“Grief Is Not Tidy”: ‘Poor Your Soul’ Author Mira Ptacin on Abortion, Loss, and Her Long Road to Publication

This week marks the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in America. As our legal rights and access to abortion continue to shrink, two sides stage rallies and fundraisers, and a new court case threatening Roe’s legacy looms in 2016, Mira Ptacin is on tour with her new book Poor Your Soul. This family memoir of loss and love centers around her decision to get a later abortion after learning that the baby she was carrying had defects that were incompatible with life.

Ptacin, now a mother of two, had to contend with some publishers’ initial squeamishness about the topic of her memoir, but doesn’t want to be considered an “abortion writer.” The daughter of an immigrant mother from Poland, she says the lenses she views the world through are “the uterus and the American dream.”

The author spoke to Flavorwire about her long road to publication, life as a writer on an island in Maine, and how she connected her own pregnancy loss to her mother’s grief over the loss of an adopted son, Ptacin’s brother, as a teenager.
Flavorwire: This book has been a ten-year journey for you. How did it begin?

strong>Mira Ptacin: I was focusing on nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence. The summer between my first and second year, I found out I was going to lose the baby I was carrying. I was so determined to write a book in grad school because Sarah Lawrence is so expensive.  When I found out I was pregnant, I still thought I was going to do it.

I had ten days to make a decision on whether I wanted to terminate, do nothing and miscarry, or induce labor — which would also have been terrifying. During these ten days, I didn’t want to face the fact that I did want to terminate, and it was the only choice for me. I felt so guilty for getting pregnant by accident. So I had already been accepted to Squaw Valley writers colony and I decided to go, to be by myself, to be writing. While there, I was working on a story about a murder in my hometown and I had a conference with a writer named Jason Roberts. He said, “If you write this book, you’re probably going to be labeled a true crime writer, but what else are you going to write about? Is there anything else going on in your life?” And I was like, “Well, yes.”

As a person, he was empathetic, but as my instructor he said, “You need to write about that.” I didn’t want to just be making it about me, but at the same time I felt I could not escape the story. He said, “When you write about this, you have to write about everything that surrounds it. The choices that lead to these choices.”

So then you decided to write about it?

As it was happening and after it happened, all I did was write. It was the only way I could process my feelings at the time. Grief is not tidy, it’s so isolating, so I wrote it in present tense. I isolated myself in the second year of grad school because when I came back, I was married, I had been pregnant and lost a baby. I felt like I had aged like ten years. I took my writing seriously because it was the only thing that kept me afloat.

But eventually you ended up expanding the focus of the book?

When I finished the book, I was obsessed with getting it published. I wanted to feel validated, because otherwise, what was this all for? Now I can see  that was for nothing, it was life. But I was impatient, I had this sense of urgency. I found an agent, she tried to sell it right away, but publishers were saying, “We can’t market a book about abortion.” I went through two agents and eventually just sent my book out on my own. I had therapist who said, “Take your manuscript and bury it.” I said, “Yeah, I totally did,” but actually just kept sending it out. Eventually a friend told me to send it to Soho Press, the [eventual] publisher. I’m pretty sure my pitch included the line “representing myself like a boss.” In between the time I wrote it and got it published, I got married, had two kids, moved to Maine, and established a life for myself. But I wasn’t going to stop until it happened.

You don’t want to be pigeonholed as an “abortion writer,” but can you see why pro-choice activists — even this week — are using storytelling as a major tool to end stigma? 

Right now, the people who are anti-choice… smoosh everything into a label, and there’s no spectrum. So storytelling is the only way to undo that. The more books like this one, the better, because in that context abortion becomes part of a life story. It’s similar to other kinds of labels. These these women I teach in Maine at a prison are labeled “prisoners,” but each one has a crazy individual story that began when she was tiny.

You ended up connecting the thread of the story to your mother’s immigration narrative and the death of your adopted brother when he was a teenager. 

When you’re writing anything, you have to think about it for a long time. I was trying to piece together what parts of my life should be included. Originally it was just the narrative about the abortion —that book was short and really packed a punch. But it would have been shelved in the feminist corner and preaching to the choir. When I considered who influenced my life — obviously, the answer was my mom. I would talk to my grad school advisors a lot, after all this happened. One asked me, “Is this the first kind of sorrow you experienced?” I said, “No, I lost my brother, he was adopted.” So, she said, “Your thesis is about two women who lost a child they wanted to save.” I eventually saw that when I talked to my mom. She gave me so much advice because, in fact, she’s been through this.

Do you ever feel pressure as a female memoirist writing about your family to leave things out or sanitize them?

I didn’t take anyone out of the story. That’s partly because I come from a family that’s so unfiltered, I cannot be guarded. My husband is not that way at all. He prides himself on being low-profile, aloof, and stoic. He was my first editor and if anybody would be ashamed or upset it would be him. There’s even one part where I say “his snoring makes me hate him.” But we’re just proud we made it through that time, and  he’s so incredible for letting me put all that in there. When I was writing the book, I was so unfiltered I didn’t care.
I was really angry, I was like, “Here, world, this is how it feels.”
I didn’t change any of my emotions for the narrative.

Wanted pregnancy, abortion, unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy loss — they all seem to be on more of a spectrum than people realize. It’s not just one or the other. That’s something that really came through in your story.

When I was pregnant with Simone, my daughter, my most recent arrival, there were moments at the end when I was so so sick of being pregnant. I had four or five weeks to go. I was like, “I love you, I want you to be healthy, but I want you out of here!” Even if you do want a baby and it’s planned, you have these natural feelings — they have to be natural, because they exist! I did not want to be pregnant initially with my first child, [but I was still grieving when I lost the pregnancy]. That’s why I think memoir is important. It shows that you’re just human. As my dad once told me, we’re all two steps away from being someone who does something labeled “evil” by others.

In Poor Your Soul, you talk about being a writer in New York City, but now you’re living a different life as a writer in Maine. How do they compare?

When I was in NYC, I was constantly surrounded by the literary community. I would go to these readings and be like, “Someday, that will be me.” But I got so sick of it. In Maine, we live on this tiny island. My closest friends are biologists and real estate agents and Reiki masters who live around me. I’m lucky that I have a good friend who sends me books that are new , but most of the time I go to the library and take out some random book I’ve never heard of, some old book I’ve never read. The pressure is really low. In NYC, I was always feeling a sense of urgency. I’m still sort of shedding that.