Demons I Want to Exorcise: An Interview with Alaina Symanovich

By Melissa DiGiovannantonio, assistant editor, The Fourth River

Alaina Symanovich, is a graduate student at Florida State University. She was born and raised in central Pennsylvania and always longed to get away, but never thought that she would have the chance. She studied at Penn State University as an undergraduate student “a whopping five minutes from her house.” She said in my interview with her that she “met so many students who’d traveled across states or seas to become Nittany Lions” and “wanted so desperately to have an adventure of her own, to stop being a “townie” and become a person.” She now finds herself unable to stop writing about the home she wishes she had never left.

Alaina’s essay, “The M Word,” appears in The Fourth River Issue O.2: Queering Nature.

The Fourth River: Do you generally write nonfiction, or do you find yourself switching between genres?

Alaina Symanovich: I stumbled into writing nonfiction out of necessity.  According to my peers in fiction workshop, disguising my own experiences as fiction was a) obvious, and b) stifling.  My peers were right–I wasn’t able to write “true” fiction (or, in any case, fiction that wasn’t 99% memoir) until I got my nonfiction stories out of my system.  I began doubling up on fiction and nonfiction workshops, and writing finally became freeing. I no longer had to pass my real life as fiction or contrive situations where characters were “coincidentally” dealing with the same issues I was.

TFR: Would you describe your writing process for me?

AS: My writing process (for nonfiction–fiction is a different beast) involves a lot of power-walking.  I find that my best ideas come when I’m in motion, especially if I’m in nature. The next stage involves a lot of scribbling in notebooks, trying to get a sense of the structure of the essay I’m planning.  And I never start an essay until I know what its opening line will be–I’m really superstitious about that. I’ll walk until my feet are bloody if that’s what it takes for the first line to find me.

TFR: Do you tend to embellish a lot in your pieces?

AS: I have a pretty strict rule about not embellishing my nonfiction.  Most of the time, after all, I’m writing about things that bother me, or confuse me, or hurt me.  I’m writing about demons that I want to exorcise, so I write truthfully to those memories.  But–of course–memory is flawed and subjective. So I’ll never claim to be writing God’s Indubitable Truth, since the only truth I know is my own, but I also would never knowingly lie to a reader.

TFR: Is there one subject you would never write about in your nonfiction pieces?

AS: I’m an open book (pun intended?) when it comes to the aspects of my life I’m willing to write about. I find that the people who love me don’t care.

TFR: “The M Word” is written about a deeper topic and talks a lot about your family. Has your family read the piece, and if so, how did they react?

AS: I’m not sure if anyone in my family has read “The M Word,” actually.  My dad may have. (A copy of my Master’s thesis is lying around the house somewhere, I think.)  But I don’t think anyone in my family would be shocked by the story–it’s tame compared to some of my other works!

TFR: You said you tend to write about things that confuse, bother, or hurt you, and that “The M Word” is tame compared to some other works. What kinds of things have you written about in other pieces?

AS: I think “The M Word” is tamer than other pieces I’ve written because I was able to write it with a bit of hindsight, a luxury I don’t often give myself.  I’m so guilty of writing in-the-moment stories (i.e. this friend hurt my feelings today, that person dumped me last night, etc.).  Many scenes in “The M Word” happened years and years ago, so I’ve had time to process them, and I’m removed from the people and places involved.  I’ve published stories before about issues I was still dealing with, friends I still had, crushes who didn’t know they were crushes, etc. It’s much scarier to write about your present than your past!

TFR: What made you decide to compare masturbation to an eating disorder in “The M Word?”

AS: The first time the masturbation-eating disorder connection occurred to me was in the summer of 2014, when I was caught in a cycle of bulimia.  Something about the act of purging struck me as erotic–you could say that a bulimic who purges is like a masturbator who “takes care of” him/herself.  Not to be crass, but there’s the rubbing, the fluids, the release and relief; it’s a very intimate experience to have with oneself. One day in June, I sat down and wrote a very clumsy poem about those thoughts, and a few months later I began work on “The M Word” in earnest.

TFR: I almost felt like the “M” in the title could be referred to as masturbation or mother. Was that your intention?

AS: I’m glad you saw the double meaning of the Ms in “The M Word”–that’s what I intended!  I also wanted to allude to “The L Word,” a TV show about lesbians.

TFR: Where there alternate endings that you considered?

AS: There was one alternate ending I considered–it included a scene in which a girl I knew told me she was gang-raped.  One of her rapists was a boy I went to preschool with, a boy that my mom and dad always joked was my “boyfriend.” Unfortunately, the scene didn’t fit–it was far too complicated to just throw in at the end of this already-long essay.

TFR: If you were to go back and do more edits on “The M Word,” is there anything that you can think of that you would change?

AS: I’ve always been bothered by how large “The M Word” is.  I don’t mean large as in length, but in breadth–this work covers so much ground, more than I felt I “should” cover in one essay.  As I wrote the piece, though, I realized that all of these themes and events were (maddeningly) interconnected; I couldn’t see a way to do justice to a single story-thread without showing the whole tapestry.  In a perfect world, this essay would be succinct, bite-sized, manageable. Clearly, I’m still waiting on my perfect world!