We all, at some point, wish we could talk to our younger self, our “pirate slut” as Claire Dederer calls her 18-year-old self in her funny and poignant new memoir, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning. Some of the most touching moments in this story are when the author, in her mid-40s and depressed about growing older, realizes that this “horrible girl” who made so many mistakes actually has lessons to impart to her.
This memoir is a masterful contemplation on integrating the free spirit that Dederer once was into the suburban wife and mother she has become. There’s a soften that happens throughout the excavation of diary entries and memories, an acceptance both of this naïve girl she once was and the wisdom-worn middle-aged woman she is now. Love and Trouble is a coming of middle-age story that is both personal and a journalistic foray into how difficult our society makes it for women to grow older with grace and acceptance.
Thank you, Claire Dederer, for helping me to be a little softer with my own younger pirate self, and kinder to the woman in the mirror.
Here’s more from my conversation with Claire Dederer:
Jennifer Haupt: For me, this book is considerably rawer—more revealing— than your first memoir, Poser. Does it feel that way to you?
Claire Dederer: Yes, it is in many ways more revealing and rawer than the first. But the huge benefit of writing a second memoir is you have learned how readers respond to your work. And what I’d learned from publishing Poser is this: The parts that were the most revealing and the hardest to write were the parts that readers were most grateful for. Those were the parts that made readers feel less alone. I came to see this is the very point of the memoir, morally speaking—to write honestly so that readers can see their own darkest, most uncomfortable experiences reflected in your work. With that in mind, I went toward, rather than away from, difficult material.
JH: How much does the reporter in you and your journalism background help—or hinder—when it comes to writing memoir?
CD: Earlier today, my husband pointed out to me that I actually reported and researched this book—I went through old journals and letters and photos, revisiting my younger self. I won’t pretend it wasn’t excruciating, but that research really did inform the whole book. I also think journalists know how to look for the telling detail. Good memoir relies on scenes built from detail, as does good reporting.
JH: This book is a “mid-life reckoning” where you try to reconcile, or at least come to a better understanding, with your younger self. Do you feel that you have achieved some kind of peace, not only with your younger self but with getting older?
CD: Yes, I do, though it surprises me to say it. For many years—decades—I found it almost physically painful to think about the girl I was in my adolescence and early twenties. She was such a screw-up. Immersing myself in her story was difficult, but I emerged with a new and entirely unexpected compassion for myself. As for making my peace with getting older, I must say, turning 50 is for some reason quite a cheering thing to do. I won’t be the first to note it gives one a very nice feeling of no longer caring what anyone thinks.
CD: Writing about my sex life was horrendous and thrilling. I don’t plan on doing it ever again. My husband simply pushed for more honesty, more authenticity. He is very good at talking about sex, while I am terrible at it, and he seemed to take it all in stride.
JH: What five songs are at the top of your playlist for this memoir?
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from your younger self during the process of writing this book?
CD: I love this question. When I started writing the book, a friend told me: “I know you have a lot of things you wish you could tell your younger self. But what are some things that young Claire knew that old Claire has forgotten?” There were so many, none of them very useful to a functional working person: Wasting time is not a waste of time; we are animals capable of great and intense feeling; melancholy can have a kind of glamor. None of that gets the laundry done, but I learned it anew in my mid-40s anyway.
Claire Dederer is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses. A book critic, essayist, and reporter, Dederer is a longtime contributor to The New York Times and has also written for The Atlantic, Vogue, Slate, The Nation, and New York magazine, among other publications. She lives on an island near Seattle with her family.