On the first night of HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in 2017, I sat in a darkened back corner of the lower level “Commons on Vine” space of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Marriott Convention Center and listened to a handful of attendees read short pieces of their work at the conference’s open mic. It was late and, exhausted after a day of travel and my own reading and conversation earlier that evening as part of the Debut Author Panel, I was about to quietly sneak away and head up to my room when a petite young woman with an obvious baby bump stepped up onto the makeshift stage and began introducing the context of the piece she was about to share. There was something in her earnest description of revisiting her Jewish heritage through her grandfather’s experience during the Holocaust in the wake of her father’s death by suicide less than two years earlier that kept me rooted to my seat. Her essay was poignant, and, as she read, I recognized intersections in our stories of losing beloved fathers, and I felt a stirring of kinship.
This was my first introduction to author and founder of Moving Forewords, Dana Mich. Two years later, I am grateful to call her a friend. Since that night, I’ve gotten to know Dana and learned so much more about her story and her work, and I’ve been inspired by her sincerity and passion. I’ve shared in conversations with her about the challenges and rewards of bringing painful experiences to the page and shaping them into something meaningful for others, about the ongoing inadequacies we all feel when we embark on this writing journey, about the ups and downs of life and motherhood. I’ve celebrated her writing successes, including the publication of her powerful essay, “The Erosion of Stone,” in Tin House Magazine following the deadly 2017 rally in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. And, I’ve embraced her vision to create a space of support for other memoirists and been privileged to join with a group of talented writers to play a role in helping her bring that vision to life in the shape of Moving Forewords. I recently asked Dana to share more about her plans for this collective and her current writing project, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about our gifted leader.
Melanie Brooks: You are the founder of Moving Forewords and the linchpin that connects the writers in this group. What prompted you to establish this community of memoirists and what is your ongoing vision for the collective?
Dana Mich: When I began writing my memoir, I immediately fell in love with the genre. Using words to shed light on my largely unspoken personal experience, immersing myself in the curative wellspring that is storytelling, witnessing the transformative power language had on my identity, connecting with readers who I lifted up in some way with my voice—these are the experiences that writing true, first-person accounts offers, and I’m lucky to have experienced a bit of them all. But as rewarding as this art form can be, the work that goes into it is even more challenging. We memoirists are in the business of breaking silences, of offering private experiences up to public scrutiny and disowning deep-seated shame. And so added to my infatuation with the genre is my admiration for those who dare to write it. I see memoirists’—particularly women memoirists’—strength and persistence as infectious, and so my vision for the collective has been to build a tight-knit community of authors who share in this same calling, who are there for one another when the going gets tough (trolls, inner-demons, and gatekeepers, oh my) and who are audacious enough to be a light for others by sharing their experiences—both in life and in the writing about that life.
MB: Your educational background is in Human Biology and Public Policy and you began your career in the nonprofit sector, so your road to writer-hood has not been what some might label “the traditional path.” When did you first recognize that writing was what you wanted to devote your time and energy to?
DM: Central to the “hero’s journey” is the notion that at the climax of a story, something must die for the protagonist in order for something new to be born. Surviving my dad’s suicide was that experience for me. It’s what first brought me to the page, and what first taught me that art can heal. When I say that I became enamored with memoir writing—I mean it in an etymological sense: Amor. Heart. Love. I needed the fist of muscle in my chest to start beating again. Therein lies my passion for the craft.
And you’re right: My journey to writing certainly isn’t traditional. But I’m beginning to realize that I cleaved less from my educational path than my educational path cleaved from my true purpose. My maternal grandfather (in his spare time) was a poet and memoirist who tape-recorded stories for me and my sister to listen to every day at lunchtime. My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher who took it upon herself to teach me—before my memory even fully formed—how to read in both English and in Hebrew. My mom was a linguistics major whose 30+ year career was built on language—its elements, its symbols, and its utilization by people and countries in conflict.
As for me: just before my thirteenth birthday, I was—as they say—”called to the Torah.” (That really Big Important Book.) I took a silver yad in my hand and touched it to the black, vowelless lettering on the scrolls, and chanted the portion that had been allotted to me. (If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the symbol of a wand, or the notion that in using it, our words are imbued with a divine power… well, there you have it.) The truth is, I’ve always been immersed in language and story, and I’m fortunate to know now why I’m so spellbound by it.
MB: Last year, you wrote a powerful piece for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog called “The Proverbial Apple: Imposter Syndrome” in which you lay bare and then challenge your insecurities [which are, in fact, all of our insecurities] about your place in the writing world. What would you say to other writers who fear that their nontraditional paths to the writing life might make them less legitimate?
DM: The greatest lie we’ve ever told ourselves, in this age of hyper-education, of specialization, of obsession with study, is that we need to earn the right to do the thing that lives in our bones. Look to hieroglyphics and cave paintings and the age-old tradition of oral storytelling: language and lore are what make us human. These systems of sculpting narratives were devised long before any university was. We spend our whole lives building ourselves up in the name of erudition when what we’re all really trying to do is get back to the source.
Being born is your birthright to storytelling. Don’t let anyone (most importantly, yourself) stand in the way of your own unique pursuit.
MB: I know you are hard at work on your own memoir, Uncaged: A Memoir of Sisterhood After Suicide Loss, which explores, among other things, the impact of your father’s death by suicide. What has the process been like for you as you’ve endeavored to give this trauma narrative shape? Have there been particular hurdles that you’ve encountered along the way?
DM: For starters, I’ve written and ditched an entire manuscript. The hurdle, there, was time. I needed some emotional distance from my dad’s death to really see the narrative for what it was and also understand what would resonate most deeply with readers. The first manuscript was for survival. The second, though there will be some overlap (same crisis and climax, different arc and plot and themes) will be a completely different exercise. And it will be for thriving.
As for the writing itself, I suffer terribly from perfectionism—the mind’s false insistence that there is one “right” approach when it comes to writing. That hurdle is more like a dam that holds back the creative waters, that doesn’t allow them to flow where they’re pulled to flow. I’m slowly teaching myself how to dismantle that terrible barricade, though, and to just let the first draft out. (…Did we mention the planned title is “Uncaged”?)
MB: A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with Moving Forewords’ own Lara Lillibridge and two other writers about some of the unique challenges that we face when we are writers and parents. You have a beautiful eighteen-month-old daughter, Audrey, who obviously keeps you very busy. How has becoming a parent changed your approach to your writing?
DM: Writing requires you to find beauty in the small, ordinary moments, and there is no truer parallel than with motherhood. A cute anecdote: I’ve never talked to Audrey about dreams—I have no idea how I would begin to explain the concept to her—but the other morning, when I asked if she had nice dreams, she answered with some certitude. So I asked what she dreamed about, and she said, “Choo choo.” She’s obsessed with trains these days, so I have to believe that on some level, she knew what I was referring to and answered earnestly. Was it the quiet wonder in my voice? The fact that she was still rubbing her eyes? I don’t know, but it was a pretty special moment, witnessing her pick up on subconscious cues, embracing something ephemeral, and intimating to me her experience. To write, you have to invite in this exact kind of curiosity. You have to make yourself as impressionable and hungry for life as a toddler. And yet, at the same time, you have got to learn patience. Before, I was in a hurry with my writing. Now I’m not. (Though it’s certainly frustrating when I need the time and can’t find it.) As for writing and motherhood, I’m in both for the long haul. They are my life, and I am committed to letting both unfold organically.
MB: In founding Moving Forewords, you have fully embraced the notion that in the midst of the hard work of bringing our stories to the page, writers need a community of support. How have you benefited personally from the support of this group and what can other memoirists gain from this space?
DM: Earlier, you asked what I would say to other writers who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, and I said that being born is our birthright to storytelling. That’s indeed what I would say—to someone else. Meanwhile, I have no problem assuring myself that I will never succeed as a writer; that I’ll never get a book deal; that my efforts are and will always be futile—I am fully capable of going straight down that self-debasing rabbit hole. (What the hell?!) This is why community is so critical—especially for women writers, who I know are nodding their heads in unison: not just to give to others in the way that we so expertly do, but to hear ourselves offer the kindnesses we also deserve to receive. Over and over and over again until they sink in.
This is exactly what I’m gaining from the group. And the power of it is immense and immeasurable.
MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of yourself with us, Dana! And thank you for opening this space of support where others can learn from your hard-earned insights and those of the other members of this collective and know that they have allies on the writing journey.