How do you make a career with words? And once you’re established in a niche, how do you then uproot to a completely new kind of writing? Mark Chesnut has done just that. For most of his life he has been a writer, editor and content creator for the travel industry, but he’s now just released a highly personal work, Prepare For Departure – a memoir of his relationship with his mother as she nears the end of her life. We talk about it all here
First, let me say that’s a great title!
Glad you like it! It came pretty early in the writing process and love how it works as a double entendre. Luckily, my wonderful editors at Vine Leaves Press also liked the title, so it stayed.
How did you become a writer?
I became a writer by following my natural interests, I guess. I wasn’t someone who at an early age would have said “I want to be a writer.” But my mother, Eunice Chesnut, went back to college when I was young and got her bachelor’s and then her master’s degrees, so I was raised in a household where there were a lot of books and a lot of writing went on. I remember falling asleep to the sound of my mother’s big black typewriter click-clacking in the next room.
I was the only kid living at home and it took me several years to become socially adept and make friends, so I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the ways I spent my time was writing — but it wasn’t literature. I wrote crazy things like promotional copy for my imaginary airline, Chesway Global, and program guides for my imaginary television network, ITV (I didn’t realize there already was an ITV in the United Kingdom; when I found out, I tried other names. IBS was another choice, until I discovered it also stood for irritable bowel syndrome).
In short, I used writing to explore my creativity and fuel my imagination.
Any angsty teenage writing?
Yes, I would write when I was feeling upset. I’d type out my feelings in ALL CAPS, to express the urgency of my emotions.
How did that lead to professional writing?
My first editorial jobs were in medical and university publishing houses, and then a tiny weekly newspaper in New York City. Already, though, I was writing about nearly every trip I took, just for my own benefit. I enjoyed recording my experiences and documenting my feelings about the trips I took.
Then a few years ago, my mother became ill and it was clear she wouldn’t be around much more. I started using writing as a way to sort out my feelings, the way I’d typed in all caps as a teenager. It was like therapy. I had been documenting my trips with words, but now I was writing about a different kind of journey; one my mother and I were taking together.
Most of your work is travel journalism – how did you choose that niche?
I must thank my mother for giving me a typewriter all those years ago, and I also must also thank her for giving me the travel bug. I grew up in Western New York State. But both of my parents were from Kentucky, so we traveled from New York to Kentucky at least three times a year, for the first 17 years of my life.
I learned at an early age that travel could be exciting, emotional and a wonderful escape from the stress of everyday life. It made me curious about seeing more of the world. During layovers in Chicago, I’d stand in front of a giant departure board and stare, trying to imagine what life must be like in all the destinations on that board.
I looked for work in publishing and advertising as soon as I graduated from college. I changed jobs quite a bit — like many recent graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives. I enjoyed working in advertising as well as medical and scholarly publishing, and my job with the free weekly newspaper was exhausting but a lot of fun. But none of them satisfied me. They didn’t tap into my passion. I was obsessed with travel, and I saved money and frequent flyer miles to venture out as often as I could with my meager budget and limited vacation days.
I realized my true dream was to unite my editorial skills with my wanderlust. I started applying for travel-related publishing jobs. I applied four times before I finally got a job as assistant editor at the travel trade publisher where I would work for years and for whom I still do freelance work. That set the stage for the next decades of my life.
Where is home and why is it home?
I live in New York City, in a cool neighborhood called Jackson Heights in Queens. Just being there is like traveling the world. I love it. It’s totally normal to hear multiple languages spoken on just one block. You could see a woman in a sari, a Buddhist monk in his robe, a woman in a burqa, a gay couple holding hands and a drag queen heading to a show at a local gay bar. And nobody blinks an eye. Queens is the future.
How much time do you spend there?
Most of my time, working from home. But I travel at least once a month, and since the pandemic started, my husband and I have been spending a month or two in other places, working remotely. We’ve done extended-stay remote working visits in Hollywood, Mexico City, New Orleans and Guadalajara.
As travel and holiday-type activities are your daily bread, how do you get away from it all?
I block off one month per year to stay home. But it usually doesn’t work out. Either a very necessary press trip comes up, or an irresistible opportunity to go somewhere new.
When I’m really going on vacation, I visit family. And I like to go to places that inspire me creatively; places where I can disconnect but still feel engaged. But then I usually get so inspired that I’ll start writing or thinking of new projects. It’s hard for me to get away from work because my mind is always churning.
How did you cope with lockdown?
New York City was the first pandemic epicenter in the US — and Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter. It was intense. We stayed inside for weeks and could hear ambulances, day and night, heading to a nearby hospital. It was psychologically difficult and the uncertainty was scary, because at first no one understood what was going on. I was glad to have my husband Angel, who has a very positive personality, to alleviate the stress. We played board games, dominos, cards. We had dance nights where we’d watch musicals on demand and dance along with them. We made up things to do and enjoyed each other’s company, and that helped a lot.
What made you write a memoir? That, if you’ll forgive the figure of speech, is quite a departure.
It is. My usual writing is destination features, travel guides, hotel reviews and tourism industry news. Other than saying I liked a hotel suite or a meal in a restaurant, it isn’t that personal. Even though I’d been making my living as a writer for decades, the memoir was a whole new direction that required new skills.
Yes, informative material is quite like a mask. Or several masks – being useful or inspiring or amusing. Our deeper feelings and personal lives are almost irrelevant. But memoir requires introspection. And your memoir is about as personal as one could get, with big, difficult themes. How did that sit with you?
I started writing the memoir for myself, not for publication. It was a way of coping with my mother’s decline. But once I realized that I wanted to make it into a book, I looked for help. I signed up for memoir writing classes and had my writing workshopped, getting feedback from instructors and other students. I started reading memoirs by other authors with voices I could relate to or stories that were similar to mine. And I read articles and essays about the craft of writing memoirs and creative nonfiction. All of that helped immensely.
Also, in a memoir, we have to share and examine the less certain moments. Journalism usually involves being in charge of the material, but in a memoir we open up the times when we’re not in charge. We grapple with questions that maybe can’t be answered.
Writing about one’s personal experiences really does open you up to questions, many of which, as you said, can never be fully answered.
The classes I took were interesting and helpful. When I submitted essays about how upset I was about things that had happened between my mother and me, the other students and instructors would often suggest possible explanations for her behavior or attitude that I’d never thought about before.
When I was 12, for example, my mother and I walked into a restaurant in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and the waitress said “what can I get for you ladies today?” I was so embarrassed that my face felt hot, and I also felt hurt that my mother didn’t correct her. When some of my fellow students read that chapter from my memoir, they pointed out that she might have ignored the comment because it could have embarrassed me even more if she had been confrontational about the mistake. So while writing a memoir certainly can open up old wounds and expose your weaknesses and embarrassments, it can also bring new understanding and points of view that can be really therapeutic.
I’ve also found it very moving to get feedback now from people who’ve bought the book and found parts of themselves in the story. I’ve almost been brought to tears by some of the notes I’ve gotten from people who also felt like misfits when they were growing up, or who struggled to come out, or who’ve experienced similarly difficult moments as their parents were aging or passed away. The more I hear from readers, the more I realize that this book isn’t just my story, it’s a story about issues and experiences that a lot of people have faced in one way or another.
One reader wrote me a touching note that said she felt like she never had a voice for her experience of caring for her elderly father and finding an assisted living facility for him. Until she read my book she hadn’t found a voice that spoke to her about what she and her father were going through. That was such a beautiful thing to hear, and I can totally relate because when we’re dealing a situation with aging parents, we can often feel isolated; even our closest friends or family might not fully understand what we’re going through emotionally, or they may not feel comfortable hearing about it. I hope my book helps to give a voice to other people’s experiences, too. We all deserve to be heard, and to share our joys and our pain.
A significant part of this memoir is the character of your mother.
Eunice Chesnut was a magnificent character, as well as a very cool mother, and a big part of writing this book was to keep her memory alive. She was an amazing woman but she wasn’t perfect, and she had her hands full with me, a strange, often bratty son who turned out to be gay; she had trouble feeling comfortable about my orientation.
How did you find it, portraying her in her full glory and difficulty?
To give the story depth and make it real, I had to show the happy as well as the challenging aspects of our relationship. I aimed to portray her and our relationship in a realistic, layered and multifaceted way, to show how love between a parent and a child is imperfect but can endure. I was concerned about doing her justice, and I was also nervous that some of her friends might think I was doing a “Mommie Dearest” job on her, making her look bad. But I’ve been getting good reactions from her friends, as well as from general readers, about how I portrayed her and our relationship, so I think and hope I’ve struck the right balance. People have commented positively about how the book portrays the complex and loving relationship between a parent and child.
Did she know you were writing it?
Eunice didn’t know I was writing the book. She did know I was taking notes on what was happening to us when she was in the nursing home, and sometimes when she said something funny or clever or deep, I’d whip out my cell phone and jot down what she was saying. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
I think she’d be a bit embarrassed about the more personal aspects of the book since she was a private person. Yet she was also super social and loved people, so I also think she’d be happy to see that so many people can relate to our story, that it’s making other people laugh and cry and might help some people as they deal with their own difficult situations.
Were there many drafts? How much input did you get from beta readers and editors?
The manuscript went through a lot of revisions. I’d submit a chapter for review in my class, then take their feedback and revise. Sometimes I’d resubmit that same chapter again later. I also got lots of input from an amazing little writing group that I formed with a group of other students.
One of the most important things I did was to step back from the manuscript for a few months. That was crucial, because I’d been reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting the same material for too long.
When I finally looked at the manuscript again, I tried to read each chapter as if it were a standalone essay written by someone I didn’t know. I asked myself: What is the main storyline or point for each chapter essay? How does each chapter serve the overall storyline of the manuscript? And, why should I or anyone care what this essay is about? Is it funny, touching, heartbreaking, dramatic, informative, educational?
Reviewing my work through that lens, I realized several chapters needed major overhauls — thinking about what readers want and what would resonate with them, educate them, entertain them. I realized that I had to start seeing the work not just as a memoir about myself.
Would you ever write fiction? Or even poetry?
I’m more attracted to fiction than to poetry. I’ve done initial drafts on a few short fiction pieces, and at some point I may start workshopping them, sending them to journals, etc. But I realize that will require more education and research on my part, since fiction is a far cry from memoir, and an even further cry from travel writing. The one thing that all these forms have in common, of course, is that we’re trying to tell a compelling story. And, in my case, I see it all as a journey.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.