Makeup Is My War Paint: A Q&A with Aspen Matis

Article by annalia

Though we have never met, Aspen Matis and I have some things in common. We were born in 1990. When we were kiddos, our rich parents did everything they could to protect us from whatever rich parents fear. They taught us how to be afraid, as practice, even though we’re both from small towns where most of the families know each other. After eighteen years of all that, we chose colleges far from home. We were on our own, alone, free.

This is where our stories split: on her second night at Colorado College, Matis was raped. Her parents didn’t know how to help, and the school refused, siding with her rapist instead. She dropped out. Rather than return to Newton, Massachusetts, she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—2,650 miles, from Mexico to Canada.

In her new memoir GIRL IN THE WOODS, she writes about her journey from victim to survivor, from shame to forgiveness. In an honest, sympathetic portrait of her younger self, she reminds us that sometimes home is not only where you come from but where you build it. 


Brazos Bookstore: We are the same age, or very close: our twenties, an age most people assume is “too young” to pen a “proper” memoir—one with perspective, forgiveness, insight. What moved you to write your story now, as opposed to later? Were there any challenges you encountered as you tried to find a home for what became GIRL IN THE WOODS?
 
Aspen Matis: First, it seems foolish to assume that nothing meaningful happens to the young. Children feel things deeply, and the stories we hold on to and retell from our childhoods are the ones that shape us. When I began writing the book, I felt deeply misunderstood by my parents. I told myself the story that they’d never fully seen me, they’d wronged me—but in stories victimhood is flat. Writing my memoir at a young age forced me into empathy. I began to see: everything my parents did for me, “good” and “bad,” came from the same place as their incredible love for me.
 
Soon really the only thing that made me feel good—and made the book better—was seeing my mother and brother and dad with empathy. I wanted to show them what I could see—I wanted them to see me seeing. I wanted them to read this book and finally see me—with empathy, too.
 
The stories that we tell ourselves determine our state, and we have the power to revise those stories.
 
About the challenges I faced finding a home for GIRL IN THE WOODS—I was very lucky. There were none. After I published a popular essay about my PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) hike in the New York Times, I sold the book to HarperCollins “on proposal,” unwritten. Then, I spent the next two and a half years writing it. That was the challenge.

BB: Was non-fiction always the form you wanted to use? Did you try others—poetry, fiction, essay—before landing on memoir? When you were submitting pieces to the New York Times (and elsewhere), were you circling your book?
 
AM: I write fiction and nonfiction. Right now I’m working on a novel about a woman whose nature is evil, but she has tremendous self-awareness. She desperately wants to be good. It’s getting exciting.
 
I began working on my book daily on February 14, 2013, the day my agent sold my book proposal. Before that, it was only disparate stories, more like a journal. When we sold it, I committed myself to it fully.

BB: Once upon a time, GIRL IN THE WOODS could have been a completely different book: a travel memoir about the Pacific Crest Trail, a book without your rape and the internal desert you were crossing. What inspired you start at the beginning?
 
AM: That’s such an excellent question, because my first draft did begin on the trail, not with the rape—and my various editors all wanted to understand my character better. They wanted the stories behind the stories.
 
BB: By extension, what moved you to end the story where you did? Were there versions you wrote without the epilogue?
 
AM: The original draft ended with our wedding, no epilogue. But while I was writing the book, my husband left me. He never came back. So I had to write about falling in love with him for my memoir, on deadline, mourning the loss of our marriage. Then I added an epilogue—the story of his disappearance and our “default” divorce—but that gave our relationship too much weight; it undercut the story of my hike. Then, there was going to be no epilogue. The book would end where the trail ended, cleanly.
 
Then I came to the epilogue you read. “The way to self-love and admiration is behave like someone whom you love and admire.”
 
“Again alone, I was again enough.”

 
BB:  When is the last time you went hiking?
 
AM: I’ve been on a handful of beautiful hikes these past few years, most of them with my ex-husband’s family, in Berkeley. There are beautiful trails along the high ridges of the Bay, through the Oakland Hills, and up to Marin County. The last time I went backpacking, though, was a long time ago. It was with my ex-husband on the Appalachian Trail through northern New Hampshire. We hiked each summer until I devoted myself to this book on my hike—ironically.
 
BB:  It’s another type of homecoming when you are able to put in contacts for the first time, to see your face without frames for the first time since you were a child. If forgiving yourself was finding freedom, being free, to me this moment is like you coming back to yourself, embracing yourself. From your narrative, we understand how you got there and what it means to you.
 
However, I wonder if it also plays into the trope that only a certain type of beauty—one without glasses; with make-up, skirts, heels, and all other things “womanly”—is actually beautiful. I wonder why your brother Jacob gets the credit for saying “You could be (more) beautiful if…” instead of you just being beautiful, or you just being you—apart from judgment, damn beauty entirely. Can you speak to that? Do you identify as a feminist?
 
AM: Throughout my childhood, my mom would say, “Women who wear makeup have bad values,” and all kinds of things to that effect. But—I thought makeup was lovely. It looked beautiful and exciting on girls’ faces; I’d imagine my face transformed by it, like the girls in magazines—thrilled. I thought: with it, maybe I’d feel beautiful. I’d never felt pretty, not since I was a little kid.
 
But—I tried to purge my mind of these pictures, didn’t want to have horrible values. I began to feel guilty for wanting to feel attractive. I’m an artist, and this learned disdain for style was inconsistent with my desire to live beautifully, to collect images like treasures, to represent myself vividly.
 
Now I do, without apology.
 
I choose how to represent myself.
 
Makeup is my war paint.
 
Yes, of course women deserve equal pay, equal rights—respect. Of course I am a feminist.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask them?
 
AM: What was your writing routine as you wrote this book? Was it consistent? Has your routine evolved through your work, and through the years? How long did it take you to complete this book, in hours?

BB: On that note, Leah Lax, author of UNCOVERED: HOW I LEFT HASIDIC LIFE AND FINALLY CAME HOME, wants to know if you knew what you were getting yourself into when you decided to write your book. What surprised you? How did it change your view of the world?
 
AM: I thought it would take about nine months, a page a day; really it took two and a half years of writing daily. I had to write 1,200 pages in order to find the 380 I needed.
 
I learned that the way to write a book is to write every single day. Writing spawns writing. Ideas trigger new ideas. One day off really is two days lost. My process is simply to show up every day, and to forgive myself for “bad” days when nothing much happens. My only job is to commit to showing up with all of my intelligence.
 
I write to figure out the things I truly wonder and need to know. I want to find the answers to my questions—why I do that thing I always do; if this is the way our memories can misguide us, or if that is—or if I can notice better when mine wants to lead me to follow an unrewarding path of fear/judgment/whatever unhealthy dangerous or fruitless thing, and I can find the junction, and save myself from following. What I didn't expect was that writing a book would clarify not only my vision for the future, but also my perspective on my past. I thought those stories were over, but now I see them newly; I can't see myself as a victim any longer. In a way, I grew up writing this book.
 
Writing my memoir, I learned again that you can do anything you set your mind to. Write your book. Walk from Mexico to Canada. Leave that job you hate, the abusive relationship that’s stifling you; blossom. You absolutely can. You are strong enough. And at the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you.
 
Commit to work you love, living your first-choice life. You will alight with bright fire: pride in yourself. Anyone will become beautiful if they’re doing what they love.

Girl in the Woods: A Memoir Cover Image
$24.99
ISBN: 9780062291066
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow & Company - September 8th, 2015

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