Interview: Cathy Alter, author of Up For Renewal

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

By Kathy Ritchie

“I thought about what I wanted in my life at the urging of friend who said our friendship is at an all-time low—”you need to figure this out.” So I wrote down this list, this stupid list. When I looked at it, it reminded me of the covers of women’s magazines. Ding!

cathyalter.jpgMost of us tend to take Saran Wrap for granted. We
use the plastic stuff to keep our leftovers fresh, rarely viewing the process as a first step in personal healing. But Saran Wrap works in mysterious ways, according a new memoir, Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over, by Cathy Alter (read SMITH’s excerpt here). When Alter, a Washington DC-based writer, hit rock bottom at the age of 37, she decided it was time to change her life. Drastic measures were taken. Among them: for an entire year she followed the advice doled out each month in popular women’s magazines. The idea, she posited, was to get back on the proverbial path.

“Mastering Saran Wrap turned into this whole existential meditation,” Alter says in a phone interview from DC. “It got me out of the office during lunches. It got me out of so much, a really damaging relationship, and I thought: this is going to work. These small victories in the aggregate are going to be something huge. That was sort of the theory.”

If you think Saran wrap sounds mundane, you’ll be delighted to know that along the way, Alter found another tip involving plastic wrap, except this tip didn’t involve wrapping up left over chicken parm, rather it suggested using plastic to cover her mate’s… well, just read on. Besides the joys of clingy plastic, SMITH also spoke to Alter about how she came to write Up For Renewal, and the lessons she learned about herself from magazines like Cosmo, Elle, Self, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, Marie Claire, O, The Oprah Magazine.

Did you go into this process with a book in mind or was it really a means of repairing your personal life?
A little of both. I had wanted to do second book after Virgin Territories, and I had been thinking of all these things to do. At the same time, my personal life was spiraling out of control, I was really making bad choices. And as I was pitching ideas to my agent, I was telling him about my life, and the craziness of it, then it hit me: this is what I needed to do. I sat down and thought about what I wanted in my life at the urging of friend who phoned me and said our friendship is at an all-time low—”you need to figure this out.” So I wrote down this list, this stupid list. When I looked at it, it reminded me of the covers of women’s magazines—Ding! I remember speaking to agent and I said “I’m going to subscribe to all these women’s magazines and fix my life.” He cracked up and he’s like, “I love it, that’s perfect.”

How did you chronicle the experience?
I had really low-tech way of organizing the chapters. I had manila folder for each month and I would go through magazines and tear out articles that I thought I could use, then I matched the month to what going on in my life. I was taking my psychological picture every month, which is weird. But I was tearing stuff out and doing it, and anytime I did something, said something, heard something, I had my journal and I would write it down. I had Post-It notes everywhere. If I was out and had a thought, I’d reach into my bag and write it down on something. I was constantly writing on my computer, in a notebook, or on a Post It. It was crazy. The magazines were seeping into my head, even the magazine-speak. Sometimes I would say something and I wondered, “Did I read that in Cosmo?”

At the start of the book, you reveal a lot of yourself—very personal, even graphic details about your life. Why was it necessary to go there right away?
The only reason I went there was because I really needed to show how reckless I was. I was not a reckless person, I was not self-destructive in these ways ever before, and I thought to show that and this behavior and these crazy acts in my cubicle really would explain everything. It was like a shorthand for me. It showed how badly I felt about myself. I had zero self worth. I think most people would have spent a couple months, maybe, in what my friend calls the “tawdry slut phase.” But I was in it for two years and when I look back on it, it makes me sad that I didn’t know how to get out of it sooner.

That was the one scene that I got the most copyedits about, you know the part about the 9-5 grind. I went over that part over seven times, rewriting that paragraph, explaining that I was in a cubicle with people around me. The walls were high, they were probably five-feet, but there were people literally in the quad on the other side. I relived that scene far longer than I ever should have had to just to make people believe me.

We tend to edit ourselves in order to put ourselves in a better light. But if you’re going to write a memoir, you have to take a good look at yourself and your actions. What did it take for you to look at yourself in a mirror and see, “This what I’m doing and this is who I am?”
I don’t consider an audience when I’m writing because that would probably make me want to edit myself. It’s like if you pay money to go to a therapist: you better tell truth, because otherwise, you’re wasting your money. How are you really going to get help? I felt like this writing was the same thing. How was I really going to get better and understand what was going on, understanding why I was doing these things, and why I had made these choices, unless I put myself under a microscope, a super powerful microscope and turn on the lights on. And I didn’t get all the answers. But at least I’m more willing to look at the uglier parts of myself. You have to go there. You have to, otherwise your reader is going to feel like they were being cheated from something. I think readers can tell when the writer not being authentic.

What was the most challenging aspect about writing your memoir?
Just writing. It was really grueling and the most challenging part for me was getting started. It’s the same for me when I’m writing in general: What do I do. How do I start? What’s my lede? Why does anyone want to read this? Who cares about me? The self-doubt creeps up. But breaking through that wall of pain at the very beginning of the book was hardest thing for me, as well as just getting into that groove, getting into that schedule, learning how to manage my time.

The first three chapters were rough and took me a long time, but by the end I was cranking out a chapter in a few days. My fingers had calluses on them. They tested me for lupus because my fingers got all crazy and red and battered looking, it was nuts! That’s the ultimate ha-ha: My hands are killing me and I needed them to write.

Do you think you would have been able to make the changes in your life without the magazines?
Honestly, I had no idea what I needed to do to get out of this hole. These magazines, the fact that I was working on this, gave me the structure I needed, it gave me some rules and it gave me the discipline—they were really the vehicle. I could have done a book about listening to advice from my mother for a year or taking a trip cross country and only stopping on diners for a year. I think anything I did would have worked on me. But I chose women’s magazines because they were available and they have a lot of readers. I wanted to write something that would be relatable—that women especially would get.

And you got your happy ending. [ed note: spoiler alert!]
Yes! I actually didn’t want to end the book with the epilogue. I wanted to end it with year end of the subscriptions. I thought that if I ended it with this walk down the aisle, that I was going to get some really nasty reviews, that reviewers would skim book and say, “Surprise, surprise: Women’s magazines really are a way to get a man to propose…” and I thought “I do not want my book to be read in that way.” I was really against putting in that ending. Then my agent phoned me and he’s like, “where’s my happy ending? I need my happy ending! How could you do this to me?” And when I realized that all of the characters from my year were at my wedding, I thought, “OK, I see it. I’m going to try and write it and not make it this silly cutsey-poo ending. I’m going to figure out a way to do it that makes me feel happy.” And it’s actually one of my favorite pieces of writing in the book. Of course, one of the reviewers was like, “ha-ha! Ends in the predictable walk down the aisle!” She ripped me. I also think she didn’t read the book.

What’s your cover line today?
Looking good, feeling great at any age—dot, dot, dot—story inside!

And your six-word memoir?
Saved by women’s magazines. How Bazaar.


READ: An excerpt from Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over on SMITH.

BUY: Up For Renewal

WATCH: Kathie Lee Gifford’s interview with Cathy Alter on Today

VISIT: Cathy Alter’s blog

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96 responses

  1. “Do or Diet”: An Excerpt from Up for Renewal by Cathy Alter | Memoirville says:

    [...] Excerpts and interviews from published memoirists, artists, and other storytellers. « Interview: Cathy Alter, author of Up For Renewal [...]

  2. Renewing Our Love for Cathy Alter | Memoirville says:

    [...] year we featured an interview with Cathy Alter on the eve of the release of her memoir, Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me [...]

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