Meg Flores' lyrical debut memoir, We Died in Water, recounts the end of a relationship and the beginning of another while examining the roles history, memory, and loss play in shaping our stories.
In our candid interview, Flores generously shares her writing process, what inspires her creativity, how We Died in Water came into being and the beauty of creating.
"We Died in Water" is incredibly lyrical. I would consider it an extended prose poem. Is poetry your primary genre and how did you get started writing poetry? Do you find your routines or writing practices differ between poetry and traditional narrative?
I have always written toward a novel. And, maybe it’s for this reason I haven’t committed to calling myself a poet or a writer of poetry. I want to believe I’m writing something of more substance. Not necessarily in terms of influence, but of literal length. There’s more space for storytelling with a novel. At least, it allows for elaboration. But, of course, We Died in Water didn’t become a novel. I called it a memoir. Then, I began to advertise it as “a memoir that reads as poetry” because memoir wasn’t entirely true of the content. Still, it’s not either and, at the very same time, it’s both. But, it took time to admit that. So I guess, in this case, I didn’t get started writing poetry at all—I just started writing. That sounds too effortless. What I mean is, my voice is already fragmented and lyrical. I’m writing speculative fiction now and it seems anything I write references the mood of poetry, whether or not it’s a poem. I’m happy with the parallel. I just have trouble relating, because I know poetry itself isn’t what I’ve ever set out to create in form or in exposition. Regardless, my approach is the same.
I’m reminded of an interview Catherine Lacey did with The Paris Review last summer where she was asked of her starting point. She said, “There tends to be a sentence that occurs to me. But a sentence is not just a sentence. In the sentence, I will feel a very specific bodily posture, a very specific rhythm, and a very specific level of intensity at which this character, this voice, is living. The sentence holds a lot. It’s always way more than a sentence.” That’s the most accurate representation of how it happens. It’s such a pleasant, not surprise, but a phenomenon. To begin with.
Your memoir begins as a reflection on the end of a specific 8-year relationship, and you talk throughout about how you are "someone who is left.” With so many losses, what was the impetus for focusing on this particular relationship, or is the partner who is gone an amalgamation of more than one person?
My editor felt I might be over-exaggerating my experience with generalized statements like this. I give the impression that I’ve been left more than the one time. But, once is enough isn’t it? Once is so encompassing. For me, my breakup signified infinite loss. Our collapse paralleled my parents. Yours. Anyone. My future became dangerous too, a place in the dark I’d surely go only to find this feeling, this breaking over and over. So, my ex leaving was and wasn’t a singular event for me. It happened, but in a very real way, it had happened before and would happen again and so, seemed endless. I fixated on him, but with the intention of characterizing every gone person in every history. And I became “someone who is left,” the moment he left me. A line was drawn and I belonged to the hearts that were alone. Maybe I always had, from the moment my dad left my mom. I had to see it like this, as this sweeping universal truth. This is it. This is who you are. Of course you are. Who isn’t. In escalating the experience to encompass all of us, I was able to appreciate a lesson in cohesion. That, as world shattering as it felt, this story will always be told. I don’t want to call it consolidating, because it feels the opposite. More intensifying. More like intumescing. An expansion of sensitivity, of understanding, of forgiveness.
A challenge in memoir writing can be sharing your truth while protecting or representing the other people involved. How did you approach this challenge? What is the memoirist's responsibility to the people in their lives that they write about?
It’s not that responsibility was a primary feeling I had while writing this, but it was important for me to recognize how easy it is to slip from objectivity in translating actual memories. Leaving out names helped me to see my ex, for example, as not only himself but also as an anonymous illustration of his actions. “He” did this, but who is “he” anyway? “He” was everything. And now “he’s” everyone. And that wasn’t for anyone’s protection. That was for relevancy. Writing is such a personal effort; it’s meant to be intimate. But, when I wrote about this loss, I knew it illuminated more than itself. It could represent more than the two of us. This facelessness permitted that. It encouraged the “I” to be dominant. So, it is my perspective already assumes a level of clemency, I think. At least, it should.
In your acknowledgments, you say you wrote this for yourself but published it for readers. How did We Died in Water first begin? Did the act of initially writing it for yourself allow you to be more open or vulnerable in ways you would have avoided if you intended to share it with an audience?
We Died in Water never had a beginning. It had endings—that’s where it grew from. The last of my parents, the last of my longstanding relationship. I needed a place to keep us. Not together, but gathered in recollection. I didn’t want to forget what I felt, what it felt like to truly understand sadness. My mother’s, my own. Living my greatest fear allowed me to finally face it. This is happening to you too. This happens. But, I mean, still, I like to believe I’m unguarded instinctively. So, whether or not I shared this widely wasn’t my motivation for how exposed I was willing to be as I wrote. I’m always this forthcoming. A blank page allows for that, and, I realized, so could a reader. When I decided to publish, I trusted that whoever bought and gave his or her time to this book would be someone I’d tell anyway. I guess as I wrote I realized I wanted to do that, tell someone. Someone that has maybe felt the same way.
Amy Tan has said, "Our lives don't happen chronologically in memory, and a good memoirist has to know how to structure that memoir in a way that you can see the shaping of a life..." Your memoir is non-linear. It moves back and forth much like the oceanic imagery you use throughout, and yet a clear story emerges. How did you decide to structure your story?
I love that so much. I recently read a 2017 article of Bloom’s where Lidia Yuknavtich was asked how she chose to leave out the specifics of certain fundamental memories in ‘Chronology of Water,’ which feels so significant to mention alongside this because of how elusive I can be also. And she said, “Think of the way poetry works on us—distilling intense and enormous experiences into poetic language, image, repetitions, accumulation of meanings. Too, I knew that if I could get a reader to feel the truth in their body while they were reading, whether or not the explicit detail was on the page didn’t matter. I was speaking body to body.”
Isn’t that beautiful? With We Died in Water the kaleidoscopic structure wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice for me. It’s arrangement flooded from a very natural place of simply sharing what I continued to feel. This is how I see everything when I look back. This is the sensation of my past. It’s very disjointed and blurred, and then it’s vivid and precise but always there’s this interconnection. It’s funny though; I actually intended to separate the story of my ex from the story of my husband. I wanted it to be very clear that I had moved on. Then, I kept putting my ex in later pages, and I reached this epiphany that I hadn’t moved on the way everyone expects themselves to, and maybe I didn’t have to. Instead, I was moving with the loss. And that became the point of the entire book. This idea that I’m still hesitant, still untrusting, is more genuine. Mine isn’t a story of letting go. It’s one of embracing the whole of what I’ve been through to see that the love I experience is always mine, and there’s a forever in that. Loss tricks us into seeing everything being taken away, but really, what happened other than a boy walking into a different life, a girl watching him go before facing hers? What makes that the end of anything?
Memories can often hold us captive. You say on page 136, " When I imagine him now, he's either falling through water, more alive than I've ever seen him, or he's walking away like anyone. And I'm letting him." What do you think is the role of memory in our healing from loss? How does one begin the process of letting go?
I don’t think we ever let go. That is the power of memory. Remembering allows us to hold on and on and on. And why shouldn’t we? Healing to me isn’t forgetting it’s forgoing that expectation entirely. I’m not saying to relive the trauma, to stay stuck in that suffering. But, I don’t think we need to be so punitive in confiscating the experience from ourselves. Because then there’s this dissonance between loving yourself and still loving this other person you’re without that suggests both cannot be true at the same time. Which, of course, is insincere and deceptive. I wanted my readers to know that loss is not the opposite of love. The two are actually very compatible. I was left by someone I loved. And yes, that broke me entirely. And yes, I loved again. But, I’m of the mind that surpassing our pain by way of censorship or erasure isn’t a victory. I dare the heart to keep every feeling, to stay where we have been as we grow. I think there’s a certain strength in that willingness to endure versus just pretending we were never that vulnerable, crushed person—or that some part of ourselves might be still.
You cite Lana Del Rey and Maggie Nelson as influential to your writing. Who are some other artists that have helped shape your work?
Lana and ‘Bluets’ are directly visible in this particular work, I’ve always felt that I write so closely to both. The starry, melodic expression, the meditative quality, conveying heartache as a mosaic. But, I’m a very impressionable artist. One has to be receptive. Something changes me irrevocably and that shift, that newfound fearlessness, and sentience inspires my writing. I’m a forever fan of Catherine Lacey, Sarah Gerard, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ottessa Moshfegh, Ocean Vuong and Sylvia Plath. There’s more, my influences are endless. I’m motivated by song lyrics. Films, too. I’m heavily affected by my emotions. And any story that reintroduces me to a feeling I’ve had or to myself encourages further exploration, which eventually becomes my own art.
On page 91 you say, "I will move deeper into the wild space of being this person who loves you." This line beautifully articulates the excitement and fear of giving oneself in love. I think it can also represent the creative process of delving into a project and exploring the emotions and thoughts that become our work. Do you find any parallels between loving and writing? What would you say to encourage someone who wants to pursue one or both?
Wow, what a beautiful thought. I’m just sitting with this for a second. Yes! In so many ways. The same feelings surface, don’t they? I’ve had this note saved in my phone for years, Martha Graham, an acclaimed dancer, wrote this in a letter to Agnes de Mille in 1943. “There’s a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of the time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
I re-read it often. And, although it’s speaking directly to creativity, I think it relates just as much to love. The importance of an open heart. Both love and writing allow us to overcome ourselves for the sake of truly existing. And maybe we never belong to our art or to our loved ones, but we contribute to the beauty of loving something, of creating something. And we’re more alive for it.
Meg Flores received a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in creative writing from California State University, Northridge where she was awarded the Lesley Johnstone Memorial Award two consecutive years. She writes of loss with lyrical, shimmering prose which has been featured in The Conium Review, Cleaver Magazine, and Monkeybicycle. Her first book, 'We Died in Water,' is a self-published memoir that reads as poetry influenced by Lana Del Rey and Maggie Nelson's 'Bluets.' She calls her husband home. They live in Los Angeles. Follow along on Instagram @bymegflores
About Karla Derus
Karla Derus is a lifelong reader and writer. She has a B.A. in English and a Master's in Afro-American studies from UCLA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Gawker. Originally from Seattle, she loves rainy days, strong coffee, and finely sharpened pencils. She is perpetually at work on her first novel and lives in Los Angeles with her husband. You can find her on Instagram @loveplantsandpages.