“When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on?”: an interview with author Eleanor Vincent

In April this year I read a book which I found immensely moving. Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent is a brave, courageous and inspirational memoir. In this interview, Eleanor Vincent talks to Cultural Life about the challenges of writing non-fiction, the process of writing Swimming with Maya and healing after the tragic loss of a child.

Eleanor Vincent

Award-winning author and memoirist Eleanor Vincent

Eleanor Vincent is an award-winning writer whose debut memoir, Swimming with
Maya: A Mother’s Story
was nominated for the Independent Publisher Book Award and was reissued by Dream of Things press early in 2013. She writes about love, loss, and grief recovery with a special focus on the challenges and joys of raising children at any age.

Called “engaging” by Booklist, Swimming with Maya chronicles the life and death of Eleanor’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Maya, who was thrown from a horse and pronounced brain-dead at the hospital. Eleanor donated her daughter’s organs to critically ill patients and poignantly describes her friendship with a middle-aged man who was the recipient of Maya’s heart.

Since the initial publication of Swimming with Maya in 2004, Eleanor has been a national spokesperson on grief recovery and organ donation, appearing on CNN and San Francisco’s Evening Magazine. She has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, and been interviewed on radio and television programs around the country.

She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and attended the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, where she occasionally teaches writing workshops on creative nonfiction and memoir.

Her essays appear in the anthologies At the End of Life: True Stories about How we Die (edited by Lee Gutkind); This I Believe: On Motherhood; and Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs. They celebrate the unique and complicated bonds between mothers and daughters, making hard decisions as a parent – whether your child is 14 or 40 – and navigating midlife transitions with grace and authenticity.

She lives in Oakland, California.

SwM cover

What made you decide to write a memoir?

The moment Maya died, I knew I would write about it. Our story was so personal and so emotional; it naturally lent itself to being told just as it happened – as a true story of loss and overcoming. It was also a way for me to keep Maya alive, because each word I wrote about her was an act of mother love. At that point in my recovery, it would have felt very artificial to tell the story in fictional form. I needed to be willing to risk revealing our family life and myself in a very deep and intimate way.

Life can be over in a moment. This is a truth we all try to defend against, but Maya’s sudden death at age 19 showed me that life could veer off in directions I had never imagined. When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on? This is the question Swimming with Maya attempts to answer. How do we get back up after life knocks us down? As a memoir, my book is a very personal account of one woman’s journey. It is not a self-help book, but it is inspirational and motivational because it shows how I became more resilient than I ever thought I could be. I should note that I had been writing professionally for more than two decades when Maya died. In addition, I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Mills College at the time. I was well equipped to take on what turned into a ten-year effort.

What inspired the title Swimming with Maya?

In the final part of the book, I recount a dream I had about Maya. She was swimming in a pool, gliding under water so effortlessly, and that seemed like a great metaphor of how she was still such an important part of me, “swimming” in and out of my consciousness. I believe the veil between worlds is very thin, and that those we love continue to be with us, and participate in our lives even after they make the transition we call death. Also, Maya loved water. She loved to swim, and she was on the diving team at her high school. Early in the book, I tell the story of teaching the infant Maya to swim. That was the first of many experiences of letting Maya go, something all parents struggle with. Her death was the ultimate letting go.


Maya, age 17

Did you find it therapeutic to write Swimming with Maya?

Oh definitely! Writing is the way I process almost everything. Certainly something as traumatic as the death of a child requires a deep re-examination of everything and writing is ideally suited to that process. But I need to emphasize that writing was only one of the many healing modalities I used. I knew I’d need to pull out all the stops to recover. So I sought peer-to-peer support through the Compassionate Friends, individual therapy, and spiritual counseling. In addition, I did tons and tons of self-care: walking, healing touch, swimming, dancing, healthy food, lots of rest and time in nature. Family and friends were also very important to my recovery. At a certain point in the process, Swimming with Maya became much less about my personal recovery and much more about telling a story readers would resonate with – I worked very hard to take my book to that next level, to turn it into a page turner.

You chose to donate Maya’s organs after her death. I think organ donation is an issue which many of us choose to avoid thinking about, perhaps because we are squeamish about thinking about our own deaths. But in the United States alone there are approximately 100,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants. It is a sensitive topic to talk about but also a very important one. Do you think your views on organ donation changed at all after Maya’s death?

If anything, I grew more passionate about helping others – and organ donation is the ultimate helpful act. It is a great privilege to be allowed to save another person’s life, or restore their sight, or contribute to the reconstruction of their skin tissue after horrible burns. All this is possible only through the generosity of donor families, and the medical miracle of transplantation. Sadly, many thousands of people, including children, die every year while waiting for a “gift of life” and a transplant. Swimming with Maya shines a light on this process from the vantage point of the donor mother and other family members. I think it provides valuable testimony for anyone considering becoming an organ and tissue donor.

As well as Swimming with Maya, you have published other pieces of non-fiction and memoir: one about the wedding of your daughter, Meghan, and the other about the birth of your grandchild. Have you ever written fiction?

I write in all genres, including poetry. Early in my career, I published a few short stories. I’ve begun several novels but for various reasons never completed them. Writing narrative nonfiction, or creative nonfiction as it is sometimes called, comes very naturally. I get to use fictional techniques – scene, dialogue, character development, and plot – in the service of telling a true story. In some ways, writing fiction is more freeing because you are not bound by “what really happened.” On the other hand, few things are more interesting than what really happened. Truth is often stranger than fiction, as the cliché would have it.

Do you prefer to write non-fiction?

That depends on the purpose or the intention behind a particular piece of writing. I’m currently working on a book that began its life as a memoir but that is morphing into a novel. Certain stories ask to be told in certain ways. As a writer, I have to take direction from my material.

As a writer, what do you think are the biggest challenges, especially when writing non-fiction?

Writing a memoir is difficult – and satisfying – on so many levels. The writer must be both narrator and character and that is not an easy balancing act. The narrator needs to know more than the character does. Getting that perspective requires time, and willingness to dig deep.

I highly recommend Vivian Gornick’s book on writing memoir, The Situation and the Story. It helped me to make that separation between the character of the mother in Swimming with Maya and the voice of the narrator.

I also think plot is an important aspect of memoir. You can’t just tell the story exactly as it happened. You have to create turning points in each chapter, and have a major realization or turning point sometime in the last quarter of the book. In that way, it’s much like writing a novel. You have to constantly ask yourself, “What is at stake here?” If there is nothing on the line for your characters, the reader will lose interest quickly.

So writing a compelling memoir, or personal essay, requires a lot of craft, as well as deep level of honesty and ability to see from a broader perspective and convey that to the reader.

Do you have a particular routine you follow when you write?

I tend to putter before I write – do dishes, water plants, tidy up – that sort of thing. I find that very soothing and writing can be very anxiety provoking. So I try to soothe myself into alignment with the material before I begin. I’ll usually reread what I’ve already written on a given piece. Sometimes, I’ll read a short inspiring poem or favorite paragraph by another author, before I begin or if I get stuck. But mostly, it’s just about getting my butt in the chair for a certain number of hours. Doing my time.

On average, how long does it take you to write a book?

There is no average. Again, the material I’m working with is the determining factor. Swimming with Maya took ten years to write. But the material was extraordinarily difficult. I had to take frequent breaks to grieve. And, I was still raising my other daughter and working full time, so it was a long process. I completed a first draft of my current book in less than five years – so that is much faster. But revision can also be a long process. I let the writing and rewriting drive how long the process will take.

Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

Yes. I’m working on a series of highly personal essays about my father, who recently died at the age of 92. That material is very fresh so I’m not yet sure what form it will take. I may turn into a book of linked essays, or I may decide to fictionalize it.

I’m also working on the book I mentioned which is based on my time in a cohousing community in Oakland. Cohousing is a form of intentional community where each person or family has their own house but you share meals together several times a week, and the community is self-governing, which means participating in lots of meetings. It’s a wonderful idea. In practice, I found, it was very challenging. My particular community was full of amazing people and I want to tell the story of how we interacted, what worked and what didn’t, and what I learned as a result. I ultimately decided to leave. It was a painful lesson, one I am mining for laughs, because there is something inherently funny about a wonderful ideal that turns into a disaster.

For more about Eleanor Vincent and her writing, you can visit her official website here, like her author page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @eleanor_vincent
Buy the book and post a review at Amazon.com
Visit the publisher Dream of Things to order Swimming with Maya directly: Dream of Things