Ottawa Writers Festival: Memoir is much ado about Measha — good, bad and unrepentant

Measha Brueggergosman’s mid-life memoir is titled Something Is Always On Fire. And it is as apt a title as one could possibly imagine.

The 40 year old with the big soprano voice, powerful and charismatic stage presence and even bigger private personality details her life with its travails and triumphs warts and all.

She doesn’t shy away from her missteps. She admits them in a ‘confessional’ that is startling in its candour. But then, in the next breadth, she will refuse to apologize for the choices she has made.

Brueggergosman reveals herself as a person with deep and powerful passions:

• For her two young sons;

• For singing and for performing, which made her an international star;

• For food, which at one point made her very big indeed;

• For sex, which caused betrayals of her marriage and led to a divorce;

• Her belief in the efficacy of such life guides as Bikram Yoga

• And finally a professed and deep faith in Christianity that, given her many transgressions might seem incongruous to a reader, is strong and deep and centred on her family.

No matter the many contradictions, Measha’s memoir is burning hot.

It is no surprise that such a strong person would write the book herself. These are her words on the page, put there in a process that took about five years from first approach by publisher HarperCollins to a draft prepared by a ghost writer to her own final writing sessions at the Banff Centre.

She talked about it all and more in an interview this week with ARTSFILE.

“It (reading her memoir) feels like tearing off a bandaid doesn’t it?” she said.

So why do it?

“I think when HarperCollins approached me about writing a book, I knew that I had one book in me but I know I had no idea what that book was.

“They had this very loose, uninteresting theory of writing about myself. Then, three years into the process, I was left to try and figure out what the book was. I knew it wasn’t the draft in front of me written by the ghostwriter. I knew that wasn’t it, but I also knew I had to go through that process.”

She is the one who had suggested working with a ghostwriter thinking she could just “bang it out and take the money and run.” But that’s really not who Measha is. No one else could really tell her story because she very much controls her story. So she retreated to write and started from scratch.

“I committed to writing for several hours every day, just whatever interested me, whatever I wanted to see through as a meditative process and as a way to come to some sort of conclusion. I wanted to see what my voice was as I searched for answers to life as it had happened to this point.”

Out of this came a structure and ultimately a book was finished.

“But I saw it very much as a methodical process that I could either ignore and suffer not having experienced what I got to experience in the end. Or I could cry all the tears, write all the words.”

That doesn’t mean she has told it all by the way. “I still have many secrets. It sounds like the book is a super tell-all but trust me …” she has held some stuff back. And likely, at least as it stands now, these will remain secret because, she insists, there will be no Volume 2 because “people would die.”

Brueggergosman says her editor at HarperCollins emboldened her to “tell as much or as little as I wanted. How much truth I wanted to tell and whatever story I wanted.”

Brueggergosman also spends good amount of time explaining what it means to be a singer and how to accomplish that very human endeavour. So there are descriptions of technique and the importance of being a diligent and dedicated professional.

“More than anything the book revealed to me that no one person is any one thing, and that it is possible to think simultaneous, conflicting things.

“A consequence of that is talking about vocal technique because it is such a huge fascination of mine and a life-long pursuit and passion. It is the crux of my professional life which takes up a huge part of my life.”

Singing is one of the fires Brueggergosman tends as best she can. The others are mother, daughter and sister. At one time that list included spouse.

She says she lives the kind of life that appears to be exciting. But outsiders only see her at the summit, she says. Getting there is a hard climb, she says with many missteps and stumbles along the way.

“I’m going to leave things behind or drop things on the way. And there is going to be things I forget, because I am too busy getting to the top of the mountain.” The journey is in reality pretty much the same one we all take, she says.

She believes that she have been blessed with the kind of life that reflects what my personal preferences would have been anyway.

Even though being an opera singer is, she says, “the most phantasmic stupid thing to do for a living but explaining why this job is necessary (for her) would be like trying to explain why you have to breathe.”

In the six months after the book was finished, Brueggergosman has been divorced and is wrestling with financial difficulties. She has begun the process of learning how to do things that had always been taken care of by someone else, usually her ex-husband.

“A year ago I did not know how to pay a cellphone bill. I am now super proud that I know what hydro is. I am incredibly grateful to my mother, who told me, when I was getting divorced and was freaking out about how I didn’t know anything about finances, how satisfied I would feel at completing the circle.”

She remains in contact with her ex-husband Markus. It’s not easy but they do have two sons to raise. Her sons are the true love in her life. “Sometimes it’s the only love you get. … Now I get why people have kids.”

She doesn’t see herself getting married again. “I’m not really keen on love right now. Getting through this portion of my life requires me to white-knuckle it just a little bit.”

In the end Brueggergosman, who stared death in the face when her aorta dissected several years ago, is a survivor determined to carry on her career and her life com what may. It’s had to imagine anything standing in her way.

Have things improved?

“I will say yes. I’m still breathing and as long as draw breath, I will always want more. That is my currency for building something. I’m proud of the book and proud that it has happened. That there is this hardcover with my name on it.

“It is easy for me to talk about the book and to think of it as a healing tool for me and a potential healing tool for lots of people.”

That’s not so bad, is it?

Something Is Always On Fire: My Life So Far
Measha Brueggergosman (HarperCollins)
In town: The author will be at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave. on Friday Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. Information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.