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On the Porch

Mary Laura Philpott (May 2019)

Heidi Ross

Silas House speaks with Mary Laura Philpott, author of the new essay collection I Miss You When I Blink.



Silas House: Today, I'm so happy to be talking to Mary Laura Philpott on the phone. Mary Laura is the author of a highly acclaimed new essay collection called I Miss You When I Blink, which takes the reader through writing about the occasionally daunting pressures of being a modern woman and essays that are poignant, vulnerable, and most often hilarious. Mary Laura's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times, The Paris Review, and too many other places to mention. She is also the very charming and Emmy-winning cohost of the literary interview show A Word On Words, which can be seen on Nashville Public Television, and you can also find it on YouTube. She lives in Nashville. Hi, Mary Laura. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Mary Laura Philpott: Hey, Silas, thank you for having me.

Silas House: I know that you have been all over the place on book tour recently and are so busy right now. So we're really glad to have you.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh this is fun!

Silas House: The best thing about the listeners of On The Porch is that they are readers.

Mary Laura Philpott: I love that.

Silas House: I knew you would. So with that in mind, why don't you tell them what you want them to know about I Miss You When I Blink.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh what a great, open-ended question. Here's what I want you to know about I Miss You When I Blink. If you are a person who has even a touch of perfectionism or Type- tendencies and you like to get things right in life, this might be a book for you. If you are a person who is at a decision point in your life, whether it's 22, and you're coming out of school trying to decide what you're going to be or you're 52 and you're thinking about reinventing yourself and starting a different career, or getting in or out of a relationship, this might be the book for you. Because what I'm writing about here is reinvention and all the times in my life that I came to a point where I said, Okay, I've made the choices that brought me to this place, but I'm not sure this is the place for me anymore. Now what do I do?

Silas House: So I love the title.

Mary Laura Philpott: Thank you.

Silas House: And you bring so many layers to it. So can you just tell us about the title and the way it's become a mantra for you?

Mary Laura Philpott: Yeah, I love the title too. I can say that without bragging because I didn't make it up. I stole it. I didn't steal it. I asked politely to borrow it. It was made up by my son, who is now a teenager -- I have two kids who are bigger than me -- but back when they were little, and he was about six. He was drawing on a notepad, and he was making up a little poem. And it was like: I miss you in the sink. I miss you in the skating rink. I miss you when I blink. And I took that piece of paper that he wrote that little poem on, and I stuck it on the wall in my office. And day after day, I would walk down to my office to do my work as a freelance copywriter, and every day I would see that there. And over the years it stuck in my mind the way a song lyric will stick in your head. And you know how sometimes a song can be about one thing, but your brain kind of turns it into something about yourself? It started to mean to me, not just what a cute little phrase, I miss you when I blink -- you know, what an adorable, precocious six-year-old I have. But the "when I blink" part came to represent time and how it keeps moving faster, which is an obsession of mine. I really desperately wish someone to invent a time machine. And the "I miss you" part came to represent what I missed about myself. Not just my past self, like the person I was 20 years ago or 10 years ago, but also the person I meant to be, and things I meant to do but didn't quite do. And as I, you know, got older and got further into adulthood and got into sort of a period of melancholy in my life where I wasn't totally happy with my day to day existence, that phrase became a touchstone. Like, I miss myself as time is going past. But if I can look back at who I've been, and what I've done, I can figure out what to do to go forward.

Silas House: Right. I think we all have that moment where we realize we've lost ourselves, you know, who we used to be. So that's such a relatable part of the book.

Mary Laura Philpott: It sneaks up on you.

Silas House: Right. Do you know that song from the musical Waitress?

Mary Laura Philpott: She Used To Be Mine?

Silas House: Yes.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh my God, yes.

Silas House: Yeah, we played that earlier in the show in tribute to this idea of I miss you when I blink.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh, thank you! That song! I once drove down from Nashville to the Mississippi Festival in Jackson, which is a six-hour drive. And there is a long portion of that drive where no radio stations come in. And so I had to, you know, blast music from my phone in the cup holder of my car. And I had that song on repeat, just belting it. And, I don't know what was going through my hormonal system at that time, but sobbing. I love that song.

Silas House: It's one that I sing in my car as well. It's a good one for that.

Mary Laura Philpott: We should duet some time.

Silas House: You mentioned the idea of being a perfectionist, and it's something that you do talk about quite a bit in the book. You're very honest about that. And so tell us a little bit about that.

Mary Laura Philpott: Yeah. It's a thing about me. As I say in the book, you know how every dish has some flavor that comes through strongly -- the cilantro, if you will. And that is my cilantro. Like that is the thing about me that even as I become more self-aware of it, and I become better able to manage it, it will never change. I am a person, whether by nature or nurture, who wants to get everything right. And there is some little scrap in my brain that believes if I just can get every answer right to everything I'm doing, I will earn the love and approval of everyone around me. And I will earn my right to be a human being on this earth. And I know that that's twisted. I know that's not right. But it is still how my brain works. And it plays out in my life -- and I write about this in the book -- it plays out in some funny ways. You know, like I'm like always on a game show nobody else can see. Like I'm playing by these rules and making these little bargains and you know, trying to do everything just right. But it also can be sad, you know. And it can be frustrating and limiting, because in adult life, most things don't have one clear right answer. And sometimes there is a clear right answer to what you should do in a given situation. And it's the right thing for you then and it might be the right thing for you a year later. But maybe five years later, you look up and that's not the right thing for you anymore. And if you're a Type-A-ish, perfectionist-ish person, feeling like oh no, the thing I did with, you know, great intentions and great purpose isn't right for me anymore. That feels catastrophic.

Silas House: Yes, I have a child who's a perfectionist, and it really makes life very difficult in lots of ways. He's an artist, and he will paint these paintings that I just think are -- I mean, of course, I'm his father -- so I just think they're works of genius, you know, and then he'll paint over 'em and say, No it's awful.

Mary Laura Philpott: That combination of being an artist and a perfectionist is particularly difficult.

Silas House: Exactly. Yes.

Mary Laura Philpott: It's tough.

Silas House: Well, speaking of children, another thing that comes up in the book is -- you put it this way: "When you realize your child no longer needs you to be his daily sidekick." I've been going through that myself with both of my children in college, and you know, they actually have their own lives, which I always wanted for them to have. But now I'm not so happy about it. And I know they'll come back eventually. But that is such a hard thing as a parent to go through. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mary Laura Philpott: It is. I mean, it's like you say. It's exactly the right thing. If you've done your job, right, as a parent, they go off and have lives that are away from you, and you feel proud of them. And it feels great. And I'm not quite there yet. That's right ahead of me on this train track of life. They're minor teenagers that haven't left the nest yet, but I know it's coming. And it just haunts me. This is why I write in the book about how desperately I want a time machine. Isn't that I want to go back and like reset the clock and go back to when they're babies and be in that time permanently. It's not that. I love who they are right now. I love everything about my life right now. It's great. But I do wish I could bounce back and forth. Like I wish I could say, Okay, pause right now with my teenage children who are about to leave the nest. And let me go back for just a day or two when I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old and all we did all day was sit on the floor of our kitchen, and I was their world and they were my world. Let me just do that for a day. I don't want to go back and do that permanently, because that got really suffocating and tough day after day after day. But I would love to be able to move back and forth. And I guess in some ways writing autobiographical essays is something that helps me do that a little bit at a time.

Silas House: Yeah, I'm a fiction writer. And you know, one thing that I do in my novels is I will preserve little moments in time. For instance, in my second book I have a scene where a child is running out into a field of wildflowers. And I wanted to preserve this moment I really had with my daughter, you know. So that is a great thing about writing and the way it can preserve those moments and allow us to revisit them.

Mary Laura Philpott: That's really cool. That makes me want to go back and pick up Southernmost and have you walk me through it and tell me like where are the little moments that you plucked out of life and preserved.

Silas House: Yeah. When you're spending, you know, six or seven years with a book you have to entertain yourself in some ways. Those are my little Easter eggs for myself in there.

Mary Laura Philpott: I love that.

Silas House: Well, often your essays are so funny. I find it very hard to write comedy. I would like to think that I'm pretty funny one-on-one or talking to people in real life. But on the page, I'm so serious. And I find it really hard to be funny on the page. Is that something that just naturally comes up for you when you sit down to write?

Mary Laura Philpott: It is. Humor is my coping mechanism. And a lot of what this book is about are my obsessions and things that actually make me very sad or that make me angry or that I'm conflicted about. And because I am dwelling in all those things in this book, my coping mechanism kicks in. So that's why you get the humor. It shows up as a little counter argument to every dark thing that I say. And my brain has always worked like that. I did actually strip some of the comedy out of this book. In earlier drafts there were more one liners and more moments where I would say something sort of dark, or poignant and then immediately, you know, ta da!, hit it with a joke after. Because that is how my brain works. But when I went back and read it, and when I read it with my editor, we could see that not every bit of how my mind works needs to be how the book works. So we pulled some of that out, which I think was good. I hope that ended up with a good balance.

Silas House: I love working with an editor. I love that collaboration that happens. Did you have the experience as well?

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh, my gosh, yes. I love being edited by good editor.

Silas House: Me, too.

Mary Laura Philpott: I had an interesting conversation; I think this was actually on another podcast at some point this month. But someone said as a perfectionist, is it hard for you to accept being edited? And I said no, as a perfectionist, what I want more than anything is to work with a good editor. Because when you get your work as good as you can get and you've taken it as far as you can take it, to have somebody come in and go, Guess what, I'm going to show you the secret hidden door! If you open up this, it can even get better. It's wonderful. I love it.

Silas House: Yeah. When people talk to me about how much they hate being edited, and how much they hate, you know, working with an editor, I always think, well, that's because you haven't worked with a really good one, because they make it so much better.

Mary Laura Philpott: Right. It is certainly frustrating to work with a not great editor, which I have done a couple of times on individual pieces. And that is frustrating when somebody doesn't pick up what you're putting down. They're like, you know, this is coming across wrong, and you need to cut this. And you know in your gut that that's wrong. That is frustrating. But luckily, that is not the experience I had with this book.

Silas House: Well, there's a really great essay in the book that involves 9/11. At one point you write "As the war on terror raged on, the world spun into a state of heightened unrest. The longer we lived it, it seemed the more terribly human beings treated each other. The nightly news became more frightening, not less." I would venture to say that these are even more frightening times, in a different way. But has writing always been something that has helped you to survive the feeling of chaos in the world and in your life?

Mary Laura Philpott: Definitely. Definitely. I mean, in some ways it's frustrating because there is no way to write your way around what is happening in the world. We do currently live in chaotic and often disturbing times, and there's nothing I can write that will make that not be true. But I can at least write through what I'm seeing. I can write through what I'm hearing, and I can write through what I'm feeling and usually I understand my own thought processes better once I have written them down.

Silas House: You talk very honestly in the book about depression and the pressures of modern life. Was it difficult for you to reveal some of that?

Mary Laura Philpott: It was. I definitely saved it for last. I wrote every other essay I could write till I had that narrative arc almost locked up except for, you know, three important holes. without which you could not build this arc. I didn't really want to go into that stuff. But at the same time, I couldn't tell the story without it. You know this is an essay collection. You could, in theory, pick it up and put it down and read one essay at a time and be fine. But if you read it from start to finish, it reads like a memoir. That's the idea, that there is this narrative arc to it. And if I just left those pieces out, it wouldn't make sense. The story wouldn't have the tension it had in real life. You know all our lives have stakes. You know the stakes are high even in just regular everyday life. And none of that would make sense without writing about the darker time. So I did finally make myself do it. And as I was doing it, I told myself, You know what? Somebody else who is going to read this book right now feels the way I felt in the things that are happening in this essay. And seeing it on paper might help somebody. So that helped a little.

Silas House: Now, I know that you love Brandi Carlile. You mention her a couple of times in the book. I love her so much, too. I used to go see her when she would play these tiny little venues in Nashville and Louisville. And now she's on the Grammys. What do you like about her?

Mary Laura Philpott: Do you think she knows how much we love her, Silas?

Silas House: I hope so.

Mary Laura Philpott: I hope she listens to this show. I saw her once in a teeny. teeny teeny show in Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia. Here's what I love about her. Her songwriting first of all is fantastic -- what she and the twins write and the way they put it. I'm fascinated by song structure. I'm not a songwriter, but I'm like a songwriting appreciator. So I love the writing. I mean, her voice is lovely. She's a great performer. She interacts with the audience so well. She is someone who, when you are in her presence and listen to her sing, you not only feel like I'm connecting with this real human person right in front of me, but you also feel like you're in the presence of talent on a whole other level. And her songs get richer as you listen to them. There are albums that are years and years and years old, that even now I will listen to and suddenly notice something I've never noticed before. And that's amazing.

Silas House: And she gives back so much. You know, she's such a charitable person. Yeah, listen at us! But do you have a favorite song by her? I mean, is there one that you could pick as a favorite?

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh my gosh.

Silas House: I know I'm putting you on the spot.

Mary Laura Philpott: No, I have ten favorite Brandi Carlile songs. My first favorite Carlile song was called Tragedy. And there's a version of that with cellos in the background. I remember the first time I heard that song, going What is this? That was the first song I ever heard of hers, going What is this? Who is she? What is happening here? And I love that whole album. I mean, I've loved everything she's done since.

Silas House: Yeah, it's that emotion.

Mary Laura Philpott: Yeah. She keeps it fresh as a performer too. She changes up what she does. You're not hearing the same song again and again and again.

Silas House: One thing we always like to talk about on here is the music you're loving right now. So what are you loving right now besides Brandi?

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh, man, I think going through -- and I think this is not just me; this is a cultural moment -- I'm going through some sort of like Fleetwood Mac retrospective phase.

Silas House: Yeah, they never ever get old. I never get tired of 'em.

Mary Laura Philpot: They never get old. That same drive to Mississippi that I was talking about, when I stopped sobbing to the song from Waitress a hundred times in a row, I put on Fleetwood Mac. Like I recently rediscovered my love of their song Hold Me with the little piano at the beginning. It's so good. I love them. I love -- you know, there's an epigraph at the beginning of my book from the Decemberists, and it's a song called The Singer Addresses His Audience. And it's a song apparently about a boy band and this lead singer of the boy band who has gotten famous and made his reputation on this particular type of music wants to branch out and be different and try something new. And he's saying to his audience, We know we belong to you, and you've built your lives around us, but we have to change. You have to let us change. And I took that little snippet and, of course, completely reinterpreted it as, you know, something about modern life. But I love that song. One of the songs that I would listen to when I was recording the audio book of I Miss You When I Blink, and I had to record those chapters about the really dark kind of depressing stuff, what I would listen to, at the end of the day after recording, was the Decembrists song Everything Is Awful. It is hilarious. It's this really upbeat, like you listen to the beginning, and you're like, Oh, this sounds like a (unintelligible). Like what is this going to be? And you know, the chorus is "Everything is awful". And it's one of my favorites.

Silas House: I will look that one up. What about books? In your role as a true Renaissance woman, you're not only a TV show host and essayist, but you also work with Parnassus Books, that great indie bookstore in Nashville. So we're always looking for book recommendations on here.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh, my gosh, there are so many. This is one of those questions that I should be able to answer succinctly, but I always end up paralyzed by so much good stuff. I was thinking before we started this call, like, what can I recommend that's just about to come out so that people will hear this and then they can go get these books. There are a couple books coming out in May -- I'm pretty sure it's May -- that I love, and they're both memoirs. One is called Once More We Saw Stars by Jason Green. And it is about, you may have read about this in the news when it happened. He's a writer. He lives in New York. His toddler daughter was killed in a freak accident. She was sitting on a bench in New York with her grandmother and a piece of concrete just fell off the building they were sitting in front of and landed on her and killed her. And you know going into it, it's going to be a sad book. I mean, it is just, it's a heartbreaking thing to write through. But his emotional range in this book is so much wider than you expect. And he writes about forgiveness and moving on and how do you hold grief in your life. And it's just a stunning, stunning book. And then another one, totally different feel, but a memoir that also will be out in May, is Out East by John Glenn. And John is another New York writer. He's actually from publishing, but he's younger than me by a good bit. And he writes about this summer when he was, I want to say 27-26ish but, you know, an adult -- a young adult, but an adult -- this summer where he and a bunch of his friends had a timeshare house out in Montauk. And it was the summer that he realized he is gay. And he writes about this summer with what looks on the surface like breezy conversational language, but it is so carefully, artfully done. He is telling this story in this fun, summertime-y way, but also getting into really, really deep emotional territory of this first crush, and how it felt, and how to realize that, you know, I'm an adult person, and I've just learned something major about myself. And it's just a fun, happy, meaningful, great book that should be in everybody's beach bag. So those are two for May.

Silas House: Good recommendations. Well, in conclusion, I want to remind everyone to go out and before you get those books she just recommended you need to get a copy of I Miss You When I Blink. It's by Mary Laura Philpott. It is available wherever fine books are sold. It's really everywhere. And I'll recommend that everyone also follow Mary Laura on Instagram, mostly because you'll get to see her two wonderful dogs a lot. That's how I get my fix of them. What is your Instagram handle?

Mary Laura Philpott: It's just my name Mary Laura Philpott. That's it.

Silas House: Everybody look for that. And tell us a little bit about those dogs.

Mary Laura Philpott: They pop up periodically on my Instagram, and I think they are the stars of the Instagram. Like no one cares about everything else that I'm putting up there, and then once a month, I'll be like, look at my dog and people go crazy. So I have two dogs. I have a beagle named Eleanor Roosevelt, and she is absolutely beautiful and an utter terror. She terrorizes our household. And then we have a little yellow mutt named Woodstock.

Silas House: We have a beagle too. They're a lot of fun, but they keep you busy.

Mary Laura Philpott: Oh my gosh. What's your beagle's name? Remind me.

Silas House: Ari. My daughter named him for a character in the Royal Tenenbaums film. So we're, love with him. And so you can see him on my Instagram all the time, too. Well, thanks so much for being with us today. It's a pleasure as always, and your book is just wonderful. I'm so glad it's out there. Thanks for being with us.

Mary Laura Philpott: Thank you for having me.

Silas House: And thanks to all of you for joining us here On The Porch. Until next time, be good to one another.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai