‘Welcome to the Messy Business of Being Alive’

Joshua Mohr workshop and conversation with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett


When you have a two-month window between the diagnosis of a missing wall in your heart and surgery, and the doctor tells you, “You only have to do one thing: stay alive,” how do you occupy those two precarious months? If you’re a writer, you write.

Between New Year’s Day and March 2014, after a third stroke at 38 when he was getting his daughter Ava a bottle, Joshua Mohr did just that, and the result was Sirens, a “love letter to Ava”—his first memoir after publishing five novels. The seed of Sirens germinated before, however, when fellow author Antonia Crane said, “Hey, you’re pretty sick. Can you send over some essays?”

When Mohr visited Southern California this month for Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen on Fire Speakers Series, he told the audience he wrote “dirty little stories” for Crane, a “slapdash collection” he planned to “put in a drawer.” Lucky for us, that didn’t happen.

Mohr called the medical term for his condition “super no bueno,” a “superhighway for blood clots to have a kegger,” but he also saw the life-threatening situation as a blessing. “I got really lucky having this heart condition,” he said during a workshop earlier that day. “A hole in my heart? That was gift-wrapped for me.”

Mohr realized if he didn’t survive the impending surgery, his 18-month-old daughter wouldn’t have any conscious recollection of him, including milestones they’d already had together: the first time she heard Jimmy Hendrix on vinyl or the first time she put her feet in the ocean. He wanted to “leave an artifact. I wanted her to know the whole story.”

Having a stroke would provide the “planet supplying the book’s gravity,” an anchor for his already orbiting moons.

“It’s about finding the way in. Research and let things spring up organically,” Mohr advised other writers. He found his focal point in a 1920s German doctor who snaked a catheter into his own heart. Mohr called him “nature’s favorite sadist. In one shining moment, he changed the world,” ultimately saving millions of lives. But “then the 1930s came along,” and he “aligned himself with a murderous empire” and was “patching up Nazis. That became a powerful metaphor for me.”

Is this a good life or a bad life? Mohr wondered—about the doctor and himself. It’s important to “deconstruct binaries. We’re both Nazi doctors.”

His memoir presents “three versions” of himself. As a “card-carrying failed musician,” he likened them to “three chords,” like a punk song: “1990s caveman Josh (past tense), Subaru Outback dad having a stroke (present tense), and the meta-narrator who talks to the audience about real-time construction (writers writing about writing). The stakes for the Subaru Outback dad are different from the caveman guy.”

He has a stroke on page one, so by the time he “tells the story of rolling a guy for his money,” the author and reader are already “pals.”

He “could have been happy never writing a memoir” in his career,” but “it felt important to play the facts straight,” he said. “I didn’t want to; then I knew I had to.”

This memoir is no average love letter to a father’s daughter though. It’s a “relapse memoir,” he said. To call it an “addiction memoir” makes him “want to puke on the floor.” He explained, “I don’t think there’s a memoir out there about staying sober as a day-to-day process.”

During the workshop, he explained, “You’re always writing two books: the ‘big book’ and everything [you’re] curating for the reader. The big book is the easier book to write.” But the reader doesn’t have to know everything the writer knows. The writer has to find the “Goldilocks bit.”

He believes writers should give all their ideas “a chance to succeed on the page.” Instead of writing toward clarity, Mohr thinks a writer’s job is to “add complexity.” He said, “We’re not offering easy answers. Add more muck. It’s okay to have messy narratives.”

Then a writer must “distill, distill, distill.” This should not be a short process. “We don’t need your five-month book,” he said. “Art isn’t efficient.”

Mohr suggests “evolution exercises,” in which you “take a scene that’s not working, but you don’t know why. Take everything out and put it into a separate document, except for the dialogue. Work on the dialogue first, and then—craft element by craft element—fold things back in: setting, interior thought, gestures. Everything has to earn its way back in. Nothing gets grandfathered in from draft five to draft six.”

This is an exercise in cherry-picking. “The rest of that stuff was just for me,” he said.

“Find juicy stopping points,” he added. Think about “postponements and payoffs.” In Sirens, he includes a scene about his daughter falling down the stairs, but he doesn’t tell the reader what happened to her right away. Instead, he returns to a story about a drunk friend in North Beach who also fell.

“How long until the payoff?” he asked. The sweet spot is when “the reader is excited, but doesn’t think you’re stalling.”

He also advises “disjunctive editing,” a nonlinear approach to revision. “Don’t always think of things in chronological fashion,” he said. “Zero in on what one scene is accomplishing. Edit chapter 8 and then chapter 33,” for instance. To maintain an element of necessary surprise in words and passages, writers must “find whimsy and joy in the revision process.” He advises to “stay limber” with the structure and “save multiple drafts.”

“How did anyone write a book before computers? Can you imagine being Vonnegut’s secretary?” he asked.

Another exercise Mohr does involves what he calls “supertension. Identify the one thing the character can’t live without, and then take that away from her. Write the scene as if you’d lost the one thing you don’t want to lose.”

For Sirens, he wrote a scene in which he filled the Vicodin prescription after his heart surgery, eventually lost his daughter, and she is now tracking him down when she’s 20.

“Emotionally and existentially, it was the best scene in the book, and it never happened.”

Mohr likes to think of his readers in a theater, and the goal is to move them as close to the stage as possible, so they can feel the spit on their faces. “We trust [the reader]. We’re not spoon-feeding her.” He suggests starting in the middle. “What is the image she can immediately sink her teeth into?”

During the Q & A, DeMarco-Barrett asked about backstory, and Mohr provided an example of being a young boy under his mom’s piano messing with the pedals as she played. It’s a “section break, a short memory.” It’s about “undulations and mood.” The boy under the piano “ostensibly has nothing to do with the plot of the book, but it adds a happy scene adjacent to something dismal in tight proximity.”

In Sirens, he thought of everything as “parallel narratives,” even when he was writing in the past tense. “Backstory could be the star of its own book if unpacked that way,” he said. “It can all be in past tense, but all dramatic stakes are the same. Backstory “has to be there,” but “reframe how you think about [it]. Be more reliant on scene. What is this telling the audience that she hasn’t already learned in the present action?” It’s “not lifetime channel reasoning. Use the past to complicate and inform the present action.

“We become expositionists,” he joked. “See what I did there?”

DeBarco-Barrett brought up outlining because Mohr isn’t a formal outliner.

“I have 3 x 5 cards on the wall. It’s trial and error. I love surprise. I don’t want to plan too much ahead of time. It looks like a crazy person is in my office when I write a book. Have you ever seen A Beautiful Mind?”

While some writers use technology like Scrivener, Mohr needs to write in an “analog” way.

“I knew I had to write scenes I didn’t want to write.” Why do I want to share this with someone else? he wondered. A memoirist “risks readers thinking [he’s] a bad person.”

But it’s not about “likeability,” he said about characters. “If I went on a road trip with Holden Caulfield, I’d break that guy’s neck after 90 miles. And I’d never let Humbert Humbert babysit my daughter.”

There’s an “odd sort of anxiety that’s maybe just unique to nonfiction,” he said, recalling a recent reading in Seattle, where he looked up at the audience and thought, Why are you peering into my soul right now?

But, “we love characters who are trying to be better versions of themselves. They need opportunities for change, even if they don’t change.

“Bravery is writing scenes we’re terrified to write. If I’ve done my job right, the reader is sitting in the room with this guy who is writing the book. The reader is in collaboration with you. If I bring such an open heart to the transaction, she will too. We need every dollop of empathy we can possibly get.”

When Mohr is writing, he “knows the person who will buy [his] book is Virginia Woolf. She’ll lurch out of her grave. [His] imagination will then be completely unencumbered.”

“How do you delineate between helpful and unhelpful criticism?” DeMarco-Barrett asked.

Mohr said he doesn’t “write books for people who don’t like [his] books.” If a writer receives feedback on her work during the revision process from someone who isn’t her reader, then “it’s not revising; it’s dismantling.” But a writer must ask, “If [I] don’t take [a reader’s] advice, [am I] taking the easy way out?”

He rewrote his last novel All This Life from scratch for tone based on his editor’s feedback. “A good editor has to know how to push your buttons.”

His editor told him, “This seems a little glib.”

I don’t like anything you’re saying right now, Mohr thought, but it “lit that fire.”

He joked about spending the day under the covers with takeout food and then thought, Watch this!

“What is the crossover between novels and nonfiction?” DeMarco-Barrett asked.

“From a structure standpoint, I put this memoir together like a novel,” Mohr said. He wanted it to be as “claustrophobic as possible, short like a stage play.” There’s a “horror story element” because he places the “relapse at the beginning of the story instead of the end.”

And a “freelapse” came in the form of a Fentanyl drip before his heart surgery. For three months after the surgery, he wanted to “burn it all down,” adding, “We want to think people who struggle with addiction are better, but it’s brittle and fragile.”

As a musician in his teens and 20s, he “got tired of letting other people express [himself].” He’s “always been an ‘every day’ writer.” He shared, “I’m a pretty confused person, and on days I don’t write, I’m a really confused person.”

A really confused person who wrote my new favorite book.

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