Monthly Archives: February 2011

Finding ‘Narrative,’ ver. 1.2

Candyce Canzioneri took this photo of the woods along Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio

Blog reading has displaced some of my discretionary reading. It’s probably one reason I don’t follow the news as closely anymore. Writers must read what others in their genre are doing, though I’d been posting for almost two years before I started actually reading blogs. Bloggers often impress me greatly. One writes so elegantly; another seems so delightfully concise; another has such colloquial snap. Like any writing done well, a deft blog post is much harder to do than it looks.

But I read blogs now not just because I am trying to do better as a blogger in the narrow sense. I’m hooked by the notion of someone hanging it out there, trying to make sense of his or her chosen domain, while presenting a pleasing or stimulating or unified persona. When I have a little melt down, when I wonder which self I’m trying to present here, I need to read more of my fellow scribes. For beyond using sentences well, what they’re doing is delicate, this crafting of a public self, an avatar for their qualities of X, Y, and Z.

At base there’s T.S. Eliot’s haunting, immortal question in Prufrock: how to prepare a face for the faces that you meet? In cyberspace, we prepare that face in print. It’s a performance, yes. But a mask that reveals, too.

And yet, when I look at my WordPress report on the search terms that some use to find Narrative, I know other readers have other motives. My review, some time ago, of T. Corragesan Boyle’s The Inner Circle must have sent this person here: “iris milk + Kinsey.” And the search “evolutionary psychology global warming” astounds me, since I did join in a brief post those two disparate topics into an odd, obscure union.

Clearly some seekers want help with assignments: “fourth grade narrative essay on nat turner”; “why did nat turner murder”; “summarize the book by vivian gornick ‘the situation and the story’”; “what insights about the writing process have been sparked while developing your narrative essay? what ignited them and what impact have they had on you and this essay?”; “good sentences to make essay impressive.”

But it appears teachers are looking too: “narrative nonfiction books for first grade.” And writers, maybe, or more students: “adverbs used in a narrative essay.”

And, once again, in the imponderable category: “money made man mad”; “crazy narration of personal blog”; “who is annie dillards audience”; a search for “nerrative”; “the same fear that has caused me to push coretta away back in grammar” [school?]; “what was learned in the updike’s story with the word flat?”; “examples of good narrative stories someone gets trapped”; and “jessica naim truthful lips.”

I have no idea what the last means, don’t want to know, and wonder why in the world that person was referred to my blog. Last but not least, the Amen, Brother category: “we construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next.”

A related issue: When I post, WordPress suggests “possibly related posts (automatically generated).” Sometimes the reason is clear (I’ve written about an author named recently in someone’s else’s blog) and sometimes it’s mystifying.

In either case, I’ve discovered interesting blogs that way. When I reviewed Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, WordPress linked me to Disillusioned Librarian Blog, a Canadian on books . . . and the disillusionment of being a librarian. While I couldn’t ascertain the reason for the link to my post, I added its RSS feed to my Google page.

It was nice while it lasted; now it appears to be defunct, the librarian having stopped posting almost exactly a year ago. Aren’t abandoned blogs spooky? Like a house someone walked away from. All the lights are still burning, and it’s unlocked, so you can wander around inside, but no one is home. It’s creepy, and you just know there’s a story there.

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Filed under audience, MY LIFE

Noted: Honesty & emotion in memoir

Talk about cold duck. Candyce Canzioneri took this photo on Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio.

“All memoirs have one thing in common: each book charts the struggle between the subject of the memoir and the self. Almost always the subject is something other than the writer while the self, of course, is the writer.”—Thomas Larson

Tom Larson is an author, essayist, and journalist. He’s a generous writing-world friend, one with slightly different taste in memoirs than mine, neither of which negates the fact that he’s a flat-out brilliant theorist of memoir. I favor narrative-driven memoirs, and I think he prefers more reflective ones. In any case, he knows what makes all successful ones work. His own memoir essays are wonderful; sometimes I have my students read his haunting “The Woman on the Corner.” I previously reviewed his books The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

The excerpts below are from his new Kindle e-book, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir, which is a great teaching resource and stimulating to any memoirist. I was especially struck by his thoughts on what, at base, is happening in an honest, effective personal story.

Truth in memoir refers to an accurate shaping of the writer’s emotions. The truth of one’s feelings, if you will. To get there we wrestle with our memories, for memory comes at us laced with emotions that have minds of their own: self-aggrandizing, defensive, unexamined, even false. The question arises: How do I find the truth of my feelings if I can’t quite trust my memory? What’s worse, those unfinished and less examined emotions in my life keep insisting I attend to them. Something haunts me, continues to form or challenge my character. Its truth—why I feel as I do—still escapes me.

Of my older brother and me, why was I my father’s favorite? Can I ever find the truth of what I believe was factually and emotionally true? Since I cannot know for sure—my father is long since dead—I shape my story to reflect what I feel based on reasonable evidence, evidence with which my brother has often disagreed. He has his side, and he must wrestle with mine.

If I delve deep enough, though, I will find an answer to why this question of favoritism in my family compels my attention. The irony here is that emotional truth is subjective because it is so often factually unknowable and must be got at or got to mostly via emotion and understanding.

Our attentiveness to such bedeviling questions plays itself out personally—the writer considers, analyzes, emotes, makes discoveries, pulls off the mask, is as honest as he can be. Indeed, the memoirist is trying to find and disclose what he doesn’t yet know about the subject or himself: that’s why he’s writing a memoir. The thing in us which resists honesty or disclosure may be a foe that we need to battle but we do not vanquish it as much as we measure its weight and integrate its relational power into our sensibility.

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Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, teaching, education

On hating certain books

My friend Candyce Canzioneri took this photo at a lake near our homes. We're all—man, bird, and beast alike—freezing our butts off here in Ohio.

Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I’ve just finished reading two new books on writing. One was brief, began well, and then wrecked. Worthless! Almost shameful, from a well-known writer. The other, a little longer, possesses some virtues but left me deeply peeved at its author. I’m not going to name them or their books, let alone damn them, because it’s just not worth it, to spend one’s energy that way. Rarely I do it, usually if the author’s dead and thus beyond caring. I so loathed a widely beloved novel a year or two ago that it was all I could do to refrain from yelping about what a horrible, nasty, awful thing it truly is. I harbor spiteful prejudice against its author, for sentimentally loving its sentimental narrator. Yet better writers and readers than I love the damn book.

Having recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel whose insights and narrative sweep and realized ambition astounded me, I’m glad I (mostly) held my tongue about that other novel. I was so eager to talk about Freedom that I urged it on friends, and even bought copies for three of them. Two liked it almost as much as I did. The third despised it, and Franzen. I felt my friend was unreasonable and projecting qualities to hate upon the writer and his book. That’s what I probably did with the novel I hated. (Except: I was right—it’s awful, the emperor has no clothes! Trust me.)

Freedom received one of the most glowing reviews ever published in The New York Times Book Review, by its editor, Sam Tanenhaus. And Franzen was canonized by Time, which put him on its cover with the headline “The Great American Novelist.” The hype got hackles up. Franzen has said he was surprised by how kind reviewers were to the book, since he expected they’d be laying for him after his 2001 mega-hit, The Corrections. Turns out, he should have been worried about Regular Joe Reviewers. There are many rave reviews of Freedom on Amazon, but so many angry one- and two-star screeds that its average rating was brought down to a modest three stars out of five. And many ugly things were said about Freedom in The New Yorker’s online book discussion group, surely an irony for Franzen, if he read them, because of his long association as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.

What my friend’s anger at Freedom showed me was that I can’t bank on

Candyce's poster documents her good attitude

Amazon’s negative reviews—or even its positive ones—as reliable gauges of my reading experience. And more than that: it showed me how deeply personal and subjective our reading preferences are. Which I think is why the mainstream’s endangered reviewers are so valuable. Such folks are, or should be, I think, properly constrained by various existential pressures, which temper reviewers’ deeply personal reactions. It’s an art to write a mixed review; it’s easier, and more fun, to flay the hide off an author—some poor slob who spent years, nine in the case of Freedom, slaving to offer his gift to the world. Michiko Kakutani at the daily New York Times sometimes does this, I feel. She was cruelly harsh toward Franzen for his The Discomfort Zone, which I found a brave, funny book, but which seemed to trigger in her that odd outrage toward memoirists that afflicts many New York gatekeepers. I believe this is why Franzen called Kakutani, a Pulitzer winner, the stupidest person in the entire world. (Yet she adored Freedom, and to her credit, despite her prior review and Franzen’s comment, she raved.)

What is with this anger? What sets it off in so many of us? Some of it’s got to be wounded pride. Maybe some is genuinely offended taste—we’re proud of having taste, or a sense of art. But must we be so spiteful? Evidently some of us must, even though we’re talking about works of art here, not the criminal George W. Shrub administration or crass Hollywood revenge-fantasy movies.

I wonder what book you’ve loved despite the world’s negative opinion or hated unreasonably despite the herd’s vulgar affections? Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love seemed to set off many people on both sides of that gulch. I read it with growing annoyance, for it seemed dishonest to me, but had to marvel at her writing ability. Maybe that’s the thing about books: We also react to them like they’re people, and consider how few people become close friends, fewer still soulmates. How does one view and react to those who just aren’t one’s cup of tea? And how do you know when someone you actively dislike deserves it and when you’re just hating qualities in another that you possess yourself but can’t admit?

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Filed under fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, reading

Kindle (& Updike) redux

As I was saying early in January, I was almost through Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel Freedom—wow, what a Mississippi river of a book, churning with social criticism, human portraits, narrative power—when I dropped and broke my Christmas Kindle. In two days I was reading again, on a device officially known as “Richard’s 2nd Kindle,” rushed from the Amazon mothership. Since then I have read on it four more books: Franzen’s delicious memoir The Discomfort Zone; J.R. Moehringer’s hearty bestselling memoir of boyhood and drink The Tender Bar; Franzen’s book of impressive essays and reportage How to Be Alone; and genius John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, a model of elegant prose style.

I think I’m reading more with the Kindle, somehow. Maybe because I read while exercising indoors this winter, get further hooked by a book, and read it faster to finish it.

Maybe it’s just the novelty effect.

I’m uncomfortable with that possibility, just as I’m uncomfortable with aspects of the Kindle and love others. There was an electronically garbled passage in one book; sometimes spaces between words are removed. Being able to search is great, but paging through the book to get anywhere fast in it is a monumental pain. There must be a function that will whip me faster front to back, but I haven’t found it. This is another weakness, the need to learn the kinks of device to read. Books are warm, with life in them, so perfectly evolved a medium. I’m haunted by Robert Pirsig’s great line from his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The heart of technology is death.” One could say this applies to any tools—his insight flowed from the internal combustion engine, as I recall—but it applies especially to high technology like electronics and the apparatus of space travel.

The Kindle is so damn convenient, though, I felt like such a grouchy geezer. But then I began consciously to notice with Rabbit, Run the faint dotted underlining under great passages—what others have highlighted. Thus does the Kindle queer one’s reading experience: the world intrudes. But on the one hand this is great: I won’t miss the quotable lines every book reviewer, blogger, and reading braggart must have. On the other, it is one of reading’s pleasures to find such nuggets on one’s own, thus make them yours. On the other, that’s a young man’s vanity; I’m middle aged—which means only that old age hasn’t got me quite fully in its grip—and am slower to spurn help. Let me be clear about this, however: if like most people you dislike others’ markings and highlightings in a book, you will hate this feature.

The adumbrated underling reminds me of Amazon’s bullying suggestions that appear on my Kindle screen: Do I want to turn on my wireless connection? Hey, I’m saving juice here. Why have the thing on—so Amazon can know even more about me than it already does? No, thank you. Then I hopped into a passage that thrilled me partly for this idiotic reason: No one else has underlined it! Here, Rabbit has just left his wife and spent the night with a prostitute. Reading these very male truths I felt like a prospector splashing through a stream and seeing a gold nugget a hundred idiots have missed:

The thing about her is, she’s good-natured. He knew it the second he saw her standing by the parking meters. He could just tell by the way her thighs made a lap. With women, you keep bumping against them, because they want different things; they’re a different race. The good ones develop give. In all the green world nothing feels as good as a woman’s good nature.

Maybe, if I turn my wireless on, other e-buyers of Rabbit, Run will have my taste inflicted upon them. Not many pages later, I came across a line pre-underlined: “Funny, the world just can’t touch you once you follow your instincts”; it made me wonder how many dumb high school kids are using Kindles and flagging likely term paper fodder. That phrase isn’t portable—it’s just Rabbit’s stray subjective notion—but my line, well mine seems to be beating its blunt aphoristic wings hard enough to fly free of the harebrain. (Yet he’s not just some feckless guy who disgracefully leaves his pregnant wife and small child, impressions from many half-remembered reviews aside; rather, he’s one who runs in fear when he realizes he’s hurtling toward death with someone he doesn’t love.)

“We’re marching toward March,” I’ve been telling my freshmen, hardly believing it myself. Eliot had it wrong. It’s endless January that’s the cruelest month, good for reading though it was. Nothing remotely spring-like except a bird bravely singing a little at daybreak—why? Well, January is gone and good riddance. But February first and second the campus was shut down by ice. Then I blundered across another virgin passage in Rabbit, Run that reminded me of spring—it will come, and then summer, my best season—and it showed how wonderfully Updike could convey the way humans experience the physical world, not just each other, through a suffused scrim of emotion. Rabbit, still on the lam but employed by a dowager for garden chores, is out burning last season’s spent stalks and other brown detritus:

Sun and moon, sun and moon, time goes. In Mrs. Smith’s acres, crocuses break the crust. Daffodils and narcissi unpack their trumpets. The reviving grass harbors violets, and the lawn is suddenly coarse with dandelions and broad-leaved weeds. Invisible rivulets running brokenly make the low land of the estate sing. The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies, and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.

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Filed under emotion, fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading