There’s a sneaky trap hidden in the labyrinth of the human heart: Even when we extend our love to others, we often fail to accept the love they extend to us. We are so blinded by fantasies of self-reliance that we fail to grok how true strength requires vulnerability, that to be someone else’s rock means allowing them to be our rock once in a while.
In her debut memoir How To Be Loved, Eva Hagberg Fisher weaves this and many other subtle truths into a raw, moving story about the transcendent power of friendship. She documents her journey through addiction, illness, grief, and brain surgery with keen emotional insight rendered in intimate, luminous prose. In sharing what it took for her to learn how to be loved, she throws back the curtains to let more love into our own lives.
I recently caught up with Hagberg Fisher and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about life, death, and writing.
Life so often lacks clear narrative structure. How did you find or construct the story of How To Be Loved from the messiness of your actual life?
Coming up with the arc took a very tight deadline – we sent the proposal out, which included just a version of what is now the first chapter, an overview of the central arguments/themes of the book, and a list of potential media contacts. An editor who was interested asked to see a structure of what it could look like; my agent called me and said, “can you write an outline? as soon as possible? by the end of the day?” (it was something like 4:30pm her time). So I just sat down and came up with this three act structure; anticipating that the beginning would set my character up to learn her lessons, the middle would reflect the extraordinarily long and complicated “middle part” of my protracted illness experience, and the end would be in the desert.
We ended up selling to a different editor, but I’m so grateful to that initial one for basically forcing me to make up a structure, which I just couldn’t see before. And then the book’s structure shifted and changed and emerged over the course of 47 drafts and a year and a half of writing. I’d write 90 pages and we’d end up using two paragraphs from those ninety pages, or my editor would encourage me to expand on an idea or a theme, and it just came together through a process of expansion and compression. I had to find the heart of the story, which was really my transformation from someone who was loved but couldn’t feel it, into someone who could feel it. And once that became the central catharsis, everything else—eventually, with tremendous rewriting and editing—fell into place.
In a brief, transcendent moment you wrote that you “realized that so much of my suffering had come from refusing to acknowledge what was happening, from believing that information would be my guide. It was the same feeling I’d had as a child, and a teen, and a young adult. The belief that if I just knew the rules I would be okay.” What does it mean to live with existential uncertainty front-of-mind? If we can’t know the rules, how do we make good decisions?
I’ve become very simple in the aftermath of that set of experiences. I try and keep things very very very simple. “do I like this TV show? great, i’ll watch it!” “do i like lying down? great, i’ll do so!” I’ll talk to people often who seem steeped in layers and layers of circular questioning, and that can TOTALLY happen to me too, which is why I rely on talking to people in order to sort things out, but I can hear those layers in others and cut through it pretty simply. So I live with existential uncertainty by actually having existential certainty – we are all going to die. So what do we want to do while we’re here? How do we want to live? And I mean that on a day-to-day basis, not in a grand scheme. Do I want to spend my life meeting people and connecting with them? Or do I want to spend my life inside behind a computer screen? I want to spend my life meeting people and connecting with them. In terms of good decisions, I don’t think that there are good or bad decisions. I think there are ones that are more or less harmful to myself and others, and I try and cause minimum harm. But I also understand that sometimes we will cause someone temporary harm in service of a greater highest truth. But I also trust that whatever decisions I make are the “right” ones—if I come from a place of loving care.
What have you learned about life from spending so much time in close proximity to death?
It is really made up of the things we do in between the things we might culturally think are important. The most important days of my life were the ones I spent in cars talking to Allison about my flaws – not the day I did a photo shoot for the newspaper (although that was super fun, don’t get me wrong). Being on book tour has been exhilarating, terrifying, weird, etc, but what I want to do is meet readers and hear about their lives and then head back to my hotel room and call my best friends. The fabric of my life is the same now as it was before I had a book out as it was when I thought I was dying – I just wanted to hang out with people and shoot the shit. There’s a great line in The Killing, which I watched with Allison, and I don’t remember it exactly, but it was something about how the hanging out in the car, the driving around, the going to cases, that’s what the point was. It wasn’t the highlights and the plot points, it was the time in between.
You write how “it’s easy to be concerned about the ultimately disconnecting effects of social media, the internet. I remind myself sometimes, using what I’ve picked up as a historian, that part of the human condition is to be panicked about our current technology, to believe that we are on some kind of unsurvivable brink. In the nineteenth century, travelers believed that the speed of a train, a brand-new technology, would irreparably damage their brains. I hold on to that historical fact when I think about how distracted we can seem now, and how many books there are about how bad social media is.” What role does social media play in your life today? How do we find a balance between utopianism and moral panic when it comes to technology?
Because I’m on book tour it’s pretty major—I feel like I do need to be out there and letting people now about my events/what I’m doing/where they can come see me / cool things that are happening. But I have a very not-curated social media presence, I really just kind of embrace the fact that I’m never gonna be an influencer and then I make fun of myself by hash tagging myself #influencer. I also like to hear from people I haven’t otherwise been in touch with – I love getting DM’s from old college friends, etc. So I think it’s great. And, it also gives me intense dopamine hits and I can tell how I feel when I open up instagram and have 26 likes in an hour and I try not to get too hype about that.
In terms of your larger question about utopianism etc, I think technology is inevitable, and we just need to think about which technologies we’re promoting. I wish we hadn’t developed the technology to frack, or produce single-use plastics. But we did. So can we now use newer technology to make those technologies obsolete? By developing a Green New Deal? That sounds great. It’s the same as with anything—it’s not that tech is inherently bad or good, it’s just about how it’s used. So I think we keep trying to elect people whose approaches to technology are in line with our principles, and we think about how to ultimately be less harmful to ourselves and others, and if Instagram Lives helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get elected, then Instagram is great!
When a friend who reads only nonfiction asked you what the point of literature was, you responded, “Fiction and memoir give us a way of trying on moral selves.” What has writing a memoir taught you about literature? Does it look different from the inside? What beliefs has it challenged or reinforced?
I learned the most about writing memoir by taking fiction classes with a UC Berkeley professor named Vikram Chandra. We would study short stories and write our own, and in that class I really did try to write stories—rather than the sort of lyrical experimental essays that I wrote in my nonfiction classes. I learned how to plot, pace, when to do dialogue and when to do recall, how to create tension on the first page that can be resolved on the one hundredth. It does look different from the inside in that my process at least was very methodical and incremental—I basically came up with a skeleton and then kept filling it in, but also moving entire bones around. My fantasy had been that I would go off to the woods and write from page 1 to page 240 and it would pour out of me, and instead if felt like building a car engine—it had to WORK. It has reinforced my beliefs that writing is a very technical skill that gets better with practice, and I was able to write this intensely personal honest book by thinking of it as work—just thinking, okay, does this bit connect to this bit correctly.
I’m also interested in trying on moral selves in fiction, so maybe I’ll do fiction next!! With memoir I only had my own moral self to try on.
What specific, granular lessons about craft did you learn from writing How To Be Loved?
Not to repeat myself, but the value of editing. And pacing. Pacing is a HUGE one. I read the manuscript out loud to myself every night to see where I felt like skimming or skipping, and then I’d rework that section. I also read the dialogue out loud to myself hundreds of times – deciding if something should be an ellipsis or a hyphen or a semi-colon. Trying to get the cadence of someone else’s voice right took an extraordinary amount of focus. I also felt really challenged to describe shared experiences in a new way – so scenes where I was at a party but felt weird, or was falling in love, or when Allison died—I really wanted the reader to feel that my observations were NEW, so I had to use all my skills of dialogue, scene-setting, etc, to try and surprise the reader into paying attention. It’s that thing of “show don’t tell” but all I could do was tell, bc so much was happening interiorly. An example is in the beginning, when I talk about my social anxiety. Saying something like “I felt anxious about judgments” wouldn’t have worked—so I came up with this simile of landing a plane—”assess the runway. hope it isn’t too bumpy. brake, but not too quickly.” That simile was a way of getting the reader, hopefully, to think about her own calculations, even if she’s never thought of it in terms of landing a plane.
I also learned the value of time and rewriting—I’ve long been praised by editors for being really fast, but here I really had to rewrite this for a year and a half. I’m so grateful to my incredible editor, Helen Atsma, for seeing at a certain point that this book could be much more expansive thematically than I’d originally thought, and pushing me to open up so many entry points for readers who might not relate to any of the plot points but might be interested in the feelings. Or cultural observations. And that happened from judicious cutting – my favorite editorial note was, “sorry, I’m a little bored here”—and just never feeling too attached to a particular turn of phrase or sentence. Always thinking outward—is this going to work for the reader? What do I have to set up thirty pages ago so that this moment lands?
What other books would fans of How To Be Loved love? What books have changed the way you see the world?
I hope that they would love some of the books that I love—The Pisces and So Sad Today by Melissa Broder; Abandon Me by Melissa Febos; The Best Day the Worst Day by Donald Hall (excellent for airplane crying); With or Without You by Domenica Ruta; Poser by Claire Dederer; The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp Black; The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch; The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (really for craft/pacing); Severance by Ling Ma. And of course my college friend Adam Nemett’s book We Can Save Us All, which has dramatically changed (for the better) the way I see our current global crisis.
Eliot Peper is a critically acclaimed novelist whose books grapple with what it means to live a good life in an age of acceleration. Get his reading recommendations here.
NONFICTION – MEMOIR
How To Be Loved
By Eva Hagberg Fisher
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published February 5, 2019
Eliot Peper is the author of ten novels, including Bandwidth, Veil, Cumulus, and, most recently, Reap3r. He publishes a blog, sends a newsletter, and tweets more than he probably should.
“I live with existential uncertainty by actually having existential certainty – we are all going to die.”
That doesn’t seem like an unusual insight or experience, which is a little surprising given the other very thoughtful ideas here.