The Next Chapter

How a writing teacher helped Judy Batalion find her perfect subject — her mother

Judy Batalion tells The Next Chapter how she wrote her memoir White Walls: A History about Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess In Between.
Judy Batalion wrote art criticism and comedy before her memoir was released, but says she never got such a big reaction as she did when she opened up about her mother's hoarding. (Penguin)

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess In Between. She says that writing this memoir, which focuses on her mother's hoarding, helped her open up about her feelings and understand both herself and her mother better.

Before being a writer, I was an art historian and a stand-up comic. The themes of mother-daughter relationships, our relationship to space, to objects and domesticity and my constant search to feel at home — these were themes that I reiterated time and time again in my work as a critic and as a comedian.

In around 2011 I took a writing class, a personal essay kind of class. The assignment was to write about our most humiliating experience, and I actually had a few goes at this, and each time the teacher said, "dig deeper." She kept pushing me to push myself to get more personal. It took a while, but I eventually wrote an essay about my mother's hoarding, tracing how my mother's physical baggage left me with emotional baggage. I felt blocked from my mother, both physically, from her piles of tuna fish cans and video cassettes, and emotionally. I explored that, and then I explored how it was hard for me to get close to people, particularly men, later in life, and how I had issues with intimacy that I felt came from my mother and her hoarding.

That piece ended up getting published, and it got a very good response, probably more response than any of the humour pieces or critical pieces I'd written before. It showed me that writing intimately, and opening up in a way that was very frightening for me, drew people in.

Judy Batalion's comments have been edited and condensed.