A Genre-Bending Memoir That Took 10 Years to Take Shape

Lilly Dancyger on what the decade-long process of writing her book taught her about memoir, grief and becoming an artist.

A Genre-Bending Memoir That Took 10 Years to Take Shape

Over the past decade, Lilly Dancyger has contributed 11 of her own pieces to Narratively and edited many more stories in her former role as our Deputy Editor, while also writing for other outlets and editing the acclaimed essay collection Burn It Down. She also spent much of that time working on her book-length memoir, which has shifted course considerably over the past 10 years. Negative Space, which fuses personal writing, reporting, and visual art, will be published on May 1, 2021 and is available for preorder now. We talked with Lilly about the long, winding and rewarding process of writing her genre-bending memoir. 

Negative Space took you over a decade to write.  It must have had a lot of iterations! Could you give me a sense of the discovery process for what form the book would take? 

It was a very incremental process. I wasn’t able to see clearly what shape the book wanted to take until I was several years into the process. 

Originally I didn’t set out to write it as a memoir at all, it was just going to be an artist’s monograph: the story of my father’s life and his art. But throughout the writing process, everyone who read it kept asking for more of my story in it. Over time, it became a memoir, and I ended up weaving those strands together—the story of my father’s life and art, and then my story of uncovering his story and trying to make sense of it. 

I kept thinking that I had added enough of myself … Then every time I would add more and show it to somebody else to read, they would give me the same feedback. Finally, I jumped all the way in and was like, “Okay, my story is going to be a whole storyline, and I’m going to braid it in rather than trying to just put little tiny bits of my story mixed in with my father’s.”  

How did working as an editor for Narratively shape the way you approached writing, editing, and revising your own work? 

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It definitely helped me develop a sharper eye and understand that cutting and being open to new directions is part of the process. Editing other peoples’ work, I know that when I suggest big changes it’s not because there’s nothing good in the work, it’s because I care about it, think it’s good, and want it to be even better. That has helped me be a little bit less precious about my own work. 

What do you see as the role of personal writing and memoir in alleviating or reimagining grief and mourning? 

For me, and I know a lot of people who write memoir and personal essays feel this way, writing is how I figure out how I feel and what I think about things. I’m compelled to write about things that are too complicated for me to just hold in my head and figure out in my brain. I need to get them out onto the page so that I can make sense of them. 

A lot of the impetus of this project was my attempt to do that with grief, thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do with this for the rest of my life? What do I do with this grief so that it’s not festering and weighing me down?” I was ready to live my life and be a person and be excited about things. The way that I could figure out moving forward was to turn my grief into something. So, now it lives in a book and I can live my life. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about their trauma or grief? How do you put yourself in a space where you can write candidly about very sensitive material while knowing, in the back of your mind, that it’ll be published one day, and that the people you’re writing about will read it? 

I would say, first of all, take your time. It takes a long time to process and figure out how you really feel and also to decide what you’re comfortable putting out in the world. Don’t sell your most personal stories for a few bucks or so they’ll come out quickly. Give yourself time to ruminate: Some essays take years to write and that’s okay. 

Also, I think the question of how people in your life are going to react is a publishing question, not a writing question. So give yourself the space to write and think about it like it’s not ever going to happen. When it comes time to publish, then take a pause and ask yourself if there’s anything in there that you really don’t want people to read. Or just do what I did and say, “Fuck it, I’m just going to put it all in there and deal with it later.” 

In the book you discover that, in a sense, your father was teaching you how to be an artist all along, even after his death. You became an artist through writing about your father. How did this shape your identity as a writer, and how do you think it will leave an imprint on your work moving forward? 

It entirely shaped my identity as a writer and changed a lot about me as a person as well. It completely established, altered, and deepened my relationship with my own work and my understanding of myself as a creative person. I think it’s going to be the foundation of everything else that I do forever. 

I’m currently in the early stages of working on something new and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s strange to work on something new after all this time. It’s exciting and freeing, but I also feel like I have no idea what I’m doing because I’m starting over from zero. Although, I am starting at a much higher skill level than when I started this project. To write Negative Space, I had to learn how to write; I learned how to be a writer through the process of writing it. So I feel like I’m starting at a better place than I did last time but I’m also curious to see what happens. 

I have a feeling this new thing is going to take me through all kinds of unexpected stuff, and I’m going to have to learn a bunch of new stuff to do this one, too. 

What is your new project about? 

This one is not about my father, although I’m sure he’ll find his way into it somewhere. It’s an essay collection about female friendship and also a bunch of other stuff. I’m excited to work on essays partly because getting the structure of the book’s long, complicated narrative was such a headache and a nightmare. So I’m working on something smallpieces of story that are self-contained and each stand on their own. It feels more nimble being able to jump around and think about something for a few months and then think about something else. I’m going to try to not spend ten years on this one. 

At the end of the book, you talk about how when you finally finish it, you’ll have to find a new way to mourn your father. I suppose the book coming out next month will be the final step, but do you have any idea yet what new way you’ll mourn him? 

Right now, in the lead-up to publication, my life is still very much about this book. In a way, more so than before because it’s public. I don’t know what’s going to happen once the publicity pushes over and I can say that I really am done. I think it’s going to be strange, it will probably be a little sad and weird and disorienting just because I’ve been working on this for more than a third of my lifetime. I think making it a central part of my identity publicly rather than only privately is weird and uncomfortable but also good. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Lilly Dancyger’s innovative memoir Negative Space we created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.

If you live outside of the United States or the United Kingdom, you can purchase Negative Space on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.