Monthly Archives: July 2011

One writing teacher’s plight

A short story writer, essayist, novelist, memoirist, editor, and writing workshop leader, Paulette Bates Alden has an impressive blog and web site.  Her wise essays on writing technique and aspects of memoir are stimulating and useful. Lately I’ve been enjoying her short story archives.

“Enormously Valuable” is about Miriam, an adjunct writing teacher in Minneapolis at a middling state school and its branch campuses. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford (like Alden herself), Miriam has published a well-reviewed short story collection and teaches three courses a term. Low pay, no benefits. When a permanent job, with benefits, comes open at twice the pay, she’s passed over for a more recent MFA, a man, who has a hot new book out.

Was what happened to her sexist, as she claims? Yeah, probably, in effect.

But Rupert, a liberal, enlightened faculty member, Miriam’s direct supervisor as the head of creative writing, epitomizes the structural reason—academia’s caste system within America’s—why Miriam struggles financially and suffers emotionally. To her, a supporting player who teaches mostly introductory classes, he’s oblivious to his own relative privilege. Yet it’s easy to intuit his beef: he’s underpaid, too, and is burdened with committee work and advising on top of it; maybe he has a doctorate, not just an MFA; anyway, unlike her, he must publish or perish.

And beyond this, Miriam sees the crux of her case: she’s invisible and shopworn; her rival is fresh and sexy.

Dutiful Miriam, having accrued a pattern of success in the hiring committee’s own bailiwick, has earned the job—even if the other guy, largely untested as a teacher, might be a better writer, as she fears. As the committee views it (and none but Rupert even halfway sees this woman toiling in their vineyard), he’ll attract buzz and accrue fresh prestige to the department—and he seems more likely to publish another book, or at least to do so more quickly. Given the deal they’ve cut for him, that’s surely true.

But while “Enormously Valuable” arises from this arcane employment situation, it’s much more. The portrait of the sensitive but superficial Rupert, and Miriam’s reaction to him, is delicious. She reads him well and interestingly—such inner subjectivity is perhaps writing’s strongest draw—and the story is thus deeply layered.

Nuanced subjective truths emerge as she becomes the shocked witness to his—and to her own—human virtues and flaws. He’s no monster and is pained by her pain. Yet Miriam’s complaint becomes, to him, about his discomfort over her anger and what he sees as her ingratitude. He’s been so nice to her!

The other short story I’ve read from the archive (they’re linked stories about Miriam) is “The Student,” about one of her students who tries to kill himself. Inherently dramatic and gripping—what will happen to this kid?—the story’s exploration of Miriam’s confused feelings becomes equally compelling. A brilliant student, he’s her secret favorite in the class, and she’s horrified by what he’s done to himself. She also feels maternal, girlish, and old. Her welter of emotions rings true, and her surprising confusion is ultimately as mysterious as this gifted, lost kid.

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Filed under fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, subjectivity, teaching, education

Patricia Hampl: memoir’s excitement

The big fiction advice is “Show, don’t tell,” but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead “Show and Tell.” It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, “Why aren’t you writing fiction?” Too much tell and, “I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.”

The narration is the thing that lets you do the other. Sometimes the equation is off. Take a  memoirist like Mary Karr, who I love, but a lot people who would say what I just said wouldn’t like her. Not a lot of analysis. Very narrative. But the language is so great, so fantastic. The sheer writerly ability is so great that we don’t care. We feel that a revelation of her generation is happening in that narration, and as a result her experience becomes historical even though she doesn’t go on about history. So it isn’t like a formula: “Make sure to have 30 percent of this followed by 30 percent of that.”

Now, there are some people who would criticize Mary Karr, “How could she remember all of this. She’s making this up.” And this brings up one of the other big questions about memoir, which has to do with veracity, as well as ethical and moral issues related to the genre, which are insoluble to my mind. I don’t know that we can ever resolve these issues because if we are working with consciousness itself, not with fact, we’re dealing with not what “happened” but with what “has happened.” That is to say not what happened out there—we all agree that happened—but rather something happened and then “I” reflect on it and perceive it, and I don’t just think about it, I actually constellate it as an act, which in narrative terms means that I change it. Now, conscious invention is a whole other thing. We sometimes run into that as a problem, too. . . .

Part of the excitement of this form is that we are living in the middle of deciding what it’s going to be and learning not only how to write it but how to read it. How do we read this form? We may have made a big mistake when we put memoir into that big, baggy category of nonfiction. Once we did that, we put it right next to the newspaper, and we pretty much all know what we want the newspaper to be. If they say, “George Bush dropped dead,” we don’t want to find out tomorrow that he’s alive, right? We want to think he’s gone. If we put those same exact strictures on memoir, if we think the rules are exactly the same, we’re going to be disappointed.

From River Teeth, Spring 2004, Vol. 5, No. 2

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED

Sue Silverman’s call to memoir

Everyone has a story.  And all our voices are important.—Sue William Silverman

Melissa Hart on her blog Butt to Chair interviews Sue William Silverman about her latest book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. The author of two memoirs, Silverman makes a strong case for a the validity of memoir as a form of confession:

We’ve been accused of navel gazing.  The word “confessional” is used in a demeaning way, suggesting that we’re whining or complaining, along those lines.

So, though most of my new book is devoted to the craft of writing, I also included a chapter about what it really means to be a confessional writer.  I wanted to show how the word “confessional” is actually very positive, and I hope more and more of us write memoir.

Read Melissa’s whole interview, with links, here.

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Filed under honesty, memoir, NOTED

Revising, from the top

Belle the Revision Dog supervises all edits. Shown: typical summer habitus.

Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.

Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.

My impulsive forbidden photo

One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)

As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)

Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of  that chapter.

But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.

Yuknavitch's edgy memoir

The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”

She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.

Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:

What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .

And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.

In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.

Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.

Revising is hard work

I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.

And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, scene, structure, working method

A landscape, with figures

Below is the brief Prologue to my memoir about moving to Appalachia and running a sheep farm, while my day job was in university press book publishing. I wrote the original passage a couple years ago and have moved it around in the first few chapters, lately deciding to use it as a sort of introduction—it captures my vivid first impressions and also is informed by my later appreciation for the region. It must work in relation to the whole story and especially the first chapter, which I have just recast yet again . . .

That first winter, friends living to the west would warn us when our former Hoosier hometown had been thrashed by wind and water and snow. “Watch out,” they’d say, “there’s a bad storm coming your way.” On television, the Weather Channel’s radar confirmed this: a grainy mass of swirls was leaving southern Indiana and bound for southern Ohio, coming right at us.

But Appalachia’s uplifted terrain pushed back against fronts driven by winds from the south and west, and urged tempests along an easier path. Just before hitting us, storms would turn north and sock Columbus. I pictured the heavy pressure ahead of a storm meeting the hills, slowing and filling space, climbing like water rising against a dam and backing toward the approaching turbulence—the storm’s own force an invisible barrier against itself.

The foothills were strikingly becalmed in summer. A maverick breeze might ruffle soybean fields in the bottoms, but hot gales from the plains that had scoured Indiana without resistance were confused when they met the cool damp maze guarding this green kingdom. Gusts fractured into harmless puffs. At the heart of the valleys, a stillness.

Yet surprise abounded. The hills suddenly revealed secrets—or jealously concealed them in their folds; a casual visitor might never know that behind the dark ridge in front of him a valley stretched out in the sun. Waves of settlers before us had flowed into Appalachia’s furrowed terrain, scouting territory like hens looking for safe nests. They’d found niches. Hard against the gentle hills, they could see something coming long before it saw them.

The undulating hills rose abruptly, rising 300 feet above the flatter ground of the Allegheny Plateau, and formed low ranges that curled protectively around valleys. For all the steepness of their ascent, the lush hilltops were comically rounded: mounds of clay shaped by a laughing child. White mists hung above the wooded ridges after showers, and mist rose like plumes of steam off their wet green flanks.

“Look,” the people told their children, “the groundhogs are makin’ coffee.”

In Ohio’s hill country—a wrinkled shirttail dangling untucked above West Virginia—everything was different: the layered woods, the light flashing from pebbled creeks, the wind in the trees, the wild phlox that bloomed pink beside shaded roadsides late in May.

We’d moved only six hours east, but had come so far. We didn’t realize how far we had to go. And as a local acquaintance joked about such matters, “It weren’t easy.”

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE

Igniting your need for words

From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing:

It doesn’t bother me that the word ‘stone’ appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that ‘wind’ and ‘gray’ appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over again. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.

So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical need. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, generate things to say. Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. You way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, emotion, NOTED, poetry, working method