Finding a Way Out in Hillary Leftwich’s Aura: An Interview
By Jessica Rothacker
Hillary Leftwich’s memoir, Aura, is not for everyone. While the beautifully written, lyrical prose immediately pulls the reader in, feelings of unease, discomfort, and even devastation will soon follow. The weight of the material herein becomes a weight on the reader’s shoulders. The vivid imagery of physical and mental abuse, of feeling lost, alone, and hopeless, of struggling with the fear associated with a sick child while needing to front the strength to carry on, of living constantly in fight-or-flight mode, not knowing if the pain will ever end, evokes a potentially unexpected visceral reaction. Part of me wants to alert victims of abuse or mothers of small children with trigger warnings, but that would be a disservice. Written in the format of a letter to her son, Aura is so much more than that. It is a testament to the possibility of survival, a declaration that women in this position do have a voice and are seen even if they feel completely alone, and a clear example that a mother’s love knows no bounds, even in the depths of despair.
While there are moments of more straightforward “mother memoir,” the hybridity of epistolary style, spells, hospital records, and rejection letters from literary journals provides glimpses into the inner psyche and the outer factors that make up this life. The more traditional writing is reminiscent of Lisa Donovan’s Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, while the lyrical parts evoke Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. While all three of these have weighty moments, they haven’t even approached the open wounds that are tended to in Aura.
Aura is Hillary Leftwich’s first, and likely only, memoir, but she has an extensive catalog of creative non-fiction, short fiction, and prose poetry to her name, including the multi-genre collection Ghosts Are Just Strangers That Know How to Knock (Agape Editions, January 2023). She teaches creative writing at the University of Denver, Colorado College, and Unity College, and works with nonprofits to teach writing to challenged youth. Further, she is the founder of Alchemy Author Services and Writing Workshop and Community Coven. She also provides private Tarot readings. Luckily, she took some time to talk with me about Aura.
Jessica Rothacker: It takes a lot of courage to publish a memoir about such a fraught past, and I know that reliving these events while writing them out and revising your work must have been very difficult. You mentioned at one point in the book that writing became the thing that filled the void left behind inside of you, so I imagine there’s a bit of catharsis in the process, too. With all that being said, what made you decide to give this memoir to the public?
Hillary Leftwich: I think it was more putting it out into the world for my son, and that’s a Catch-22. Well, you’re publishing it too, Hillary, and putting it forth into the world [says this almost to herself], whereas I could have just written it and just given it to my son. But I knew that there are other women out there like me, women who are not just single mothers but solo mothers, who are also having to deal with the same situations that I was, and even more narrowly, those dealing with children with neurological or other medical conditions. I just don’t feel like this gets written about enough, or at least I haven’t seen much on this. I’ve read essays, but a memoir is a little bit different. So the most important thing to me was writing it and getting it published for my son, but also getting it out in the world where hopefully other women out there could read it and know that they’re not alone, because I certainly felt very alone during the whole process.
JR: Have you gotten any kind of feedback from people who read the book and have been helped by it? And if so, what are your feelings about their reactions?
HL: I have actually, and I didn’t expect to. I’ve received way more messages from women out there who have gone through this than I expected, and it doesn’t make me feel good in the way that the subject matter. . . it shouldn’t be this way, but we all know it is. The system is built to fail a lot of us. It made me feel better about the fact that these women felt connected to somebody else like me when I thought I was completely alone in this scenario. It turns out I’m not. Talking to somebody else who understands what you went through and has gone through something similar is always very healing. There’s a special kind of understanding.
JR: Your choice to write directly to your son feels very brave. It’s a lot of hard material, and many parents would find it very difficult talking to their children about it. Has your son read the book?
HL: He hasn’t.
JR: Do you think that he will, and if so, when do you think would be the right time in your lives for him to do that?
HL: Well, he only likes to read anime, so I probably should have written it in anime for him [laughs]. He’s 19, but I feel like once he becomes an adult—an older adult, because 19 is still a kid even though he’s legally an adult—he’ll definitely read it. I basically got the idea to write it to him in letter form from reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I know it’s marketed as a novel and not as a memoir, but I read it as a memoir to his mother and to himself. I thought my book would work well as a kind of baby book memoir for my son. Writing it directly to him felt really powerful to me, and I know that when he does read it one day, we will feel much more connected knowing that he’s reading it and he knows that it’s written to him personally.
JR: Do you think that when the day comes that you’ve been able to talk to him about it that you’ll write a follow-up that will be available for others to read, or is that just going to be between the two of you?
HL: I never want to say never, so maybe, but it’s not anything I’ve thought about before. But yeah, I mean, it could be a possibility.
JR: So many of the scenes in the book are vivid and detailed. Were you able to piece these together mostly from memory, or did you rely heavily on the journaling and writing you did throughout your life as source material?
HL: I would say it was definitely through memory. This actually started out as a collection of prose poetry that was written maybe seven or eight years ago, but then a publisher I gave it to said, “well, we don’t publish things this short, but have you ever thought about turning this into a memoir?” And I was like, “absolutely not. I don’t read memoir and I definitely don’t write memoir.” So I sat on that advice for a couple of years and then I decided to give it a try. As my son was getting older, I felt like a lot of the things that he didn’t remember were going to be important for him later on to know. The collection of prose poetry is so based in surrealism that there is no way for somebody to understand it in the way that he needed to. So that’s when I decided to write it as a memoir, and the majority of it definitely came from memory, but luckily, some of the medical situations happened while I was doing my undergraduate degree at University of Colorado Denver. When my son wound up in the hospital, I was actually finishing up my final classes, trying to graduate, and there was no way I could drop out. I had to keep a blog for an assignment for an English class, and thank God I did because I pulled a lot of the information that I had written for that blog at the time to use for the memoir. Those are things I never would have been able to remember.
JR: Reading through that part of the book was just crushing. I can’t even imagine having to have that much happening at one time and trying to keep it all straight and stay strong. It’s amazing.
Do you think that you’ll delve into more memoir writing moving forward in your work, or do you think that this is a one-off thing for you?
HL: I don’t foresee myself writing another memoir. It’s just not in my plans. I prefer to write essays. I love creative nonfiction. Essay form is my absolute favorite genre to write in. What I’m working on now is a collection of essays, but also prose poetry. Those seem to be the two genres I never get away from, so more likely it will be an essay collection.
JR: I love the way that a lot of the writing in this book is very poetic as well. It completely makes sense that it came from prose poems because it feels like it flows in that kind of way. I also love that you use the spells and the rejection letters and the hospital records throughout the book. What made you decide to intersperse everything rather than having the work be a more straightforward text?
HL: Well, I’m not a fan of memoir and I’m certainly not a fan of traditional memoir. Hybrid memoir, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is an example of a hybrid memoir that I love. I am not a big fan of rules, and so if I can bend those rules in writing as much as possible, I am always going to do that. For me, writing the memoir had to be based in hybridity or I couldn’t do it. That’s just not how my brain operates, and certainly not my memory. Some people might be able to write vulnerable writing like memoir in traditional memoir form, and that in and of itself is incredibly difficult. I have to give memoirists an incredible amount of applause for that because it’s very hard. But for me personally to be able to write about all those things, I had to use a buffer of different tools, including spells, the prose poetry form, and the lyric essay form and to be able to write about a lot of the really hard topics in there.
JR: When I was reading the book, it reminded me of the way it felt to read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I really love that book, and I love that this reminded me of it.
HL: Oh, me too. Yeah, that’s a great compliment. Thank you.
JR: If you could go back and speak to the younger version of yourself that was present in the memoir, what would you say to her and what do you think she most needed to hear?
HL: Probably “you’ll survive this,” because at the time it was fight-or-flight mode all of the time, and that’s so draining and you can’t think straight and you don’t make good decisions. I think this is similar to a lot of things that people in poverty go through. Many single mothers, certainly. We don’t know how to manage things when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, and I think there needs to be more education and empathy surrounding that. So I would say “you’re going to survive this,” even though it felt at the time like I wouldn’t and I certainly would not change my decision to continue on and do the things that I did because it made me who I am and gave me my son, and you know, the old cliché—“we were better off for it”—but maybe, in hindsight, I would change some of the smaller decisions for sure.
JR: This is going in a different direction, but I read that you’re teaching creative writing both at the university level and to challenged youth. Do you see any differences in the ways you teach the subject to writers at different points in their lives?
HL: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if I do. Somebody said “the person you are today is the person you needed when you were younger.” I think about that a lot when I’m teaching youth, and these are youth that can be medically challenged, like in a children’s hospital, or struggling youth in the alternative school systems. Really, they just need a creative outlet. They’re not looking for anybody to give them sympathy. They’re not looking for any special writing prompts. They will write. The thing I found out is whatever prompt you give them, whatever they want to write is going to come out no matter what. If you try to censor them by giving them little writing prompts, which I experienced in one certain facility, they’re still going to write about their trauma. You cannot censor these kids. They’re going to write about what they need to and the same goes with adults. It doesn’t matter how you frame something, what they want to write about is going to come out. So I don’t really see a big difference between the two. The only difference is that youth, I think, need positive role models more at that stage in their life than adults. I love teaching adults. I’ve been doing it for a while, but teaching youth is really where my heart is at, because they’re still at that point where they can change the things that set them on a path to what maybe was not the best life if they just have a creative outlet and somebody believing in them. Adults still can too, obviously, but youth, youth is just really . . . we all need to focus on youth in every aspect. So that’s where my heart is.
JR: How do you see writing helping the youth that you’re working with? Have they come to any major breakthroughs through their writing process?
HL: Oh, every time. It does not surprise me anymore. Every single time, somebody will write something that will just blow me away. At first it surprised me, but then I realized that’s just the process. All they need is a creative outlet. That’s it. Because a lot of these youths have been silenced for so long, they have no idea how to express their emotions. It can be anything. It can be painting, it can be doing a collage, and it can be writing, too. Anything that gives them a creative outlet, that gives them a voice, and knowing that people actually want to hear it is the big difference.
JR: What have you found through teaching writing to be the most important lesson for an aspiring writer to learn, either through a class or just on their own, through the writing process?
HL: It’s amazing how every single student thinks that the writing world is oversaturated and there’s no room for their own voice, which is, of course, wrong. It’s just really about supporting them. I mean, I can be the crappiest teacher, but I can be the best on support and all the students will say I’m great. I’m just giving an example; this hasn’t actually happened. What I have found helps is supporting the student and knowing that the world is not ever going to be oversaturated with somebody’s voice or genre, and there’s always going to be room for your writing. Everybody has their own unique perspective. Everybody has their own words, their own voice, their own story to tell. And so that’s what I always try to let students know, because that’s their main discouragement. They honestly feel like the writing world will not be accepting of their voice. I remember feeling the same way, too. I remember feeling that the writing world will never accept a single mother who only has a high school degree and that they’ll never take me seriously. These are graduate level students thinking this. So, somewhere along the line, the message is sent to us that our words and our voices don’t matter, and the one thing that I want to teach people is that they absolutely matter. That’s all they need to know.
JR: Oh, that’s a wonderful thing to be teaching people. I feel like I’ve started to learn that just from talking with you. Thank you.
I see that you’ve done many interviews for this book and that they’re from many different perspectives. Is there any one question that you wish someone had asked you that no one has thought of asking you?
HL: That’s a great question. No one really asks much—and it’s probably because it’s a sensitive subject—about what wound up happening with my son. I always say there’s a happy ending, don’t worry. You know, he’s doing great. He graduated high school and he’s still figuring his life out, essentially. Are there still mental and physical repercussions to what happened to him? Absolutely. There are absolutely both, and I don’t talk about those. Those are private, but just because the situation ends doesn’t mean somebody can’t feel the repercussions for the rest of their life. So what we’re continuously working on with him are the repercussions, and it’s going to be a lifelong thing. The guilt hits me every time that if I had made better decisions, it wouldn’t be impacting him as much. But I also know I did the best I could, and that’s all we can do. All we can do is do the best we can at the time. People have to take responsibility for themselves at some point. That’s the biggest lesson of being a parent too, right? We want to ensure everything is going to be perfect, but to be human is to be flawed. I’m always thinking these thoughts, they’re constantly running around in my head and I’m constantly reminding myself of that. It’s a continuous journey for sure.[Note from the interviewer: this was the question that I initially cut from my list because I felt it might be too personal. I’m glad she answered.]
JR: Yeah, definitely. I have small kids. My four-year-old was home sick last week, when I was reading your book. I read it sitting next to him having fever dreams on the couch and talking in his sleep. I know it’s nothing compared to what you and your son went through, but your story felt even more heartbreaking because of the context in which I was reading it. The whole time I was reading, I could barely even imagine being in that position. I think you definitely did the best you could, and I don’t think anyone can fault you for that. It’s hard and it never feels like you’ve made the exact right decision, but it’s just what the decision was and you have to move forward.
HL: Yeah, I mean, we essentially are our worst enemies, right? We’re always battling with that.
JR: Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about or to put out in the world?
HL: I just want to give a shout out to all the solo mothers. I feel like there are a lot of single mothers, obviously not just mothers, single parents—and it’s very hard. But solo mothers—solo parents too, I know this applies to all, to everybody, all communities—that’s a whole different level of respect we owe to those who don’t have a co-parent and have to do everything on their own. I just want to give a big shout-out to solo parents dealing with life, and I want them to know that there are other people out there like them. I welcome emails from anyone, just so they know that they’re not alone out there. I may not have the best wisdom but it’s always great to make connections.