Nicole Roberge is an alumna of the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise. Her memoir, HANG IN THERE…WHEREVER “THERE” IS, was released this past November by the mental health publisher chipmunkapublishing. Nicole was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book.
HANG IN THERE…WHEREVER “THERE” IS, is an extremely private work detailing your battle with Anorexia. How do you feel working on the memoir has helped you in your recovery and also as a writer?
It was extremely beneficial in my recovery process to write about my experiences in both the struggle and recovery process. I had kept journals all throughout my struggle with Anorexia and it was when I chose recovery that I thought about writing a book. As a writer and reader, the first thing I did was look for a book about eating disorder recovery, but they were all aimed at teenagers, and being 23 at the time, I couldn’t relate. I thought that I would try writing something that had more of a broad appeal and showed the true face of an eating disorder and that it doesn’t stereotype based on age or sex.
I continued writing during my inpatient treatment, keeping journals. It was a very cathartic experience because I was able to express myself in a way that I couldn’t do in conversation. The written word helped me to explore what was going on in my head—thoughts and feelings—and then what I was going to do with them, how I was going to move forward.
When it came time to write the book, I went back through these journals. Seeing the words I wrote while I was struggling was almost like reading the journal of a different person, which is why I knew it had to be in the book. Because it showed what life was like with an eating disorder—I didn’t know myself. I kept a lot of the journals in there and wrote it as if the reader was experiencing everything with me. I wanted them to feel that they were right there with me, and that was important for me as a writer. I wanted to connect with the reader and invite them into this very secretive world. I had never written in this way before and I had to trust myself in that it was okay to be that open and also that others would be accepting. I also had to realize that not everyone would be, and I was okay with that, because I came to the point where I wasn’t ashamed of myself for having had an eating disorder. I wanted to use my story to help others and that is why I think memoirs are so important. I think they can raise awareness of issues, help people relate, and bring people comfort when they are struggling with similar issues. So writing “Hang in There…” was very important to me in my recovery, as a writer and as a person who had now found that they wanted to help other people in this cause to raise awareness of eating disorders and try to fight them.
What made you decide to use the alternating timeline structure of the “a” line of leading up to your time at Renfrew and the “b” line of your time starting the first day at Renfrew?
It was actually something suggested to me by Ann Hood while I was in her workshop at Writers in Paradise! I had brought a sample of “Hang in There…” to the conference and at the time it was chronological. She suggested using this timeline structure to me and it was something I hadn’t thought of but after she explained it to me, something I realized might make it more dynamic. When I left the conference, in January of ’08, I pulled apart what I had and came at it with a different approach, rewriting it. I found that this structure gave it a more unique angle with different insights into my story and I was very appreciative for what I learned from [Ann] Hood and at WIP and it made the rewriting process more exciting.
People often worry about what their family and friends will think when they see their names in a memoir. What was your approach to that? Did you feel comfortable exploring all of your personal relationships on the page or was there a part of you that worried what family and friends might think?
I was worried because I didn’t want to hurt anyone by exposing conversations we had, feelings I had about them during this time or revealing the things that were going on in my life that may upset them. And I would say this and every writer I know or memoir instructor would say that when it comes to writing memoir, don’t hold back. You’re not writing your sister’s or your friend’s memoir, you’re writing your memoir. This is your story and you need to tell it. If they are hurt, it is because they can’t come to terms with something they did and can’t comprehend the truth, but if you feel you must write it, write. So I did. I didn’t have a lot to hide and wanted to be honest. Truthfully, there were some things I cut. But there were things I didn’t, such as difficulties with friends that I thought would be upsetting to them, but weren’t. I showed it to them first and asked how they felt about it. It dealt with their negative approach to confronting me about my eating disorder and how it left me feeling very hurt and more isolated. They told me not to change it, but leave it as I wrote it, which somewhat surprised me. They admitted that their approach at the time was not the right one and were sorry for that. They said if it was an important part of my story then to leave it in there, and so I did.
People will surprise you. What you think might upset them sometimes doesn’t. But it can be very hard to write about family and friends because you don’t want to hurt them and you don’t want them to feel as if you are exposing their lives with yours. But that was never my intention. My goal was to tell my story and of course that is going to include the lives of my family and friends, but mostly it was how supportive they were. Writing memoir can be difficult because it is your life and you’re opening up your world to the world. But I think that once you settle down with that fact, and the people in your life understand that, then you can move on and continue with the process of writing. I think that’s the big hump to get over when it comes to memoir and may always be something that comes up, but it gets easier. I figured there has to be a reason so many other writers are telling me it was okay to be open, and that was all I ever really wanted—to be open and honest. I think that is where connections are established.
Did your family and friends know you were working on the memoir? If so, did you show them early pages or wait until the project was finished?
They did know. As soon as I knew I wanted to write it, I told them, and they were very supportive. My family has always been supportive of my writing and thought that it would also be a good outlet for my recovery, which it was. It was kind of like my recovery project, where in that first year after inpatient, my life was all about treatment, I spent my other time focused on the book. I began showing people, friends and family, early pages of the work. Some pages were things that I thought were questionable or too revealing, some were about that specific person that I wanted to share with them, and others were about the disease of Anorexia. I got a lot of feedback and found that it helped to share my writing with others. It benefited me in knowing that maybe some things weren’t okay to share but also that some friends didn’t realize the positive impact they had on me in my recovery. In addition, some didn’t realize how serious the disease had been or how I had truly been feeling at the time, so reading pieces of my memoir had been a bit eye-opening for them. It was good to get the perspective of family and friends because they are the ones closest to me and I wanted this memoir to be something they were comfortable with. I was not only exposing my life to the world, but my life with them, and that can be pretty intense. But I had such amazing support in doing this project and was, and continue to be, so grateful for all of them. They knew this was something important to me and were excited for me taking this on and even more excited to see the project come to fruition.
Did you have any other early readers of the work? If so, who, and how did you decide to share pages with them for critique?
I met a great writer at the WIP conference who I kept in contact with and we read each other’s work. Going to this conference was the first time I had shared this work with anyone, which I had been a little nervous about. I was much more comfortable afterwards and she and I just kind of clicked. We would email sections of our writing back and forth and provide feedback for each other. She was great at giving critiques and it was very helpful in the rewriting process. It was also beneficial because I was restructuring the work after being in [Ann] Hood’s workshop, so she knew where I was going with the memoir and kind of jumped right on board with me.
What has the response been from those who know you after reading your memoir?
The response has been overwhelming, surprising and joyful all together. Most are just so proud and ecstatic just about the fact I have a published book. I have former teachers who have read it and have commented on both the depth of the story and the level of writing and it is interesting to hear that feedback. My good friend who is a writer told me he was impressed not just with the writing but with the story and that it could be at times heartbreaking but then humorous and hopeful and he just knew I was going to help so many people suffering from eating disorders, which was incredible to hear.
Regarding family, I have gotten different feedback, and I think that is where the “surprising” comes in. The people I was afraid to have read it, my Grandmother, for instance, absolutely loved it. She said she was right there with me the entire time and couldn’t put it down. I had this fear that people would be upset or ashamed, and maybe that’s part of the mentality of being a memoir writer. Because you are revealing a part of yourself that not only the world, but some of your family, doesn’t know. And that is the reaction I got from others. I just spoke with an aunt who said all she knew was the laughing, giggly, Nicole—she would have never expected so much was going on inside of me and I was hurting so much, but she thought it was inspiring. She gave it to my cousin who then used it for her college psychology class project. Another aunt said it was hard to read, being so close to me, but she wanted to understand and know what I was going through, and it helped her see how strong I was.
You open yourself up to people when you write a memoir and because of my eating disorder, I had closed myself off to so many people, family and friends, for so long. Maybe this was also a way of sharing with them the things that were too hard to say. The things I needed to tell them but couldn’t. Also, the way I wanted to express gratitude to them for their support by sharing the stories of how they had been there for me. I don’t know if some realized how important they had been to my recovery, and when they read about it, were surprised that what they had done, which seemed small to them, meant that much. Memoirs open up a line of communication, and mine has been a blessing—for my recovery, writing and relationships. It is a unique thing and I am glad I set out on the path of writing one.
Were there any portions of the book which were particularly hard to sit down and write?
The hardest part of my eating disorder and the hardest part to write was the moment I thought I was going to die of a heart attack and was rushed to the ER, but it was also when I realized that I needed to seek recovery. It was that whole weekend that was overwhelming because that is when I told my parents that I had Anorexia. Writing that part of the memoir was like re-experiencing it all over again. There were such powerful emotions behind those moments that they all came flooding back to me and I found that I could either push it away and not write about it, or dive in and explore those emotions and put them on the page. So I wrote. And writing about them gave me better insight into my struggle and recovery, what I went through, and how far I had come from that time period. By exploring and writing about my own issues, I could then translate that into finding a way to relate to others and helping them with their eating disorders. Writing a memoir can take a little bravery. It can be painful, but healing, and that is the beauty in it.
What are your writing habits like? Work in the morning? Every day? Sporadically? Set word counts?
All of the above. It depends what project I am working on. When I wrote “Hang in There…,” it was every day and all day. It was a very dedicated process. I am in Graduate School pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing, so it’s different projects at different times. I do write every day, holing myself up in a coffee shop in the afternoons to work. I do make sure I am always writing. Even if I don’t like what I have written, I have learned, and I strongly believe, that it is always important to keep writing—no matter the topic or style, whether it is a story or journaling, but to keep going. And that will make you a stronger writer. It’s constant practice and it’s a craft.
You are a huge music buff and have done some great interviews with musicians. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what’s a sample playlist?
Sometimes I do, but sometimes I can’t. It depends what I’m writing about. Sometimes it can be distracting but sometimes it can set the right mood for what I’m writing.
Charlotte Martin–Animal— Charlotte Martin is a singer-songwriter and pianist who creates beautiful melodies with intense lyrics and has a lot of emotion in her songs and lyrics, so if I am writing something that has that kind of raw emotion, she is definitely good to listen to because her music brings a level of understanding to some difficult issues.
David Gray–First Chance– I recently had the opportunity to interview David Gray and it was probably one of the best interviews I have ever done. He is an incredible singer-songwriter from the U.K. and so genuine as both a person and as a lyricist. He has an intensity in his lyrics that makes me admire him very much as a writer, so it’s inspiring to listen to when I am writing.
Lenka–Two-Lenka is a fun, sassy musician from Australia who I also just interviewed. A great lyricist and musician, she took a different approach on this album and made it a little more danceable. So when I am writing and want to put on some music that puts me in a good mood and set me on the right track for the day, I’ll put Lenka on.
Who are some of your favorite musicians right now?
Definitely the three I mentioned, Martin, Gray and Lenka. I have some standing favorites, such as Howie Day, Matt Nathanson, Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson and Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. I am really big on lyrics so am very much appreciative of singer-songwriters and musicians who write their own lyrics.
And, of course, who are you reading right now?
Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile was another great piece of work by him. I was fortunate enough to be in his fiction workshop the first year I was at WIP and learned so much from him directly as well as when I read his writing. I am currently reading Ann Hood’s The Red Thread, so I still have a strong connection to my days at WIP and the authors I met there are still inspiring me. Since writing memoir, I have become very interested in reading memoir. One author I like greatly is Caroline Knapp. She struggled with Anorexia and wrote about that in her memoir Appetites, and also alcoholism, which is chronicled in her memoir Drinking: A Love Story. She passed away due to lung cancer, tragically. I just read a book of essays she has called The Merry Recluse that is great to read as a writer and reader. There is a lot I learned from it in the craft of writing, as I am learning more about the art of the essay, and her stories were very insightful and powerful.
Were there any works of fiction or nonfiction that helped you in terms of a guide or inspiration for your memoir?
I think that I was able to take elements from both forms of writing I was reading and learn and be inspired for my own writing. It was WIP that really helped propel me into the big rewrite that I did with this memoir and I am very grateful to Ann Hood and her workshop. When I met her there, I bought her memoir, Comfort, and it gave me an interesting perspective reading it after having just been in her workshop, because then I got to apply what I learned and then see it in her writing, and yes, I guess sort of use it as a guide for writing memoir. I learned a great deal from her and continue to do so by reading her writing.
What was suggested to me and what I did find helpful were books on the craft of writing and memoir. I read the book Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton. I also partook in a Healing Through Writing workshop where we were given different prompts and wrote about our experiences, which was very helpful to my writing and how powerful it could be to my recovery and hopefully, to others.
One of things you are very passionate about is advocacy. Can you tell me a little bit about your foundation, Beautiful Lives?
Beautiful Lives came to be because I found that I wanted to help others see that recovery was possible. There was a point that I didn’t think it was, and I had found it and I wanted to let other people see that hope. I thought I was doing that by the book but I wanted to have more of a presence. I started Beautiful Lives for the Education and Prevention of Eating Disorders in Connecticut. I started attending health fairs to raise awareness and then eventually, schools. I now speak at middle and high schools telling about my story with Anorexia, the facts about eating disorders and what they can do if they or someone they know, suspect they have one. The response has been amazing and positive and I have found that I am reaching people I never would have expected. I spoke at one eighth grade class and a girl told me she was going to not eat for a week because of a dance coming up, but after hearing my story, was instead going to be healthy and would not do that to her body. I have had young men approach me about difficulties they have experienced with coaches, trying to push them to actually gain weight for football and they don’t want to. One young man told me that he had a cousin with bulimia and no one understood him. After hearing my story, he knew what he was going through, and he was going to reach out to him.
You never know who you are going to reach when you speak out about a cause like this, but that is why it is so important to speak out. I realized that these kids were really being impacted by eating disorders whether directly or indirectly and needed some guidance. I continue to attend schools and also lobby in D.C. with the Eating Disorders Coalition. I mentor people individually as well. I see it as a goal of mine to raise awareness and reach as many people as I can. I don’t want people to have to go through what I went through, and if they are, I hope that I can do what I can to help them. Sometimes it takes going through something traumatic that changes us to then turn it around and hopefully help other people find change in a positive way.
You write on page 48: “More importantly, are looks all that people can keep mentioning? No one really asked me how my screen-writing was going. It makes it seem as if I’ll never amount to anything in writing, because a fat girl will never accomplish anything. A fat girl who writes is still a fat girl. But a fat girl who lost weight and writes is still a fat girl who lost some weight. So much for my writing.”
Writing is finally back in your life again and in a good, productive, manner. Well-received, too. What can we expect next from Nicole Roberge in the way of a writing project?
I am so happy writing is in my life. It has taken me on such a positive journey and has helped me in my own life experiences. Writing is such an exciting experience but something that keeps me constantly learning and I am grateful for that.
I am actually working on a mystery novel that I started many years ago and actually brought to WIP in [Dennis] Lehane’s workshop. It is a psychological mystery novel set in Maine and it got put to the side for a while as I wrote other things and dealt with life’s issues. I am really excited to get back to it and work on a fiction project again, as it has been some time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who wanted to write a very personal memoir?
I would say absolutely do it—follow your heart and your pen. If writing is something you find joy in then it can be very beneficial when writing something personal. Sometimes it can be hard to communicate verbally the things that are very personal. But writing is a unique experience. Something different happens when we write. We are able to share things that we hold deep inside, and once we start writing, more just pours out. It is a sense of freedom in writing about our stories. Yes, they are personal, but memoir can open up many possibilities. Once we get our stories on the page, we see that writing about them has perhaps healed us in a way, and that maybe by sharing them, we could perhaps heal others. I think that writing a personal memoir can open up a new world for a writer. I never thought I would be a memoir writer, but writing something so personal helped me on my journey. It helped me in my recovery and is now reaching other people in theirs. You never know where the writing of a memoir will take you until you start writing it, but once you do, great things can happen.
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Nicole Roberge is an Eating Disorder survivor, mentor and advocate. Her memoir, “Hang in There, Wherever ‘There’ is,” tells the story of her struggle with Anorexia, her fight for recovery, and how she never lost hope. With four years recovery now, she has her own non-profit, “Beautiful Lives,” for the education and prevention of Eating Disorders in Connecticut, where she speaks at middle schools, high schools and at hospitals. She is a mentor to many individuals and lobbies in D.C. with the Eating Disorders Coalition.
As a writer, she has been published in The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, ELLEgirl, The Hartford Courant, New England Film, Script Magazine, Her Sports, Gotham Baseball, SHE Caribbean, J Vibe, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Hear/Say and Songwriter Universe. She also founded and served as editor to the online music magazine, Tuned in Music. In addition, she was a book contributor to the LA family guide, “Hungry?” and the inspirational journal, “Recovering the Soul.” For several years, she had a humor dating column with Online Dating Magazine and now with the Stonington Patch.
Roberge lives in Connecticut amongst her family and two English Bulldogs, Boomer and Molly.
Hang in There, Wherever ‘There’ Is is available via Amazon:
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