Paulette Fire is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado where she has spent many years taking copious notes on the peculiarities of family life. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and has three granddaughters, all of whom love donuts. Her writing has appeared in the Jewish Literary Journal and Lilith.
Her essay "I Am Fat" will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 1, for special savings and discounts.
Note from the Nonfiction Editor:
We first came across Paulette Fire’s essay in our annual nonfiction contest—judged by Matthew Vollmer—where it received an honorable mention. I love this story. It has a short, rhythmic writing style that belies a punchiness and pace. And while the topic is a familiar one, the history, family details, and imagery that Paulette conjures really make it an enjoyable and unique read. I love seeing stories and writing like this in the pages of Carve, and we’re lucky to have received it.
In your essay, “I Am Fat,” you address the topic of weight and body image through the lens of family and history. How did you approach writing this essay, and how long were you planning it?
It began with the title: “I Am Fat.” I knew this was about my mother and me and our bodies when the next thing I wrote was: “My mother was fat in exactly the same way.” Memories then came in the form of stories and images, and it became clear that the story would begin and end with the way our bodies were the same. In between would be the struggle. What I didn’t know as I wrote this essay was that it would not only be a story of struggle but of love.
I’ve probably been planning to write this essay since I was a little girl sitting at the kitchen table staring at the green peas and orange carrots, trying to understand why I had to eat them when I wasn’t hungry, but knowing that it was a matter of life and death.
In the piece, you make great work of character and nuance, turning a universal topic into a unique and engaging one. What advice would you give other writers in approaching nonfiction storytelling?
Every time you have an idea for a story, jot it down. The ideas that come out of nowhere and make no sense are quickly forgotten. That’s why you need to write them down.
Begin without a plan. Let the story take you wherever it wants to go. If you’re not surprised about where you’re going, then you might not be on the right track. Maybe you’re not ready to write this story. Pick another one from your list.
When you write, write the words you wouldn’t even whisper to your best friend.
Write about the secrets you weren’t supposed to know. Ask questions that have no answers. Do not protect the innocent or guilty, and most of all do not betray yourself with half-truths or niceties.
Don’t try to write a good story. Just write what’s true. A true story is a good story.
As an editor, I am impressed by the story’s ability to traverse so much time in such little space, and a great deal of this comes from deciding what to leave out. In this regard, do you think there are more essays that might tangentially connect to this essay? What does your future writing hold?
There are a few stories I loved that I had to leave out. One of the stories was how as a young child, two or three years old, I would spend hours lying on the kitchen floor looking under the refrigerator. I imagined there was a little gray family, a mother and father and child, hiding in the dust and dirt. I would visit them every day, making sure they were still there, because I knew that all it would take was a wet rag to wipe them out. I would tell myself stories about the secret family under that refrigerator.
“I Am Fat” is part of a collection of essays I’m working on about my parents who were Holocaust survivors. I’m writing about the stories they told me, but mostly about the ones they didn’t tell me. I guess I’m still that child looking under the refrigerator, telling stories.