Monthly Archives: October 2010

Virginia Woolf on a writer’s education

“. . . [A] writer’s education is so much less definite than other educations. Reading, listening, talking, travel, leisure—many different things it seems are mixed together. Life and books must be shaken and taken in the right proportions.”

“Let us always remember—influences are infinitely numerous; writers are infinitely sensitive.” And: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

“A writer is a person who sits at a desk and keeps his eye fixed, as intently as he can, upon a certain object—that figure of speech may serve to keep us steady on our path if we look at it for a moment. He is an artist who sits with a sheet of paper in front of him trying to copy what he sees. What is his object—his model? Nothing so simple as a painter’s model; it is not a bowl of flowers, a naked figure, or a dish of apples and onions. Even the simplest story deals with more than one person, with more than one time. Characters begin young; they grow old; they move from scene to scene, from place to place. A writer has to keep his eye upon a model that moves, that changes, upon an object that is not one object but innumerable objects. Two words alone cover all that a writer looks at—they are, human life.”

“Let us look at the writer next. What do we see—only a person who sits with a pen in his hand in front of a sheet of paper? That tells us little or nothing. And we know very little. Considering how much we talk about writers, how much they talk about themselves, it is odd how little we know about them. Why are they so common sometimes; then so rare? . . . We know even less about the mind than about the body. We have less evidence. It is less than two hundred years since people took an interest in themselves; Boswell was almost the first writer who thought that a man’s life was worth writing a book about. Until we have more facts, more biographies, more autobiographies, we cannot know much about ordinary people, let alone about extraordinary people. Thus at present we have only theories about writers—a great many theories, but they all differ. The politician says that a writer is the product of the society in which he lives, as a screw is a product of a screw machine; the artist, that a writer is a heavenly apparition that slides across the sky, grazes the earth, and vanishes. To the psychologists, a writer is an oyster; feed him on gritty facts, irritate him with ugliness, and by way of compensation, as they call it, he will produce a pearl. . . . This proves that we are in the dark about writers; anybody can make a theory; the germ of a theory is almost always the wish to prove what the theorist wishes to believe.”

Excerpts are from “The Leaning Tower,” collected in Moment and Other Essays.


Filed under honesty, NOTED, reading, teaching, education

For teachers & kind souls elsewhere

“Ideals and opportunities and social theorizing are just fine, but if you must understand only one thing, it is this: a warm hand and words whispered into the ear are what we want. Paths that can be seen and followed and walked upon are what we most need.

“And in the end, the thing that feeds us, no matter how tenuous, is what we will reach for.”

This excerpt is from Ghostbread, a memoir by Sonja Livingston. University of Georgia Press, 239 pages


Filed under emotion, memoir, NOTED, teaching, education

Authenticity & imagination in memoir

In an interview with Faye Rapoport DesPres in The Writer’s Chronicle
(October/November 2010), Michael Steinberg, the founder of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and author of the memoir Still Pitching, ­discusses how successful memoirs and memoirists work. Steinberg exhaustively researched baseball, New York, and period histories of the 1950s for his memoir, but also used imagination as a tool to return himself to his lost boyhood. Some excerpts of Steinberg’s comments:

Right now, creative nonfiction is a hotly debated genre. In fact, I believe we’re in the middle of the first serious genre conversation since the advent of the novel in the 18th century. The novel, when new, was thought of as a “popular” genre, which means that many critics and writers looked upon it as a less-than-legitimate literary form. In a similar way, the memoir has become the most controversial literary form of our time. Some of the arguments we’re having today are, in fact, every bit as polarizing as were the contentious quarrels about the novel back then.

The notion that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to craft their narratives is a persistent misconception. Let’s agree on this much. Memoirs are set in real time and in real places, and they include real people and real events. Whatever else we think of the form, none of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those things. It goes without saying that a memoirist’s credibility, like the journalist’s, rests in part on those things that can be verified, even fact checked. To my mind, that’s the “nonfiction” part. . . . Once again, all of this brings us back to structure. The narrator’s personal story evolves out of memory and imagination (the “creative”), and the research and reportage (the “nonfiction”) are the necessary raw materials the writer must organize and craft into a coherent narrative.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not just about making things up—that’s invention. Depending on how you use it, imagination can be an analytical tool. . . . For example, in my memoir Still Pitching I needed to re-imagine my childhood in order to better understand it. This was the only way I could express and articulate what it felt like to be that kid growing up in New York at that particular time in history (the ‘50s). In order to understand your past—in my case, childhood—you have to be able to imagine that past and the person you once were. And that’s pretty much how I wrote the book. I visualized/imagined the story as I went along, and I kept following what I saw. The fact that the story was taken from real events, people, and situations was incidental. In truth, the known events and situations were my biggest obstacles to navigate.

The difference between crafting a memoir as a literary work and writing it just the way you remember it depends on the permission the writer gives him/herself to imagine and rearrange the chronology of events. We do this not to cheat or write a more interesting story, but to help us better understand what it is we’re trying to say. . . . Well then, did I see and hear all this [an encounter with his high school coach] on one particular afternoon? And would it have made a difference if I had? What’s authentic here is the numbing despair and humiliation I felt at that moment. And in order for me to recreate that feeling, I had to imagine what it felt like. And for as long as I write (and tell) the story of that encounter, I’ll continue to claim that this is the way I remember it.

We know that memory is an unreliable narrator. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. In my memoir, I wasn’t trying for a literal rendering of my childhood. I was trying to reflect on what it felt like to be me growing up in New York in the 1950s. To accomplish that, I needed to get inside the mind and heart of the narrator as a young boy. In other words, I had to imagine (as opposed to remember or invent) things like: what did that boy think and how did he feel about all the things that were happening to him?

I’ve found that allowing oneself the permission to use the imagination is the hardest thing to teach would be nonfiction writers. In fact, giving myself that same permission was the toughest challenge I faced in writing my memoir. . . . When we write creative nonfiction, we’re using our lives as raw material or as catalysts to help us, as Annie Dillard says, “fashion a text.” If a memoir is crafted with careful attention to language, detail, and form, it’s striving to become a literary work rather than a direct confession or retelling of one’s own personal story. Whether a piece of creative nonfiction succeeds or fails has a great deal to do with the writer’s skill and ability to shape his or her experience into a satisfying artistic whole.


Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, honesty, memoir, NOTED

Can journalism schools teach narrative?

Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd.—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker (September 6, 2010)

What is journalism? How does one teach this thing you have so defined? I haven’t an answer to either question, but that places me in good company because I think most journalism schools haven’t had a clue, at least concerning the best way to educate their students as writers. With some exceptions, they’ve courted the same stereotypes that afflict education schools—padded, largely unnecessary—and with a fixation on hard news (easier to teach; dovetails with the press’s watchdog role; has the dubious cachet of social science) at the expense of narrative storytelling. Plus, the media mix is changing so fast they’ve got to be shellshocked, though ultimately that should prompt insights about the usefulness and ubiquity of narrative in whatever medium—TV, newspaper, magazine, blog, video-word-image hybrid web page, tweet, converged whatever.

Getting a degree in journalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a writer. It’s just risky, because journalism schools have been slow to understand narrative or to embrace the narrative nonfiction revolution. Or they know something is going on but don’t know what it is. Or how to teach it. When I was an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, it was the New Journalism that had students abuzz but which journalism faculty seemed impotent to help us learn to write. The exact same thing is going on with creative nonfiction today. English departments are eating j-schools’ lunch, with booming enrollments in creative writing and especially in creative nonfiction sequences.

Of course journalism professors level the navel-gazing criticism at English departments: “We teach professional writing for audiences.” The English response, if deigned to be made: “We teach the habits of art and the craft of real writing, not soulless formulaic typing.” Both sides have a point, actually, and could learn from each other. As someone who teaches both creative nonfiction and journalism, and who has degrees in each, I feel caught between these worlds and their perspectives.

English departments have lots going for them in educating working writers, including the fact that students are trying to make art. If your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp in college, then where and when? A “professional writing” class would give English majors confidence, though, and salve the fears of some employers. As for journalism, while it’s true that most undergraduates have shaky control of craft, the product being modeled is often so lowly and otherwise uninspired that there’s scant motive for students to bother swinging for the fences. So they’ll graduate unable to tell their own stories, and owning your own narrative is the baby step toward telling others’ well.

In her comments quoted above, Jill Lepore was reviewing The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, which tells the story of the black exodus from the south from 1900 to the 1970s. “Before the Great Migration, ninety percent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, forty-seven percent lived somewhere else,” Lepore writes. Wilkerson researched this saga for over a decade, and interviewed 1,200 people. She then told it through the lives of three ordinary, unknown people, interviewed for hundreds of hours, who represent the diaspora of six million.

“Wilkerson’s work, in other words, is more novelistic than documentary . . . ” writes Lepore in The New Yorker. “Can three people explain six million? Do they have to? Your answers probably depend, mostly, on your intellectual proclivities. You’re reading this magazine; chances are you lean toward thinking that stories, good stories, explain. . . . The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush and listen.”

Wilkerson, the winner of a Pulitzer at The New York Times, now directs the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University. Now there’s a journalism school, by another name, to look at. I also like the looks, on the web, of the University of North Texas’s j-school; it has a strong nonfiction narrative focus, at least at the graduate level, which I tend to think must filter down to undergraduates. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst appears to have a strong j-school—a faculty writing lots of interesting books and teaching meaty courses in writing and ethics and philosophy that bear on writing. And then there’s the University of Alabama, on whose j-school web site I stumbled across this announcement, which sounds a lot like Goucher College’s creative nonfiction program where I got my MFA:

This fall, the UA Department of Journalism will begin integrating creative non-fiction into the graduate professional track, which will require students to keep a portfolio of their work as they progress, [Department Chair Ed] Mullins said. This portfolio will serve as the student’s thesis work. Additionally, the students will be reading extensively from the great writers of this literary genre. The department’s goal is to produce graduates who can explain complex issues and give testimony to the human condition. “These are the kind of writers newspapers and magazines are going to want.”

Creative non-fiction is, as the name suggests, a blending of the creative aspect of fiction writing with the factual news-gathering technique of the non-fiction writer or journalist, Mullins said. Scenes may be portrayed through first-hand accounts from the writer’s perspective, extensive dialogue may be used instead of single quotations, and strict attention is given to factual reporting.

Most newspapers will run creative non-fiction in special sections in their Sunday editions, and magazines are another likely home for such writing. He cited the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times as papers that have added the creative non-fiction style to their news diet to supplement more traditional writing forms.

When a journalism school actually uses the term “creative nonfiction,” wow—even if it was provoked by competition from MFA programs. So something is happening, and I think I know what it is. J-schools are joining the narrative revolution! ‘Bout time. Better late than never, and all that. So there’s a scant silver lining to the illness of the newspaper industry. Desperation, at a certain point, can spur creativity in an industry, or at least in its survivors, and evidently in the education pipeline that feeds it.

I think that, as in any genre, immersion—in self or subject, or both—is a key to quality journalism, as Wilkerson’s work shows. That and reading great models of the form, like her new book, while trying to emulate them.


Filed under creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, MFA, narrative, teaching, education

A novel on memory, story & alibi

A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.

The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .

You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.


Israel edition


A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)

He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.

“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was


2nd Israel edition


happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”

He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.

. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.

Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.

Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.

You’re cynical, Jennifer says.

Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .

The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.

Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?

The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder


U.K. & Commonwealth edition


why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”

I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.


Filed under audience, braids, threads, design, editing, fiction, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, working method

Interview: Daiva Markelis on memoir

Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who blogs at The Adventures of Mighty Bear Woman, answered some questions for Narrative about her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, reviewed in my last post.

RSG: The first thing I noticed about your book was your easy, seemingly natural voice. Was finding this consistent, personal voice easy or difficult?

DM: I belong to a writing group–the Eastern Illinois University Writer Babes; the babes are great at pointing out clunky, overly formal sentences. I revise a lot, so I think much of the voice comes from rereading with a pen in hand. And I think my parents influenced me to some extent; English was their second language. They liked prose that was direct and fairly uncomplicated; I think they were afraid of modifiers. My father loved Mike Royko, the famed Chicago columnist whose style was concise, funny, and well-crafted.

RSG: You use both past tense and present tense in alternating passages in your memoir. Could you explain how that came about and your thinking regarding using both tenses?

DM: I love the intimacy of the present tense, but to write an entire memoir in the present is like bathing a cat–frustrating and potentially dangerous.  The sections written in the present tense are primarily the dialogues I have with my ailing mother at the end of most of the chapters. I wanted the book to be about Lithuanian-Americans as well as about my mother; changing tenses seemed a natural way do achieve this shift.

RSG: I don’t recall your mentioning early in the book, or even heavily foreshadowing, your period of heavy drinking and then serious depression. I admired your confidence in telling your larger story, and White Field, Black Sheep isn’t a memoir of trauma. But how did you trust your steady unfolding when today there’s such a pervasive “hook the reader with darker material” mentality? Would discussing your troubled years early in the book have skewed the story?

DM: Some of those self-destructive tendencies were in my life earlier in much subtler forms. But since I knew that mine would be the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian-American, I wanted the book to be more about the neighborhood, the customs, the educational experiences than my own personal problems. Of course, as I started shaping the book, I realized that something was missing. Drinking IS a part of my cultural heritage; it was only after I sobered up that I realized that most of my American friends did not drink every day, nor so heavily. I could have written about many of the drunken fathers in the community, but belonging to a relatively small immigrant means that you know many of its members; I took out a section where I wrote about a neighbor’s alcoholic father because there’s a good chance I’m going to run into this neighbor again. It was actually easier to write about my own complex relationship to booze.

RSG: Your portrayal of your parents is loving but feels honest: they have flaws like anyone, as well as the virtues and faults perhaps endemic to reluctant emigres from Lithuania. I was especially struck by the fact that although you write about your mother’s moodiness and ability to deny reality, and your father’s anger and his alcoholism, in portraying your own troubles you don’t blame them. You give the reader the pieces—a genetic tendency, your chaotic household, and Lithuanian culture—and you seem to lean at last toward the latter as an explanation. Was this part of the memoir difficult to write? Did you worry some people might think you were blaming your parents?

DM: I think it’s normal to blame one’s parents. But there should be a statute of limitations (or “statue” of limitations as my mother would say) concerning blame. I love the Mark Twain quote about his father: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” There’s nothing less attractive than people in their forties talking publicly about how their parents are responsible for their failed relationships, lack of friendships, money troubles, etc. One of the benefits of writing about parents in memoir is that the process of understanding them is often accelerated. I’ve seen students with difficult childhoods dig deeply into the past and come up with explanations for puzzling, often neurotic, even deeply destructive behavior. Understanding how the broader society works to foster certain tendencies and habits is vital to this understanding.

I did worry, though, that people would think I’m blaming my parents. An older Lithuanian woman came up to me a few weeks ago in Chicago and said that although she enjoyed my writing about childhood, she thought it was unnecessary to go into such details about parents. “It sounds as if you’re blaming them,” she said. Conversely, the people in my writing group thought I could have gone into more detail about the behavior of my parents.

RSG: You’ve mentioned that your memoir took you ten years to write. Could you sketch its evolution in becoming a publishable book?

DM: I should have been more specific here. I started writing the book ten years ago, but in those ten years I finished my dissertation in an area not related to creative writing, found a job, got married, bought a house. Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her deeply. I decided to take the material I had about growing up in Cicero and add sections about my mother’s life life and the year before her death.

When I finished the book, I sent off query letters to agents. Although I had published both fiction and nonfiction in a number of highly-regarded literary journals, many of the agents didn’t respond;  those who asked to read the first chapter ultimately thought the book was too “regional.” One implied that no one would want to read about Lithuanians. I decided to try university presses. Robert Devens, one of the directors of the University of Chicago Press, took a chance on the book. I love Robert.


Filed under honesty, memoir

Review: ‘White Field, Black Sheep’

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis. University of Chicago Press, 208 pages

Daiva Markelis grew up in industrial Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, the first of two daughters born to a Lithuanian couple. Her parents had immigrated because of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and they yearned their whole lives to return. They were officially “Displaced Persons,” a category for European refugees who fled communism, although Markelis didn’t understand for many years her parents’ plight.

The title of her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep, is based on a riddle her father told her about black sheep on a white field and “he who knows them leads them.” The white field is a book’s page, the black sheep the letters, the reader the shepherd who herds the flock into meaning. The riddle lends an appropriate title, because Markelis grew up bilingual—her parents spoke only Lithuanian at home. She was immersed as well in Catholic schooling and ritual, Lithuanian culture, American popular culture, and the poetry and fiction of both nations.

She even attended Lithuanian Scout Camp, which she loved. Of course she dreamed of growing up to be Miss Illinois. When Markelis was eighteen the Lithuanian grapevine led to a summer job waiting tables in southwest Michigan at “Tabor Farm: Family Resort,” owned by a man who’d fled the homeland during World War II, where she met Lithuanian poets and intellectuals. A few years later, in Europe, she taught English to Lithuanian children.

There came a day—too soon, my mother would have said—when English surpassed its rival in the struggle for linguistic supremacy. English seemed direct and simple, flexible as a Slinky. The misspellings that my mother derided—cheez for cheese—were just further indications of the general superiority of English over Lithuanian—its simplicity, its boldness, its sense of play. Lithuanian sentences seemed to go on and on, twisting and turning, like a forest path that eventually led you back to the very spot from which you started. Speaking Lithuanian meant being corrected, again and again, by parents or Saturday school teachers or well-meaning neighbors.

Her parents’ uncool, Old World clash with funky, permissive America is funny—for instance they can’t get their heads around the concept of giving their children allowances: “Let me get this straight. We feed you, put the clothes on your backs, and a roof over your heads, and now we have to pay you for this great privilege? It seems to me that you should be paying us!” And their trip out West one summer, in a car “smelling of cigarette smoke and dog hair and stale ham sandwiches,” is hilarious.

I argued for equal radio time, though I knew that getting my way was about as likely as eating at McDonald’s. Still, the idea that I was being deprived of what I saw in sixth grade as my lifeblood—rock and roll—made me determined to argue my case. My father occasionally conceded, allowing me twenty minutes of the Doors, the Stones, and Dylan, then unpredictably putting his foot down on some innocuous soft rock: “If you’re going to San Francisco.”

“But we are going to San Francisco, Dad, so why can’t we play that song?” I protested.

“Wha’ kind of man wears a flower in his hairs?” my father asked.

If my father’s love for country music was my private humiliation, his public use of English mortified me.

“Excuse please. Vee lookin for exit for Joe Semite,” he asked a gas station attendant.

The man looked confused: “Joe Semite?”

“Joe Semite National Park,” my dad answered, with growing irritation.

“Da-aad, it’s Yo-sem-it-ee,” I whispered.

Loosely chronological, White Field, Black Sheep jumps ahead some years two-thirds into the story and takes a darker turn. Markelis, who began drinking heavily when a high school sophomore, as a junior was rushed to the emergency room after downing “a liter of Southern Comfort followed by a jug of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine, topped with a sprinkling of angel dust.”

Her father, who had stopped drinking after wrecking the family car when she was eight, suggests she try his solution, Alcoholics Anonymous. She ignores him, and he stoically accepts her decision. She’s about twenty three when, in 1981, finishing her master’s degree, she suffers a serious depression and enters therapy. She saves herself with more therapy, and ultimately AA. Markelis returns White Field, Black Sheep to her parents, portraying their later lives, hers, and her close relationship with her witty, wise-cracking mother.

I enjoyed this warm portrait of a girl and her Lithuanian parents, their adopted Midwestern city, and America in the 1960s and 1970s; it’s truly an American story—immigration itself is such an American story, perhaps the American story, along with race, based on that other, forced migration. And the author’s troubled phase made her account feel even more universal.

The book is beautifully produced by University of Chicago Press, which printed one of Markelis’s photographs at the start of each section. Illustrations are unusual in contemporary memoirs, but a nice touch in this one, which I understand is the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian in America.

Next: An interview with author Daiva Markelis about writing her memoir.


Filed under memoir, REVIEW