Monthly Archives: March 2012

Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

Harry Crews: June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012. Here he’s probably holding forth at the University of Florida, probably in the mid- to late-1970s when I was there.

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

I was a college freshman in 1973, and drove to school from our Florida beach town in a Triumph convertible with my eight-track blaring “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I went airborne off the railroad tracks near campus.

Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, was one gray concrete building, two plywood shacks, and a picnic table under some pines. In my speech class my teacher said I sounded country: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘gist’ and ‘git.’ ” We had to give a speech about a classmate, and a blonde girl with brown eyes interviewed me.

“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.

“Business,” I said.

“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”

“That’s what my family does now,” I muttered.

I changed my major.

I’d never gotten over my father’s sale of our family’s farm in Georgia, and thought my hurt feelings and sense of exile were unique. A teacher wrote on one of my essays about Georgia, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I realized he knew Capote only as a talk-show freak.

. . .

Although I was attending classes full time and selling clothes twenty hours a week at Belk-Lindsey, I spent every spare moment at “Andy’s” place, a little farm a few miles from campus. Andy was a pure Sicilian from Mississippi, thirty-eight years old; his day job was teaching school and his part-time work was growing orchids. Ducks and geese and guinea hens milled around his lath houses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped and cackled in coops crammed everywhere.

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

The orchids supported Andy’s poultry habit; corsages were still popular, and China was decades away from taking over the potted market. You reached his place down a dirt lane overhung with gnarly oak branches, Spanish moss, and grapevines. Duck Valley, as Andy called it, was doomed to be surrounded by condos, but then it was a lost world. The little tin-roofed farmhouse had been built in the 1920s—ancient for central Florida—and its cypress boards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. In the palmetto woods nearby was a sunken concrete tank, half full of black water, where the homesteaders had dipped cattle to kill ticks.

One day Andy and I were plucking ducks in the breezeway and listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; I was a closet John Denver fan and had given him the tape. Gopher arrived in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, in the bed. Gopher supplied Andy with hogs, wild razorbacks with long snouts and sharp white tusks. They overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked. Skipper would sink his teeth in their tender noses and hold them until Gopher could tie them and throw them in his truck. While Andy was fattening the pigs for slaughter, if a chicken flew in their pen they ate it as soon as it landed.

“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He wore baby-blue jeans, a filthy yellow t-shirt, and a white nylon baseball cap with a Rebel battle flag on the crown.

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”

You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I might have said it, but wanted Gopher to leave. He was just there to moon over Andy’s game chickens.

One day I drove out to Andy’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the gate. Usually I came at the end of the day, just before Andy got there, and did his poultry chores. It was peaceful but spooky alone there in the middle of the day. I walked around and looked at the chickens. Andy’s homing pigeons strutted and cooed atop his farmhouse; wind sighed in the eighty-foot Australian pines in the farmyard.

When I returned in the afternoon to feed and water the chickens, I found the chain on the gate cut. Thirteen pens that had held gamecocks were empty.

“Gopher,” Andy said. “That son-of-a-bitch.”

“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it would be Gopher. He’s going to fight them and get every one killed.”

“He’s already sold them.”

But all I could think was: What would have happened if I’d surprised him? He’d have put a bullet in my head. No, he would have cut my throat. Less noise. Gopher was stupid, not dumb.

. . .

Before I left for the University of Florida, Dad told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” I majored in journalism, my compromise—you went out and got stories and couldn’t just bullshit like in English—but I mostly wrote poetry.

One day in my class on Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, I wrote a lovesick poem, probably thinking of a girl named Jesse back in Satellite Beach:

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

At night I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman who’s coon-hunting one night and pokes out an eye on a dead branch. He stumbles into an old cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day a pregnant girl—whom I stole outright from the character Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s carrying the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link  to Silas. But some cosmic equation is being worked out. The poem ends, Big changes coming.

Me at University of Florida, 1976

I labored to write a short story about Andy. Mostly it was about how Andy was a throwback to old southern values, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How the air at Duck Valley smelled heavy with sweet citrus blooms all summer. How sunsets out there were operatic: cloudbanks, bruised blue, floated in the yellow sky above a glowing orange band. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.

Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I took a class from one of his graduate students and wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his strangely silent father. I never even thought of trying to take a class from Crews. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. He looked like a man from a nightmare. Like an axe murderer from lover’s lane. Everyone nattered that the short story he’d just published, the one about a kid who has sex with his sister, was not only true, it was autobiographical. He was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because he’d been lucky enough to have been born dirt-poor, with a violent alcoholic stepfather, among rednecks so ignorant they ate dirt.

I just noticed: Harry Crews was my poem’s Silas Tidewater.

Crews shows his tattoo: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”

We didn’t know that the wild man had hedged his own bets by getting a master’s in English education at UF. Or that, in reality, Crews had doggedly made himself into an artist. Now, having at last read and reviewed his great memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place I’d wager that his soul was gentle under all his bluster. Then again, he once expressed contempt for timid student writers, of which I certainly was, despite my bluster. Regardless of that, and of our student tales and the ones he told on himself and the ones he wrote about the world’s broken ones, I wish I’d taken a class from him.

Back then, I didn’t even think of myself as southern. After all, I’d been ripped from Georgia where I belonged and had finished growing up in a soulless Florida beach town. I didn’t notice that I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, scorned scotch and drank bourbon—Wild Turkey, 101 proof—hunted and fished, listened to southern rock, read southern writers, and kept a rifle and a loaded shotgun under my bed.

Soon I was unhappy with my major of journalism but felt it was too late to switch to English. “How,” I asked a journalism professor, once a foreign correspondent, “do you get people to feel the way you do?” He stared for a moment at me, shook his head, and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching.

. . .

I finally turned my short story about Andy into an essay, what we’d call creative nonfiction today. Although it utterly lacked any narrative arc, it placed seventh as a profile in a national contest for student journalists. It did have a perfect first line, maybe the best sentence I’ve ever written, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:

The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.

But I left out Gopher.

Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living—and I wrongly elevated and feared what I was trying to be. I wish I’d seen myself more clearly. I couldn’t see my own material, let alone own it, or see how imagination might have used, extended, and transformed it. How I might have begun to learn the habits of art. I didn’t know that Harry Crews had written three novels and a roomful of stories before he hit his own subject one lonely night and started getting published.

And I never thought about how I’d been spared, how I’d cheated death that day at Andy’s, escaped a dark fate.

After four and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida I moved north and married and raised children, lost touch with Andy, forgot Gopher, and quit following Harry Crews. I never wrote about that day at Andy’s farm. I never did.

My senior journalism class, Spring 1977, at The Gainesville Sun. That’s me in the middle, at the typewriter between the two computers. Three of us became reporters for The Orlando Sentinel.

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Filed under essay-narrative, fiction, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, poetry, teaching, education

Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

A guest post by Thomas Larson

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

There are two fallacies in Paul’s argument. First, there is no correlation between reading fiction and human compassion or intelligence. (Remember the concentration camp guards who loved Brahms?) Stating that the language of fiction helps us understand social relationships as well as we do “in life” is meaningless. People who don’t read novels are less able to judge one another? To assume that reading “enlarges” this power seems self-congratulatory to print, and sneers at oral cultures.

Second is the claim that such “improvement” is the province of the novel or story. Does that exclude nonfiction narrative? When I read Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction, does less of my wiring crackle and pop? Is such brain-lightning reserved only for the “social life” fiction supposedly portrays so well? Does my brain go all dim reading the anti-social W. G. Sebald or the graphic-nimble Errol Morris? Any good nonfiction writer (and there are thousands) who uses “leathery hands” (which is Paul’s example of a stimulating metaphoric phrase) need not have a “made up” character who has such hands in order to excite his audience. An actual person nonfictionists write about can have such hands, too.

I think it odd that a nonfiction writer (Paul is a social-science writer herself) claims this reading circuitry solely for novels, which she also calls “great literature.” We know what that means: the hearty oatmeal of Jane Austen. But how can anyone argue this, especially after the rise of memoir, collage forms, immersion journalism, and multimedia online storytelling? Nonfiction has accomplished everything fiction has in terms of narrative, description, and insight into human character. What’s more, it extends and complicates the relationship between an author and her actual (some dead, some living) human subjects, which fiction cannot do because its characters exist only in the book itself.

Neuroscientists, please add us nonfictionists to your MRI studies. If you really want to fathom what happens between the artist and the real world, you’ll find our minds are just as voltage-hot and layers deep as any other of the language arts.

Thomas Larson, a nonfictionist, is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist [reviewed on this blog].

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Filed under essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative

Emerson meets ‘A Girl Named Zippy’

So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive, inert form, and astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean? Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and dogs, and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many another fact that once filled the whole sky, are gone already; friend and relative, profession and party, town and country, nation and world, must also soar and sing.

—“The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson*

So he says. Joe's Garage, Westerville, Ohio

“What do you think this means?” I asked my wife. “I’ll reread it.”

“You don’t have to reread it,” Kathy said, resolute at the steering wheel of our van. “I know what it means. It’s about how we move from childhood to adulthood and our world must enlarge.”

How typical of her, I thought. A former English teacher and lifelong educator, she always sees the positive and the applicable.

“I think it’s about loss,” I said.

Detente collapsed with her reply, an inside-joke but too preemptive for my sincere mood: “Of course you do.”

I think,” I pressed on, “that it’s about how we forget things that were once our whole world. They’re lost to us, if not as memories then as experiences. But they were never just ours. They’re still available, to others, out in the world. They’re timeless.”

So there. Was my take that dark after all?

Emerson’s quotation is used as the epigraph for a memoir I’m reading, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. Just before reading Emerson’s quote, I’d been telling Kathy that it pains me that I never experience a specific reading pleasure I had as a kid—and have forgotten really what it was.

I’m not talking about the childhood experience of losing oneself in a book. It was after that phase. I can remember being delighted by something authors did. Maybe it came when I saw how a writer was working out plot, or making a joke based on information previously given me.

I still appreciate that. But is the pleasure less keen because I’ve grown to expect it? Or because I now routinely absorb how narratives work? Or because it was something else, something now lost to me as an experience?

Beats me. But isn’t so much of spirituality about recapturing the ability to appreciate simple things? And do we enjoy some things more—maybe not playing with pebbles on the sidewalk, but what about a fine day in early spring?

What about a sweet old dog? I guess the experience would be somewhat different, if nothing else given the difference in size between a five-year-old and a fiftysomething: my terrier, a lapdog to me, would be huge to a toddler. So I can’t recapture his wonder, and he can’t yet have my quiet pleasure that comes partly from having known other dogs.

Maybe you can still see your lost joys in your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews? Maybe you’re still trying to maneuver the kids into position to experience them?

Source of the epigraph

 “The American Scholar” was the title of an address Emerson gave in 1837 to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, which named its publication for the speech. It’s an intriguing source for an epigraph for any memoir, and especially for A Girl Named Zippy.

Interestingly to me, when I turned just now to the Reading Guide at the back of Zippy one of the questions implies that Emerson’s meaning relates to the embellishment of memory. I don’t get that at all. But maybe Kimmel, or someone for Broadway Books, is pointing out that Zippy is a work of humor as much as of memoir, and therefore its story is somewhat embroidered? To me, Zippy‘s exaggerations are as obvious as they are hilarious. It is funny, dark, and true.

At first I feared the memoir would be too cute, and worse, sentimental. Then I hit the humor and was laughing out loud and trying to read it to Kathy. Then I worried that there was no narrative drive, but hit the dark notes and undertones. Zippy is quietly dark, because we see what she can’t quite make sense of: her father’s gambling addiction, her mother’s depression, her brother’s anger.

But it is mostly funny or at least amusing. The dark notes will please some, like me, and be too much for others. As I said, they’re what kept me reading. I gave this book four stars and not five on Goodreads, however, because the darkness notwithstanding, Zippy has little plot other than she’s getting slowly older in the course of the story. So, for me, it is not quite dramatic enough. And without some type of unfolding drama it can drag a wee bit.

*You can read the full text of Emerson’s speech here at Project Gutenberg.

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Filed under humor, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

The leverage of persona in memoir

Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard

A page turner . . .

Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.

Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.

I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.

Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:

At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.

”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.

A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:

From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.

This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”

Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’

A savory classic . . .

Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.

But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.

A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.

Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.

From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.

. . .

Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.

Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:

It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.

I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.

There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.

Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood

A droll appeal to the intellect . . .

As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi.  His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.

That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.

She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:

I was just waking up then [at age ten], just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.

. . .

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along: is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years, I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.

Is this sad?

Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.

Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:

They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.

. . .

But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.

And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.

An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.

Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.

But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:

And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.

A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.

To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.

Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.

As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.

He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.

A note to teachers about An American Childhood

While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.

Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, scene, teaching, education

Noted: write from the pain

“You write out of need. You write out of hunger.  It isn’t your brilliance; it’s the flaw in your makeup that drives you.”—from an interview with novelist Theodore Wessner in Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman

Weesner goes on:

In terms of identifying talent in young writers, you can see the pain in their writing. You can see the desire, the hunger. It doesn’t have anything to do with how well they’re doing as students. At UNH, I taught English majors who were pretentious writers. They’d often write in the style of literary criticism—imitating literary criticism, trying to write what they thought a critic would be looking for. Then some kid would walk in from Engineering and just go for it, because he would have been drawn there by hunger, have a sense of the story he wanted to tell.

 

My own strategy and the thing I advise students to do is to identify things that hurt, that caused pain enough to make you change how you perceive the world. When did it hurt? What made it hurt? Who were the people involved? It can be a modest hurt; it can be a big hurt. A very personal hurt, private, secret. Once you can do that, you can begin to try to create and recreate a story through characters and action.

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Noted: Annie Dillard’s ‘Childhood’

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

Dillard's recent "A Happy Man" from her website, http://www.anniedillard.com/drawings-paintings.html

. . . Throughout all these many years of childhood, a transpired sphere of timelessness contained all my running and spinning as a glass paperweight holds flying snow. The sphere of this idyll broke; time unrolled before me in a line. I woke up and found myself in juvenile court. I was hanging from crutches; for a few weeks after the drag race, neither knee worked. (No one else got hurt.) In juvenile court, a policeman wet all ten of my fingertips on an ink pad and pressed them, one by one, using his own fingertips, on a form for the files.

 

Turning to the French is a form of suicide for the American who loves literature—or, as the joke might go, it is at least a cry for help. Now, when I was sixteen, I had turned to the French. I flung myself into poetry as into Niagara Falls. Beauty took away my breath. I twined away; I flew off with my eyes rolled up; I dove down and succumbed. I bought myself a plot in Valery’s marine cemetery, and moved in: cool dirt on my eyes, my brain smooth as a cannonball. It grieves me to report that I tried to see myself as a sobbing fountain, apparently serene, tall and thin among the chill marble monuments of the dead. Rimbaud wrote a lyric that gently described a man sleeping out in the grass; the sleeper made a peaceful picture, until, in the poem’s last line, we discover in his right side two red holes. This, and many another literary false note, appealed to me.

 

I’d been suspended from school for smoking cigarettes. That was a month earlier, in early spring. Both my parents wept. Amy saw them weeping; horrified, she began to cry herself. Molly cried. She was six, missing her front teeth. Like mother and me, she had pale skin that turned turgid and red when she cried; she looked as if she were dying of wounds. I didn’t cry, because, actually, I was an intercontinental ballistic missile with an atomic warhead; they don’t cry.

 

Why didn’t I settle down, straighten out, shape up? I wondered, too. I thought that joy was a childish condition that had forever departed; I had no glimpse then of its return the minute I got to college. I couldn’t foresee the pleasure—or the possibility—of shedding sophistication, walking away from rage, and renouncing French poets.

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About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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Journalism & John D’Agata

“Facts are stupid things,” said Ronald Reagan in one of his priceless gaffes. He meant to say what his speechwriter wrote, that facts are “stubborn things.”

They’re both.

D'Agata blows the whistle on himself in his new book.

Reluctantly I address the controversy that’s been raging over John D’Agata’s fictions in his nonfiction, specifically in his book About a Mountain, which deals with the federal government’s desire to entomb nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. The topic is radioactive enough without the fallout over D’Agata’s cheerful duplicity that’s revealed in his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, about his conflict with a fact checker over an article excerpted from About a Mountain.

I know the limitations of the “just the facts” objective journalistic style, the five Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, and I believe deeply in openly subjective, personal writing. But my twelve years in daily journalism, counting a year spent as a Kiplinger fellow at Ohio State, marked me in more ways than one.

When I was in newspapers, I raged sometimes against the objectivity that cruelly constrains reporters. For instance, at most daily newspapers, then and now, news reporters put their honest perceptions in the mouths of others by asking leading questions: “Miss Councilwoman, don’t you think the mayor looked haggard tonight, facing this same issue all over again?” And she says, “The mayor is weary—we’re all weary.” That’s often how reporters get their “ledes” and get their headlines—“Mayor wearies of battle”—and how they skirt the reality that a human being—someone functioning as a writer—selected and shaped the world into words, imposed meaning. An exception is columnists, who are expected to operate at the opposite extreme, as colorful personalities or even as cranky ideologues whose screeds are untainted by reportage.

The authorial persona allowed newspaper reporters is slim to none except at the biggest and best newspapers. Which is one reason I refuse to allow newspapers to define what journalism is and does. Why not The New Yorker as a model? Some commentators now call magazine articles “essays” because of greater writerly freedom to use the self overtly; in blurring genre these folks are thereby claiming that the authors of magazine articles are writers even if they are functioning also as journalists.

They are writers, of course, but so are reporters. Yet to be a journalist is fraught; there’s so much baggage. Including the fact that the objective style can allow them to dodge responsibility for what appears under their bylines: they followed the rules. A writer’s task, like anyone’s, is to become ever more human, while a “journalist’s” is to figure out what a journalist should do. And she or he is going to fail somewhere along the line as a journalist and somewhere as a person.

I was shocked when I left daily newspapers by how self-serving some objective journalism practices appeared. I’d just finished writing a long investigative series of articles about the head of a unit at the local university, which was as big as a small city, and I then went to work for a division of that institution. The embattled leader, now technically my colleague and hanging on by her fingernails, told a visiting reporter that I’d been preparing to write something favorable about her, so the university had bought me off.

The reporter called me for a response.

“You can’t believe that,” I said. “It’s obviously nonsense. It’s crazy.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But unless you comment it’s going to look bad for you.”

Outraged as I was, I almost laughed. I’d surely performed the same blackmail many times, I realized, and at last knew how it felt to be on the receiving end. Ostensibly I’d done it to “get both sides,” but really to get a better, juicier story, to get and to stoke even more conflict. If a reporter is any good, his allegiance is to the story more than to sources, especially if they’re not daily, bread-and-butter beat sources but those who stray into the news or who are obvious miscreants he’s beholden to bite in the ass.

And yet, for all that, the format and the flawed practices that served so-called objectivity had rough virtues.

The odd beauty of the objective style

I learned how strong a case you had to build and how you had to demonstrate it, show it, number by number, quote by quote. The rigor of it amazed. Strange, too, how slippery “facts” were: carefully gathered, when reassembled in your story they had to be checked again, as if they’d somehow altered when lifted from their original context and placed beside other information.

And I believed in the crusading aspect of American journalism. There’s a long tradition of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” as they say. Good newspapers reek with the desire to uncover and expose wrongdoing. As a reporter, I tried to live up to that ideal. Who else could take on politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations? Who else was supposed to? The aggression unsuited my temperament, but I was good at, and it was my job. That’s what I got paid for, won awards for.

This role of being a feedback loop to society contributes to the reduced use of persona, a restraint that bleeds even into the feature pages. The most painful lesson a young reporter learns—only by making mistakes and having to write corrections and to deal with angry readers—is how hard it is to get basic facts right. One reason is that reporters often aren’t deeply familiar with what they’re writing about. A related but deeper reason is that humans operate daily on assumptions: the downtown will not shift locations, the lover will remain true, the sun will rise in the east. But in writing, which confidently proclaims “the way it is,” natural assumptions lead to errors.

Two plus two, strangely, no longer equals four. As the old newsroom quip goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I left daily journalism because I wanted to do longer, deeper, and much more personal work. But, as I say, I internalized some rules. Like get the basic facts right, even if—praise God!—you’re going to function as a writer in the larger sense and reveal your perspective, even your biases. I go weak with admiration when a magazine journalist reveals her passionate beliefs, even her agenda, maybe her own relevant flaws, and yet is fair to the ugly opposition.

Next: John D’Agata’s genre of one

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