Books In Conversation
My Mother, Myself, and Mr. Rightstein
NANCY DAVIDOFF KELTON with Joseph Salvatore
Finding Mr. Rightstein
(Passager Books, 2016)
The opening line of Nancy Davidoff Kelton’s new memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein, is “My father in his coffin looked better than most of the men I dated.” Indeed throughout this slender book, Kelton mixes the droll with the delightful, the dramatic with the deadpan, and the devastating with ultimate deliverance. She shares some of her experiences with “reptilian men,” ”loons,” and, in one case, a Hebrew calligrapher, who “might have been a catch two thousand years ago.” These “dating disasters,” though, only a small part of the story, as is her finding a romantic partner late in life. Kelton’s real journey is toward understanding her mentally-ill mother and making peace with their past and, finally, with herself. Kelton’s previous six books include the well-regarded craft book: Writing from Personal Experience. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Hadassah Magazine, the Buffalo News, Parents, and Redbook, among other publications.
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): Was Finding Mr. Rightstein always your title and how did you think of it?
Nancy Kelton: I was writing essays about my love life, my love-less life, about the men I dated—those who were ambivalent, unavailable, worse, or simply not quite right before I met my right guy. I don’t know how the title came about, but it was probably unconsciously. My best things come when I don’t think. They just seem to be there and I access them.
Rail: Finding Mr. Rightstein is hardly a dating memoir, though. Can you sum up what it is really about?
Kelton: Many things: coming to terms with where I came from, which is very much about having a mother with a mental illness, feeling unloved and erased (unless I said something funny), bonding with my charismatic dad, learning to love, forgive, and see that people are not all one way (the 1950s were hard for feisty, unconventional women who weren’t active in the PTA), and learning to accept myself. The men in my life do figure in. So do my therapists. So do my very close female friends, my colleagues, my daughter, and my years as a single mother. They are part of my journey to a right me.
Rail: You use humor even when writing about your childhood with a mother in the “nervous hospital,” a grandmother who cried to you and made chocolate chip cookies with nuts and shells, as well as men who were abusive. Can you talk a little about how you were able to manage all that in the book?
Kelton: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to see it “funny.” My parents were both very funny. I didn’t see that my mother had a sense of humor when I was young. I sure did in later years. I guess humor was in my genes. It’s who I am. I think it’s about having a perspective. I feel very lucky. It has definitely helped me survive.
Rail: After decades of mostly writing essays, what was hard about writing a memoir?
Kelton: Hanging in. Staying the course. Learning how I felt about certain people in my life. I went deeper than I had in therapy. And with each revision, I uncovered more.
Rail: Did you worry that no one would care about your story?
Kelton: I cared. I wrote Finding Mr. Rightstein for myself. I did not have a publisher while I wrote it. This is the book I wanted to write. Some of the sections had been published as individual pieces, most were not. Something inside me pulled me along. Writing this book was a labor of love. I felt it. I was impelled from within to keep writing.
Rail: Were there times when you didn’t want to write it? If so, what did you do?
Kelton: Many. I would go for a walk, to the gym, call a friend, kvetch, take a nap. Then somehow when I didn’t seem to be thinking about it—except I always was—and I felt relaxed, I’d return to it.
Rail: Did you show it to your family, friends, anyone while writing? Before you sent it out?
Kelton: No one saw it while I was writing. Before I sent it out, I showed it to my husband for edits—he’s a great editor—and to my daughter and son-in-law for content, but just the sections they were in.
Rail: Did your husband have a hard time with any of it?
Kelton: He comes off mostly like the mensch/prince he is; however, there are a few parts where he doesn’t. I asked him how he felt about my writing about him in the book or anywhere else and he said, “This is who you are. This is what you do.” I doubt I could have a partner who did not feel that way.
Rail: What made you write your memoir at this time in your life?
Kelton: I started it five years ago and I think there are several reasons. I have an easier time accessing my emotions, partly because I’ve been writing for so long and also because I feel loved, safe. Also, I saw an arch, a thread to my story. It just kept calling to me. And finally, I could not have written this book when my parents were alive.
Rail: You tell your students—and you show it here—that a writer must tell the truth, not go around it. Is that often hard?
Kelton: Yes, but most of me wants to do that most of the time. And what I mean by truth-telling is revealing oneself, making oneself vulnerable. It does not mean spilling our guts. First I put it on the page; then I decided what to leave out and what to keep in. Writing is an art form, a discipline, hard work. Creating scenes and word pictures—showing, not telling to convey loneliness or abuse or rage or whatever emotion the author is conveying—is art, not therapy. It is not inviting someone to a pity party. That’s off-putting, boring. That would make a reader bolt.