Perspective and Presence
Lily Brooks-Dalton's Motorcycle Memoir
he descriptive copy for Lily Brooks-Dalton’s new memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved, reads, “At twenty-one-years-old, Lily Brooks-Dalton is feeling lost; returning to New England after three years traveling overseas, she finds herself unsettled, unattached, and without the drive to move forward. When a friend mentions buying a motorcycle, Brooks-Dalton is intrigued and inspired. Before long she is diving headlong into the world of gearheads, reconsidering her surroundings through the visor of a motorcycle helmet, and beginning a study of motion that will help her understand her own trajectory.”
But how does a writer combine an inquiry into motorcycles, physics, and the self? What are the connections between these subjects, and how can those connections be explored in a way that remains grounded in memoir rather than shifting into a how-to book or a travel story? Brooks-Dalton chatted with us about these issues and the development of the manuscript that would become her debut book.
Propeller: Motorcycles I’ve Loved is about more than just motorcycles—it’s about your family, your friends, and an entire era of your life. When did you decide you wanted to use your relationship with motorcycles as a lens through which you would look at these years? Did using motorcycles as a focus open certain kinds of material you might not have found otherwise? Did it prevent you from accessing other kinds of material?
Lily Brooks-Dalton: Motorcycles were the lens I looked through in this book, certainly, but I think even more than that I would describe them as the catalyst. I set out wanting to write about motorcycles, not myself, but it quickly became clear to me that it was my experiences with motorcycles, the ways in which they changed my perspective and my presence, that provided the narrative. Including more about myself and my life was difficult, and not really what I had set out to do—I wanted to use motorcycles as a way to consider physics, to relearn some really fascinating concepts that were taught to me in a way that I struggled with, but which I really wanted to understand. This originally made for some pretty dry reading. So the process of including more of myself and my history in the chapters was something that came later.
By the time I understood that my own story needed to be what held the different elements together, I did begin encountering moments where I had an experience that was really relevant to the emotional trajectory of the book, but which didn’t link into the theme of motorcycles. So that was frustrating at times, but ultimately I think having the constraint of motorcycles was more helpful than a hindrance—having that structure and that focus helped me keep writing, even when I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing.
Propeller: Hold it—I’m interested in something you said there, that you wanted to use motorcycles as a way to consider physics. Why did you want to better understand physics? I’m only asking because I think most people don’t feel an urgency to relearn physics.
Brooks-Dalton: Fair point! When I was beginning this project I had just returned to college to finish my undergraduate degree, and for my science requirement I took an introductory physics course. I found it incredibly interesting—inspiring, actually—and also very difficult. It’s easy to write off a failure in something I’m not interested in, but I took that C really personally because I wanted to understand so badly. It spurred me to revisit the material from a different angle.
Propeller: And each of the twenty chapters in the book are titled after a physics term. How did you decide to title the chapters that way? What kind of problems did it solve in terms of organizing your material?
Brooks-Dalton: Using physics concepts as chapter titles was part of what made me start writing—it was that pairing, of physics and motorcycles, that moved me and made me want to keep going. Even when I was calling the chapters essays, they were each focused around a principle of physics. There was a moment towards the very end of writing the first draft when I went back and took out the thread of physics, just to see what that would do to the story, and it fell totally flat. For me, the physics offered a really clear thread through a lot of stuff that didn’t feel very clear or linear. The kernel that the whole book began with was motorcycles and physics, and how those two things illuminate each other. Separate from one other, I felt confused and out of my league, but putting them together clicked. When I started adding my emotional experience into that mixture of tangible and theoretical, I got really excited about how these three incredibly different kinds of thought could inform and shed light on one another.
Propeller: Is this like saying that motorcycles are the physical, physics is the intellectual, and your emotional experience is…the emotional? Are motorcycles the body and physics the mind? How do they inform and shed light on one another?
Brooks-Dalton: Yes, definitely. The trifecta! I think part of what made physics feel inaccessible to me in college, was that I dropped out of high school halfway through algebra, so I didn’t have enough math to understand the equations we were being taught—I barely scraped by on that level. But by looking at the ideas themselves, by using them to describe and illuminate a physical reality that I could experience, observe, and consider through the movement of motorcycles, I could do away with the math and access the theories from another direction. And then by writing that down, translating the science-speak into a more lyrical language, it really became mine—not just an idea I’d read about, but an idea that had taken up residence in my brain for a time. Motorcycles became the illustrations in a way: tangible, visual examples that I could not only understand, but that really engaged me.
Propeller: In the book you write that “People looked at me a little differently when I arrived in leather, on two wheels, and it made me begin to look at myself differently, too.” You mention a number of instances in which the way other people saw you was greatly different from the way you felt about yourself. To what degree were motorcycles successful in helping you communicate a different truth about your identity? Were there ways in which the motorcycle-riding persona still obscured or failed to communicate aspects of yourself?
Brooks-Dalton: I think the personas we project are always failures on some level. It’s just not possible to cram a complex human being and all of their experiences into a first impression or a public face. At the same time, some personas are more satisfying than others, at different times and in different places. What was so satisfying to me about the persona motorcycles helped me project was that it was radically different from how I had been presenting myself. It was the shift that was more exciting than the substance. And so while that felt really freeing and true at the time, since then I’ve gone through moments of feeling really trapped by the motorcycle-riding persona. I’m not just a motorcyclist, you know? But when you go and write a book about about being a motorcyclist then that becomes your primary persona to some degree. In my experience, how I present myself to the world always entails some kind of compromise.
Propeller: What were you freeing yourself from with the motorcycle persona?
Brooks-Dalton: A sense of being constrained by my size (small), temperament (quiet, some might say “nice”), and gender (female). None of those things are bad—I appreciate these parts of myself—but I think that being told who you are and what you want based on something as trivial as the shape of your body and the volume of your voice can be very stifling. Asserting myself as a motorcyclist didn’t erase these constraints, but it put them in their place. Yes, I’m a small, quiet woman, and yes, I can be large and loud and powerful at the same time. It was freeing to realize that I could do both.
Lily Brooks-Dalton was born and raised in southern Vermont. Her memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved, was published by Riverhead Books in April 2015, and her first novel, Good Morning, Midnight, is forthcoming from Random House in 2016.