Monthly Archives: August 2010

Any memoirist’s dilemma

“A fundamental dilemma for autobiographical essayists is how exactly to navigate between the necessity to write and the sinking realization that it may not really matter to anyone else. All writers, all artists, deal with this problem, of course, especially at this point in time, when via the blogosphere and social media literally millions of autobiographical missives are launched weekly, each voice clamoring for an audience of careful, sympathetic readers.”

I can really relate to this quote from Joe Bonomo’s post “The Silhouette,” on his blog No Such Thing as Was. Recently I read a classic memoir I found tedious (more another time on that book) and am now reading a celebrated one that deals with an extremely dysfunctional family but doesn’t engage me. The writer has “great” stories, because his life was so disordered, but why should anyone else care? Well, there’s morbid interest, surely a lesser value. There’s also the writer’s need to testify and ours to receive. There’s his attempt to render life’s jagged experiences artfully, which appears to be his motive—to make something, as Sartre said, that has been made of him.

And I think this memoirist was motivated by more than sheer ego, as I hope I am, so what gives? (Halfway through the book, I think it’s starting to take off.) Why do some writers draw us into their personal stories without offending us, and how might we do it ourselves? There seems something larger about successful personal writing that transcends mere egoistic display, but this is a slippery thing I don’t understand. I think my own motive in writing a memoir is, at base, to share my experience of love and loss. But ego can creep in.

I remember when I was getting my MFA and giving a reading after I’d been writing hard for a whole year. What I read was personal, the seeds of my current book, but I shared it in a generous spirit: gee whiz, look at this. There was an impersonal quality to my feeling about the writing; I was proud, sure, but had a certain distance; it was clear to me that the work and I were separate entities. Then, a year later, at my reading for my graduation, ego struck. For some reason I was insecure, and my desire was for attention—more for me than for the work, I think; the experience made me feel needy and craven. The writing itself was okay, but my rambling, needless prologue, had I been listening in the audience, would have caused me to grind my teeth, or walk out.

One of the things I learned writing professionally for magazines and newspapers was that the more you work on a piece, the more you see it as an object outside yourself and the less it functions as an ego extension. You feel, at some level, frustrated with a work that’s near completion, especially if it’s good, and  welcome help. All editorial suggestions may not please you, but they can’t offend.

I’m still learning how to use the self in the essay or journalistic piece; since each work is different I always will be. In his environmental journalism, Michael Pollan is really good at making himself a character in order to further the story. (See an earlier post, “Michael Pollan on narrative journalism.”) He says it’s vital to show his evolution, his blundering, his process, in order to avoid the dull journalistic know-it-all voice. Readers surely do crave the personal and also to be on the journey with the writer. This is very subtle, though, and still begs the question of why some deeply personal stories pull me in and others leave me indifferent or repelled. Wish I knew.

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Filed under audience, essay-personal, journalism, memoir, NOTED, subjectivity

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Filed under discovery, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-personal, NOTED, scene, sentimentality, teaching, education, working method

Two great literary journalism archives

I’ve learned from other bloggers about two online archives of great nonfiction—mostly essayistic or at least personal, as well as reported, magazine articles.

Kevin Kelly’s site KK has, under his Cool Tools category, “The Best Magazine Articles Ever,” with a “Top 25” list and extensive decade-by-decade hyperlinks. And Longform is where two guys post compelling long-form narrative nonfiction they’ve come across, both contemporary and historical.

These are valuable resources for readers, writers, teachers, and students of creative nonfiction, especially at the literary journalism end of the scale.

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Filed under essay-narrative, essay-personal, journalism, NOTED, reading, teaching, education

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

Noted: Tobias Wolff

“Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was pleasure in having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

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Q&A: Tom Grimes on ‘Mentor’ memoir, 3-act structure & language as bedrock

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’s brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

I might say the same for memoirists in regard to Mentor: A Memoir. This celebrated new book is the story of Tom Grimes’s life and work as a novelist and his relationship with the legendary Frank Conroy (1936–2005), whose books include the classic memoir Stop-Time and the novel Body & Soul, about a young musician. Grimes was thirty two in 1989 and working as a waiter in Key West when Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, admitted him based on a promising except of a novel in progress.

Both men were on the upswing. Grimes had been writing seriously for a decade and finally had published a few stories; at Iowa, he’d take his prose and his storytelling to a new level. After Stop-Time, in 1967, Conroy had gone almost twenty years before publishing another book, his story collection Midair, but that September an excerpt of Body & Soul appeared in GQ and at the same time one of his essays was included in Best American Essays 1989.

As a teacher, Conroy focused on the “text” and with writing at the sentence level—his mantra was “meaning, sense, clarity,” Grimes writes—and he imparted this nugget: “The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.”

Conroy plucked Grimes from obscurity because he believed in Grimes’s fiction, and from the start befriended him. In Mentor Grimes shows his initial fear and uncertainty in receiving such a gift, as well as his need to make of the complex Conroy a surrogate father. Both men had experienced unhappy childhoods—Conroy’s was chaotic and nearly tragic—and they bonded. And Conroy wasn’t only a famous writer and teacher, he was the quintessence of cool, a blithe spirit who “lacked the gene for dejection”; a heavy smoker and drinker, a professional jazz pianist, he was a natural but reluctant writer, a man whose inner self felt at risk in writing and who suffered before the “sinister urgency” of the blank page. “In his eyes,” Grimes writes, “I didn’t feel like a flaw in the scheme of things.”

Now an established author himself—his publications include five novels—Grimes writes in Mentor, “But something all along was missing—me. And this book redresses that absence. For twenty years, I believed Frank filled that absence. But he didn’t; my idolization of him did; moreover, my fictionalizing of him did. Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir. In the end, my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me. By writing about Frank, I could no longer turn away from myself, which is what I’ve done all my life. Now, I’m gazing at myself.”

Grimes, director of the MFA program at Texas State University, answered some questions for NARRATIVE:

The first thing I noticed about your memoir is how smoothly the narrative flows between scenes and exposition. Is that something that you have a particular talent for, or is it a skill you’ve developed from writing many novels? Do you construct such movement in rewriting, or is it a matter of working it out as you go, by feel?

“It’s a matter of working with what, after writing for twenty years, now comes to me by feel, rather than by

Tom Grimes

thinking. I wanted to compress the book to keep the reader curious about what comes next. Events don’t always appear in chronological order and I worked hard to make every transition smooth and crystal clear. I didn’t want to break a reader’s concentration. I moved sections around while editing so that the story’s sixteen years seem to pass quickly. After countless revisions, I believe I accomplished that.”

The protagonist, the character “you,” emerges right away as a testy, anxious guy; later, he suffers from depression and severe paranoia. Yet I found his brutal honesty about himself winning, and admired his courage in revealing his innermost doubts. Some memoir writers can’t—or won’t—show themselves in an unflattering light; and readers crave honesty but also seemingly want to identify with the protagonist in a memoir. Do you have any advice about achieving this balance?

“At first, I reacted angrily after meeting Frank Conroy. My anxiety and depression were always there; I simply drank to mask their effects. My paranoia came out of nowhere.  For nine months, my delusions terrified me. But I was able to describe myself in an unflattering light because I became a stranger to myself. And I stumbled upon something universal. A lot of people consider themselves failures but are afraid to admit it. Also, a relationship with a mentor seems to be a somewhat universal experience, too. So my advice to other writers is to write because you’re discovering things, not simply recalling the past.”

In Mentor you say you wrote twenty hours a week for ten years as an apprentice learning your craft. That’s over 10,000 hours—before the Iowa Writers Workshop. Do you remember your breakthroughs, or does the skill-acquisition ladder blur after so many years? As a teacher yourself, what are the first, fundamental skills you try to teach creative writing students?

“At twenty-four, I began to write every day. I found my ‘voice’ by accident one night when I was twenty-six and on my 29th birthday I completed my first novel, A Stone of the Heart. Its three hundred pages needed a lot of editing. Over time, I cut the novel to one hundred-fifty-pages, then was shocked when a publisher bought it. At Iowa I learned that language is the bedrock of every story. Now, I line edit my MFA students’ work. I’ll copy a passage, edit it, and hand out the revision. They’re always stunned by how much better a piece is once all the unnecessary language is stripped away. Also, students begin a story long before the first dramatic action occurs. Generally, the first three to five pages of a student’s story can be jettisoned. The other flaw is that they don’t follow it through to the ‘third act.’ No matter how short, every story has three acts. I make them list what happens in a story without judging it editorially. They find that they’ve spent a great deal of time on superfluous events. I make them read the first paragraph of published stories to see how quickly the action begins and I make them read every paragraph’s first line to see if they can follow the story simply from that. Usually, they can.  Clarity and revision. That’s where I tell them to start.”

It seems from reading Mentor that you learned about yourself in writing it. You indicated that, after all your fiction, you finally put yourself in your work. Was this as therapeutic as it sounds? Did you learn anything new about writing in creating Mentor?

“I never considered writing the memoir therapeutic; it was about my friendship with Frank Conroy. But when the first draft was finished I read twenty pages and thought, ‘Where’s Frank?’  That’s when my friend Charles D’Ambrosio read it and said, ‘Okay, the story is your story.  Frank is a large part of it, but he’s not the only part.’ As for writing, I learned how tightly I could depict events and describe backstory. I learned how to get into a scene as close to its end as possible, which gives the book a feeling of quickness. Emotions resonate because of this. But learning this took thirty years.”

Frank Conroy

You write of your sense of failure, yet you have published a lot, including books with big New York trade houses. Although you aren’t as famous as the scant handful of writers in a generation so blessed, you became a writer, an artist. Do you think your friendship with Frank Conroy, had he lived longer, would have ameliorated this feeling? Or is this sense intrinsic to being an artist, a practitioner in a field full of geniuses? Or is it just personal, in your case perhaps stemming from your difficult upbringing revealed in Mentor?

“It was strictly personal and my sense of failure stemmed from two things: being manic-depressive led me to think the worst of myself, and it enlarged my ambition. I wanted to be a ‘great’ writer, like Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Pynchon. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelf their books occupy. So it’s ironic that a book about my sense of failure may be my most successful book, and after abysmal publishing experiences with large houses, publishing with Tin House has been the best experience of my life. Writing Mentor put a lot of demons to rest. I no longer feel like a failure. What can writers take away from this? If you doubt yourself, you’re not alone; and never, ever quit.”

There’s a great interview between Tom Grimes and J.C. Hallman at Bookslut, and another, with Louis Mayeaux, at Southern Bookman. The Washington Post Book World ran a rave review of Mentor by Michael Dirda. There’s a wonderful 2002 interview with Frank Conroy at Identity Theory in which he discusses his approach to writing as a career (not for him) and his admiration of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a previous post, “Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir,” I excerpted his interview with Narrative Magazine.

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Fairness & John McPhee’s ‘Archdruid’

[H]uman judgment tells you what to do in journalism—not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment, and a lot of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist. The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news.—Jay Rosen

“What’s with you ex-newspaper guys, so angry at newspapers?” the memoirist asked me. She had written for twenty years for The New Yorker. I’d been foaming at the mouth over the peculiar frustrations a newspaper reporter can feel from practicing the conventions of the objective style. “Newspapers,” she said, “are a great training ground for writers.”

“Yes, they are,” I said. “But I’ll try to explain. Remember in the 1960s the incident where a Times reporter who was covering school desegregation in Arkansas rescued a little black girl from a white mob? He pulled her into his car. If you’d been covering that story for The New Yorker, your colleagues would have slapped you on the back. You might even have written about how it felt to save her. He was criticized for getting involved in the story.”

That silenced her, though she shot me a cool look. I don’t think she understood—I don’t, either. But I do know that the writer’s task is to become ever more human; in America, at least, the journalist’s task has been to figure out what a journalist would do. And good luck with that, because most of the craft’s conventions aren’t spelled out but, rather, sensed and sussed and absorbed.

All this comes back, my conversation with the New Yorker writer turned memoirist and my fraught relationship with objectivity, whenever I visit Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine,” which worries the subject—deliciously painfully for me—like a tongue probing a sore loose tooth.

The objective style would scrub the writer from her prose; it relies on a “he said/she said” format with little or no authorial intervention. Newswriters rarely may reveal their impressions or unveil their hypotheses; they must find sources who’ll speak for them. The objective style exists partly for good, or at least for practical, reasons. And it can lead to brilliant public service reportage, partly because of the rigor and even the cruelty of its constraints. (I once tried to teach a middle-aged lawyer in a reporting class how to build a case journalistically and failed spectacularly—I couldn’t get across how it’s done and merely enraged a man who already knew how to make an argument, at least in his world.)

In the early 1980s, unhappy with my crass editors at a Florida newspaper, I read books and diagnosed their problem as micro-ethics: I was convinced that they’d print, during riots, instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail—in the interest of public knowledge, of course—and this narrowness was an outgrowth of the objective style. As for me, I read John Merrill’s books on existential journalism and liked the notion of the journalist revealing himself but trying to be fair. Ted Williams wrote a great article around 1980 for Audubon on fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised. But the piece was fair and even sympathetic to the participants in this activity he openly deplored. I doubted this model would never fly in newspapers—too many time and space constraints, plus reporters functioned not as free agents—as writers, as in magazines—but rather as representatives of an institution. Okay, but it seemed sad that the deracinnated style of reporters on the news side, pursuing miscreants, bled perniciously into the features section and even constrained columnists.

Over several more years I got good at the objective style, but a stone of discontent had lodged in my breast. Once, frustrated by the low level of discussion about writing at a newspaper conference, I wrote an essay, “Traces of the Writer at Work: Overcoming the Enshrinement of Craft in Journalism,” and argued passionately—to myself, for the essay wasn’t published, or submitted—that the profession’s inability to acknowledge the reporter-as-writer was deforming and retarding. Of course even journalists covering school board meetings feel their work is creative—it is—but the objective format itself denies this, specifically that the work is shaped; meanwhile readers sense it must be the product of selection rather than of mere transcription and can become bored, suspicious, hostile. I believed, and still do, that the objective format allows reporters and editors, who’ve followed their “rules” after all, to abdicate responsibility for how they operate and for what they publish.

But not necessarily. It can be done usefully and well.

And Exhibit A in the complexity of this subject, the use of the self in journalism, is John McPhee’s brilliant Encounters with the Archdruid. McPhee went on wilderness hiking and raft trips with legendary preservationist David Brower and three of his sworn enemies, men who develop pristine islands for golf courses and condos, who mine iconic mountains for copper, and who dam wild rivers for boaters and hydroelectric power. Presented as the ultimate tree-hugger, the top druid of the book’s title, Brower is a fascinating figure. But so are the hard-nosed, hard-fisted men of the world who grind their teeth over Brower’s tactics (he’ll lie to the public if it helps save one scrap of wilderness). And they point out, We need to live somewhere, we need minerals, and we need power.

McPhee, known for his reticence about using his persona overtly in his work, set up these encounters in which sparks fly, though he doesn’t bother discussing that obvious point. His admiration and affection is palpable both for Brower and the men he’s picked to accompany and argue with Brower. More to the point: McPhee refuses to take a side. He lets Brower and his foes each have their say. Having presented the complexity of his topic, human need vs. environmental preservation, McPhee throws the burden onto the reader to make her own decision. Partisans on both sides have attacked the book for its bias. I’ve read it several times and it’s impossible to discern McPhee’s position. I believe he must side with Brower, who, though an extremist, makes the compelling case that we should refuse to molest the tiny percentage of wilderness that remains comparatively untouched.

But that’s the position I’ve come to, and I can’t blame McPhee for it. In Encounters with the Archdruid he goes beyond my ideal of a forthright existential journalism into a Zen-like “objectivity” that, paradoxically, places the existential burden of taking a position on the reader. It’s impossible to engage with Encounters and remain a mere voyeur. It’s an amazing performance. Of course McPhee, as a writer (an inquiring and shaping intelligence), saturates the book. But he refuses to guide the reader to a conclusion, beyond the arguments and evidence and personalities he presents.

The book, as rare and risky as its approach is, complicates my feelings about the objective style. (All successful examples of which, I believe, are based on deeply subjective decisions.) And McPhee’s restrained use here of self—so intrinsic to writing, as to any art—stands as a corrective model to the contrary approach in journalistic narratives: excessive “I” deployment when the writer’s role is already obvious and, anyway, he’s orchestrated the whole shebang.

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