Category Archives: audience

On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

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Filed under audience, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading, REVIEW

Finding ‘Narrative,’ ver. 1.2

Candyce Canzioneri took this photo of the woods along Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio

Blog reading has displaced some of my discretionary reading. It’s probably one reason I don’t follow the news as closely anymore. Writers must read what others in their genre are doing, though I’d been posting for almost two years before I started actually reading blogs. Bloggers often impress me greatly. One writes so elegantly; another seems so delightfully concise; another has such colloquial snap. Like any writing done well, a deft blog post is much harder to do than it looks.

But I read blogs now not just because I am trying to do better as a blogger in the narrow sense. I’m hooked by the notion of someone hanging it out there, trying to make sense of his or her chosen domain, while presenting a pleasing or stimulating or unified persona. When I have a little melt down, when I wonder which self I’m trying to present here, I need to read more of my fellow scribes. For beyond using sentences well, what they’re doing is delicate, this crafting of a public self, an avatar for their qualities of X, Y, and Z.

At base there’s T.S. Eliot’s haunting, immortal question in Prufrock: how to prepare a face for the faces that you meet? In cyberspace, we prepare that face in print. It’s a performance, yes. But a mask that reveals, too.

And yet, when I look at my WordPress report on the search terms that some use to find Narrative, I know other readers have other motives. My review, some time ago, of T. Corragesan Boyle’s The Inner Circle must have sent this person here: “iris milk + Kinsey.” And the search “evolutionary psychology global warming” astounds me, since I did join in a brief post those two disparate topics into an odd, obscure union.

Clearly some seekers want help with assignments: “fourth grade narrative essay on nat turner”; “why did nat turner murder”; “summarize the book by vivian gornick ‘the situation and the story’”; “what insights about the writing process have been sparked while developing your narrative essay? what ignited them and what impact have they had on you and this essay?”; “good sentences to make essay impressive.”

But it appears teachers are looking too: “narrative nonfiction books for first grade.” And writers, maybe, or more students: “adverbs used in a narrative essay.”

And, once again, in the imponderable category: “money made man mad”; “crazy narration of personal blog”; “who is annie dillards audience”; a search for “nerrative”; “the same fear that has caused me to push coretta away back in grammar” [school?]; “what was learned in the updike’s story with the word flat?”; “examples of good narrative stories someone gets trapped”; and “jessica naim truthful lips.”

I have no idea what the last means, don’t want to know, and wonder why in the world that person was referred to my blog. Last but not least, the Amen, Brother category: “we construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next.”

A related issue: When I post, WordPress suggests “possibly related posts (automatically generated).” Sometimes the reason is clear (I’ve written about an author named recently in someone’s else’s blog) and sometimes it’s mystifying.

In either case, I’ve discovered interesting blogs that way. When I reviewed Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, WordPress linked me to Disillusioned Librarian Blog, a Canadian on books . . . and the disillusionment of being a librarian. While I couldn’t ascertain the reason for the link to my post, I added its RSS feed to my Google page.

It was nice while it lasted; now it appears to be defunct, the librarian having stopped posting almost exactly a year ago. Aren’t abandoned blogs spooky? Like a house someone walked away from. All the lights are still burning, and it’s unlocked, so you can wander around inside, but no one is home. It’s creepy, and you just know there’s a story there.

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Filed under audience, MY LIFE

Stylist nabs National Book Award

I was glad to see a dark-horse novel, Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, win the National Book Award recently for fiction. I hadn’t heard of the sixty-six-year-old author, and neither had a lot of folks. But I ordered her winning book, set in the 1970s at a horse-racing track in West Virginia, after reading excerpts from some of her other novels on Amazon.

Lord of Misrule is about a reckless young woman and two “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protections of family,” she tells Bret Anthony Johnston on the National Book Award web site. Having worked herself as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, she says, she did some reading for Lord of Misrule (the name of a horse), then field research at Pimlico, and talked to a trainer and to an elderly black groom.

“I don’t know much of the story before I start,” she told Johnston. “I’ve got the characters and their rich interiorities, which always share, unbeknownst to them, certain patterns of preoccupation and language. I twist them together into some kind of plot, and I do believe deeply in plot, or rather in whatever attribute it is of novels that makes a reader need to know what happens in the end. Stuart Dybek, who blurbed Lord of Misrule for me, called my style ‘profligate.’ In Lord of Misrule I stuff linguistic extravagance into a fairly tight formal corset. I use a shape for the novel that I have always liked, a narrative design that moves the characters forward, from early on in the book, towards some planned but morally neutral future event that all of them, carrying their baggage with them, are bound to attend.”

Gordon heads the MFA program at Western Michigan University and has published essays, novels, novellas, a narrative poem, and a masque, which Wikipedia tells me is “a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in sixteenth and early 17th century Europe.” She’s said that she’d become discouraged with her career. She was known and admired by a circle of discerning writers, but her books hadn’t sold well or been championed. She started writing Lord of Misrule in 1997, and an advanced draft of it lay around her office for ten years. A persistent publisher at a small trade house dragged her into reworking the novel.

In a circa 1983 interview with Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody for Gargoyle Magazine, Gordon discussed her literary apprenticeship, including master’s and doctoral work at Brown University where, she says, she was rather a loner, not very workshoppy. She confesses a “preoccupation with exceptional and beautiful style.” Some excerpts from the Gargoyle interview:

When Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, and I were all living in Providence at the same time and writing elaborate fictions, people began to speak of a “Providence Baroque.” We all cheered on each other’s work, different from each other though we were, and we found a receptive audience there, not only in the Waldrops [proprietors of Burning Deck press]. Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde, I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American novel as that artifact is traditionally understood—though it may be set in Turkey.

[T]rade publishers are resistant to certain qualities of prose: the dense, the opaquely inward, the flamboyantly learned. Either the editors are unable to read these themselves, or they can’t believe their clientele will read them, and they advance statistics, some highly suspect, to prove it. Of course an independent-minded or powerful literary editor will from time to time see such a book to publication, and in fact the literary establishment traditionally keeps a small kennel of difficult prose stylists behind, or rather in front of, its main house, piously praised though unread. (How long the conglomerates will continue to keep up genteel appearances in this fashion is another question.)

Trade publishing, overall, to borrow a trope from William O’Rourke, reacts to the complete spectrum of prose style no better than a dog’s eye to the color spectrum. They see only the middle range, which has sufficient clarity or, more correctly, openness about it. Openness means access: they are concerned with how many readers will troop into the clearing.

I haven’t jettisoned my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress [likely the working title for her third novel, The Bogeywoman]. I would even wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised by critics for writing in a “deceptively simple style.” I have been able, however, to add to my repertory over the years certain conventional accomplishments of what is nowadays commonly regarded as a novel. I never disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them (ignore as in ignorant) and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.

George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that “any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy.” All my characters have doubtful causes to plead or crank theories to propound, and that is why I am a comic writer, no less so when I try to use some part of myself as a subject. Intellectual absurdities interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.

At nineteen, in 1963, I began writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre (though I may suppress it from public viewing), unguided, and unharassed, by the program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical powers, which as I’ve already mentioned is not quite the same thing as complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph–about these, I never had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field, male or female. My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction.

I write in longhand first and often rearrange and amplify a sentence or a paragraph even as it comes to me. Like the baroque prose stylists I mentioned earlier, I try to imitate the athletic movements of the mind in its complex irregular race from thought to thought. I also try to imitate, and occasionally to plagiarize outright, antique prose stylists I admire. My notebooks are full of minutely written inserts and numbered parts all over the pages. I have to follow the numbers when I finally get to the typewriter. I can do it in my head if I must, and often do, when I’m driving, walking, or lying in bed; but soon I have to get to a notebook. I also have a bad habit of composing on the fly-leaves of other people’s books. It must be my unconscious urge to take over.

As you can see, I think the freshmen I teach need a political education and might actually accept one. A direct literary education they would not accept and so I try to let it steal upon them. As for my creative writing students, I don’t impose my literary specialties on them. I try to guide them to the best examples of whatever traditions I perceive they are writing in, however well or ineptly, and whether they know it themselves or not. I think that’s the proper function of a teacher of creative writing.

She names a number of contemporary and past writers whose style she admires. The long Gargoyle Magazine interview is worth reading in its entirety.

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Filed under audience, fiction, immersion, narrative, research, style, teaching, education, working method, workshopping

A novel on memory, story & alibi

A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.

The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .

You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.

 

Israel edition

 

A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)

He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.

“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was

 

2nd Israel edition

 

happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”

He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.

. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.

Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.

Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.

You’re cynical, Jennifer says.

Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .

The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.

Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?

The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder

 

U.K. & Commonwealth edition

 

why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”

I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, design, editing, fiction, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, working method

Any memoirist’s dilemma

“A fundamental dilemma for autobiographical essayists is how exactly to navigate between the necessity to write and the sinking realization that it may not really matter to anyone else. All writers, all artists, deal with this problem, of course, especially at this point in time, when via the blogosphere and social media literally millions of autobiographical missives are launched weekly, each voice clamoring for an audience of careful, sympathetic readers.”

I can really relate to this quote from Joe Bonomo’s post “The Silhouette,” on his blog No Such Thing as Was. Recently I read a classic memoir I found tedious (more another time on that book) and am now reading a celebrated one that deals with an extremely dysfunctional family but doesn’t engage me. The writer has “great” stories, because his life was so disordered, but why should anyone else care? Well, there’s morbid interest, surely a lesser value. There’s also the writer’s need to testify and ours to receive. There’s his attempt to render life’s jagged experiences artfully, which appears to be his motive—to make something, as Sartre said, that has been made of him.

And I think this memoirist was motivated by more than sheer ego, as I hope I am, so what gives? (Halfway through the book, I think it’s starting to take off.) Why do some writers draw us into their personal stories without offending us, and how might we do it ourselves? There seems something larger about successful personal writing that transcends mere egoistic display, but this is a slippery thing I don’t understand. I think my own motive in writing a memoir is, at base, to share my experience of love and loss. But ego can creep in.

I remember when I was getting my MFA and giving a reading after I’d been writing hard for a whole year. What I read was personal, the seeds of my current book, but I shared it in a generous spirit: gee whiz, look at this. There was an impersonal quality to my feeling about the writing; I was proud, sure, but had a certain distance; it was clear to me that the work and I were separate entities. Then, a year later, at my reading for my graduation, ego struck. For some reason I was insecure, and my desire was for attention—more for me than for the work, I think; the experience made me feel needy and craven. The writing itself was okay, but my rambling, needless prologue, had I been listening in the audience, would have caused me to grind my teeth, or walk out.

One of the things I learned writing professionally for magazines and newspapers was that the more you work on a piece, the more you see it as an object outside yourself and the less it functions as an ego extension. You feel, at some level, frustrated with a work that’s near completion, especially if it’s good, and  welcome help. All editorial suggestions may not please you, but they can’t offend.

I’m still learning how to use the self in the essay or journalistic piece; since each work is different I always will be. In his environmental journalism, Michael Pollan is really good at making himself a character in order to further the story. (See an earlier post, “Michael Pollan on narrative journalism.”) He says it’s vital to show his evolution, his blundering, his process, in order to avoid the dull journalistic know-it-all voice. Readers surely do crave the personal and also to be on the journey with the writer. This is very subtle, though, and still begs the question of why some deeply personal stories pull me in and others leave me indifferent or repelled. Wish I knew.

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Filed under audience, essay-personal, journalism, memoir, NOTED, subjectivity

Playwright David Hare on reality art

David Hare, known as a “verbatim playwright” for his plays taken from news events, gave a lecture on the relationship between nonfiction and art to the Royal Society of Literature in which he drew the distinction between what he does and ordinary daily journalism. In a nutshell, “without metaphor we have no art,” he said. The Guardian printed an edited version, under the headline “David Hare: mere fact, mere fiction.”

In turn, I excerpt it here:

Journalism is reductive. This is not always the fault of journalists. It is in the nature of the job. At its best and worst, journalism aims to distil. It aims to master, even to subjugate, a particular topic. In this ambition, the journalist will always run the risk of tipping over into contempt. As soon as something can be summarised it can also be dispatched. Anyone who has ever attended morning conference at a national newspaper will know the form: everyone taking part in the human comedy is a fool. What was once the humorous stance of Private Eye has become the humourless stance of the entire press. The gap between what people are and what they are treated as in journalism has never been wider. Only the very best journalists know how to suggest that a person, theory or event is not just what the journalist believes it to be. It is also itself. Holding that balance between your account and a proper respect for the truth of what something or somebody is outside your account involves a level of self-awareness hard to achieve in 600 words.

In the west a journalistic culture which takes in both the internet and television has now become both tiring and ubiquitous. It has also led to a curious deformation in society. As citizens, we consider our family, our friends and, most of all, our children as likeable and virtuous. But we are encouraged to consider everyone we don’t know—and most especially those we know only through newspapers – as ridiculous or vicious. To this tendency, this desire to bundle people and thereby to dismiss them, art and death are the most powerful antidotes. Art frequently reminds us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. Nor are people. Journalism is life with the mystery taken out. Art is life with the mystery restored. Put people on the stage, in all their humanity, propel them into a course of events, and in even the most savage satire or preposterous farce, characters may acquire a sympathy, a scale, a helplessness, all of which draw forth feelings eerily reminiscent of those elicited by people you actually know.

Meanwhile, to the objection that plays and novels about contemporary events are too hastily conceived to be profound is added the confident counter-objection that such works are unlikely to endure. Shakespeare’s plays may be crammed with incomprehensible Elizabethan references and jokes which amuse nobody, and these have hardly damaged his continuing popularity. But the example of literature’s highest achiever does little to blunt the popularity of this line of attack. How on earth, it is asked, can either foreign cultures or generations unborn ever be interested in such local doings? On this question, I can only say I am willing to take my chances. Like most writers, I have at best a sceptical attitude to posterity. But wherever playwrights gather, you will find them telling stories of plays, performed in far-off places and years after their premieres, which have somehow acquired what seems like an accidental shimmer.

Of a recent revival of Stuff Happens in Canada—six years after the National Theatre first conceived a then-topical account of the lead-up to the Iraq war—the director wrote me a letter: “I find the play infinitely sadder than a few years ago . . . I think there is something potent about these people now officially out of office and firmly set in their historical place. At the same time, the references to both Afghanistan and Iraq are eliciting vocal responses from the audiences that I don’t recall having happened in my previous production.” In response to such a letter, any playwright will argue two things. First, no proper play is ever just “about” the events it describes. The whole intention of a play in describing one thing is to evoke another. Bush and Blair, after all, are not the only warmongers in history. But, secondly, in celebrating this play’s bewildering success in Toronto six years on, the director was, in fact, celebrating the special nature of theatre itself. In Stalinist Russia the most powerful protest you could make was to stage Hamlet.

The Power of Yes dealt with issues that might well have been batted back and forth on a lively edition of Newsnight. Because the play portrayed real people, the dish arrived hotly spiced for journalistic carving. But then, interestingly, a second wave of reaction followed which addressed not so much the play’s ideas as its techniques. Many things were expected of a play about high finance, but it was not foreseen that it should resemble Michael Bennett’s production of A Chorus Line. Friends reported that they found the sight of 20 suited bankers lining up beneath the proscenium arch curiously moving. From then on, nothing was as they’d anticipated, least of all their own responses.

Plenty of people get their poetry from science, from the physical universe, from the contemplation of mathematics, or of animals, or of solitude or of the stars. An audience arrives fearing the theatre will be one more medium like any other. If the subject of the play comes from political life, then they anticipate a form of animated journalism, journalism on legs, the usual mud-soup of opinion and sociology. But the performing arts can deliver high-flying bankers who are at once contemptible and deeply sympathetic. If we accept the simple distinction that factual work asks questions for us, whereas fictional work is more likely to ask questions of us, then why can some work not do both?

We are living through curious times and they demand curious art—in both senses of the word. “Aren’t you telling us what we already know?” is the last question, always aimed between my eyes, potentially lethal in the questioner’s view, but not even causing a skin-wound when fired. “No, I am not. You may think you know about something. But it’s one thing to know, and another to experience.” The paradox of great factual work is that it restores wonder. Thinly imagined work takes it away. “I never knew that, I never realised that, I never felt that” is what you hear from the departing audience when their evening has been well spent. Because we think we know, but we don’t.

Hare’s complete essay in The Guardian is here.

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Filed under aesthetics, audience, journalism, metaphor

Keys to conveying experience

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas, which are especially relevant for writers who are trying to build scenes:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.” And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

I recommend Writing with Power, an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)

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Filed under audience, editing, essay-expository, narrative, scene, working method, workshopping