Monthly Archives: February 2009

David Foster Wallace on nonfiction

The late novelist and journalist was interviewed by Becky Bradway for Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology by Bradway and Doug Hesse:

“The reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have. If a piece of fiction is markedly implausible or ‘untrue’ in some way, the reader feels a certain bored distaste, or maybe disappointment. If a piece of nonfiction, though, turns out to be ‘untrue,’ the reader feels pissed, betrayed, lied to in some personal way.”

“[W]e all know . . . any embellishment is dangerous, that a writer’s justifying embellishment via claiming that it actually enhances the overall ‘truth’ is exceedingly dangerous, since the claim is structurally identical to all Ends Justify the Means rationalizations. Some part of nonfiction’s special contract with the reader specifically concerns means, not just ends, and also concerns the writer’s motives . . . and maybe the ultimate honesty that good nonfiction entails, and promises, is the writer’s honesty with herself.”

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“Remembering Paul” in memoir journal

“Remembering Paul” by Richard Gilbert appears in the current issue—Spring & Summer 2009—of Memoir (and), now moving onto the newstands, memoirandcoverand will be available for several months on line. Set in an extended scene during an October day in which I clean out our barn alone for the first time, the essay explores loss and an unlikely relationship that bridges the gap between an outsider to Appalachia and a local man.

“Now I’m hot, sweating, and I head to the house to change my shirt. It occurs to me that Paul would be removing his twill work jacket at this point. He would dust off a spot and neatly fold the garment, an antique bluish green that matched his creased work trousers. Paul was a neatnik and abhorred messes. “Dirty, filthy things,” Paul would say of groundhogs, blackbirds, and even svelte deer—anything that threatened his orderly lawn and garden or disturbed his peace of mind as he watched his bird feeder.

“I’d hear gunshots from his house across the road as another varmint bit the dust.”

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Review: ‘Self-Consciousness’

Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike. Ballantine/Fawcett. 271 pages.

Without trying, I was always reading something by John Updike. It was updikehard not to, especially if you read The New Yorker, where his fiction, essays, and reviews appeared for fifty years. I love his memoir, Self-Consciousness, much of which explores what made Updike awkward and shy: his introverted boyhood, his stutter; and his many adult afflictions, especially psoriasis and bad teeth. It’s a fascinating inquiry into the nature of subjectivity and memory.

Early in Self-Consciousness Updike unfolds a scene where, as a student working on an art project after hours in his high school, he realizes that his teacher and the stern principal appear to share a secret romantic life. “To this quiet but indelible memory,” he adds, “attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.”

Thus Updike gives readers the dual effect of memoir and fiction. He pulls this skillful having-it-both-ways trick a few times, as when he portrays a strange feed-store proprietor who “always wore dark clothes” and one day would be found murdered. Then Updike pauses: “Did he really always wear dark clothes, or has my memory, knowing of his grisly end, dressed him appropriately? Spying from our front windows, I would watch him descend his long cement steps with an odd sideways bias, favoring one leg, looking like a dark monkey on a string.”

The brilliance of this is in its vivid imagery, resonant with emotion, and in Updike’s insight that his memory may be lying—and then in playing out the scene with that suspect material to bring the vision in his mind to life. Most writers wouldn’t have noticed or questioned such a detail in the first place; but Updike understood the interaction among sensibility, history, and imagination. With his confessions, by his calling attention to what might be his mind’s creative lies, he won my complete faith, that famous conjurer, that his memoir was truthful. His scruples were neatly practical, moral, and aesthetic. And his little asides amount to sophisticated criticisms of the unquestioned and the allegedly factual. For what is the truth of most memory beyond one mind’s knowing? Probably no one living but Updike, at the time, remembered that twisted little man—or perceived him that way in the first place.

Of course the passage also underscores Updike’s theme of self-consciousness in showing both his secretive boyhood attentions to life and his adult preoccupation with literary creation. In experiencing the layered subjectivity of this gifted writer, readers find in Self-Consciousness powerful affirmation of their own private selves.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, fiction, honesty, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Those cursed teachers

This is from Mike Crognale’s essay about a memorable teacher from his second-grade school days:

“There are different members of the Catholic clergy. At the top there is God, everybody knows about that subject. Next there is the pope, and from what I remember back then he was basically God’s right-hand man. Below theapplesky1 pope you have your cardinals, bishops, and priests. Then there were nuns and brothers. Sister Mary Thomas had no business being in the same  hierarchy as those generous, grateful beings. She was in her own category with anybody else who was like her. She was a small fragile woman dressed in navy blue. Her skin was transparent and covered in wrinkles. The bone structure of her body could almost be seen if it were not draped with her bruised and veiny skin. Her knuckles protruded greatly from her body as if to almost be looking at the skeletal structure. On her head she wore a navy blue bonnet which covered her nearly bald skull. To this day I have never witnessed a thicker pair of  glasses than the pair she wore on her drooping and weathered face. Her overbite was filled with yellowish teeth. She spoke fiercely and loud. Every time she spoke there was a chance of heavy showers on those in the surrounding seats. She was not much taller than us second graders. Her spine was as straight as a winding road; she was hunch-backed like nobody I’ve ever seen. She walked with a limp in her all-black, no-named orthopedic shoes. Beneath those was a thick pair of wool socks. These socks and shoes were the common apparel that all the nuns wore. Another piece they all had in common was a necklace. The necklaces were tarnished silver crosses enclosed by a silver circle. These women had a distinct smell which can never be reproduced nor mistaken. It was the smell of old people, as I used to call it.”

Mike is a student this quarter in my freshman composition class. He’s a Pittsburgh native majoring in aviation management. Each time I teach composition I am impressed by how many people are good writers. Writing talent is common. The higher levels of craft are not. Mike has both going on here. What makes this passage special: the personal voice, the vivid details, and the flow. Flow derives from the writer’s emotional connection to his material, and readers experience it through his rhythmical variation of sentence content, length, and structure. Mike has a wry view in the present of what frustrated him as a boy; the flowing conveyance of both perspectives here delights.

I love to have freshmen write about some aspect of literacy, of reading and writing and learning. Many write about an adult who taught them to read or about a great book that returned them to reading. Often they write about wonderful or terrifying teachers. Interestingly, the two teacher categories often merge in the form of a teacher who was both inspiring and intimidating. But sometimes mentally ill or even deranged.

A subgenre I treasure are physical descriptions of teachers. A freshman wrote one last quarter (of a teacher she loved) that made me gag.  The girls tend to be especially hard on middle-aged women who lack fashion sense and have big, oily pores. The woman Mike writes about was the cursed soul who tried to teach him to write cursive—a gradeschool milestone I’d forgotten and which brought back similar memories of trauma. And of lies: apparently all cursive teachers tell their students that when they get to middle school the teachers there are going to flunk them if they print, when in fact the teachers are grateful for any handwriting they can read.

Of course, high school English teachers also scare their students witless about the rules and rigors of college composition. Then they meet me, and I say, “Guidelines, kids, not rules .  .  .”

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Filed under craft, technique, emotion, essay-narrative, flow, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, teaching, education