On Becoming Whole

Oct 19, 2015

Credit Photo by Suzanne Reiss

Debra Monroe is an award-winning author of six books and acclaimed university professor. But she was, in her own words, “raised to be a farmer’s wife, a shopkeeper’s wife, a telephone man’s wife.”

In her most recent memoir, My Unsentimental Education, Monroe chronicles her journey from the backstreet bars and the presumed limited opportunities of her small Wisconsin hometown to a seat in the ivory tower. Along the way she battles the discouraging voices of her parents, her professors, and a series of poorly chosen lovers. With her passion for literature and her undefeatable spirit, Monroe not only reaches her goals as a writer and an academic, but also achieves a hard won confidence. The book is a beautiful and often hilarious chronicle of one woman’s battle to be exactly who she wants to be.

Whether trying LSD for the first time, unintentionally accepting a job at a pornographic movie theater, or discussing her love life with religiously conservative neighbors, Monroe manages to move her life and career forward. With a wit that helps ease the hurt, we travel with Monroe through heartbreaking relationships with every sort of wrong man. She makes her way through marriages and romances that quickly announce themselves as mistakes.

Men fear her ambitions, are intimidated by her intellect, or simply have no desire to move as she rockets forward. As Monroe finds her way, she also finds herself. Her story charts the difficult task of leaving behind one’s socially assigned identities to find the authentic self. My Unsentimental Education is a celebration of misadventures, surprises, and powering forward against all odds.

This is Monroe’s second memoir. Her first, On the Outskirts of Normal, came out in 2010 and traced her experiences adopting a black child while living in a small Texas town. Monroe is also the author of two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection, The Source of Trouble, won the Flannery O’Conner Award for Fiction in 1990 and launched her into the national literary scene. From there she wrote a second collection of stories, A Wild, Cold State, in 1995 and the novels Newfangled in 1998 and Shambles in 2004.

Monroe has often been praised for her honest portrayal of the darker corners of American life. She doesn’t back away from images of poverty, crime, and abuse. Her writing is, as the Boston Globe describes it, “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality.” She’s known for using humor to highlight the humanity of her characters.

A conversation with Monroe is a true delight, rich with humor and insight. On this episode of the Write Up, we talk about the different challenges of writing memoirs and novels, the rewards of teaching students in the Texas State University MFA program, and the importance of discovering who one really is.