At the Junction of Loss and Love: Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Anyone who has experienced profound loss understands the nonlinear nature of grief. The echoes in absence are circular, spiraled, looping. To read Lilly Dancyger’s memoir is to travel along the arc of a specific loss through her eyes: as a daughter to Joe Schactman, who died too young at 43. Yet, Negative Space embraces readers in a universal sorrow, beautifully wrought on the page. We are with Lilly and Joe on the streets of Manhattan. We are caught in that afternoon light where they both lived, in a too-short moment––her child hand holding onto his two fingers. We hear her father’s voice. And in listening to his voice, we feel the pain of loss translating from the personal to the universal.

Like her father, Lilly Dancyger is an artist who constructs with metaphor. Whereas he was a visual artist, Lilly sculpts with words. Born from her existential wound of losing her father, Lilly Dancyger’s writing is at once propulsive and meditative. She weaves echoes of absence with its corollary—presence: the persistent ache of loss and its many layers. To read Negative Space is to experience the sensations of and reckoning with the indelible imprint of grief—while simultaneously being grounded in the enduring arms of love.

Dancyger’s dedication states

For my father, Joe Schactman.

And for everyone living with an absence.

Negative Space, therefore, is for all of us. I asked Lilly questions to better understand how she created a liminal bridge on which we can stand, if even for a moment, when we face great sorrow and longing.

TriQuarterly: Could you talk about your craft decisions around weaving this beautiful, non-linear narrative? How did you choose where to begin and end Negative Space?

Lilly Dancyger: That was the hardest part. Every time I went to revise the manuscript, it was because the structure wasn't quite right yet. I was putting this pressure on myself, as if there was a correct structure that I couldn't find. Eventually, though, I realized that there were lots of versions that might work, lots of places I could start and end, lots of orders I could put it in. Ultimately, it was a matter of picking one. Ultimately, I liked the symmetry of starting and ending with my father’s death when I was twelve—first as the beginning of my storyline, and then as the end of his. If I’ve done my job, by the time I come back to his death at the end of the book, the reader has fallen in love with this character of my father, and they know how much his death will impact the rest of my life.

TQ: Vivian Gornick wrote about “the story beneath the story.” On one level, it's the story of your dad, his addiction, his art career, his marriage, and his relationship with you. Then, there’s the secondary level that brings in your reflections on it all. Did you strike that balance as you wrote Negative Space, or is that something that you did afterwards?

LD: I built the book in layers. The first layer was the art. Then, I filled in the details of my father's life around art. And then layered on top of that was the research and interviews, woven with my own story about the aftermath of my father’s death and growing up without him. The reflection and meaning-making are the last layer that seals it all in together.

TQ: I think I have this right, didn't this book take you a decade to write?

LD: Yeah, 11 years.

TQ: And during that time, you were working on multiple projects, including your anthology, Burn It Down. How did you manage the writing, drafting, and editing while also continuing to produce other things?

LD: I think that interruption, the interruption of life, was necessary to the process. I would focus on the book really intensely and go into the rabbit hole with a revision for a few months, and then I would have to put it aside because I had to do paid work, plan my wedding, edit the anthology, teach, and travel. Each time I came back to Negative Space, I had some fresh perspective.

TQ: How did your writing group influence the writing of the manuscript? 

LD: I joined my writers’ group about four years ago, when I was seven or eight years into the process of writing the book. I had a "finished draft" that I was fine-tuning. I would share a chapter at a time with them, and it was really useful to get a fresh perspective from people who hadn't read all of the previous drafts—to see what they were emotionally responding to. I always wait to share work with my writers’ group until I’m stuck in one way or another, and sometimes that's earlier or later in the process.

TQ: So many of the scenes in Negative Space are from your childhood. There's one where you're walking along with your father on New York City Street in the late afternoon. It's so detailed. It feels like you're writing about yesterday. I'm wondering what you used or what you found helpful to create these scenes, to recreate something that actually happened.

LD: With the early childhood memories, I just tried to milk as much as I could out of the little bits that I do remember. I remember that conversation like it’s a photograph: I’m looking up at my father in the bright sunlight and the shadows on the street. That's it. I remember that one image. In the book, I described that image but added the detail of me holding onto his two fingers because that was how we always held hands. I also remember him saying, "Don't call me dad," and so that’s the one line of dialogue I included in that scene.

TQ: Speaking of dialogue, I’m curious: in the interviews, did you use many direct quotes from your interviewees, or does the book represent modified versions of their language?

LD: All the interview quotes in the book are direct quotes. I picked a couple good, grounding, evocative lines from each one.

TQ: In that regard, do you think that your journalism training came into those interviews?

LD: I think my journalism background really helped me with those first layers of the story: getting the details, being comfortable interviewing people, asking hard questions, doing follow-up, transcribing interviews, et cetera. But I had to move beyond that mode in order to get into the more reflective and personal and emotive parts of the story. And I had to unlearn some things. My early drafts are all very barebones, like, “Here's what happened.” Journalism trains you to write short, tight, and fast. I had to push myself to stay with an image, stay with a feeling, stay with an idea for more than two sentences.

That was a transition. For a while, I was doing shift writing for some national magazine websites. Four days a week, I woke up in the morning, read the news, and then wrote two or three pieces about what was happening. Some news pieces, some opinion pieces. I was churning out a lot of content, like twelve pieces a week. I quit those jobs because in revising the memoir, I was trying to push the language forward, to get juicy in the imagery and the emotion. But I was stuck in the cadence and pace of internet writing because I’d been writing these 800-word, really quick, to-the-point, snarky articles, and I would still have that rhythm and tone in my head when I was trying to revise the book. I told myself, “I need to stop doing this work because it's ruining my writing voice.”

TQ: You’ve talked about how The Night of the Gun was an influence Negative Space. Were you reading anything else during that period that you felt was very impactful to your writing process?

LD: There were several books that came to me right at the right moments of this project. The Night of the Gun was the earliest influence. I read that really early on when I was still getting my bearings, asking “How do you report a personal story?" I was still very much in the journalist mode at that point. Later, when I was trying to move past the constraints of journalistic writing, I found Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, which was really, really influential for me. It expanded my idea of what was possible. It helped me get into this flow of language and imagery, and start paying more attention to the visceral feelings I was creating rather than getting locked into just the facts. Then, toward the end, when I was finally getting close to nailing down the structure of Negative Space, I read two books back to back that clicked everything into place for me in terms of the braided structure: T. Kira Madden's Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Sophia Shalmiyev's Mother Winter. They both do really cool, interesting things with structure. Those books gave me permission to blow up the “weave” a little bit and get intricate in the movement back and forth between strands.

TQ: I love the part in Negative Space when you attend one of Lidia Yuknavitch’s workshops. You have this “a-ha!” moment when she asks everyone in the class to list their core metaphors. You realize that your core metaphors are the same as your father's are in his art. There's an inherited lineage of images there. Can you talk about a few of your core metaphors and how they operate for you?

LD: It's very much in flux right now because I'm still in the throes of promoting Negative Space. I'm also approaching the point at which I'm going to switch over to focusing on the next project. I'm not sure if the metaphors I inherited from my father and embodied for this book will carry over to the next thing. I don't have an intention either way. I'm curious to see if those metaphors will show up in the new thing, but I'm not sure.

TQ: When did the title of Negative Space come to you?

LD: The title came late. It changed a lot over time. Originally, it was supposed to be an artist monograph, something like, “The Life and Work of Joe Schactman.” Very straightforward, almost academic. When it became a memoir, the working title for many years was “Hunter/Hunted,” which is the name of one of my father's series. I eventually realized that it didn't make sense until you read the book, and I wanted something that made sense as soon as you know what the book is about.

TQ: Back to your role as an editor. I recently saw on Twitter that you tell your students to allow themselves to write "shitty first drafts." Does your editing brain allow you to do this also? How does that role of being an editor come into your writer mode?

LD: Yeah. I trick myself into shitty first drafts by saying that I'm just taking notes. I have to walk myself backward into it. I begin by taking really, really extensive notes that happen to include sketches of scenes, bits of reflection, bits of research. I start to put them in a chronological order, and then all of a sudden, I think, “Oh, look, it's two pages. I guess maybe it's not notes anymore, it's a draft.

TQ: In thinking about the different themes in your book, I was particularly drawn to the notion of contradiction. For example, you enroll in ballet classes. The discipline required of ballet contradicts the stereotype of rebellious teen in many ways. Was contradiction a theme that you were trying to draw out?

LD: I think it just came up naturally. I kept finding myself at these points in the story where there were inherent contradictions. I tried to smooth it out, but it just felt flat and false. After that happened three or four times, I decided to widen the lens a little bit and include those contradictions; to allow space for being unsure, for the things that felt slippery and irreconcilable.

One theme that I did pull out more intentionally was stability. I was writing about dropping out of high school, ending up in college, going to grad school, regretting grad school, and going back to the bar, and I realized that I was doing a dance with stability. I was seeking it out but also feeling trapped by it. And realized that my parents did that, also. They were trying to have these freewheeling, creative lives on their own terms, including lots of drugs, but then they also wanted to have a stable, peaceful home life. And you can't do both. I was on the same quest for a reconciliation: how do you live life on your own terms, a life built around your art, but still have stability and security? I think I found a better balance in that than my parents ever did.

TQ: I wondered if you could touch on the role of addiction in contemporary story-telling and memoir. In Negative Space, you disrupt some stereotypes of addiction.

LD: I was definitely pushing against the larger cultural narrative that addiction is a defining characteristic of a person. That's why I tell the reader directly, early on [in Negative Space,] that my father's addiction is not the first thing I'm going to explore about him. It’s not what defines him as a person or in my memory. I wanted people to see other aspects of him that were so much more interesting and so much more central to who he was. The addiction was just one part of it. I didn't want to sugar-coat it or pretend like it wasn't a big deal, but it wasn't the whole story. I was also pushing against a certain salaciousness and a villainization that seems prominent in addiction stories.

TQ: Can you talk about the evolution of the nonfiction genre, or the evolution of genre categories in general?

LD: What I'm most excited about right now and what I enjoy reading and writing is memoir that also crosses over into other areas of non-fiction. I call Negative Space a “hybrid memoir” or an “art book memoir.” Even though it's very much a memoir, it’s also journalism, and an art book. And there's a lot of memoir that's also criticism, memoir that's also history, and memoir that's also true crime.

TQ: I was recently thinking about how critical surprise is in writing: the notion that if writing doesn’t surprise the reader, it won’t surprise the writer. What do you think of that in terms of non-fiction? Is surprise something you try to accomplish, or is that more productive for fiction writers who aren’t bound to facts?

LD: Rather than surprise, I think there are more interesting ways to create tension in non-fiction. I don't think what happens is really the most interesting or important thing about a memoir. I tell you at the beginning of the book that the main character dies. It's in the first sentence. And the idea, then, is to spend the rest of the book making the reader love him, so they’ll feel the pain of his death even though they know it’s coming at the end of the story. It's like when I re-read Romeo and Juliet, I still want the last scene to go differently, even though I know what's going to happen. That emotion has nothing to do with surprise. I like a good twist as much as anybody else does, but I don't rely on that to create tension in what I'm writing.

TQ: Speaking of surprise and tension--I know your readers are eager for your next work. Can you tell us anything about your next project?

LD: It’s an essay collection, but that’s all I’m saying publicly for now! 


Note: This interview was completed before Lilly’s Twitter announcement regarding her next project: “First Love, a collection of essays that braid memoir with cultural inquiry to explore the power and complexity of female friendships and the many different kinds of love they can contain.”