Teenage angst and motherly love

Running away was decriminalized in 1974 in the United States. This is not a widely known fact but it is one that Portland State professor Debra Gwartney is only too familiar with.

Running away was decriminalized in 1974 in the United States.
This is not a widely known fact but it is one that Portland State professor Debra Gwartney is only too familiar with. About a decade ago, her two oldest teenage daughters ran away from their home in Eugene. They jumped on freight trains, traveling to Portland, San Francisco and other major cities. They mingled with a subculture formed by other runaway youths living on the street.

Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love
is Gwartney’s story of how she coped through this period of her life, continued raising her two younger daughters while trying to help her two older daughters and how her family was finally reunited.

Sarah Hutchins: A lot of people are likening your book to David Schef’s A Beautiful Boy. Is either of your daughters, Stephanie or Amanda, thinking about writing a memoir from their perspective?
Debra Gwartney:
They’ve talked about it but there’s nothing in the works right now. The whole being part of the book’s publication has made them think about stories in a new way, about what they went through.

I of course tried really hard not to tell their story. They have their own stories, and I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. I hope that they write about it. I think that would just be wonderful. It would be way different than Nic Shef’s book [Tweak] just because they had a much different experience. Drugs were involved but it wasn’t such a drug-oriented story as his was–which, good for him for writing about it.

That was very brave, but theirs is more of a traveling story of jumping on trains. I just don’t think that story is told very often. People probably don’t even know that kids jump on trains and travel around the country, and I think that there are quite a few of them that do it.

SH: What made you decide to write the memoir?
I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I’m going to write about this. We’d been through this very difficult time and I knew that I wanted to write about it but I didn’t know what shape it was going to be or even what genre. I never seriously thought about writing fiction, but it crossed my mind.

I wrote just a very small piece about looking for Stephanie, the second daughter, in San Francisco, in the Tenderloin District, and it helped me sort out a lot of my own feelings about what had happened. It was good in both the sense that I could practice what I want to do, which is to write nonfiction, and also just confront some of the unsolved emotions around that whole time.

So I wrote that piece and I published it in a literary journal called Creative Nonfiction. It got quite a bit of attention and just made me start thinking maybe something bigger is here, so then I wrote another piece for Salon and then I wrote another for a journal called Fourth Genre and several other pieces. I wrote a longer piece about the wilderness therapy for The Oregonian.

They all just kept adding up, so I thought maybe I could start putting them together in a book, which was not anywhere as easy as just compiling them as I thought it would be, because then the book had to be shaped and shaped and reshaped, and that took years. It’s been a long process but there was never one moment where I thought, “I’m going to write a book.” It just kind of evolved that way.

SH: When I went to Powell’s I was surprised to see the book not only in the memoir section but also under parenting.
Yeah, it should be under parenting. I hope it’s under memoirs, too, but it is a book about parenting for sure. I’m glad that they put it there.

SH: How does teaching affect your writing?
Teaching is great for my writing, actually. It takes away time for writing, but there’s never been a class where I haven’t learned along with the students. I’m challenged to think about my writing in a different way or I see a kind of technique or style or craft element that I can improve in my own work by talking about it with the class.

So, it’s hugely helpful. I read a lot of manuscripts from students and I see a lot of the same problems cropping up over and over and over again, so it reminds me to watch for those things in my own work. And I just like talking about writing. It’s a subject that’s very much alive for me.

SH: What are your current writing projects?
I have a big project going but I’ve put it on the back burner while the book’s being published, because I’m going to be gone so much on book tour but I’ve been writing a lot of individual essays for magazines. I just want to keep my work out there so I have a bunch of pieces coming out.

I wrote an essay for Modern Bride about helping my daughter chose her wedding gown and I have a piece coming out in Hallmark Magazine, which is a women’s magazine, and one coming out in Modern Love in The New York Times. But I’ll go back to the other big project that I’m working on in the summer, I hope.

SH: What is the big project?
It’s a memoir more about my growing up years, my youth growing up in Idaho. I don’t really know the shape of it yet, but I’ve been working on it for a year or so. Hopefully it will progress. More hard work ahead.