Laura Leigh Abby, MFA '13, has been busy since she graduated from The New School. The year after graduation, she was selected by John D'Agata for the MFA in Creative Writing Chapbook Contest for her nonfiction submission, Absolutely Fine. While preparing that manuscript for publication, she filmed the Bravo TV reality show "The Newlyweds: The First Year," which profiled her and her wife Samantha. Abby has now published a Kindle Single, The Rush, a memoir that details an unexpected romance between college sorority sisters. MFA in Creative Writing Associate Director Lori Lynn Turner interviewed Abby about her work.
Lori Lynn Turner: How did you decide to organize the sections of The Rush as journal entries?
Laura Leigh Abby: I kept extensive journals throughout adolescence and my college years, and I’ve really relied on them to help me recall what I was feeling during specific times in my life, or just a detail that might evade me. I think journal entries can be so relatable—they’re the real, raw self—but I also didn’t want to overwhelm the narrative with them, so I chose to use them as an organizational device, and I also included them when my past words were better than anything I could write today.
Turner: There is a three-year span from the beginning of the story to the end. Were there journal entries that you cut? If so, how did you pick what to keep in and what to leave out?
Abby: I used only what felt relevant and beneficial to the story, and editorial input certainly helped me with this. I wasn’t trying to let myself off the hook, or tell this as a romantic tale. The Rush is about growing up and falling in love, and then on a deeper level it’s about self-identity and the fear in trying to find out who you are. Some of the journal entries are the rabid scribbling of a teenager in love: one moment you’re so high it’s as if you've snorted passion off of a mirror, and the next you’re down on the floor. You hate yourself, you hate your boyfriend or girlfriend, you hate everyone, and nobody could possibly understand how you feel. Those entries didn’t always work with the flow of the piece, although I included some, because I did think it important to include those manic moments that are so emotionally charged. I mean, who can’t relate to crazy young love? It makes us so very selfish.
Turner: Were you working on The Rush while you were a student in the MFA Program?
Abby: A lot of the writing I did while I was in the MFA program led to The Rush. My first published piece, “I Married My Sorority Sister,” came out while I was at The New School. I worked on that essay in Susan Shapiro's seminar and she really pushed me to make it a solid piece of writing. I thought that would be the end of writing about my life, but the interest was there, and I felt like I was at a place in my writing where I could write honestly about past experiences in a way that would be relevant to readers. One workshop with Robert Polito really allowed me to start opening up as a memoirist and focus on the writing, rather than simply telling a story about something that happened. The workshop was all women and so there was this feeling that our voices and our stories were relevant, and Robert really coaxed that out of us. There was no fear of telling the ugly truth, as long as that ugly truth was necessary to our work. That workshop taught me that a writer can cut some of the minutia and still tell the whole story.
Turner: You write very openly and honestly about relationships. In a weekend seminar I attended at The New School taught by Phillip Lopate, he told the class that we should write others as characters, and we should write about ourselves as a character. Was it difficult to write about people you are close to, and to write about yourself, as characters?
Abby: For me, this is the hardest part of writing personal essay and memoir. I’ve certainly been called out on things I’ve written, but I am never, ever looking to slander. I am incredibly lucky, however, because my wife has allowed me to hijack her life and write about it. Everyone’s not always going to like what they read about themselves, or how they’re portrayed, but my job when I am writing is to be authentic and honest so that readers get the real story. It’s easier to do this when I feel like I’m portraying myself accurately as well, and not skipping over my own shortcomings.
In 2011 Susan Cheever told my MFA workshop a more articulate version of, Writing shouldn’t be therapeutic for you. It should be therapeutic for the reader, and I’ve always kept this in mind. It’s not easy to write yourself as a character into your own story when you’re not always impressed with the ways in which you’ve behaved, but if a reader can relate to my experiences and be glad that he or she read my work, then I’ve done what I set out to do.
There’s a line I highlighted when I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” I try to keep this in mind when I’m afraid to write the truth. Sometimes I am selling someone out. Sometimes that someone is me.
Turner: Are you planning to write more of the story? What's next?
Abby: Yes! The Rush is just the beginning. In one of its earliest drafts the work spanned almost a decade, but the beauty of the Amazon Kindle Single is that it really lends itself to an approachable length for a memoir like mine, and the story in its current form allowed me to keep a tight focus. The Rush is about the beginning of a relationship and it’s about a girl—me—trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. In the next part of the story I’m something of a villain in the aftermath of the sorority years when I’m faced with an adult world that requires me to identify myself with a particular label: Straight, Gay, Bisexual. These are the issues that come later, and they’re a part of the story that is even harder to write, but these are very real struggles that people face every day, which is what compels me to write about myself and my relationship. I’ve heard from many people who feel they can relate, and who feel empowered reading a version that’s not watered down.
Laura Leigh Abby, a 2013 graduate of The New School MFA in Creative Writing program, is a writer and creator of 2Brides2Be, an online wedding resource providing inspiration for the modern lesbian bride. She is a self-described "purveyor of imperfection," whose writing gives her a voice to destigmatize and deconstruct the over-snarked idea of the "real woman." Her work can be seen in publications like Cosmopolitan, Dame Magazine, Buzzfeed and others, and she is currently working on a wedding guide—a mix of practical planning advice and memoir—which is forthcoming with Archer and Rarebird Lit in 2016. She lives in New York City with her wife and their two Pomeranians. Find her on Twitter @lauraleighabby.
Lori Lynn Turner has published in the Brooklyn Rail, Killing the Angel, and The Inquisitive Eater. She recently completed a memoir, It’s in the House, and a novella, Serena’s Home. She is the Associate Director of The New School Creative Writing Program where she also oversees the reading series. In 2003 Lori Lynn received her MFA in Nonfiction from The New School, and in 1997 she received a B.A. in Creative Writing, focusing on poetry, from San Francisco State University. Find her on Twitter @LoriLynnSerena.