philpott’s new collection I Miss You When I Blink.
The collection chronicles moments Philpott’s life that have becoming defining moments that have all added up together to create the person she was and now is. As she reiterates through the essays, we’re constantly turning into someone new and sometimes it’s okay to long for the person you were before and to be excited to meet the next version of yourself. It’s a collection of stories both sweet and relatable, difficult and profound, uplifting and downright funny.
Mary Laura discusses post partum depression, perfectionism, the love she shares with her husband and children, how fear of change can be both daunting and rewarding and the need for alone time in order to find your own peace. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and I Miss You When I Blink will remind you that remaining in the present is one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give yourself.
Here’s what Mary Laura had to say about her new book.
Congratulations! I Miss You When I blink is finally in stores. How does it feel?
It’s so much fun to see it in bookstores. I feel like I’ve been responsible for taking it on a really long train ride, and we finally got to the destination, and now I’m dropping it off and going, “You made it here. Good luck! Have fun!” What happens to it from here is beyond my control.
The book was recently named the #1 Indie Next pick by booksellers across America. That’s a huge honor. Who did THAT feel?
The people who work in independent bookstores are super-readers. That is, they read a lot, and they’re always thinking about which books they’re going to place in whose hands. For them to choose this book as their favorite during the month it came out was a tremendous vote of confidence. I’m so grateful.
What’s the reception been like since the release?
I’m probably the last person who can or should answer that question, because out there in the world, the book is meeting readers in places where I’m not. I’m not seeing most of how it’s received. I can tell you anecdotally that I’ve been surprised and honored by how many people have come up to me at readings or made comments on social media to share some personal tidbit about their own lives — like, “This book made me feel so understood. Let me tell you this thing that happened to me, so you’ll realize why.”
Writing a memoir seems completely daunting. Some writers find sharing personal aspects of themselves such a raw way instead of sheathing it in fiction to be terrifying. What made you choose memoir?
Well, I don’t know how to write fiction. The essay seems to be my most natural format. But a memoir or essay collection isn’t necessarily more raw than fiction. In fact, I think a good nonfiction book requires as much imagination as a novel. The character you’re reading in this book may be based on me — she is me — but this isn’t my journal. It’s not a story I’m telling you out loud in a conversation. It’s a composed piece of writing in which I’ve chosen which pieces of plot and dialogue to include, just like a fiction writer would. Thinking of it that way helps it feel less like I’m exposing my life to strangers and more like I’m just writing a book. Just like creating a painting or a sculpture or a song, writing a book means creating a work of art, whether it’s based on made-up events or real ones. In that way, the final product has some distance from real life.
I’m a huge memoir fan. (I once went through a phase where I read only memoirs.) Do you feel the shift in audiences gravitating more towards memoir? Why or why not?
It’s interesting you say that. I have indeed seen readers getting more into memoir lately. Maybe it’s because there are so many good memoirs coming out these days. Maybe it’s because there’s so much discord within our country lately and people are subconsciously looking to understand each other better, so they’re drawn to stories about real people? I’m not sure.
Instead of the typical memoir flow of starting at one point and linearly following until a specific endpoint, you chose essays. Did you find this harder or easier? And what was the deciding factor in the format?
The essay seems to be the form my brain prefers when it comes to working out what I think about something. I like the efficiency of essays. The shorter length forces you to be economical and purposeful in your writing. You can’t wander around pointlessly or languish too long on a point when you have space constraints. And piling up a stack of essays on a theme feels like the best of all worlds to me — you get these satisfying, discrete pieces of writing, but then they build upon one another and converse with one another. It’s a format I enjoy reading, too.
Something that you talk about right away in the titular essay is the idea that women are so often presented with either/or choices. We have have it all or be a total mess, etc. Was that the catalyst for this collection?
It’s certainly an idea that drives me nuts. And the more essays I wrote, the more I could see that one of my most frequent personal battles was the struggle to choose choice A or choice B when with a little creativity and a less rigid mindset, I could create options C, D, or E.
I’m only 29, but a lot of that first essay resonated with me. I’m always thinking about how I’ll never get that time back, that I swear I was just 18, that I don’t have enough time to live abroad. I believe that was the perfect first essay, because it connects you with your audience immediately and sets up the rest of the book. Are you hoping that’s the case for most of the readers that pick up the book?
Oh, thank you for saying that. It delights me how this book is finding its readers in all sorts of different age groups. No one is exempt from the passage of time. We all feel it. That first essay got moved around a lot in prior drafts of the book, but I kept coming back to placing it at the beginning for the very reasons you mention here. It seemed important to set up why the rest of the essays even matter. (Also, not to get us off the subject, but you DO have time to live abroad. You’re 29! You have time to do anything.)
Another thing that resonated with me is how extreme ambition drives perfectionism. I think that’s something that a lot of people deal with and aren’t very open about. I know I wasn’t open about it. How was writing this book through the lens of your own perfectionism?
Having grown up in a household where a lot of emphasis was put on grades and having been born with whatever sort of natural perfectionist tendencies I have in my wiring, it’s easy to see how I became a type-A person and developed a lot of exhausting workaholic tendencies. It gives me some relief just to acknowledge it — to say, “Ah, I don’t really have to respond to every email in my inbox right this minute. That’s just my brain trying to get everything perfect.” Of course, I wanted this book to be the best book it could possibly be — who doesn’t want their book to be perfect? — and I worked through many, many drafts to get it that way. But ultimately one of the comforting things about being a lifelong reader is knowing that no book is truly perfect. So I try to remind myself of that.
Of all the true pictures painted in this book, the one that stood out the most to me, and perhaps would to many millennials, is in the essay about your spouse — when you say that being married doesn’t make you a whole person, it just makes you a married person. We have this idea that being married makes us a more complete, adult version of ourselves when really it’s just something we do. It’s not indicative of where we’re at in life. Were you hoping that would be something readers remembered?
So often we go around looking for the thing that will make us feel complete — be it a person, a job, or a milestone like home ownership or having kids. I kept having to learn (and still do) that there is no finish line. There’s no checklist I can mark off and come to feel like I’ve accomplished becoming myself. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that, so she’d relax a bit.
In essence, you state that the only static thing in life is change. We change careers, we change were we live, we change who we’re with and the person we are. It’s all a series of changes. Would you say that’s a main theme?
Oh, sure. It’s certainly something I’ve had to learn and re-learn.
What was your favorite essay to write?
I enjoyed writing different essays for different reasons, but I really did have fun with “A Letter to a Type A Person in Distress.” It’s different from the others in that it’s more of a direct address to the reader. To a certain type of reader, I should say — a reader who’s very much like me.
Are you working on another collection? If so, what’s it about? If not, what would you want to release a collection about?
Not yet! We’ll see…
(Megan’s Note: That sounds like she has something going on that she’s not telling us about!)
What was the last great book that you read?
Oh my goodness, this is hard one for me to answer. It’s part of my job as someone who writes about books and works in a bookstore to read constantly, so there are so many! If you’re looking for something great that’s on shelves right now, I’d say in fiction, I really enjoyed Polly Rosenwaike’s short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You. And in nonfiction, Helen Ellis’s Southern Lady Code is a drily funny, brilliant collection of essays.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I hope readers feel seen and understood, but I also hope they think about themselves and their lives in a new way. I hope the world looks a little different when they look up from this book. And I hope they tell their friends about it.
So, readers. This is me telling you about it. It’s a delightful book that brought me so much joy and had me constantly screaming, “I THOUGHT THAT WAS JUST ME!” It’s a fantastic, illuminating read that I was so happy to have come across my path.
I Miss You When I Blink is available now. Thank you so much to Mary Laura Philpott for sharing this with us!