Interview with Melissa Knox, Runner Up in the Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, May 16, 2021


Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press in 2019. Her recent writing has appeared in Image Journal, Another Chicago Magazine, and Lamplit Underground. She writes a blog, The Critical Mom. Read more of her writing here:

----------Interview by Renee Roberson
WOW: Melissa, congratulations once again and thank you for joining us here today! It can be difficult when writing about grief. What was the process like for you in developing in writing “Widow’s Walk?” Were there times you had to walk away from it and sort through things in your mind before returning to the page? What advice would you give other writers tackling these types of topics? 

Melissa: I began the essay with the image of the architectural formation--common in New England--of the widow's walk: a platform with a railing built on the roof of a house as a lookout for a captain's wife trying to see if her husband's ship had come in or sunk. I think it's often good to begin with an image and try to pull a feeling or an idea out of it--an idea I got from Ann Hood, but I believe it originated with William Carlos Williams. I discarded the widow's walk as I was revising--realizing that the walks I take to turn over thoughts in my head were more important to the process of getting used to the idea that my husband is really gone. Whenever I'm out walking I talk to him as if he were there and could offer advice, and I imagine his advice. Grief is excruciating--the price of love is grief--but understanding that and being able to put some of the feeling into words is a relief. I want to capture the unexpected moments of grief: one minutes I'm pretending he can actually hear me and suddenly the horror of his absence comes upon me. Then I walk fast, until I feel nothing. I write and re-write. Sometimes the thought or image I begin with stays; sometimes I realize it was just something I needed to get me going--that it doesn't belong in the essay in the end. When I'm stuck writing about grief or anything else, I take a walk or get on my cross-trainer. Or I eat chocolate, but I try to go for the former rather than the latter. 

WOW: Thank you for explaining this so beautifully, and I am so sorry for your loss. Your memoir, “Divorcing Mom,” details your experience growing up with a psychoanalyst who brought immense harm into your family unit. What has the response to the book been like so far from readers? 

Melissa: Responses have run the gamut from astonishment--readers who don't believe the analyst (or my mother) could really have done and said the things they did say and do to compliments about my resilience to complaints about "another navel-gazing" memoir. Because of COVID, plans for translations are still somewhat delayed. 

WOW: Your bio mentions you’ve written many scholarly articles on 19th-century writers? Who are some of your favorites and why? 

Melissa: Oscar Wilde is a big favorite--he's witty and also very wise. He is a philosopher as well as a psychologist. Before the 1960s many critics regarded him as merely clever, someone who could reverse the elements of an epigram just to show off his intellectual gifts. But these reversals were re-thinkings and insights into the problems of his (and often our) culture: for instance, when he quipped "Divorces are made in heaven," he was playing on the delusional belief that "marriages are made in heaven" and commenting on the extreme social and financial difficulties of getting a divorce at the end of the nineteenth century, especially for women, who could lose their children as well as their money and become social outcasts. Considering these and other difficulties, anyone who successfully landed a divorce felt as though it was "made in heaven." I admire Harriet Jacobs' bravery in telling the story of her escape from slavery--outwitting a jealous master and finding her way from North Carolina to relative safety in Brooklyn, NY. Frances Burney's (she was the Danielle Steele of her day) letter about her mastectomy--for anesthesia, she was given a glass of wine--is heartbreaking; it's gratifying to know she lived another thirty-odd years after her operation and shocking to hear that she felt pity for her traumatized surgeon. I like the efforts to define and describe women's sexuality in Emily Dickinson's and Christina Rossetti's poems--especially Dickinson's "Wild Nights" and Rossetti's "Goblin Market." I admire Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater--a tell-all story of his addiction, and note that he wrote some of the best criticism on comic relief in Shakespeare's Macbeth. 

WOW: Oh wow, that's a comprehensive list and now I'm taking notes (I was already a Christina Rossetti fan, though!) You also have a blog, The Critical Mom, that you update regularly. What is that blog primarily used for and do you recommend writers create one if they haven’t already? 

Melissa: My tell-all blog is a dumping ground for every thought I ever had. Sometimes I take up public issues like German bureaucracies and the very slow rollout of the corona vaccines. Other times I pop up a fun recipe. Occasionally I tell a family anecdote about child-rearing or the German educational system and offer advice.

WOW: Being a published writer of your caliber requires many hours of writing, revising and submitting. How do you structure your day in order to set yourself up for success?

Melissa: I don't structure my day enough. When I'm lucky, I wake up between four and five in the morning, when nobody needs for me to check out 269 different types of some urgently needed article of clothing or wants dinner or a cup of tea or a conversation. I am lucky my teenagers want conversation and I love to talk to them, but writing is best done with no interruptions at all. An interruption-free life is almost impossible, but I buck myself up with stories of Jane Austen writing in her parlor, throwing her manuscript under a blotter whenever someone entered the room. 

I tend to write very early in the morning and very late at night, and not to get enough sleep. That's the result of doing three jobs: being a mom, teaching, and writing. But I do try to follow one rule: "Produce 800 words per day, no matter how awful." Doing so--when I do this--generates material I can often use, and helps me think. I keep two journals, one handwritten and one online, the latter called "Thoughts to Put in a Box," as in undigested, disturbing unhappy moments I don't understand and want to record and think about. 

WOW: I love the idea of forcing yourself to write 800 words per day, and think that is something I should aim for myself. Journaling is also a powerful tool for any writer. Melissa, thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions and we look forward to reading more of your work!


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