Monthly Archives: September 2008

Review: ‘Memoir and the Memoirist’

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson. Swallow Press. 211 pp. $11.53

As one who loves narrative (reading two essay collections in a row without discernable narrative makes me crazy for story) I found Larson’s chapter “The Trouble with Narrative” fascinating and instructive. Larson casts a gimlet eye on the “crutch” of narrative for memoirists; for one thing, strict adherence to narrative can lead authors into playing with timeline and outright embellishing for dramatic effect. His main complaint is that emphasizing story almost inevitably reduces self-disclosure, which he believes is memoir’s reason for being.

Many readers, and writers, seem to assume at least parts of all memoirs are fabricated. This isn’t true, and Larson argues that memoir’s typology isn’t yet fixed. But narrative inclines writers to fudge in order to foreshadow and for dramatic effect: when, really, did you know that crucial thing? When does clinging to literal truth become just nasty neat and misleading? What do you do when you discover that your memory itself is fictional or contains fictional elements? The mind makes sense of things at a deeper level than mere timeline—so is it the timeline that’s honest and true or is truth the emotional sense your mind has made of it?

I think Larson would say that honest memoirs explore that gray area. In other words, our shifting perspective is what’s true and interesting: “there is no as it was; there is only our perspective now, interlocking with the past.” So he argues for subverting narrative expectations, for departing from fiction’s narrative presentation of character and moving closer to a reflective presentation of self. In other words, memoir is developing its own literary form, and its purpose may be the larger, neglected arena of adult growth as a means of sustaining culture.

“Some argue that to write memoir or to seek individuation (a la Jung’s practice) is a purely selfish enterprise,” Larson writes. “Hardly. Personal fulfillment and the longevity of life are evolutionary imperatives. If you look at any index of human development . . . you find that social and personal betterment are mutually dependent. It may be that the desire for individual fulfillment is what predominately drives a society to evolve.”

Larson’s discussion of writers, especially his astute discussion of Virginia Woolf, illuminates where the memoir came from, where it is now, and where it may be going. He does more to explain memoir as a new genre than anything I’ve seen.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, honesty, memoir, narrative, REVIEW

The get

David Foster Wallace, who died last Friday at age 46, was a genius novelist whose brilliant, personal, reportage-rich essays were celestial events. His account of John McCain’s 2000 campaign in South Carolina against George W. Bush, collected in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, is a revered portrait of American politics. My students read his Harper’s stories “Shipping Out,” a mordant tale of his time aboard a luxury cruise ship, and “Ticket to the Fair,” about the baroque experience of the Illinois State Fair. The essays, renamed, are in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. They’re my students’ models for writing a literary journalism essay by plunging into an activity or event that makes them feel awkward. Students are to get out, experience something strange, and take notes on themselves, others, and the situation. Conscious reporting is a revelation for many creative writing students—the stuff they get!—and for journalism students, being able to use their own perceptions is liberating: the self as tool of inquiry into something larger.

Wallace’s essays could inspire any number of assignments because they defy categorization: they’re hilarious, sad, erudite, and deeply reported—there’s another category, immersion journalism. Wallace just reported and wrote the hell out of stuff he found in the world. In the 1980s I’d have stuck his essays in my Existential Journalism file, a category that meant a writer, working as a journalist, who revealed his own attitude or perspective—or bias, really, to make it into the file—but who was obviously fair. Wallace gave the lowdown on everything and everyone, including himself.

I started the file after Ted Williams wrote a story for Audubon about fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised, and yet was sympathetic to the participants in a saltwater contest he attended. I was working as a reporter at the time and was chafing against newspapering’s objective style, which has rigor at its best but which implicitly and overtly denies the self. Since writing flows from the self, the contradiction is a reason reporters can end up feeling they’ve betrayed themselves and also failed journalism by getting personal or too involved. They’re supposed to ask What would a journalist do? instead of What should I do? The result is a New York Times reporter being criticized by some peers in the 1960s for saving a black child from a white mob at a school being desegregated in Arkansas. Or take an everyday example: the way reporters may quote what they’re sure must be lies because an official source utters them.

Wallace fully committed, and his literary nonfiction was moral in a way that’s cruelly difficult for mainstream journalism (with its he said/she said format) to be. His profound work illuminates the writer’s clear, hard, and always personal ethical task in the world: to become ever more human.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, narrative, teaching, education

Behind the barn

My wife’s family’s barn in northwestern Ohio.                                                                                 —Photo by Kris Krendl

“Everyone’s a story,” my mother used to say. There’s always a story behind the story, too, but usually we don’t get it. However, I know the history of this barn for Obama, only the second so painted in all of Ohio, because my wife’s a Krendl and the barn is on their family farm in the state’s northwestern corner. Theirs is a layered American tale with a heroic theme and its narrative flows ceaselessly out of the past.

The patriarch, Adolph Krendl, made his way to the region around the turn of the century and went to work in a local brewery. Adolph was Austrian and had learned his craft as a boy in a monastery. He later roamed the world as a merchant seaman. His adventures ended when the Austrian military nabbed him for failure to report for compulsory service. In the army, he clashed with tyrannical officers and was sentenced to longer duty. He deserted one night after he beat a local bully and left him lying in the square. Another fistfight meant another extended hitch.

Adolph fled to the U.S. and became a solid citizen of Delphos, Ohio—when he got together with the town’s priest and the butcher to talk and argue politics, people said “half the brains” in town were in that room. He spoke with an accent, was Catholic, progressive politically, and a self-educated working man. The region was a national stronghold of the then-mighty Ku Klux Klan, and there’s a story of a Klan thug threatening Adolph. He saw it was a time in America when the strong and the rich preyed openly upon the poor and weak. He wasn’t afraid, this guy whose body bore the scars of knife fights.

Adolph married a local girl, Mary, the daughter of an immigrant German family, and they had two sons. When Prohibition shut down the Delphos brewery in 1920, Adolph bought the farm near Spencerville. Though the soil was fertile, he struggled—as the land’s first generation always does—and had to work shoveling coal too. Adolph’s and Mary’s son Karl remembered growing up hungry: eating bread smeared with lard and sprinkled with sugar was a rare treat. When Karl was eighteen, in 1934, he cut trees all winter to build the farm a proper barn, the fine gambrel structure now advertising Barack Obama.

Obama talks with my niece & brother in law

Karl Krendl stayed on the land. He worked in a steel foundry during World War II until he entered the navy and served in the Pacific. After the war he became a letter carrier and educated himself by reading The Encyclopedia Britannica. He and his wife, also named Mary, reared a son and five daughters. They led a bitter campaign to improve Spencerville’s schools, and one result was the first college testing: finally, local kids could attend schools other than Ohio State, which had open admission for Ohioans.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy made Karl Spencerville’s postmaster. To the farm Karl added a small manufacturing business. His work was endless, but he finally got enough to eat. His and Mary’s children put themselves through college with the help of scholarships and from selling vegetables at their farm stand, a white clapboard shed beside the big barn. The Krendl kids became educators, a family doctor, and a guy who, before becoming a Harvard lawyer, served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam.

“We’re just like any other farmers in Allen County, except we’re Democrats,” Karl and Mary’s fifth child, Kris, was quoted by The Lima News as saying in its story about the barn. Kris, an Obama volunteer, helped get the barn painted and took the photos here.

At Obama’s rally in Dayton, he hugged two of Adolph’s great-grandkids, Leigh and Christopher. You can see Leigh talking with Obama in the photo above; that’s her dad, Dan, a schoolteacher in Spencerville, with the camera. Dan and his wife Karri, Karl and Mary’s sixth child, led opposition to a toxic waste dump planned for Spencerville. They helped mobilize a poor country village to assert itself; “Dump the Dump” was an uphill battle, with yellow ribbons and all, but they won. Now the area’s Obama float, Dan’s farm trailer pulled by his pickup, has had more people aboard it in parades than seemed to be cheering from the sidewalks in this Republican enclave.

Since I married one of the Krendl girls, child number four, I can aver they’re unusual in Allen County—not exactly the typical farm family, despite Kris’s humble and humorous statement. And now you know why. They resemble Adolph and Karl in that they work hard and—the heart of the Krendl gestalt—they reflexively fight bullies and injustice. A sixteenth-century German proverb says it simply: “The apple does not usually fall far from the tree.”

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, politics, theme

Deeper into meaning

Ian Frazier tells an amusing story in The New Yorker (May 26, 2008) about a man at a soup kitchen who dismissed Frazier’s credentials as a writing coach. The guy blew off Frazier, sitting at a card table soliciting for a writers’ group, saying he’d already had a famous teacher, novelist John Cheever. Frazier asked him what he’d learned, and quotes the guy:

“Cheever, you understan’, he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin’, you got this surface thing, you understan’, goin’ on up here”—he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface—an’ then once you get that goin’ on, now you got to come up under it”—he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut—“come under this thing here that’s goin’ on up here, you understan’. That was how John Cheever said you write.”

I tell my students we’re made of stories; they’re in our DNA. So it’s puzzling why it can be so hard to tell a story well—until you consider what’s beneath the many interlocked skills of basic craft: that subsurface thing goin’ on. Our caveman ancestors listening around the fire surely grasped implicit meaning. So do you, probably, when Dad launches another tale about Uncle Billy. But to touch strangers with a written story’s message amid narrative’s irresistible “and then” takes insight by the writer herself into her story’s depths. She has to know what she’s really writing about. Readers go to work on her text with that in mind, whether consciously or not. We’re made for such decoding.

We impulsively search for meaning, and life responds with images that epitomize this or that. I remember an incident the fall of my son’s freshman year of college, trying to get him to take a bag of his favorite corn chips into his dormitory, and his puzzling refusal. I was annoyed driving away that night, going back to our hotel room—my wife had bought the chips in our town and we’d carried them 500 miles. He settled into his new life that night without us, as we knew he must—but doing so without his favorite snack was an entirely optional decision. He would have plowed through the treat in fifteen minutes, sure, but we were sad. And the meaning of that poor sack of Red Hot Blues was clear, though it meant something different on each side: our love, his independence.

There it was again, right there, as we drove out of Chicago the next morning. I clutched the steering wheel and we drove into a blinding sunrise: the dawn of the first day without our son, our Tom. It’s kind of funny the way life lays it on thick sometimes.

Emotions, in any case, do attach to things; and the charge carried by things and scenes is at the heart of writing’s meaning—which beats in its subtext, observes Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story. “Our very important goal as writers is to transfer by whatever means possible important and complex emotions onto the sensory objects and events we’ve chosen to render in our story or nonfiction piece.”

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Filed under metaphor, symbolism, teaching, education, theme