Monthly Archives: June 2011

Getting words down & revising them

I can’t remember how I came across a wonderful vimeo video on  Writer Unboxed  by Yuvi Zalkow on his breakthrough in revising his born-dead novel. Zalkow describes himself on vimeo in his “failed writer series” as a “writer, storyteller, novelist, shame-ridden schmo, maker of online presentations about my failures (and occasional successes) as a writer.”

I can relate, having just had a great essay (trust me!) fail to win two contests and get rejected even as a submission. That’s what I get for composing my humble thank-yous in advance, albeit inwardly . . .

Zalkow’s followup video on managing his time (and expectations) as a writer is really good, too. He talks about making the best of what little time he has. This was a topic Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner covered well recently, Bill in “Finding Time to Write” and “Thank Your Editor” and Dave in “The Value of Momentum” over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour.


Filed under editing, revision, working method

The quotes on my desktop

There are quotes about writing on my desktop. Actually, they’re in a Word file, at the top of a journal I’ve kept for the last year as I produced a fourth version of my memoir. I don’t make journal entries every day, usually when things go really badly or really well. Or when I notice something I want to remember—like the fact that I won’t be able to remember or recreate or explain how I interwove narrative threads over the course of an entire 500-page manuscript. Such notes to my future self are intended to lessen consternation by that future, unknown self.

I know they won’t help. Even the ones that say: Hey Dummy, You did it like this. Because:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.”— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Check. Anyway, I seldom look at my journal—or my inspiring quotes. But they are there when I need them. Of course I’ve internalized other thoughts, such as Annie Dillard’s famous statement:

“There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms.  I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.  It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field.

As she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I believe it, and believe Dillard meant it. But I’ve also read her despairing comments about writing’s difficulty.

Here’s my top “working” quotes.

“The realest, most honest part of anyone is the part that suffers.”—John V. Wylie

John, my brother in law, told me that one day when I was concerned about going deeply into a painful incident in my memoir.  Retired from his huge Washington, D.C., psychiatric practice, John is a key member of my writer’s posse. He’s a sunny guy, so I was afraid that my darkest chapter, about when I got seriously hurt on my farm, would upset him. My injury was agonizing, and it made me despair. But in his old day job, John had heard worse.

So when John said the problem with “your chapter is it’s not dark enough,” I listened. He added, “I think it’s the writer’s duty to be honest about such things. People can relate.” I hold to that philosophy myself, and was so stunned by his reaction I couldn’t speak.

He’s helped me come far with this iteration of my memoir. And I have tried to help him with his magnum opus. Explaining its theories would involve summarizing more than thirty years, which is how long John’s been talking to me about evolutionary psychology, his passion, in his effort to understand human emotion and the nature of God. We’ve each had a hard, creative year. I wish I were smarter, so I could help him more—much of what he writes is over my head.

But just as I have inoculated him with the creative nonfiction bug, and unwittingly increased his confidence to tell me when what I write is flawed, he’s brought me along, with help from his buddies Darwin, Freud, and Kierkegaard. To paraphrase the detestable but quotable Rummy: “We must go to the keyboard with the reader we have.” Maybe in time you grow the reader you need, or deserve.

“Talent is a process, not a thing. Failure is not proof of an innate limit but rather is an indication of a skill we haven’t yet developed.” —David Shenk

I’ll never forget talking to an accomplished writer once at a conference. He was a “mid-list writer,” someone who has produced a string of books over the years, not bestsellers but good, diverse books, mostly memoir and nonfiction narratives, but also a couple books on writing. Suddenly he said to me, out of the blue, “I’m just a craftsman. Sometimes I get lucky.”

Maybe I was looking too star-struck. Having now spent almost six years writing a book, I understand better what he meant. Writing is rewarding, of course, but can seem so hard. And it’s a field full of geniuses, so it’s humbling. But I also remember something Brenda Ueland said in her classic If You Want to Write: We call “geniuses” by that one word, but we all possess genius. “Geniuses” just are people who act. They plug away. They may be smarter and more talented than most, and seemingly always “on,” but it is an illusion that work is easy for them. Virginia Woolf suffered terribly, from family baggage and bipolar disorder, yet she wrote—and she rewrote—endlessly.

Shenk is the author of The Genius in All of Us and made the comments above to a newspaper reporter when he was in speaking in here in Columbus.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.—Samuel Beckett

In the same vein, more poetically expressed. Many writers mention this quote. Again, it’s the idea that creating involves constant failure but that’s no reason to quit. And there’s a flaw in every work of art. Art cannot be flawless, if only because each recipient sees something different in it, and perhaps something lacking.

Books do not have to be great. They can be good enough.Heather Sellers

This is from her fine book about writing a book, Chapter After Chapter, which I’ve mentioned occasionally here. The day I added it to the list I probably needed to lower my standards to get some work done. But the statement occurs within the context of her rather paradoxical philosophy that you only accept the best you can do as good enough.

It’s carpentry.—Noam Shpancer, novelist, commenting on his writing.

This is another lower-your-standards quote, obviously. And I know Noam, an Otterbein colleague, tries very hard to make it more than just carpentry. But there’s a lot to that analogy nonetheless.

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.—Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

I love this memoir; I love this quote. I believe it is true about writing. It is true in my experience. The little breakthroughs amaze me. I can beat my head against the wall trying to solve a problem, to figure out how to do something, and suddenly the solution’s there—I think it’s the subconscious kicking in. Strangely, when a breakthrough is happening it doesn’t feel as big as it really is. It’s only later that I realize how much my ass was saved, again, because I showed up and didn’t quit.

Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement.  So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. I think it takes the pressure off the individual story or chapter, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising.  I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off.—Maile Malloy, novelist and short story writer

I read Malloy’s 2009 short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was amazed. The first story is about a lonely, crippled young Montana ranch hand who stumbles accidentally into the world of a pretty, striving attorney, a few years older than he, and falls in love with her. It can’t end happily, and doesn’t, but ends with a poignant, understated truth. The rest of the stories astonished and surprised me, too, and her writing is beautiful in its spare simplicity. Her sentences seem perfect in their punctuation, detail, and apt summary.

I read a few interviews with her on the web, and came across that quote in a Q&A on her web site. Malloy says she writes in some kind of a reclining “astronaut chair,” with a desk that comes across her lap to write upon.

For me, time spent writing indeed is probably more important than number of words of pages, because I think a quota could make my writing more mechanical. At least that happened to me once, as I recall, long ago. And, as it happens, I’d already abandoned my desk to write during the last year reclined in my leather La-Z-Boy with my laptop in, well, my lap.

“Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering.”—Mary Karr (from her Paris Review interview)

I admire the heck out of Mary Karr, as my review of her third memoir, Lit, should have made obvious. The Paris Review interview, which I learned about from Shirley Showalter’s blog 100 Memoirs, is a gold mine. I can’t wait to read the book Karr’s working on about writing memoir. In her own work, she always unites a powerful narrative with a strong voice and a larger awareness of herself.

This particular quote inspires me deeply—I think it’s a truth recognized by all great religions. I first encountered the overt notion of, well, yielding about seventeen years ago in my study of Buddhism, which has tools that seemed, and seem, much more codified and therefore generally helpful with less struggle than Christianity’s.

But having dissed my own tradition, I know that Christianity contains multitudes; it’s just that in my early practice I was too obtuse a supplicant to notice that it’s also about surrender and forgiveness. And of course community—working with and helping others. Like all religion, I suppose, it’s designed for adults who have experienced grief and who struggle with loss. Surely that group includes all writers, for loss is their stock in trade.


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, MY LIFE, reading, religion & spirituality, working method

Jen Knox defends ‘romantic’ semicolon; 25 ‘terrific novels’ for J-students

Jen Knox, a fiction writer and author of the memoir Musical Chairs, recently issued a nice defense of the semicolon on her blog:

Kurt Vonnegut is famous for saying the following: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Great quote, but total bullshit.  The semicolon is beautiful, the epitome of a soft pause that gives cadence to an otherwise abrupt shift in ongoing thought.  The semicolon is delicate and necessary and, if not overused, the most romantic of punctuation marks.

And has posted “25 Terrific Novels for Journalism Students.” They define “novel” rather broadly: Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is number one on the list. Other literary journalism classics listed include In Cold Blood, All the President’s Men, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But the actual novels look great, so what the heck. The list includes The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, New Grub Street by George Gissing, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, and Floater by Calvin Trillin.


Filed under fiction, journalism, punctuation

Charlotte Roche, Mick Jagger, creativity

Charlotte Roche introduces her interview with Mick Jagger in German, then talks with him in English.

Charlotte Roche is the author of Wetlands, a novel, according to The Guardian, that “makes the Vagina Monologues sound tame,” and which has been a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany, where the author lives. I’d heard about it and how disgusting it is, but hadn’t read it until recently, intrigued by a student’s struggle to review it on campus for a literary journal.

And I can confirm: Wetlands is uber gross.

It’s also a genuine work of art. Just don’t plan to eat while you’re reading it—the student’s warning, now mine.  The story involves a teenage girl, one Helen Memel, who is in the hospital for rectal surgery, necessary due to an infection acquired from a shaving mishap. And that situation, as graphic as it becomes, isn’t one of the book’s particularly newsworthy bits, although the story flows, as it were, from it. Roche sets the tone in the novel’s first sentence:

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had hemorrhoids.

Helen’s intimate habits, as revealed by her behavior in the hospital and in her inner musings and flashbacks, are truly nauseating—I can’t bear even to summarize them. But as the novel unfolds, we learn why she’s disturbed. Thankfully her voice, which narrates Wetlands, is sane and funny. I was impressed how one character’s voice and viewpoint could so easily carry the 229-page novel, as could its one setting and limited time frame: the book opens with Helen about to go under the knife and proceeds through her recovery and her intentional setback, a bloody self injury harrowing to read.

Roche was born to British parents, who moved her to Germany when she was eight, and she became a popular talk show host in Germany. She has said she doesn’t read much, herself, and that Helen is her alter ego; they share a few details in common, but Helen is largely a feminist device. What if women, instead of being the prudent and cleanliness-obsessed gender, were precisely the opposite? Roche conducted research for Wetlands, partly by going to brothels and interviewing prostitutes.

Her ten-year-old interview with Mick Jagger on YouTube is fascinating partly because she’s so young—ten years before Wetlands—and partly because, while Jagger was old even then, at least compared with her, his youthful freshness when he talks about writing is compelling. Now, I’m not the biggest Stones/Jagger fan—I’m a Beatles guy—but, hey, give the devil his due, or at least show some sympathy. Jagger notes that he at first wrote only lyrics and that Keith Richards wrote the “tunes.” As for writing itself: “The thing about writing, whether you’ve writing a book or a song, is you don’t need a lot of equipment. You need a pad and a pencil. And then you can get ideas. I like to go somewhere for like two weeks and just concentrate every day, a little disciplined.”

For instance, to write an album he makes himself start work at three o’clock in the afternoon and goes until seven, and then after a break he labors from eight o’clock to two a.m. He’s talking specifically about writing his solo 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway but his method seems codified. (His neighbor Pete Townsend and his buddy Bono sing with him on “Joy.” Roche notes that his song “Gun” on the album is “The nasty one,” and Jagger says, “Very nasty—they can’t all be nice.” Roche seems utterly delighted—as she does throughout.)

But here’s what struck me, beyond Jagger’s creative joy and craftsmanship: “After you go like this for two weeks you have a lot of stuff. At first it’s worrying, you never know if you’re going to get anything, but it always tends to come.”

Yes—art takes a lot of stuff because it takes selection. This is one of the secrets of a book-length work, I think, having a lot of material, to move around, to select from, to jettison. In the second part of the interview, Jagger mentions another writing phenomenon: how unplanned, surprising, personal, and even edgy stuff can surface in the process:

When you’re doing it you don’t realize what you’re writing, to be honest. That’s the good thing—because if you start realizing it, then you can say, “Oh, I don’t want to write about that.” And then you write it and say, “Do I really think that? I must probably think something of that.” Sometimes it comes out, a subconscious thing. It’s a revelation sometimes. You might not want anyone to know that about yourself, so you don’t have to put it out. There’s a song [on this album] called “Gun” and I didn’t really like the sentiments in it [about someone begging a woman to shoot him in the heart, since she’s breaking it anyway], I must admit. I don’t like guns. But in the end, I really quite liked the song— it’s tough. Sometimes you surprise yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell takes a detour to discuss Jagger’s creativity in his latest New Yorker article (May 16) “Creation Myth,” which discusses the tension between innovation and tried-and-true business products at Xerox and Apple in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Gladwell cites psychologist Dean Simonton saying genius comes from fecundity—lots of ideas, many bad—not just from having only great ideas: “Quality,” Simonton writes, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

In regard to Jagger, Gladwell goes to the authority: Keith Richards, who in his new memoir says the making of the classic Exile on Main Street album was an ordeal because the Rolling Stones had too many ideas—from Jagger, who scribbled down classics like “Brown Sugar” on a yellow legal pad and also lots of mediocre songs. Gladwell writes:

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.” Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

This reminds me of the recent documentary The Promise, about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bruce didn’t have anyone to shut him down; what he had was a magic book of lyrics, as fat as your grandmother’s photo album, and bandmates who stood mute before his genius. They could only shake their heads as he threw out obvious hit after hit in search of the tone and thematic unity he sought. Darkness probably should have been a double album—and now is, and more, since the thirtieth anniversary edition, released last November. It now features twenty-one songs recorded in the studio sessions but dropped from the immortal original.


Filed under fiction, NOTED, working method

Gregory Orr: memoir as ‘lyric invitation’

In our correspondence about his memoir The Blessing, I asked Gregory Orr about the accusation sometimes leveled in the literary world that memoir is mere “therapy,” whereas in fact memoir writing may stir the psyche in disturbing ways. His response appears as a guest post.

Guest Post by Gregory Orr

Gregory Orr, poet, essayist & memoirist

Therapeutic—that term has such a bad odor among us. I wonder why? “That’s not art, it’s therapy.” You hear that a lot, but I have to wonder what’s going on with that distinction. Why not say that it’s “human utterance” fashioned in a way that tries to engage other people’s interest and to reward their attention with the grace of the writing and the pleasure of the sentences or even the marvel of the story it tells (“Do such things really happen? Do people really act that way?”). Why not say autobiographical writing connects the writer to the larger human community by trying to speak to them and engage their attention. And it connects readers to other individuals through their curiosity about the story and/or through their potential identification with the teller of the tale?

Lots of things come to mind: I wouldn’t rush to say that therapeutic writing is limited. Etymologically “therapeutic” has to do with healing and curing. Is that a small or insignificant thing? And if the self should try to heal itself by speaking its story, is that an insignificant or unworthy human project? And if a self (the memoirist) tells her or his story and in the process experiences healing and deeper understanding of their life experience isn’t that terrific?

As for the reader, I think of memoir as being like “personal lyric” (lyric that often features an “I” speaking or acting). One secret of personal lyric is that it extends a “lyric invitation” to the reader: identify with me for the length of this document (poem/memoir)—“become” me and see through my eyes, think with my thoughts. It’s what Whitman does in his quintessential personal lyric/American poem: “I celebrate myself and sing myself (i.e. ego or “pride” as Whitman would call it) and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman is going to “assume” other identities in his poem: the identities of other people he meets or sees or reads about who fascinate him. He’ll assume their identities (Keats says the poet is a “chameleon” and has no identity, assumes other identities). Whitman assumes identities and he invites us readers to assume his and “go along for the ride.” Or William Carlos Williams puts it this way in the beginning of “Spring and All”: “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also, ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.” (Imaginations; pg. 89)

The trick is: we readers will only “accept” this lyric invitation if it interests us. If we can’t or don’t or won’t enter into “sympathetic identification” with the speaker of the poem or memoir, then we just stop reading. We’re bored or turned off. But if we decide to accept it, then we go along for the ride. Who knows what realms of experience will open up to us, vicariously but vividly? Who knows how much our knowledge of human experience will be expanded by the journey?

This business about “art”—what do we really mean by it? That we, with our personal taste, think that it is well done? Great. But when I started out reading, with my limited knowledge of possibilities, I thought lots of things were “art” that I later thought weren’t as impressive, and I read lots of stuff that was too much for me and dismissed it. I’m not sure at all what is “great art” or “great poetry” any more. I’m happier using the criteria of how it makes me feel: am I very impressed by the writing, by the insights? Do they move me? Do I feel deepened or expanded or exhilarated by the experience of reading it? Who cares if someone else doesn’t care for it?

But when someone else doesn’t like something they often say: “that’s not art, it’s therapy.” Or better yet: “That’s not even poetry”—which is what they said when a) Wordsworth published his poems, b) Whitman published Leaves of Grass. It’s “not even poetry”—it’s “not art.” Maybe. Maybe you just think it isn’t. We all pretty much agree that Wordsworth and Whitman wrote poetry, though we still may not care for it. Who knows? Who knows? Life is a really long and complicated journey. To me, writing a memoir helped me understand a lot of the darker early parts of my journey. And if my story is of interest to some other people, so much the better.

(This is something I came across: “sympathy” is a key concept in Whitman and I think Adam Smith’s book is where he got the term: In the 18th century, the notion of Sympathy (or Sympathetic Identification), what we would now call either empathy or identification, was put forward by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. He’s concerned with the fact that our senses “trap” us inside our own bodies and in order to connect emotionally to another human being we must transcend these sense through an act of imagination as sympathy/identification. Here is an excerpt from the opening page of his book:

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our sense will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. . . . By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him . . . —Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

One of the neat things about the Smith passage is that it gives a large role to imagination, which is what all we poets specialize in.

Also, this: we give sympathy when we read (i.e. we identify with what we read, with our speaker, at least partly) and we solicit sympathetic identification from our readers (i.e. we ask them to identify with us, we hope they will at least enough to hear our story). This give and take of identification is a lot of what lyric art is about and it’s a hugely important human transaction.

 See also my interview with Orr about his memoir The Blessing.


Filed under emotion, memoir, poetry

Q&A: Gregory Orr on ‘The Blessing’

Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones.—Booklist

The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr. Council Oak, 209 pages.

Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. There are tons of good memoirs and more than a few great ones, but this one did it for me. It joins a select handful that thrilled me to my toes: Lee Martin’s From Our House, Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

In its subject, The Blessing is reminiscent of Darin Strauss’s fine memoir Half a Life—both authors caused a death when they were young—but The Blessing necessarily covers much more ground, involving as it does Orr’s family, especially his parents, on an extensive level. When Orr was twelve, he shot to death his eight-year-old brother Peter in a hunting accident. This horrific event shattered Orr; it may have shattered his parents, but it is hard for Orr to say, since they’d already lost another son, in a preventable household accident, and were troubled separately and together. They presumably also harbored their own guilt for both deaths.

Orr’s father, a charismatic and careless rural doctor, is a drinker, drug addict, and philanderer. He may be haunted by a tragedy that happened in his own childhood. In the wake of the family’s second boyhood death, if any comforting of Gregory Orr is to be done, it will have to come from Orr’s mother—but she fails to do so. He’s abandoned to intolerable and almost unbearable guilt and shame. Soon his father moves his family to Haiti, where they work with the poor, and there another tragedy befalls them. It’s yet another death that might have been prevented.

For all this, The Blessing isn’t accusatory, nor is it close to being ascore-settling expose. Late in the book, a fascinating stage opens when the teenage Orr, hoping to atone by serving penance, drives to Mississippi to help black Americans. It’s 1965, the year after the famous Freedom Summer, and overt law enforcement brutality has abated. Yet what happens to Orr, the humiliation and violence he suffers at the hands of state troopers and in a small-town jail, is hateful and shocking. And, in its coldly planned nature, evil. It all happens calculatedly behind the scenes after he’s arrested, and his account is the most moving and compelling I’ve read from the Civil Rights struggle.

The prose in The Blessing is spare without ever being jarring, evocative without being flowery. The book is concise, and broken into forty-five very short chapters, yet feels complete. Its structure appears straightforwardly chronological, with two exceptions, the second striking. After the shooting, discussed from the opening and which is shown occurring in the third chapter, the story flashes back to fill in family details. Then it moves forward to the eve of Orr’s departure for the South—but suddenly it flashes forward to show his nearly suicidal emotional state upon his return, before flashing back to show what happened. The Blessing concludes with Orr moving toward the art that might save him.

He became an esteemed poet, the author of some ten collections and also books of critical essays, the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships. He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded its MFA program in writing. I asked Orr some questions, below, followed by his answers.

Why did you write The Blessing?

I think I’m going to be answering this question later on. My wife had encouraged me to write it for many, many years. But I lacked the courage and only did so when I felt I needed to for my own survival. This had to do with my father’s illness around 1995. At the time of his diagnosis, he was told he wouldn’t live six months, though in fact he lived another five years in relative comfort. But our lives, my father’s and mine, were oddly entwined. We were opposite personality types—he a social extravert who loathed self-reflection (“navel-gazing” as he referred to it) and myself a brooder and shy introvert. I had my own traumas—my responsibility for a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. But my father, otherwise so unlike me, had also, when he was about twelve, killed his best friend in an accident with a rifle. A bizarre and unnerving repetition across generations, further complicated by the (insoluble) question of why I was raised with guns in my childhood house. A tragedy, a mystery, a dark place in human brains or hearts. Who knows? But there we were—my father and I with the same burden or a similar one. I’d always hoped we could speak of this mystery and enter a mutual forgiveness pact of some sort, but my father wasn’t able to talk of his story and didn’t want me to talk of mine. Other than that, I think we loved each other a good deal—but that was a deep and unspeakable deadlock between us much of my life. When I knew he was dying and still wouldn’t speak of it, I got worried. I felt a need to untangle this thing between us before he died, because I didn’t want that guilt to weigh even heavier on me. I felt it I couldn’t talk it through with him, I needed to write it out and sort it out that way. And so, the book began.

When that need to communicate directly is balked in the world, as it so often is for so many reasons, then many of us turn to writing in order to relieve that need and also to understand ourselves and our world. How many memoirs must get written that way.

How did you decide on the book’s length and structure?

First, you’d need to know that I wrote it three times, so it varied as to what the length and structure would be. On the other hand, I think I knew pretty early on where the book would end. Shortly after I came back from working for the Civil Rights movement in the South and just before I returned to my sophomore year of college, my old high school librarian took me to visit the rural house and sculpture field of the recently-dead sculptor David Smith. The experience of those sculptures in that setting was pivotal for my sense of my life—until then I’d been drawn to political activism as well as writing, but after the trauma of my experiences in Mississippi and Alabama and the strangely moving positive experience of David Smith’s field, I knew that writing was going to be my main path. I wanted to end there. I also sensed that I needed/wanted to start with my brother’s death, in another field, when I was twelve and killed him in a hunting accident. I was very daunted by the idea of writing narrative, and so the idea of “framing” or structuring a book around two fields—a field of death and a field of the life of art (which moves beyond individual death)—that appealed to the lyric poet in me (we often make meanings bycreating imagistic “echoes”) and also reassured me that there would be some structure that I, as a poet, might be able to work with.

Did your voice and scenic technique develop, or were they as effortless as you make them appear?

That’s a joke, right? Remember the three (separate and complete) drafts mentioned above. What to say about technique? I do think that as a lyric poet I tend to take crucial moments in an implied narrative and dramatize them as vividly as possible. That may have led, in the memoir, to short chapters, concentrated events, and little commentary on the scene. I remember being very unsure of my descriptive technique and the rhythmic and sonic texture of sentences and paragraphs (as contrasted with the lines of a poem) and reading at random in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to saturate myself with someone who seemed to write a sensuous and observant prose that made for sinuous and interesting sentences. “Saturate” would be the right word—not an analytical thing, but an osmosis.

As an experienced poet, what did you learn about writing from The Blessing?

To be very respectful of prose writers for their descriptive skill, their ability to keep things moving, the whole art of story-telling in an extended narrative form. I never for a moment thought prose writing was easy, but there’s nothing like actually trying something for the first time to increase your respect for professional practitioners. I think I also learned that a lot of human experience is revealed more fully by following a thread (narrative thread, I guess) through time—that it takes much time and many different scenes to let certain major aspects of human experience accumulate their full power. Being a lyric poet, I’ve always wanted everything to be revealed in a single, crisis moment or a single focused dramatic encounter. Art (lyric art) can be like that, but life itself isn’t always that way. So, I guess I learned “patience” with a theme, letting a theme ease out a bit at a time. Patience is not an easily-acquired virtue or insight for lyric poets. We have very, very short attention spans.

How long did the memoir’s actual composition and editing take you?

I think it took about three years of sporadic work. Plus, I had been avoiding writing it for most of my life.

In writing so intimately about your family and about yourself, were you concerned about reactions to the book from friends or family, or about forfeiting your own privacy?

My own privacy didn’t concern me particularly, since I’ve written an autobiographical lyric for much of my life, so I am committed to the power and authenticity that can (theoretically) result from writing in that mode, writing about the incidents of your life and trying to wrestle them into meaning.

I began writing the memoir shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My whole life, I had hoped to talk with him about the early traumatic events, including my brother’s death. I had always imagined we might resolve some of that suffering in conversation, and I tried one last time after his diagnosis, but he was quite adamant that there was nothing he could or would speak about. I felt very uneasy about that stance. For one thing, I felt (irrationally) that my father and I were linked by my brother’s death and by the deeply uncanny fact that he had also killed someone in a hunting accident (his best friend) when he was around the age I was when I killed my brother. This unnerving fact was a kind of unbearable but also unshareable secret between us. No, I could speak of my experience but he couldn’t and wouldn’t speak about his. Which was his prerogative, but when his death approached, I panicked and felt I needed to try to tell the whole story out as I understood it, so as to untangle my identity from my father’s. I was afraid he’d take me to the grave with him. (That sounds a bit odd, but so be it). So, I began to tell the story so as to sort it out once and for all as best I could with what I knew and what I could learn. If you want to call that therapeutic, go ahead.

Of course, I worried about my family’s response, since the whole approach in my growing up was to hide the secrets and bear the shame of it all (whatever it was). There were complicated reactions from my family over time. My father lived long enough to see a draft of it, and was not happy about it, though in all other ways I think we parted with love, as best the two of us understood it at that time and in those circumstances. My siblings had understandably complicated responses, ranging from tears and gratitude to not speaking to me for several years as they worked through their feelings. The ethics of memoir is deeply complicated. I think I’d start by saying: I think everyone should have the right to tell our own story, the story of his or her own life. That said, things get complicated and concern for other people should be there also. The memoir of revenge isn’t very pretty, nor much of a gift to the world. What does Chekhov say: “compassion down to your fingertips?” That would be nice: compassion for others. But the lyric (poem or memoir) is also committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Were other memoirs helpful to you as models in writing The Blessing?

Steve Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind is a beautiful memoir and he told me he wrote it by thinking of the chapters as prose poems—I can’t remember if that was before or after my writing my own book, but it’s a wonderful way to think for a poet writing a memoir. Floyd Skloot has also written wonderfully in an autobiographical mode and he was very encouraging of me and to me—we first “met” through the mails when I had a year-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and he wrote me with information, compassion, and a model of courage. I’m not as well read in the genre as I should be, though one of my favorite books ever is Maxim Gorki’s trilogy of autobiography/memoir: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, My Universities.

Next: Gregory Orr on how memoir “connects the writer to the larger human community” and on memoir as therapeutic “lyric invitation.” Read Orr’s guest post here.


Filed under Author Interview, memoir, REVIEW, structure