The Extraordinary Ordinary: A Review of Mothers of Sparta and Interview with Dawn Davies

Elizabeth Strout, in a recent interview said, “Every life, if one could see into it enough, will prove to be extraordinary.”  Dawn Davies, in her debut essay collection Mothers of Sparta, A Memoir in Pieces, shows us this is true. Davies slices her life open and invites the reader in. In some ways it’s an ordinary life; a moved-around-too-much misfit child, a somewhat lost young adult, a mother in all its forms—single mom, soccer mom, mom of a child with profound challenges. But when she renders this life on the page, with her visceral prose, hilarious details, and courageous honesty, she leaves the reader with an extraordinary gift.

 Mothers of Sparta is composed of sixteen essays, flashpoints in a life in progress. They probe subjects such as faith and death, parenthood, identity, and survival. Some are traditional first-person accounts, others vary in style and point of view. “FM D&R—1-10.06,” for example, is written as a field manual for divorce and remarriage. “Four Animals,” an essay that addresses an autoimmune disease, blends personal history, informational reporting, and lyric surrealism.

The first essay, “Night Swim,” a time-bending meditation on the lives of her daughters, told as they swim in their backyard pool, gives the reader a taste of the kind of writing to come.

It is a moonless night, dark and rare, and the heat is oppressive, the kind of heat where a
deep breath leaves you unsatisfied, suspicious that there was nothing life-giving at all in
what you’ve inhaled, and you are left hungry, wet at the pits, forehead greasy with sweat,
wishing for the night to be over, for your daughters to exhaust their energy, to cool their
dense, hot centers enough to sleep for one more night in this summer that seems to stretch
into your future like a planetary ring full of debris, circling forever around something it
can’t escape. It is thickly hot and you hate it.

The essay fractures time, flashes back to her children’s babyhood, and forward to their adulthood as Davies realizes every moment in our children’s lives is too slippery to grasp.

Davies can make you laugh and break your heart on the same page, sometimes in the same paragraph. In her essay, “Games I Play,” Davies, very pregnant and already in a precarious marriage, shares the mind tricks she plays to get through a tedious dinner party with another couple. On the drive from Boston to Rhode Island, she imagines “ejecting my husbands Smiths tape from the cassette player and flinging it out the passenger window to be snatched up by a hawk that will unravel it and thread it into a stick nest in the skies.”  Before the reader recovers from that image she imagines having the baby on her own, “because I suspect we do not have the skills to make a marriage work.”  She pictures giving birth on her hosts’ Ethan Allen coffee table, describes her feet as feeling like “mangey seal pups,” and realizes how little she knows her husband. “We are, I realize for the first time, living a lie and I do not know how to be truthful about who I really am because I am afraid he will not like the real me.”

But she is truthful about who she really is with us. She is not afraid to reveal her neuroses, her insecurities, her restlessness, her mistakes, her divorce, and her complicated feelings about parenthood on the page. In “Soccer Mom,” she struggles with what she has possibly given up to parent her three children full time, the loss of her own identity in order to assimilate with the other moms on the soccer field. While she parses it out, we get to go along for the ride.

Why do you suck so badly?  If you are like me, its because you either didn’t read the job description of what parenting would be like before you signed up, or you were not willing to extrapolate “years of extreme sleep depravation and constant chaos” from everything everyone has said since the beginning of time about parenting. It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now want out, only there’s no way out without going to prison.

Humor threads its way through all the pieces in this collection, but one essay I found especially hilarious was, “Men I Would Have Slept With,” an essay that lists who Davies would have sex with if she weren’t so happily married, and why. You’re going to have to buy the book (and you most definitely should buy the book) to see who made the cut but I will tell you this:  her choices may surprise you, and having tuberculosis is not a deal breaker.

Perhaps most powerful is the title essay, “Mothers of Sparta,” an essay that braids together the experience of raising a son with autism and conduct disorder, with the ancient parenting practices of the Spartan warrior culture. It’s brilliant and unflinchingly honest. It raises and tries to answer the big questions: what are we as a society to do with children who are atypical, dangerous even, who are not going to grow up to make us proud? The piece explores both Davies pain and fierce love for her son. Davies asks, “What is this child’s purpose? How do I direct him toward a purpose when he has no desire for anything other than feeding his desires?”

You do not have to be a mom to enjoy the essays in Mothers of Sparta. You only need to be a person who enjoys smart writing, who realizes life is messy and hard and funny and frustrating. You will see pieces of yourself floating in and out of the magical essays in this collection, and they will leave you with hope. There is nothing ordinary about that.

dawn.jpg

Dawn Davies

Betty Jo Buro:  At AWP I went to a panel on the linked essay collection. They talked about the importance of ordering your essays so that even if your essay could stand alone, it becomes more powerful because of the essays that surround it. What consideration did you give to the order of the essays in Mothers of Sparta?

Dawn Davies:  Yes! Ordering essays is important. I believe essays in a collection become more powerful and behave symbiotically next to certain essays and not others in a collection. I pay a lot of attention to that. It’s like hanging art in a gallery, I think. A piece’s neighbors matter. My editor, Amy Einhorn, and I considered a few broad, logical ideas when arranging Mothers of Sparta, such as not putting two dog essays next to each other, or not placing two terribly depressing essays next to each other. We also did not want to arrange every essay chronologically, though there is a sense of chronology in the collection overall, and the first half of the book is in chronological order. My editor was hands-on, but she trusted me to come up with the final arrangement.

When it came down to it, after considering the topics and themes and tones of each individual essay, and about thinking about not arranging similarly-structured essays together, my final decision had to do with feel. I printed each essay out, stapled it, and shuffled them like a deck of cards. Then I started arranging them on the floor. I tried things on for size by feel, for I knew very well how they felt to me: how they felt while reading them, how they felt when I wrote them. I tried to remember the feelings I had while writing them when I ordered them. I wanted some of those feelings to carry through the essays to the readers.

BJB:  Often your prose sounds like stream-of-consciousness, long sentences that take a thought and spin it out to all possible conclusions. I’m guessing this is how you think, but is this how you write?  Do your thoughts just flow onto the page or is it more tortured than that?

DD:  I think it is probably “more tortured” to know that the stream-of-consciousness voice in Mothers of Sparta is pretty much what it is like to be inside my head most of my waking hours. I am a walking “monkey mind.” It is how I think and how I write. I have so many fleeting images that go with thoughts, and both ideas and images come to me so quickly that when I write, I hope to write fast enough to get the “thought image” onto paper in a way that feels like what I am trying to convey. It only feels tortured when I have something that is there for a moment, and I get excited about it, but it disappears before I have time to get it down on the page.

BJB:  Who are your literary heroes and who do you read to get inspired?

DD:  I love this question. My literary heroes are so heroic to me that I feel like if I could make someone read everything that I have read, that person will truly “get” me. I tried to get my kids to read my favorite writers and so far, I have had no takers, and this feels tragic to me. When I look back at my development as a thinker and a reader, I can remember who I was when I was reading certain writers, so these writers remain important to me. When I was a kid I would copy the style of writers that I liked. I turned in papers written in “The Style of Vonnegut” or “The Style of Irving Stone.” Here are a few of them:

High school: Douglas Adams, Paul Fussell, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, James Herriot, Lewis Thomas, Maya Angelou, Poe, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, and many medical textbooks and journals. I also found a few books in my grandmother’s closet that I read a dozen times each: Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though when I re-read that book now, I have problems with the plot structure and pacing), Benedict and Nancy Friedman (Mrs. Mike), Kathleen Winsor (Forever Amber). I read many books, but these are the authors I re-read most often.

College: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Evelyn Waugh, Irving Stone, Alice Walker, Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear), Kingsley Amis, and everything Tolstoy, including a few biographies. I went off to college with Anna Karenina and wept my way through severe homesickness by reading that book for ten hours per day until I was finished with both it and the homesickness.

The nineties: Carol Shields, Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, V.S. Naipaul. Plus, anything else in the public library.

Two thousands: many, many biographies. And Tim O’Brien.

When I need inspiration, I will read something that is not in the genre in which I am currently writing. When I am wrestling with an essay, I’ll read big, sweeping epic stories that take me away, like a biography, or a classic novel. I like detective series books, and I like romance novels. Reading books with boilerplate patterns and plot structures are fun. When I am writing fiction, I will usually pull out some old Fussell, or some of the Davids (David Foster Wallace, David Shields, David Anton, David Sedaris, David Rakoff). Sometimes Claudia Rankine or Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. That memoir will fix what ails ya.

BJB:  There is so much humor in your writing—does this come naturally?  Is it hard to render humor on the page?

DD:  I grew up trying to be funny, because my family was funny. My dad has a real gift for telling a funny story, and my maternal grandfather had such a good sense of deadpan humor, with a twist of trickster, that I inspired to be like them. My mom and her sister also played off each other well and were quite funny to be around. I had a lot of early failures, but I actually remember working on material that I would try out on my family. Not a lot of it went over well, so I tried with my friends. By high school, I had figured out that my insight was what was funny to others, and once I figured out timing, I was on to something.

I also read humorists. Paul Fussell is very funny, and even with his serious war essays, there is a wryness in there that is delightful, and sometimes alarming, and I was always on the lookout for it. James Herrriot’s ability to surprise readers with one hilarious line at the end of a paragraph or scene was genius.

Couple all that with the comedy records albums I grew up listening to (Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, The Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor), and the comedy specials I watched as a kid, I suppose I was steeped in comedy, though I didn’t consider it a special interest at the time.

I have taught humor writing and gone to humor writing conferences, and although I won’t say it is impossible to learn, I think it is harder to learn if you weren’t deeply exposed to it as a child. It’s like learning another language. It’s harder to do as an adult. When I write funny, I don’t try especially hard to write funny. It just comes out that way at this point, though I am aware of timing, word choice, comedic tricks, and what we as a culture find funny. I suspect this is because I had years of practice (even when I wasn’t aware I was “practicing”).

BJB:  It must have taken a great deal of courage to write the essay, “Mothers of Sparta.”  How difficult was that to write and what do you hope the sharing of your story will elicit in readers?

DD:  I first wrote “Mothers of Sparta” the essay as a personal project. It acted like a valve which relieved pressure when I was about to blow when struggling with some of our family issues. Then, during a nonfiction class in graduate school, I wrote a fleshed-out version of it, trusting that the few other students in the class would help keep my dirty little family secret—the fact that I was an imperfect parent with a struggling child whose needs were not being met by any educational, medical, or social entity. After I finished it, I did not want to send it out. I was too afraid to “out my son,” since the essay dealt with sensitive issues that made most people recoil in horror.

I finally sent it out to a few places. I remember choosing Joyland, a journal I loved, largely because it had a big fiction audience and very small nonfiction component, and I thought if they published it, no one would read it. The editor of Joyland got back to me and said something like, “Um, yeah. I’d love to publish this, but I would be doing it a disservice, because we don’t do much nonfiction, and no one will read it. Go bigger.”  So, I entered the Arts & Letters nonfiction contest and won. Still, I almost pulled it after I won, out of fear of repercussions of people reading it.

When Flatiron Books accepted the memoir, I almost tore up the contract and backed out. The only reason I didn’t was the hope that perhaps other people would be helped by reading our story, and it turns out they were. I still receive emails every day about “Mothers of Sparta,” and it turns out we aren’t the only ones going through what we went through as a family. It has helped people, which is a comfort to me. Still, I worry that it will seal my son’s fate in some way. Publishing sensitive memoir material is a two-edged sword anyway but writing about sensitive family matters is stringing that two-edge sword over a canyon and walking across barefoot with sticks of fire in each hand. Pretty scary.

BJB:  What is your next project/what are you working on now?

DD:  My agent is about to start shopping my first novel, which is exciting. I am also working on a second collection of essays, and a three-book detective genre series about a single mother who ends up being a private investigator.

*

Dawn Davies is the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces. Mothers of Sparta has been an Indies Introduces Title, and was an Indies Next List in February, 2018. Her essays and stories have been Pushcart Special Mentions, and finalists for The Best American Essays. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, as well as various anthologies. She also appeared on Megyn Kelly Today. You can find out more about her at dawndaviesbooks.com.

Betty Jo Buro recently graduated from Florida International University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction.  Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Cherry Tree, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Sliver of Stone, Compose Journal, and Hunger Mountain. She lives in Stuart, Florida with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a collection of essays.

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