A Conversation with Kelly Corrigan

The memoirist speaks on keeping up with her mother, tolerating life's uncertainties, and how many minutes makes a satisfactory hug (at least 60!).

Kelly Corrigan

It’s a crazy idea: trying to name the phrases that make love and connection possible. But that’s just what Kelly Corrigan set out to do in Tell Me More, a deeply personal, unfailingly honest, and often hilarious examination of the essential phrases that turn the wheel of life.

In “I Don’t Know,” Corrigan wrestles to make peace with uncertainty, whether over invitations that never came or a friend’s agonizing infertility. In “No,” she admires her mother’s liberating ability to set boundaries and her willingness to be unpopular. In “Tell Me More,” a facialist named Tish teaches her something important about listening. And in “I Was Wrong,” she comes clean about her disastrous role in a family fight—and explains why saying sorry might not be enough. With refreshing candor, a deep well of empathy, and her signature desire to understand “the thing behind the thing,” Corrigan swings between meditations on life with a preoccupied husband and two mercurial teenage daughters to profound observations on love and loss.

With the streetwise, ever-relatable voice that defines Corrigan’s work, Tell Me More is a moving, meaningful take on the power of the right words at the right moment to change everything.

Recently, Kelly spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright about the toughness of losing a parent, the things that even Google can’t answer, and the value of owning up and saying “I was wrong.”

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Read It Forward: Congratulations on Tell Me More! How did you decide to frame this memoir around 12 things we should say more often?

Kelly Corrigan: I gave two eulogies in the same short period of time. I spoke at my dad’s funeral, which was wonderful. He was old man, and it was fair. And then I spoke at my friend Liz’s funeral, which was totally devastating. In the course of those two things, a lot of normal, everyday, quotidian life marches on. I was feeling this incredible tension between the everyday—to get through your to-do list, and all the little slings and arrows that make you crazy, like the parking tickets, and how your kid keeps staining all the wash pink because she puts that thing she dyed in the washing machine with your clothes.

RIF: Thanks, tie-dye!

KC: Those moments of domestic madness were bumping up against these super big, existential feelings of why do I get to be here and Liz doesn’t?

RIF: Right.

KC: So, that was the bedrock of this thing. I got into a dinner table conversation about what do you think the most important things we say to one another are? What are the words that allow us to stay in long relationships, like permanent, lifetime relationships? That generated this big, juicy conversation that didn’t end when dinner ended. We thought we were going after the five most important sentences in the English language.

The idea stuck with me, and then I ended up having lunch with Andy Ward, who I love and who’s my editor at Random House. I said, “What do you think the most important questions are, the most important things we say to each other?” He asked why I was asking, and I said I’m working through this list because I want somewhere to return to when I lose track of what matters. I want a base to go back to, and these words in my pocket to get to them faster than I usually do. He rested his chin on his hand and said, “What’s your next book about? Because it seems like it’s about this.” And so it began.

RIF: Nice! For your fourth memoir, it’s perfect to expound on these things we wish we said more of. Is there a phrase you wish you heard less?

KC: Oh, what a great question. There are little things people say at the top of a sentence that really set me on my heels. One of which is, “I’ll tell you something.” That whole, “I could’ve told you from day one.” The language of utter conviction is a super big turnoff to me right now, and I used to be that person.

I was in my 20s; I was a big reader. You know how sometimes if you’re reading a lot, maybe even like over your intellectual pay grade, so to speak, you get really puffed up with all these big ideas, and you can get really articulate about them. I was getting off on being the person who had answers and this very strong point of view. One of the wonderful things that happens as you get older, and you get more beat-up and more thrown, is that it’s super humbling. So I don’t like anything that’s too certain. I don’t like language that’s dead certain.

One of my favorite chapters in Tell Me More is “I Don’t Know.” I felt like that was one of those chapters that could become an entire book about tolerating the uncertainty that is our lives, the world around us, the mysteries that exist. Why was I able to get pregnant, and my friend Mary Hope wasn’t? Why did I get cancer, and my friend Mary Hope didn’t? Why is my marriage lasting, and my friend Melissa’s not? These are things that are really hard to nail down in a way we so desperately want. I’m very aware of that because I have teenagers who are saying, “Why? I don’t get it.” And it’s like, “God, I hate to tell you this.”

RIF: But I don’t know.

KC: I can’t bear to tell you this, but some things are unknown and some things are unknowable, which is even worse. It’s an even worse gut punch.

RIF: It’s nice to give ourselves permission to not know things when all of the “answers” are at our fingertips. You can Google things, but there are still things that are unknowable.

KC: The only things you can Google are things that are considered not that exciting to know, ultimately. The square footage of China, or the population of Azerbaijan, is one thing. But why are teenage girls two-faced? There’s a conversation you can have for the rest of your life.

RIF: Talking about girls, it seems to me that girls’ relationships with their mothers are different than the ones they have with their fathers. Do you have any idea, looking at your own relationship with your mom and now your teenage daughters, why that is?

KC: That’s a question that’s unknowable as well, but I have some theories. In my particular case at least, Georgia, my oldest who’s 16, was born on my birthday, and we kind of look alike. She’s a much better version of me. She’s like the 2.0, or maybe the 4.0 version of me. People often say, “Oh, there they are, the birthday girls. Oh, you guys look so much alike.” And I think that’s a huge turnoff for her; it’s the last thing on Earth she wants. I hope someday she’ll come around. When she’s 35, she’ll come back and say, “I don’t mind being associated with you.” But I think it’s our nature to separate, to resist, and to push away from the way it was laid out.

RIF: Yes!

KC: That’s the heart of the chapter called “Tell Me More.” I don’t know enough to have an opinion yet, so you’re going to have to tell me 15 things before I can give you a single piece of advice. But by the time you tell me 15 things, I bet you’re not going to need my advice. It’s very magical, the Tell Me More posture. It’s almost a metaphor for “show me more.” I don’t know who you are, and I’m going to stop deciding who you are prematurely. I’m going to stop locking into who you are right now and projecting that out. I’m going to let you change and evolve.

It’s happening right in front of my eyes, which is so humbling and validating—that the right position to be in, relative to your kid, is leaning way back, especially with a teenager. I mean, it’s not that long ago that a 16-year-old would have three children and be running a farm.

RIF: Totally.

KC: The idea that I should tell Georgia what to do is kind of dumb. It’s this modern idea that I’m buying into less and less.

RIF: Right. I loved that you wrote so candidly about the family issues you had around hummus.

KC: This is such a thing for parents. It’s hard to get your kids to eat things on the fruits and vegetables side of the equation, and so you find something. They get into hummus for a minute. Everybody in my house got into pink grapefruit for ten minutes. For a year and a half, every time I came home from the store, I was unpacking my giant Sabra hummus and 17 pink grapefruits. And then they just rotted. They just molded and rotted in my house.

RIF: No one’s interested.

KC: And it was like, what do you mean? You told me you loved hummus. You can’t change. You can’t grow out of things, at least not the good things. What are you going to do now? Asparagus is off the table, mushrooms are off the table, nothing with onions, you know?

RIF: No beets, exactly. I love that you talk in “The Middle Place” about feeling like you’re teetering in that spot between childhood and adulthood. Do you ever still feel like that, and does losing a parent launch you solidly into the adult category?

KC: I am solidly in the adult category, unfortunately. The thing that really made me feel like a kid was my dad, his personality, the way our relationship was. I just felt so young when I was with him; I felt like a girl with her dad. Losing him just changes the whole equation. I mean, it’s just dreadful. There are people who knew this before, who know it now, who will learn it soon—that it’s not fair, even if it is fair, which in my case it was. Eighty-four years old, died holding my hand. Perfect, so perfect.

And still, it’s just this fundamental loss. That’s really interesting to be aware of when you’re raising teenagers, because so much of raising teenagers is rejection and failure and eye-rolling.

RIF: Pulling away.

KC: It’s amazing to me how much a kid can hurt my feelings. In fact, I’ll say this: I have a Twitter account, and I like tweeting. And the most popular tweet I ever tweeted was, “Boy, I’ll tell you this, that nobody can hurt your feelings like your own kid.” That was the most liked tweet I ever sent.

RIF: Wow.

KC: I was so comforted by that. Thanks, everybody. And then one clever person wrote back, “and vice versa.”

To lose my dad and to feel that, to feel the weight of that—even though he lived a very full life—makes me realize that this thing with Georgia and Claire, we’re in the long game. So if they kind of hate me, or are just generally disinterested in me for the next 100 years, provided that I get a long life, there’s more coming. That helps me get out of their hair and stop asking them for hugs. They’re so done with that right now. Claire’s like, “Okay, how many seconds?”

RIF: “I gotta go, Mom.”

KC: This is a kid that was in my lap all the time, and now she says how many seconds do I want? I want an hour. That’s what I want.

RIF: Right. And eat the damn hummus.

KC: What’s wrong with hummus?

RIF: I feel like I’ve known these girls since they were little through your writing. But, you know, pulling away is part of being a teenager. Do you think we ever stop needing our parents?

KC: It’s funny, if you think about my mom. I really have turned in a way. When my dad died, I began thinking about my mom every day around 5 p.m. It’s the time of day she must think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if someone were here to have a drink, and talk about the day’s news, and watch a little ESPN?” As the wife of somebody who was a sports fanatic, she became a sports fanatic. ESPN is on about 14 hours a day in that house. So I call her a lot at that hour, and this is the first time I’ve ever worried about my mother. That creates this fundamental shift in how I think about the relationship. I’m definitely not a taker anymore.

And I’m 50, so that’s how long I was primarily on the receiving end. Now I’m more on the giving end, but I don’t think she needs it. She’s so independent and self-sufficient. It’s funny, because I call her more frequently than she thinks she wants, but then she’ll talk for 20 minutes. And I’ll think, “Okay, I’m going to call again tomorrow, because apparently you have more to say than you think you do.”

RIF: How was it for your family to be written about, especially your mom?

KC: The really impressive thing about my mom is that she’s a private woman in general. I’d say on the scale of one to 10, in terms of “not airing your dirty laundry,” which is a line from my childhood and maybe others, she’s a nine. But she’s a ten on the maternal scale. She’s not mushy, she’s not lovey-dovey. She doesn’t send you little cards or buy you a little treat out of the blue. But when I started doing this, she started going to bookstores and moving the books because they were in a spot she didn’t think was high-traffic. So she’d move them, like six copies at that time, right down. We had a Borders by our house, and she’d go in three times a week. I’d say, “How was your day?” And she’d say, “It was good. I was working, and then I swung by Borders and moved the books. Now I’m home, I’m going to make your father some chicken.”

It was a to-do item, like some people exercise: she goes and moves the books. So that’s maternal to me. Which is to say, I don’t care that this doesn’t really suit me, I just want my kid to have what she wants. She wouldn’t say, “Oh, Kelly, I love it,” but she would show me that.

RIF: She wants to make sure people buy it.

KC: She stood with me in signing lines sometimes, and a person would come through and say, “Could you write it to Abby, Tricia, and Becky? It’s my sister’s, and we’re all going to share it.” And my mother would say, “Sounds like you need three copies.” Or somebody will come through the line and say, “I got your book from the library, but I just want to shake your hand and say hello.” And my mother will be like, “For God’s sake, it’s $15. It’s not a new car.” Meanwhile, she’s not a woman who buys books. She’s a library gal.

RIF: Totally. On the things left unsaid portion of the conversation, are there things you wish you’d said to your dad that you didn’t get a chance to?

KC: No, not one thing. It was perfect.

RIF: That’s great. You write about these devastating, tragic events that mark our lives, and yours as well, but you write with humor. How do you do that?

KC: I don’t know. I often feel self-conscious about how much things hurt me. I know I’m an emotional person. I know I’m feeling life at a level that’s on one end of that scale. There’s great value in trying to put that on the page, but then there are moments of self-consciousness where I feel I’ve got to cut into this.

Because the fact is—the really important fact is—that I’m very aware that nothing has actually gone terribly wrong for me. You read The Glass Castle and think, what are you doing writing a memoir? Who needs to hear your story? You’re just a nice lady with your nice husband and your nice kids, and nobody has a real problem. You’re just jamming out in a regular life.

RIF: Right.

KC: That was my biggest fear when I first started, was that people were going to throw the book against the wall and say, “Geez, who is this person? What do I need to hear from her for?” I’m always afraid of balancing the truth of my emotional reaction to life doing what life does, but wanting to indicate through humor, some little zinger, a wink to the reader, that I know there are people in Somalia who have true hardship. I know there are people in Oakland who have true hardship. I know there are people in my town in Piedmont, California, who have true hardship. And I know I’m not one of them.

RIF: They say that memoirs, whoever “they” are, shouldn’t be navel-gazing, or diary entries—they should teach the reader something. What do you hope readers take away from Tell Me More?

KC: I think there’s a chance that Tell Me More will be the most useful book I’ve ever written, and that’s a very satisfying idea to me. I’m into utility. There’s something very practical about me that respects that people’s lives are super busy. You’re going to give me however many hours it takes to read a book. Apparently my books read in two hours, which is so flattering to think people can’t put it down, but also horrifying that something that took me two years to do is like, “I’m going to put this turkey in the oven. I’m going to read Kelly’s book. I’ll be back to take it out and start basting.”

But it’s a big deal to read a book; it’s a big commitment that I’m asking from people. That, ultimately, is my final criteria. Will you close this and say, “I’m so glad I read that, it was really useful to me”? This one has a chance of being the most true.

RIF: Yes!

KC: The takeaways are right there on the page. The chapter titles alone might help people spit the words out more frequently. “I Was Wrong” is a funny chapter, and it’s confessional. It’s good to have those words in your mouth. They’re different than “I’m sorry.” And I’m really happy if the only thing you get out of this is that you say, “I was wrong” one more time than you would’ve said it had you not read the book. Fair enough; that’s what I gave you. You gave me your time, and I gave you that, a couple laughs, and maybe a couple tears.

Author Photo: © Mellie T Williams

KELLY CORRIGAN has been called “the voice of her generation” by O: The Oprah Magazine and “the poet laureate of the ordinary” by HuffPost. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Middle Place, Lift, and Glitter and Glue. She is also the creative director of The Nantucket Project and host of their conversation series about what matters most. She lives near Oakland, California, with her husband, Edward Lichty, and her daughters, Georgia and Claire.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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