Monthly Archives: August 2011

Gail Caldwell 3: more to admire


The way, as I said, that Gail Caldwell employs metaphor in Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship is remarkable. Almost every page includes one.

“No, you’re not,” said Caroline, her face as deadpan as a coach’s in a losing season. “No, you’re not. Keep your hands together. Stay still—don’t look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me.” The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake.


Here’s metaphor with another virtue, well depicted: female friendship, which as a man I can only envy, having found most of my friendships with men marred by competitiveness or seeming reluctance to be as vulnerable as Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were with each other.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation. . . .

All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination. I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree.


Caldwell’s frankly expository style—she relies on a strong, sure voice first, and blends into scenes—works with her flair for describing the world’s feel and its beauty. This opening echoes The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald’s effortless elegance, wistful tone, and intimate voice:

After I had lived in the East for a decade, long enough to winnow the realities from the dreams, I was driving down Brattle Street one winter night at the start of a storm, when the snow was surfing the currents of a soft wind, and I had the dissonant thought that I could grow old here—something I had never thought anywhere before, and certainly not during a New England winter.


Filed under memoir, metaphor, NOTED, syntax

Mary Gordon’s master class in the soul

Guest post by Olga Khotiashova

Photo by Olga Khotiashova of Boston's deCordova Sculpture Park

Why do people write memoirs: to share their most exciting experiences with readers or to get rid of haunting ghosts? The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two poles. The magic of a memoir is that any experience, when articulated, loses its privacy, becomes distinct from the author, so the moments of sheer joy, although not so dazzling as before, rest peacefully in a safe place together with unspeakably painful experiences which, on the contrary, get soothed. A memoir is the preservation of memories we both don’t want and can’t let go.

I came to the above definition while reading two memoirs by Mary Gordon: Seeing Through Places (2000) and Circling My Mother (2007). The two books often refer to the same events and people but from different perspectives. “Seeing through,” “circling”—thoroughly chosen titles give the exact view of what the author intended to do and brilliantly did using her only tool—words.

The first book consists of eight chapters—one for each memorable place. For me, it was a delightful reading: one chapter at a time followed by hours of thinking, rereading, finding the words and images which ignited that particular place, made it so personal.

At the very beginning of the chapter about the vacation house in Cape Cod, “The Room in the World,” the word blessing came to my mind. And oh, magic: four pages later it materialized in the book:

One of the happiest hours of my year was the one just after I arrived, when I unpacked the carton of books I’d brought (always too many: no one could have read what I brought, everything I dreamed of reading, plus all the books and writers I wanted near me for good luck). I would separate the books, excited by my own discriminations, like a child playing library. The purity of my categorization made me feel blessed. Full in belief of myself, I would sit down for the first time each summer, open my notebook, and set to work.

There is one more thing that distinguishes “The Room in the World” from the other chapters: it is closely connected with the outdoors while the other places are mostly urban.

 And above all, I was grateful to the window for providing me the view over the tops of trees, the old locusts with their mobile leaves that were responsive to the wind even when words were obdurate, that always gave me something to look at: a perfect view for writing, lovely, but not great, suggesting continuity rather than grandeur. I would never want a view of a mountain whose intractability would only replicate the shape of my own mind; a view of water would be either too beguiling or would convince me of the futility of my task: for nothing I could make of words could ever be so satisfying or so various as the movement of sun on water.

The subtitle of this memoir is Reflections on Geography and Identity, and the memorable places Mary Gordon reflects on are like a heirloom collection of paintings: you may not notice them every moment but you value them, you know they are present and will be present forever, they are inseparable part of your being, you bear the imprint of them.

I devoured the second memoir, Circling My Mother, in three days; just could not stop reading those shocking confessions, gradually coming to the conclusion they were not only justified but absolutely necessary.

It is always hard to find right tone talking about parents. We can’t be impartial, and Mary Gordon makes it perfectly clear:

I know this is entirely unfair. I can’t help it; when it comes to my parents, I pride myself not on being fair but on being on their side.

But she is also far from romanticizing the relationships with her mother who was crippled by polio, experienced alcoholism and suffered of dementia at the end of her life. I was repulsed by Gordon’s bitter revelations first, but eventually got the point:

I do not want the wretched mother back again in this life. But there is another one, desired, and desirable. A body I once yearned to be near. … This is the mother I want to meet again: the mother I yearned for. I want to go back where I can meet that mother. Back past affliction, age, disease. This is the trick I want to pull: the trick of bringing the desirable mother back to life. The trick of Resurrection.

No matter how complicated the relationships had been, when the parents pass away, they leave us with the mixed feelings of love, and guilt, and loneliness.

If I had been able to speak like this to my mother, words rooted in the body but beyond the degraded and degrading flesh, would it have changed anything? Prevented anything? Rage, humiliation, stupor, degradation, or despair? It doesn’t matter; I was never able to speak to her like that. With that kind of love. As it was, the love I had to her, love mixed with hate, the words I could speak to her, words of love and hate, were attached to the body that degraded rather than evaporated, like the scent of her perfume. And so nothing was prevented by my love. My impure love. I couldn’t prevent her fate, or ours, any more than I could have prevented the perfume from eating the varnish of her dresser. Something was eaten, eaten away. There was nothing I could do about it. My love prevented nothing. Not one thing.

I wept when I read it.  The passage reminded me of one day, when while cleaning the bookcase in my apartment, I came across the envelope with old family pictures and ended up sitting on the floor surrounded by the stacks of books and sorting out the pictures. It was getting dark. Overwhelmed by memories, I rushed outside, bought a bunch of yellow daffodils and put it in a vase in front of my mother’s portrait saying silently, “Thank you. I love you. I know you forgave me.”

Paying tribute to her mother, Mary Gordon uses her most valuable possession—words. They summon scents and images. She is first and foremost a writer, and she manages to observe and explore such a fragile substance as a human soul rigorously but gently, giving an exquisite master class to her readers.

Olga Khotiashova is a technical writer and math tutor from Russia who has previously contributed posts on Vladimir Nabokov and James Michener.


Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, REVIEW

More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

Still thinking about Gail Caldwell’s deft metaphors in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was struck by these remarkable lines by John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath:

 Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there—that dreadful pain—that’s you.

I sure didn’t remember that passage, and it makes me want to reread the novel, which also has—I do remember this—an amazing scene of several pages of a turtle trying to cross a highway. The lines above are the epigram of Tom Piazza’s passionate recent novel City of Refuge, about two New Orleans families blown out of their frames by hurricane Katrina, which caused the greatest human dislocation in America since the dust bowl. Piazza was influenced by Steinbeck, and in Piazza’s novel, right before the storm hits, one of his characters, the editor of an arts weekly, approves a review of Philip Roth’s latest book with this headline: “The Gripes of Roth.”

I laughed out loud.

And I came across a great interview with Gail Caldwell in Smith in which she said she writes in longhand:

I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

What she said about structuring her book also was interesting, and it confirmed my impression while reading that she was gradually paddling me toward a chronological unfolding. Isn’t it fascinating that even when we know, as readers, the basic story—her friend died—we want to receive the experience? The story is never really the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt, and this is why time-tested narrative endures. Caldwell:

 I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way.  . . . After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.


Filed under emotion, memoir, metaphor, narrative, structure, working method

Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.—Annie Proulx

I’ve been skimming John Irving’s newest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. I started out reading, but it asked more of me than I can give right now. With classes looming, immersed in my own rewriting struggle, I’m too jangly, I guess, to settle into a thick old-fashioned plotted novel with lots of big fat sentences. So when I got a notice the other day from my library that a memoir I’d requested was in, I put Irving aside yet again.

I’d forgotten about the memoir, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, about her bond with the late memoirist Caroline Knapp. The book, a svelte 190 pages, sucked me right in with the beauty of its sentences and the immediacy of its story. I devoured it in two days, and I’ll reread it. When it opens, Caldwell is dealing with Knapp’s death, and slowly a narrative storyline emerges amidst reflection as Caldwell goes back, showing their friendship ignite—over shared passions for dogs, rowing, and swimming—and moves through the years toward Knapp’s untimely death from lung cancer. The poignancy of this loss, and what makes it harrowing for Caldwell, is that this friendship between two single, gifted writers, both recovered alcoholics, was uncommonly deep. They were true soul mates, closer than many lovers.

The memoir’s opening page, an unlabeled prologue, showcases its strong, quiet voice, elegant syntax, and interesting use of metaphor:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years. It was a winter afternoon and the place was empty—there was a bend in the road, with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work. “What am I supposed to do here?” I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. “Am I just supposed to keep going?” My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was on the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is so rich with metaphors, and they’re so pleasing and surprising. Aren’t we always seeking apt comparisons? I tell my students that we reflexively pursue symbols to define people and situations—and we must, since words themselves are metaphors. Your ex was just like those cheap cracked boots he left in your closet, wasn’t he? Admit it: she was that mess she left in your bathroom. And Caldwell’s perfect title, what Caroline Knapp used to say to prolong their outings, epitomized their friendship.

When I was a young writer, I’d likely have attributed Gail Caldwell’s frequent metaphoric phrases to sheer genius, and probably some writers do think metaphorically more easily. But now I’m more inclined to see metaphors also as just another aspect of craft, even though they can seem magical. Metaphor “is the language of the angels,” says author and metaphor maven Silvia Hartmann, using a metaphor for a metaphor. “Religion, society, thought, science are all based on metaphor and to be able to speak the language of the angels allows a human being to shape reality for themselves, and for others.”


Filed under memoir, metaphor, symbolism, syntax

The importance of momentum . . .

What John Irving told an interviewer at Boston University about the most important quality in novels surely applies to memoirs too.

If you’re going to write novels, you need to establish momentum. The longer the novel, the more that momentum is essential. A novel must be more compelling, more urgent, to the reader on page 400 than it was on page 40. Two elements give you this necessary momentum. You must be able to develop characters; the characters must grow, and the reader must be growingly involved in what’s going to happen to these characters. You have to make the reader care about your characters. The second element is connected to the characters; the story must hold the reader’s attention—first, by inviting the reader to anticipate what’s going to happen; later, by having kept something a secret from the reader. You must allow a reader to guess what’s going to happen, but the reader has to be a little wrong. Note that I’ve said “going to happen” three times in this paragraph. That is where the momentum lies: always ahead of where the reader is in the book.

Of course, Irving said he isn’t interested in memoirs:

Most memoirs don’t interest me; I have no interest in writing one. When I do use things that have happened to me in my fiction (and not much of interest has happened to me), I always change it; I’m a fiction writer—I can improve on almost any so-called “true” story; sometimes making a story better in fiction means making it far worse.



Filed under fiction, memoir, NOTED