First Sentence Interview Series: Nancy Stearns Bercaw, Author of “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is Nancy Stearns Bercaw, who has written for publications around the world including the New York Times, Huffington Post, Korea Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, MariaShriver.com, U.S. News & World Report, and Abu Dhabi’s Tempo Magazine. She is the author of Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey through Her Father’s Memory. In 2009, Nancy was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at the University of South Florida where she swam on scholarship from 1982-1986 and was a 17-time All-American, National Champion and Olympic Trials qualifier. She has coached swimming at James Madison University, New York University, Stevens Tech, and the University of Vermont. Nancy was an invited speaker at The Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She is on the Board of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

You say your forthcoming memoir, Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, took a lifetime to write. When did you realize it was time to write this book?

I should probably say, instead, that it took a lifetime to live. Over the course of my 51 years on Earth, I went from champion swimmer to world traveler to raging alcoholic. I’ve covered a lot of territory in five decades! I’d tried to write my story, including the horrific murder of a friend in Seoul, many times when I was still drinking. Getting sober a few months before I turned 50 gave me a new way to see my life. With that clarity, I was able to dig deeper and more honestly into all that has transpired and my own role in some of the chaos. Turns out that being an alcoholic was the real story, and everything else was a sidebar to the toll of addiction. I had it backwards.

There’s the myth — an over-romanticized one, in my opinion — of the struggling artist. It ties right in with addiction and writing going hand in hand. How did getting sober affect your writing life?

I once feared that I wouldn’t be able to – or want to – write if I weren’t drinking. I used to love drinking wine in bed with my computer on my legs. In fact, the thought of it used to get me through my days – the proverbial carrot on a stick. For the first six months after I quit, I was really scared that all of me was gone: the swimmer evaporated; the traveler lost; the writer dried up. But slowly as came into myself again, the writer emerged as the strongest of all my identities. And, I found that I was writing better, more clearly, and I am now writing about the things that really, really scare me in the world – like living in it without booze. I’ve come to appreciate fear for all the courage that came with it. As a drinker, I held back. Sober, I burst forth. The difference is astonishing.

You’ve lived all over the world. What role does place play in your new book?

Identity and landscape are the key themes in my life and in my writing. How does a place create a people? Who are you when you are elsewhere? As a swimmer in my youth and through college, I always imagined that I was a mermaid and would, therefore, be unable to thrive on land. My fairy tale fantasy came true in many ways. On land – from Kenya to Korea – I poured liquid into my body instead of swimming through water. I used booze as a way to connect with people in foreign ports of call, and to hide from myself. Still I managed to learn a lot about the world in those days and how other people survive their circumstances and/or prevail in their settings. But it wasn’t until I landed in the Arabian Desert that I went dry for good. I know for certain that the Muslim non-drinking culture and the arid setting both played a huge role in that transformation. Thus, the essence of my memoir DRYLAND.

Many unpublished writers get overwhelmed by the business aspects of the writing life — online platforms, publishing, etc. Do you have any advice to navigating this world?

It can be overwhelming that’s for sure. The flip side is that there are a lot more opportunities to publish than ever before. I used to spend so much time sending manuscripts to “big name” magazines and waiting months for a response – usually a rejection letter! These days, I can blog my own stories, and publish on Medium.com, without anyone’s approval or any wait time. And I can do all my own publicity! I still look for new writing opportunities with newspapers, as I am a journalist as well. When I was in the Middle East, working at a university, I read that U.S. News and World Report needed someone to write about Arab campuses. I queried the editor and got an article out of it. The lesson, I think, is find YOUR thing and then find a publication that connects with you. Match your writing identity to the media landscape. Don’t jump into the middle of nowhere.

What’s your take on balancing writing with work and motherhood?

I work full time for the University of Vermont, and have a 12-year-old son with my husband of 20 years. Yet, I was still able to find the time to write a 250-page memoir of my darkest secrets and greatest victory. How? I got up at 4 a.m. every day for six months to write. Those sacred hours before my family awoke, and before the day was underway, were the secret to my success and to my recovery in some ways too. Women still need a room of their own – or a time of their own. But you have to carve it out because no one is going to hand it to you. I fiercely protect my writing schedule, and I say no to a lot of socializing in the evenings. I go to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. to take care of myself and to be ready for my new “happy hour” in the wee hours of the morning.

Who and/or what inspires you on a daily basis?

Existence inspires me. How do people make it through the day when there’s so much with which to contend? How do they escape their suffering? How do they rise above challenges? How am I helped by what I see? How can I help someone? Why are we here, wherever we happen to be on a map or in time? I’ve witnessed so many responses to these questions – whether in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. The answers, in each place, are profound. Therefore, stories abound.

How does the current political climate inform your writing life?

I’m glad you asked this question! One byproduct of the current state of affairs is that people are talking more about the President and politics than art or books. Social media, once a great place to share stories, is now overrun with political commentary and reactions. (And rightly so!) The President is considering cutting funding for the arts but he’s already cut interest in the arts by his mere existence. Sigh. Clearly, though, there’s a lot to write about now. We need writers to deconstruct the status quo AND to give us other things to think about. We need stories – and emotional truth – to inspire, rally, comfort and even distract us. I’m still committed to writing about the global community and how we can rise up in the face of all our troubles whether political or personal. The two are, of course, conjoined in many places – including the United States of America. Compassion – reflected in art – is what makes a country truly great, in my humble opinion.

Enter a Goodreads giveaway of Dryland here!

Read previous First Sentence interviews and see who’s coming up next.

A First Sentence Interview with Author Sonya Lea: “We have always had the fire and storytellers”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is essayist and memoirist Sonya Lea, who writes on memory and identity. Her memoir, Wondering Who You Are, about what happened after her husband lost the memory of their life, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Wondering has won awards and garnered praise in a number of publications including Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Rumpus and The Butter.

Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. She speaks at conferences, universities and festivals. Her short film, Every Beautiful Thing, won two awards for direction, and several awards for score. She has also written screenplays.

Originally from Kentucky, Sonya lives in Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about her work on her website.

Your memoir, Wondering Who You Are, chronicles a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, not to mention a radical reshaping of identity — both your husband’s, your own, and that of your marriage and family. How long did it take you to write this book?

If I count devoted writing time, about three years. Though I spent time thinking about what happened in our relationship, and writing essays about these events for about ten years before I wrote the memoir.

Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What keeps you going?

Silence & solitude. As anyone who has lived with me knows, I require several hours a day to be by myself, usually in the quiet. This can happen in the wilderness or the writing room. Being with people and in cities is wonderful, and I have to be alone to work. This took me until fifty to understand about myself.

What surprised you in the unfolding of this story, as you looked back and considered what to include and what to leave out? How did you make decisions?

I make choices based on what my body intends. There were pieces in the book I wrote—like my sex story and my money story—that my body was still shedding shame over, and so I wrote them and then decided at the end of the writing whether they belonged in the world.

One thing I found so extraordinary about your memoir is the amount of research behind it and how seamlessly you weave this in with your searingly personal experience. The “notes” section practically stands alone. Did any particular systems help you stay organized?

Thank you. I was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, who wrote Brain On Fire. I keep journals, and folders on the computers. I abhor book writing systems or programs because they inhibit me.

Do you believers writers are born, made, or both?

There’s no natural skill that could be said to benefit a writer. Everything necessary can be cultivated, practiced. It’s not like we need our bodies to be a certain shape. We have always had the fire and storytellers. We don’t even need eyesight or typing skills, because technology has now found a way for stories to be recorded. Though if you look at what Europeans consider literature, there’s a case to be made that being born white/male/able—from the culture of dominance would seem to be an advantage. This time that we’re living in requires us to make and read narratives we haven’t yet seen, haven’t heard.

If you could have lunch with anyone — living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?

This question fucks me up. You could ask me this question once an hour, and it would change. But here goes: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Graciela Iturbide, Brandon Teena, Frida Kahlo, Renee Stout, Valie Export, Wilma Mankiller, Emily Carr, Beyoncé, Tanya Tagaq, Hannah Arendt, Themistoclea. Mostly women. No fictional people, because they’re in my body all day as it is. No ancestors, because I also have conversations with them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a museum curator who hears an Amazon warrior woman speaking to her, and it’s also about identity, and how we aren’t who we think we are. Because I can’t stop writing that story.

Stay tuned for April’s conversation with Nancy Stearns Bercaw, author of Brain In a Jar and the forthcoming Dryland.