Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

If you like beautifully-written  books about  unconventional childhoods, put Tarn Wilson’s  The Slow Farm on your reading list.   This is a fascinating book in so many ways: as a memoir,  as a look at the hippy subculture, as a story about memory, as a reflection on what it means to grow into the realization that our parents are imperfect people.  Tarn is a friend of mine from way back, and she’s also one of my favorite writers (check out her website tarnwilson.com for a sampling of her brilliant essays), so I’m thrilled to have her here today for a Q and A.  Read on to learn more about her book,  about writing memoir, and about what happens when you let your two-year-old play in the woods without adult supervision (see what I mean about “unconventional childhood”?!?)

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Give the one-minute summary of your book.

The Slow Farm is a memoir of growing up with my hippy parents on a remote island in British Columbia in the early 1970s.  My father was an idealist, and the story explores what happens when his counterculture dreams begin to crumble.

The story is told from the point of view of a small child, but between each chapter, I include “artifacts” that reveal the larger cultural forces shaping our lives, such as letters, photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and my favorite, excerpts from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.

What are the challenges of writing a book about your early childhood?

I have vivid memories of early childhood, starting from about two years old.  Early in the writing process, I experimented with strategies to access even more memories, such as focusing on the senses, writing about photographs, and drawing memory maps. However, the memories didn’t initially organize themselves chronologically or in a traditional story arc.  It took many years of reflection to discover the themes and shape of the story. It was also a challenge to find a voice that captured the innocent perspective of childhood, but was not limited by it.

One thing I found fascinating as a parent is how “hands off” your parents were — at the age of four they let you go off and wander in the woods on your own!  That’s only one of the many things that made your childhood unique.  When you look back on it as an adult, what parts of “you today” do you attribute to your parents’ parenting styles?

Great question, Ginny.  If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my two and four year old wander in the woods or swim in the ocean without supervision! At the same time, having escaped death and major injury, I’m grateful for the gifts of my parents’ philosophy of childrearing.  I’m comfortable in silence and solitude.  I’m self-entertaining. Most of all, I think when parents give their children some unsupervised free time, they have room to develop their imaginations, to experiment with new skills and interests, to fail, and to try again—all of which develop resilience, self-sufficiency, focus, and endurance. I believe when children are constantly monitored, they focus on the reactions of their parents rather than on the pure joy of exploring or mastering a new skill.

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How did writing this book change your understanding of your parents?

 Before writing this book, I was stuck in my child perspective, which is narrow and limited. Early in the process, as an exercise to broaden my view, I wrote every scene from the point of view of each family member.  It was a revelation to realize how young my parents were. (When I was born, my mother was 20 and my father was 25.)  That alone explains many of their choices. I also saw more clearly how my parents were formed by their own childhoods and roles in their families. Most importantly, I realized how profoundly my parents were shaped by their times—how much we all are.  I researched the historical events that shaped their generation, read the counterculture books and essays my father loved, and listened to my parent’s favorite musicians. I saw the ways in which my parents’ decisions were in dialogue with powerful cultural forces. I began to understand, not just where I fit in my family, but where my family fit in the flow of history.

A major theme of your book is the theme of idealism giving way to reality.  Can you say a little bit more about that as it played out in the lives of your family?

 I have a theory that most of us all come into this world hardwired to worship our parents.  It’s a survival-of-the-species strategy.  As infants and children, we need to learn so much, quickly and efficiently, in order to navigate our new, complicated world, so we absorb without question everything our parents say or believe.  Slowly, as we mature, we become part of a larger universe, develop our reasoning skills, and begin to see our parents’ weaknesses.  This can be a painful process, which we all do with different degrees of graciousness.  If our parents have many faults, we may go through periods of anger.

Becoming a mature adult means, eventually, seeing our parents in their fullness:  understanding the forces that shaped them, accepting their limitations, and acknowledging their strengths and the gifts they have given us. Some people do this naturally—most of us have to go through the process again and again as we fall in love, make a new friends, or learn to see ourselves clearly.

In that sense, my story is everyone’s story.  But my memoir has an extra layer.  The counterculture was highly idealistic: hippies believed they had the power to create heaven on earth, to live in love and harmony with each other and the land, to eradicate war, to bring equality to all.  When the dream didn’t materialize, they had choices to make.  Some hippies I knew changed with the times and become successful business people, albeit with an eco-groovy bent.  Some turned to drugs to escape disappointment or to maintain the feeling of love, connectedness, and meaning—and got lost there. Some tried to continue the lifestyle and lived on the shrinking margins. Most had to find some kind of balance between noble social ideals and the necessary practicalities of day-to-day living.

For the rest of his life, my father seemed pulled between his hippy ideals and his desire to be a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two, so he’d pendulum between the extremes. Both my sister and I are in fields that serve the community (city planning and teaching) but like having a regular paycheck.  The students I teach today seem to have reached a perfect balance: they are neither as naïve as the hippies, nor as materialistic and self-serving as those I graduated with in the 80s.  They hunger to make a difference in the world, seem to have a realistic sense of difficulties, and are committed to the work.  It’s inspiring!

One unique aspect of your book are the “artifacts” that are included throughout — bits of letters, photos, the books that shaped your parents’ philosophies, etc.  Say more about those.

The artifacts allow me to keep the child voice while still providing adult context.  I thought very carefully about where to place the artifacts; however, I don’t analyze or interpret them.  I hope that leaves room for readers to engage with the story and develop their own conclusions.  For example, I place quotes from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (such as ones that advise parents to avoid the enforcement of table matters, let children swear, and expose them to adult sexuality) next to scenes that show that philosophy in practice. I hope readers will arrive at their own complex conclusions about the counterculture lifestyle.

What advice do you have for other aspiring memoir writers?

There are wonderful resources for memoir writers: local courses, online courses, and shelves of useful and inspiring books to encourage and guide.  But, usually the biggest obstacle for anyone hoping to write a memoir is a sabotaging interior voice. It will tailor its message to your favorite insecurities, but will usually sound something like this: Your story isn’t important enough to write. You don’t have time. You don’t have skill. You don’t have a story. Writing your memoir is self-indulgent and narcissistic. You will upset your family. If you have trauma in your life, the message might argue your story is too dark to share.

All these messages are self-sabotaging distractions.  If you have a persistent desire to tell your story (through memoir, poetry, painting, performance, storytelling etc.), honor it. I believe it is a divine impulse, and that impulse is leading you to healing, to understanding, to a greater sense of your own wholeness. If you are like most writers, your process will be challenging: you will have to fight your own self-doubts, wrestle with the language, learn new skills, perhaps re-live uncomfortable memories, and be willing to see yourself and your past with fresh eyes.

Although everyone’s process is different, most new memoir writers benefit from a regular writing practice, in which you generate new material—quickly, without judgment, and without a too defined sense of where you are going. (If you solidify your story too early in the process, you may miss important discoveries.) Once you have a mass of material and, hopefully, some themes which have surprised you, you can begin to discover the organization of your story and refine your language. (A book I recommend to help you craft your raw material is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.)  Whether or not your work is ever traditionally published, your story will polish and transform you, and that will be worth the effort.

 The Slow Farm is available from Ovenbird Books and from Amazon.com.  Be sure to check out tarnwilson.com for a look at Tarn’s essays.

5 Responses to Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

  1. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating book, both for the subject and for the writing style. The interview itself is fascinating and beautifully written and I found the writing tips intriguing (I’m always curious about process). Thank you both so much for sharing!

  2. Yes! Tarn Wilson makes some good points. The value of understanding how events and the culture of the time has shaped not only us, but our parents, first, and then us, is important insight. We, like our parents were, are so much a product of our times. Consider music: The current generation typically has difficulty appreciating the music of the parent’s generation because the direct cultural ties of those times are lost on the younger set. The impact of the great big-band music of the thirties and forties on our parent’s sensibilities was heavily influenced by the depression and the onset of World War Two. She is right-on by highlighting the importance of culture and the times. I also like her closing comment, “Your story will polish and transform you.” Those of us who love to write have certainly discovered that. Was it Shakespeare who advised to “know thyself?” I plan to read Tarn’s book.

  3. As usual, Tarn has an amazing voice that inspires and comforts. Can’t wait to read the book. Thank you for this interview!

  4. Lynda Matthias

    I have read this wonderful book many times and find new wisdom with each reading. I have shared it with many friends who are on the second and third readings as well. A book to be cherished both in content and language.

  5. Can’t wait to read this! Such an insightful interview – on family, on memory, on writing. Thank you both.

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