Monthly Archives: November 2012

Truth and beauty redux

Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?

A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.

There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.

But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.

• • •

I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:

 Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

 Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

 Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, Persona, Voice, POV, poetry, subjectivity, teaching, education

Black and white and gray

Memoirist or monster? What gives writers the right?

When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.—Czeslaw Milosz

We all know that view. Talking last week to a friend about Emily Rapp’s Poster Child memoir, reviewed here, my friend mentioned Rapp’s forthcoming memoir about her disabled son who is dying, or possibly already dead, from Tay-Sachs disease. “I can’t imagine doing that,” she said. “I think I’d have other things on my mind.” I looked at her, trying to form a response and wondering if I should have addressed that in my review. Then my friend added, trying to be fair, “Maybe she had time . . .”

I was reading a different memoir by then, Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums. Even to a hardened memoirist like me, Sessums seemed a bit cold in writing about his father’s bloody, fatal head wound after a car crash:

Red thick yolks of the stuff oozed past his butch-waxed thatch of bristles and blackened even more the fresh asphalt, drawing the flies that buzzed over a neighboring pasture where they swarmed around cattle that looked up, for a second, at the sound of the crash then turned away to focus on their cuds.

Very graphic and unblinking. Writer friends are apt to admire and cheer on such prose—it conveys and does justice to what truly happened. Maybe his prose was colored by the fact that his relationship with his father, a bullying basketball coach, hadn’t been great. And, let’s face it, his father is beyond knowing or caring what his gay son says.

I remembered when I started to write memoir essays seven years ago. For the first time, I’d begun to tell the story of the traumas that shaped my father’s life, and that therefore shaped me. The worst of these was about how my grandfather killed himself and how my father, then fourteen, found his body. There was lots of romance and adventure in my father’s life, too, but often it was entwined with violence, blood, or early death. There was the train wreck that maimed his beautiful mother when he was an infant. When he was nineteen his fiancé, heiress to an automobile fortune in their hometown of Detroit, died of pneumonia when he was sailing around the world after his graduation from prep school. Then he got thrown out of Cornell, where he was studying agriculture, for landing an airplane on a campus lawn. He attended flight school in southern California before the war, and raced cars on oval tracks and airplanes cross-country. One night a drunken friend tried to drive Dad’s new coupe up a palm tree and Dad scooped his brains back in his skull. Serving as a pilot in the Pacific, Dad bombed Japan, and was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the surrender. When he married his first wife, he spent their honeymoon cruise to Hawaii sobbing in their stateroom, the voyage having returned to him the memories of his first, lost love.

“Your father’s life,” my mother told me when I was a boy, “is the saddest story you’ll ever hear.” I can’t remember if that was before or after the Thanksgiving I was twelve, when Dad had the first heart attack that almost killed him, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his father’s death.

Writing these stories for the first time, I ran to my keyboard each day. I loved Dad and believed in him and wanted to explain him, as Mom had tried to explain him to me. Explain his courage, his bone-deep integrity, and how, without trying, he commanded respect. Explain how, when he wanted to charm others, which wasn’t often, he could be as charismatic as a movie star, though his sense of humor was surprisingly silly, and he listened secretly to country music.

In the midst of my early memoir work, a friend of my wife’s came to dinner. She taught English, a seeming affinity that emboldened me to tell her of my writings about my father. “You sound like you’re talking about a stranger,” she said, looking shocked. Later I learned that her relationship with her own father was fraught. In hindsight, she’d looked more fascinated than shocked as she bored in, as people often do, when someone mentions something that haunts or afflicts them.

My far-flung siblings and my stepbrother and stepsister and inlaws have been supportive of my writing. But that might have been different had our mother not been so tough. If she hadn’t helped me tell our father’s story. If she hadn’t realized that their romance, during which she divorced him three times, was a good story. I’m grateful personally for one of their remarriages, because it was just before Mom delivered me; they were in Reno, where they were buying cattle for their ranch in California’s high desert.

I guess love is the key for me. This Thanksgiving, I thought as always of Dad’s stoic acceptance of that day and of Mom’s heroic efforts to overcome his history with her feast. And I felt, pain and all, blessed and grateful.

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Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE

Emily Rapp’s satisfying memoir

Her tale of physical disability depicts an inner transformation.

Poster Child: A Memoir by Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 226 pp.

This semester my freshman honors students and I have read six memoirs and Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed) in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” As with novels, coming of age stories are common in memoir. It has pleased me to see students who hadn’t read a memoir, or who had read one bad one, come to admire the genre.

By far the students’ favorite memoir has been Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, followed by Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (reviewed), followed by Gregory Orr’s The Blessing (reviewed). We read them in that order, too, followed by Veronica Chambers’s Mama’s Girl, Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, and now we’re into Kevin Sessum’s Mississippi Sissy.

I respect The Glass Castle for its craft. Though I’ve taught it to two classes in a row and am weary of rereading it, this tale of epic parental dysfunction rivets students and is a thematic and symbolic cornucopia for their analyses. Half a Life and The Blessing are two of my all-time favorite memoirs—deep and sad, reflective and bravely hopeful—and fast reads, too, which make them useful in a required reading lineup. The semester’s surprise for me was Poster Child, which I’d never read and which I’d expected to be a straightforward tale of a girl’s struggle with her birth defect.

Emily Rapp was born in 1974 with her left leg too short, from a rare condition that caused her femur to develop abnormally. She learned to walk with a brace, and before her fourth birthday doctors amputated her foot, the first of dozens of operations that left her with a stump just above knee height. Born to highly supportive parents, a Lutheran minister and a nurse, Rapp attacked life, buoyed by their optimism and emotional support. As she grew she wore a series of crude (by today’s standards) prostheses. She swam and skied and, at age six, became a March of Dimes poster child.

She also became a little monster, as Rapp explains:

            The feeling that I was a very real burden who was never made to feel like one or treated as such did not make me a sweeter child; rather, it made me a quick-tempered terror. The more attention I received as the poster child, the more attention I expected and demanded from everyone else and, in particular, from my family. Mom and Dad were afraid to say no to me. I sensed this and pulled out all the stops. The older I got the worse it became. I was an expert at the silent treatment game. Door slamming and screaming fits were simply commonplace. I was sweet in my appearance as the poster child, of course, and I learned always to be good and nice and accommodating in public, but my anger flared at the slightest provocation . . . I claimed to hate everything and everybody, but more than anything else, I began to hate myself.

Though she was spoiled rotten, one can see her parents’ dilemma in coping with her and her disability. Her childhood struggle sowed guilt, shame, and anger that became Rapp’s alone to bear. What makes Poster Child rare and valuable is its tracing of how she painfully changed, casting off, in her attempt to be fully human, the mask of perfection she’d worn over her fear and grief.

You might think that tales of such inner transformation are commonplace in memoirs, but you’d be wrong. Stories of overcoming hardships, yes, but not examinations of how defenses adopted in such struggles are rooted out. Far more than a story of a girl’s physical disability, Poster Child dares to go inward. Of course this approach requires the perspective of the memoir genre’s vaunted “distanced narrator,” the writer at her desk now, musing on meaning, but this technique doesn’t dictate the nature or quality of a writer’s reflection. What makes Rapp’s story relatable, as my students say, is the fact that most people can grasp having to come to terms with their childhood selves. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child is father of the adult.

Unfortunately Rapp’s story has a tragic coda, now playing out. Her son, Ronan, was born with the genetic disease Tay-Sachs. While pregnant, Rapp was tested for Tay-Sachs and other genetic problems, but apparently a mutation in Ronan’s version allowed the disease to escape detection. Tay-Sachs is one of the cruelest diseases I’ve heard of: born normal, babies regress into a vegetative state, losing all their senses, before becoming paralyzed and dying by three years old. Rapp has written that she expects Ronan to die this year.

Her memoir about parenting him, The Still Point of the Turning World, is to be published by Penguin in March 2013. “This is a love story,” she writes in a column for The New York Times, “and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss.”

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, REVIEW, teaching, education

Junot Díaz: Voice of a genius

Holding up a mirror to society through narrative.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

Riverhead Books, 213 pp., $26.95.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“I stand in for the absolute silence in our communities.”—Junot Díaz

September 25, 2012, speaking at BookPeople in Austin, Texas
(Photo by Elaine F. Tankard)

Will Junot Díaz add the National Book Award to his shelf of literary prizes? He’s one of five fiction finalists for the honor to be announced on November 14. Díaz has already scooped up so many awards, however, that he’s a star even if he doesn’t win tonight.  The event will be streamed live beginning around 7:15 p.m. at www.nationalbook.org, so invite some friends over for an awards party and cheer on your favorite author.

I heard Junot Díaz in Austin, Texas, on the recent tour for his latest book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories. A few days later, his creativity was given literary license by the MacArthur Foundation, whose website notes the organization is “committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” Every year, it awards fellowships of $500,000 each with “no strings attached,” often referred to as genius grants.

Díaz works out of his own immigrant experience. Born in the Dominican Republic, he was raised in New Jersey. The most well-known character in his writing has been a young man named Yunior de Las Casas, and Yunior lives again in most of the stories of this new book. Yunior’s voice is unique. It is arresting. It is angry. It’s vulgar and chauvinistic. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud humorous. It’s also eloquent.

Díaz assigned Yunior difficult duty in his books, asking Yunior to bear witness to horrific events in the history of the Dominican Republic while also serving as narrator for tales of immigrants in the United States. It’s a daunting task. Under the guise of womanizing, Yunior keeps an eagle eye on how the diaspora has scattered their culture across a new country, diluting and diminishing it in the process. Throughout the tales in this current tableau, Díaz has Yunior chronicle the treatment of his people by the citizens of this country. When one reads these stories of love and loss on a different level than one-to-one relationships, the pain of humanity is right there staring you in the face.

Díaz told the Austin audience, “Yunior is an incredibly useful metaphor for me to dive into the topic. He’s part of a larger project of a novel about race. Race is just a part of it.” Díaz referred to “all these silences we’ve built in,” adding “Yunior is an excellent character for me to use to get into them. He’s dead-on smart about what’s going on. He’s at the heart of what’s going on.”

A female character named Yasmin, however, upstages Yunior in the centerpiece story called “Otravida, Otravez.” Yasmin’s quiet rendition of her narrative is powerfully arresting, and moved me to tears. As Yunior did for Oscar Wao, Yasmin becomes the narrator for the tale of another woman named Anna Iris. Díaz hinted to his Austin listeners that he was thinking about developing the story of Anna Iris in future work. I hope he uses Yasmin’s voice to tell it, because her life is equally fascinating.

One yardstick for measuring a writer’s strength is the ability to develop more than a single voice. The appearance of Yasmin confirms Díaz is not all Yunior. And that’s important, because Yunior and other male characters dominate so many of the tales in this latest book that it took me a while to realize who was narrating “Otravida, Otravez.” When one reads the story as a stand-alone piece, as it appeared originally in the New Yorker in a slightly different form, that understanding is not tethered to the dominant characters in the other stories nearby.

Another yardstick could be the question: Do a writer’s characters grow and change? Yunior’s attitude toward women, first articulated in the 1997 collection of stories titled Drown, has matured through the 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao into a mellower and more reflective self-analysis in This Is How You Lose Her. Díaz employs contemporary references such as “Neuromancer dreams,” á la William Gibson, when Yunior realizes too late (as did Gibson’s Henry Dorsett Case) that he loved his former girlfriend only after she was gone.

A resilient oral tradition can reflect the history of a people in much the same way as songs. When you lose someone, there are varying feelings of loss, bereavement, defeat, forfeiture, and hurt. Anger is also a basic component of bereavement. One can sense these same emotions on the collective level about problems in society, and that is what it seems to me Díaz is trying to capture. Charles Dickens used literature to illustrate difficult societal conditions through marginalized characters. Writer William Saroyan cast an early spotlight on immigrant communities in America, creating scenes (particularly in his short stories) that surmount the confines of countries and portray broad themes applicable to all.

Junot Díaz advised his Texas gathering, “The agony of social conditions only diminishes when you’re helping someone else. If you have a broken ankle, help someone burned from head to toe.”

Díaz weeps for the loss of love as he explores our universal humanity in This Is How You Lose Her. Think about that title for a moment. Is the “her” possibly Lady Liberty herself? Perhaps Díaz penned an editorial in literary form, crying out, “Heads up, America.” As his character Yasmin observed, simply and quietly, “This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.”

Whether he wins the National Book Award or not, Junot Díaz is a magnificent writer.

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 

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Filed under emotion, fiction, REVIEW

The sum of their parts

Graphic memoirs like Speigelman’s & Bechdel’s merit attention.

Guest Post by Janice Gary

At the beginning of my third semester of a graduate writing program, the professor handed out a reading list that included Art Speigelman’s Maus. It seemed an odd choice for a nonfiction program, even if was autobiographical.

I knew about Maus. In fact, I had avoided reading it for years. The book dealt with the Holocaust, which was so personally painful that I avoided any books or movies on the subject. The thought of seeing as well as hearing the horrors that Jews endured under the Nazis seemed almost too much to bear.

Although given the option to read another book, I ordered Maus anyway. After tearing open the packaging, I was greeted by an illustration of a nattily-dressed mouse regaling his cigarette-smoking (mouse) son with his stories. My resistance melted. I cracked open the pages and fell in.

All through my childhood, my reading life mainly consisted of twin literary loves: nonfiction stories—autobiographies, mostly—and comic books. And here were the best elements of both: a powerful personal narrative and the fanciful renderings of graphic art. I read it cover to cover without stopping.

Even though Maus was considered a graphic novel when it was released in 1991, it actually was part of a long tradition of cartoon personal narrative going back to the underground comics of the 1960’s and 70’s. Artists such as Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Justin Green (Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary) and Aline Kominsky (Twisted Sisters) were just a few of the pioneers who drew from real life for inspiration.

Enter Alison Bechdel, creator of Dykes To Watch Out For, a comic strip comic syndicated in many gay, lesbian and alternative magazines. In 2006, her memoir, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic was released, followed in 2012, by Are You My Mother? It was this book that finally got my attention. A graphic memoir? No kidding! (I was still under the delusion that all illustrated narratives were graphic “novels.”) When my library hold on the books released the two together, I decided to read them both, one after another.

Fun Home centers on Bechdel’s childhood, especially the relationship with her closeted father and the unraveling history of her own sexual orientation. At times, I was stunned by her honesty, which accompanied by images that left no room for misunderstanding.

Bechdel may think of herself as an artist first, but she is a wonderful writer as well as an accomplished illustrator. I found myself drawn into the narrative, fascinated with the way she wrestled to understand herself as well as her father. But as I continued to read, it began to dawn on me that viewing the details of memoir graphically rendered on the page provided a striking lesson for prose writers.

Take for example, a scene of young Alison walking through New York’s East Village as an eight-year-old. The caption reads: “Roy took us for a walk while Dad went up to the apartment. In the hot August afternoon, the city was reduced, like a long-simmering demiglace, to a fragrance of stunning richness and complexity.”

In the illustration accompanying the words, you see a small girl in the midst of a busy city taking in all the sights and sounds. The addition of tiny arrow boxes draws our eyes to the odorific details: a splash of diesel on the ground, shit under a crouching dog, urine and electricity rising from the subway entrance.

In my own work, I labor to write through the senses and lecture my students incessantly about the importance of sensory details. But I had never seen it as plainly and powerfully rendered as in this one drawing. The entire panel served as a map of concrete detail, an illustrated guide for writers wanting to paint pictures with their prose.

Bechdel does this throughout, stretching us into her world with rich detail, making clear that a narrator’s observations reveal not just physical elements but their inner life as well. You begin to know young Alison as a specific type of kid: a codependent, hyper-vigilant girl who obsessively takes note of everything around her.

There are many layers to Bechdel’s memoirs, especially in Mother, where she includes dream passages, sections of text from the child psychology books, transcribed phone conversations with her mother, scraps of newspaper clippings and journal entries. I became dizzy at times absorbing all the information.

It is this shape-shifting in Bechdel’s work, the layering of thoughts, the back and forth of time, the dreams, the gut-level honesty that makes this memoir unforgettable. It is not only funny and insightful, but an inspiring work of nonfiction that connects the dots between the lived life and one that circles constantly in the imagination.

The past few years have seen an explosion in graphic memoirs that no longer bother to hide under the graphic “novel” moniker. Such books range from childhood memoirs (Stitches by David Small) to very adult topics (Paying For It by Chester Brown).

I feel like a kid in a candy store (or at least a kid back in the comic section of a newsstand). Maybe it’s the old comic book fan in me or maybe it’s simply the joy of discovering a new vein in contemporary nonfiction that has me so excited. Graphic memoirs from this new generation of artist-writers have earned their place on serious nonfiction reading lists, not only for the pleasure of seeing how story can be stitched together but for lessons on wildly innovative approaches to illustrating memory.

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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Filed under experimental, memoir, teaching, education

Four more years

Means, ends & inner narratives in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Barack Obama was mocked by Republicans when, late in the campaign just ended, he blamed his struggle to dominate Mitt Romney on his failure to provide Americans with a compelling narrative. I couldn’t help but agree. And yet I wonder if even a writer as talented as Obama can do anything more than animate his partisans’ own existing narratives. Romney’s narrative was widely exposed, commented upon, and derided as a farrago of outright lies, lesser evasions, and gross distortions. But he almost defeated Obama. I really wonder: What’s the moral of this story? Revisiting my post, below, written just before Obama’s 2008 victory, I find it deals with this same question of means, ends, and inner narratives.

• • •

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is still guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped his depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, journalism, narrative

Around the web

Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere.

For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction.

Anyway, it was ages ago that I committed to this book, and I’ve read so many memoirs since, increasingly ones checked out from the library. I’ve realized they’re like novels—you can’t keep up, can’t read them all; I only bought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after reading a library copy—but here on my table, for some reason, is this one, a handsome book.

In conjunction’s with his memoir’s release Russo has given an interview to The New York Times in which he says several interesting things, including this on the role in memoir of selection and dramatization in scene:

I think the best memoirs read like novels, which means, among other things, that the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him. He decides—as in a novel—how and where the story begins (near the end, in this case). He also chooses, just as a novelist does, when to summarize and when time should slow down for a dramatic scene.


Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert on being a lifelong writer

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. —Elizabeth Gilbert, in her Rumpus interview

Speaking of conflicted feelings, I had them about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—like a subset of other readers, for me its veiled calculation curdled some of the book’s pleasures—but admired her writing ability. I found inspiring her recent wide-ranging interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus.

She discusses her new historical hovel, her writerly girlhood, and her years, while learning to write fiction, of bartending and waitressing and her wasting time in “fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas,” so that it’d take her almost a year to write one short story. A big breakthrough came with her GQ article, about a bar she worked at and where she’d set a short story, which led to the movie Coyote Ugly.

Gilbert (or Cousin Liz, as I call her—no relation) is really good on keeping going as a writer, and she answers her critics of Eat, Pray, Love and those of its follow-up, Committed. An excerpt:

It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. . . . It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace. . . .

It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committedpermitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.

 

The definitive account of the fall of Jonah Lehrer

. . . Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out.—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Kachka’s rather amazing New York article,Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer” is about how Lehrer, whose unraveling began when some obsessives noticed he’d made up some quotes by Bob Dylan for his book on creativity, Imagine, represents the end stage of a new evolutionary beast:

In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the ­journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.

The contrast between Elizabeth Gilbert’s slogging apprenticeship as a writer and Lehrer’s as a science journalist is striking. He’d studied to be a scientist, apparently, or at least majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book. At some point, he saw he could translate science to a big audience. Just as Malcolm Gladwell raids social science, he could plunder the harder stuff.

But as Kachka points out, no one, not even a genius, let alone the merely brilliant, could do everything Lehrer was trying to do as a leading practitioner of  “this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers.”

 

The almost-definitive account of David Foster Wallace & his demons

David Foster Wallace’s suicide was the greatest literary tragedy since John Berryman flung himself from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972. The pain of mental illness and drug addiction constituted a frightful part of who he was. Out of that pain and his efforts to purify and to heal himself he wrote one of the most remarkable novels of our time. To say it reaches the heights of Joyce or Dostoevsky is going too far, but it will stand, and it has something crucial to teach generations of readers about how to live, even with terrible pain they might think they cannot endure.—Algis Valiunas, “King of Pain”

I say almost because it will never end. Obviously.

But Algis Valiunas’s “King of Pain,” for the website of the Claremont Institute, while another baby-whale retrospective on the late writer, is impressive and interesting; it addresses what kind of person he was, his long but productive apprenticeship, his moral vision, his mature writing and especially Infinite Jest, and the depression that killed him.

For anyone with any interest in Wallace as a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist, it’s well worth reading.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, scene