Category Archives: braids, threads

Echoing a familial refrain

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords.

A crowd mobbed Book People, Austin, for Hosseini's appearance.

A crowd mobbed BookPeople, Austin, Texas, for Hosseini’s recent appearance.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“…and the place echoed every word,

and when he said ‘Goodbye!’

Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”

 —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline)

Hosseini CoverKhaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a different structure.

In his first published work, The Kite Runner, Hosseini followed one boy’s life and how it related to his childhood friendship with another boy named Hassan, portrayed through the voice of the protagonist named Amir.

In his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused initially on the individual stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, and then later on both as their paths crossed. I admired the fact that, being a male author, Hosseini had pulled off a convincing protagonist gender shift from his first book.

When I recently heard Hosseini discuss his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, he noted, “The structure of this novel was far more ambitious.” He addressed a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which was already mobbed an hour before Hosseini was scheduled.

“The heart of the book is about an act of separation—a relationship between a boy and his sister,” he told us, after reading an excerpt. “Splitting them affects who they become as adults,” as the boy has been “almost like a parent to her.”

Hosseini offered details about how he shaped the book.

“Like a giant oak tree, there’s a trunk to the novel that branches out with all the characters, and the geography of the settings as well. It gets wider as the book goes on,” he said. “It was the hardest book to write.”

And it was the hardest book to read, at least for me. As if traveling on the ancient Silk Road, many characters in Mountains Echoed take circuitous routes to their ultimate destinations—and so does the storytelling. These interwoven lives begin to resemble the stacked “spaghetti bowl” of an interstate highway with flyover ramps and exits.

Such a plot construction is not necessarily detrimental to a story, though, nor to one’s growth as a writer. Once again, I admire Hosseini for stretching himself rather than relying on the formulaic repetition of a style with which he’d become comfortable.

In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini constructs the metastories of an entire clan to examine their intersections. It becomes an interesting device for disentangling the relatives in a particular family of origin as they fan out across the globe. Hosseini investigates the genealogical ramifications of family connections. He scrutinizes various generations as if he were peeling back delicate paper-thin layers of phyllo from a wedge of baklava with tweezers.

Charting the novel’s cast

Lanie Tankard's aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

Lanie Tankard’s aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

I did have to chart my way through the book, however.  Early on, I had the fortunate premonition to start drafting a map to follow as I read. I wonder why the editor didn’t suggest inserting a family tree to assist the reader? Yet quite honestly, the lack of one did not deter me from being totally absorbed by this story, even though I did have to consult my hand-drawn legend from time to time to keep the characters straight.

Hosseini’s storytelling ability is nothing short of mesmerizing. He knows just when to stop with a particular strand, leaving the reader hungering for more detail. He puts your mind to work. As he told his Austin audience, “It’s a series of revelations and epiphanies for which the reader must connect the dots.”

While Hosseini set the story in specific countries, he grounded it in larger themes that cross borders and speak the language of the global family. He laid bare the fundamental elements of our common humanity.

Hosseini wrenched unexpected tears out of me in different sections, due not only to such universal refrains, but also because he assembled in the denouement a heartbreaking scenario similar to one I witnessed in my own family as well. Since I’ve never been fond of spoilers in reviews, I’ll not divulge the endgame of Mountains Echoed except to say it rang true.

Tears arising unbidden as I read usually alert me to the fact that I’m holding a compelling book in my hands—a “heads up” that I need to pay close attention to the illusion that I’m consuming a straightforward rendition of a simple tale.

Indeed, as some of Hosseini’s characters become Westernized in Mountains Echoed, I notice that an individualistic culture has slowly begun to muffle echoes of the earlier stages of their lives in a collectivistic society. The author writes with subtle strokes of his calligraphy brush to achieve this effect.

Perhaps such subtlety was intentional. After all, how clearly can we actually view an ancestor who lived several generations prior to our own and truly understand the choices made during that person’s sojourn on this planet?

Hosseini’s characters speak truths we ought to know like the backs of our hands already, and yet we continuously require reminding. Some of these verities underscore the values of memoir writing, genealogy research, and meditation. Hosseini prompts us to realize that it’s important to know where you came from, because in doing so you may encounter a part of yourself that was lost.

Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne, wrote in her memoir titled The Hornes: An American Family: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them.”

Flawed characters thwarted in love

Yet Hosseini denies most if not all of the characters in Mountains Echoed such types of discoveries due to assorted acts of separation he writes into their lives. He sets up many types of love in his characters’ relationships, and then creates formidable barriers to their perpetuation. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote about herself: “This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.” The fictional individuals who people the Mountains Echoed plot won’t have such an inheritance, though. That’s where the angst in this novel arises, and it’s powerfully strong.

Hosseini in Austin.

Hosseini in Austin.

“I really like flawed characters,” Hosseini told his Austin listeners. “They allow me the most to work with. All of us have things about ourselves that we don’t like at all. We can see our own flaws in them.”

He pointed out that the “evil stepmother” character, Parwana, “is the black sheep of her family“ but she “gets her day in the sun later in her own chapter.”

Fiction can be a potent tool. Authors who serve up their home countries via literature to the world can call attention to inequities, assist in cultural understanding, or play roles in uniting us. Consider such writers as Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk, or Chinua Achebe. And when a novelist writes about the assimilation of people from one culture into another culture, as such authors as Amy Tan or Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri have done, readers gain the perspectives of characters who have migrated from their native countries. In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini depicts the homelands of his characters (Afghanistan and Greece) as well as later adaptation to new countries (France and the United States), illustrating how Westernization has changed them.

What factors determine the impact of a literary contribution? Is it the words alone—or do timing, packaging, current news events, author talks explaining motivation and intent, and advance promotion each play a role? The Zeitgeist likely creates desire for certain subject matter. Once upon a time, journalists were taught the term Afghanistanism to avoid concentrating on issues in faraway places when problems in their own cities cried out for attention. Technology, transportation, and wars have both broadened our horizons and shrunk our world since that time, negating the term.

Hosseini mentioned the influence of the poet Rumi in his Austin talk, and he uses a wonderful Rumi quote as an epigraph in Mountains Echoed: 

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century

 He also alluded to music in reference to his third novel: “My intention was that each chapter raises the stakes for what has happened before, creating a synchronicity—like a lot of single instruments playing together to create a symphony.”

Hosseini seems to have blended music, poetry, and myth in Mountains Echoed. An echo in music has a resonance that amplifies the sound and makes it reverberate with the underlying meaning. It’s a nice metaphor for what Hosseini accomplishes in his new novel.

There are hints of the Echo and Narcissus myth as well, if one focuses on the ideas of separation and later deprivation of speech and garbling of the tongue, as Juno did to Echo. The separation in Mountains Echoed deprived the siblings of speech with one another, and the novel’s ending symbolizes garbled memories.

The echo motif also fits into the storyline of Mountains Echoed as a rhetorical device, which Hosseini employs in both a literal and a figurative sense. With the repeated refrains and themes, one could almost view the novel as a musical composition of lyrical poetry, with a chorus continuing to sing praises to the nuclear family unit in the midst of a long narrative ballad, ideas John Hollander discusses in his book The Figure of Echo.

Hollander uses the example of echo in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which indeed Afghanistan has become.

“The country is struggling with a lot of problems,” Hosseini said of his native land. “The big question is what will move into the vacuum when the US and NATO troops leave in 2014. There’s a lot of skepticism on the part of Afghans. Not many people in the West understand what the Afghans fear. The militia wars preceded the Taliban. Those were the darkest of the last thirty-two years. There’s a reason Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires.’”

One audience member called out a heartfelt comment: “Thank you for teaching us about Afghanistan.”

BookPeople showed a five-minute film before Hosseini spoke, highlighting the Khaled Hosseini Foundation he has set up. The author explained how his organization concentrates on helping all the homeless refugees returning to Afghanistan by finding shelter for them there.

Hosseini’s shift from a medical career

“I was a doctor in my former life,” Hosseini said in his Texas book discussion. “I wrote all my life though,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write, but I didn’t think I was very good. I just did it for myself. I wrote Kite Runner, and then 9/11 happened. I felt the book would be distasteful at that time.” So he shelved it in the garage.

His wife ran across it “and made a bunch of notes on it.  She urged me to try to publish it later.” He noted that she majored in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, and is his editor and a lawyer.

“She’s edited every draft. She can’t come up with an answer as to where the story should go,” he said, adding that “the danger of having an ‘in-house’ editor is that you don’t get what you need to hear—you get what you want to hear. Although sometimes she writes things like ‘LOL. You can’t be serious.’ I go into a mini funk when she does that.”

He sent Kite Runner around, but “it got rejected a lot.” Finally an agent (who is now deceased) took him on and Kite Runner was published. “I thought maybe my cousins would read it,” he joked. “I was still a doctor then.”

So just how did the transition from medicine to literature occur?

“Three things happened to change me from a doctor to a full-time writer,” he said, and listed them: “(1) I began to notice people reading my book on airplanes. (2) All my patients wanted to take up the time during their office visits asking me to sign their copies of my book. (3) I found myself as the answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question when I was watching the show on TV. So I thought maybe I could take a year or so off.” The health plan he worked for “didn’t allow time off, so I had to quit to write.”

Listening to Hosseini articulate tales from his own family made me realize he’s a natural-born narrator. And the Mountains Echoed is a paean to the importance of storytelling to strengthen family bonds. There is an African saying: “When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle once underscored this leitmotif when she said: “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. ”

Every one of Hosseini’s three novels has seemed stronger than its predecessor to me, so I await the fourth with great expectations.

Lanie & Grandma

 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. (Photo of Lanie Tankard and her grandmother by Toni Fuller. Photos of Khaled Hosseini by Elaine F. Tankard)

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, REVIEW, structure

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

The Days are Gods author on braids, voice & earning your story.

Liz Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

After reviewing The Days are Gods, I asked its author, Liz Stephens, for an interview, and she has kindly obliged. Stephens, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Glendale College, California, earned a PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University, where she served as managing editor of Brevity.

You’re very reflective about your ongoing experience as the story moves forward—and it does move forward, The Days are Gods combining the strengths of sharing someone’s subjective, highly reflective point of view with that of scenic narrative, of experiencing her life events. What were your processes and models in working out this persona, voice, point of view, stance—however you think of it: and how do you?—which is distinctive and seems somewhat unusual to me in the way that it is combined so strongly with forward-moving events?

This was the most deliberate construction in the book: to gently balance the growth of becoming more internally knowledgeable about both a place and myself, and to use external events to do so. I essentially wrote the text and then dug my hands into it and picked up those three threads—knowledge of self, knowledge and lessons of place, external events—and started slowly braiding, backwards and forwards, over and over, until the plait worked out at the end. The sections had been much simpler to write individually and initially, but in the end I did have to order them, which was by and large how the final arc was made. Though I also did tweak some sentences very lightly to emphasize momentum through time or self-knowledge—literally highlighting season, or taking out a small reference in the past tense. I also had to find and then use deliberately any personal blind-spots I’d had, which sometimes I needed to write back in, of course.

The arc retains some lightness due to the nature of actually living the process as I wrote; I think in this case, taking a long time to write the book worked heavily to its advantage. I was more aware of myself, and more in tune with my surroundings, by the end of the writing process, so I resisted changing earlier bits to make myself look smarter. I just left in my initial excitements and lack of knowledge. But, yes, choices like deeper internal musings, more High West lingo, and less glibness in my conclusions by the middle to end were very deliberate.

Furthermore, I had tools by the end of the writing I hadn’t had access to at the beginning. When I began this book, I was an early nonfiction writer and high on discovery. By the end, I was finishing years of study of nonfiction form, hours of writing workshops with invested peers and mentors in the same field. So when my point of view as the narrator changes, it is through an integral change of the persona itself. Voice is the through-line that doesn’t change. “She’s” still there, talking to you, amazed.

Models? Uh, now that I think about it, no. I don’t think I’m alone in achieving this, but I didn’t model this after a particular successful narrative in my reading list. I just knew I needed momentum for the book to be one that a broader audience than essay-lovers would like, but knew I did not at all want to give up my musing, because that would have turned the text into a field trip through the West. I did have one very established awarded writer (not anyone affiliated with my program, but a very fine writer in their own right) tell me to stop taking about my feelings so much, but that seemed more like that person and less like me. I do know this will be the model of the balance of my next book. It’s most like me.

You carefully worked a thread through the book about an older local couple you admire and how they accept and befriend you. When you and your husband make a decision, late in the book, that disqualifies you as locals, they take back a horse they’ve given you—essentially they steal it—and the reader, at least this one, feels upset and angry. I experienced this as the book’s climax. Then, a little later, you return to their act and reflect on it from their perspective, moving the reader toward understanding and empathy for them. It’s remarkable, and I wonder how you envisioned this culminating event, as the way I experienced it or in some other way?

I in no way envisioned them as offering closure, advancement, or analogy to the book. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the threads in the book now look that way in retrospect, I think because I was writing (the first time through! This should be emphasized, for my students!) so purely from my deep place of processing the experience, but in this parallel immersion of new (to me) discovery in craft; I literally could not see it coming. I wrote not knowing the end any more than you did. I can only hope for that state of grace to light on me again, where all of the serendipitous moments happen again and you look back after the writing and it’s like looking through a really obvious tunnel or down a cattle path in the weeds. It’s like speaking in tongues. Just prepare yourself, sit on your butt to be available, and then get out of your own way—sometimes, in case you want to repeat yourself. My mother-in-law sees sweet Yellow the cat as a metaphor for my very soul in the West; and you know what? She’s right too. You all are.

So in the end, I do see that couple as a literary barometer for our family’s position in the community. They were the benchmark for how we fit. Until it slowly dawned on us we may have been looking at the wrong standard-bearer. . . in the end it was clear that they themselves were not as seamlessly and holistically embedded in their own community anymore, and that was a very moving mark of the changing of the very nature of the West. People who lived not more than one house from him could say with a straight face, “Now he’s country,” and you know, they didn’t always mean it as a compliment. So when we lost their faith, we still came out smelling like roses to the town, flashy and exotic, moving at will . . . but to everyone’s detriment, I think. What he’s got, I think we should want, if we don’t.

Also, I wrote the end of the book fresh. I’d barely had time to process my loss myself. There’s a whole saga about selling our sweet home that was so raw I couldn’t even include it. Even though it was the dead-nuts perfect metaphor for our experience there. Ugh. Would not compute.

Stephens-Days are Gods

Braids: “knowledge of self, lessons of place, external events”

Annie Dillard once said that every book has its own impossibility that the writer soon experiences, realizing her task isn’t as simple as she’d pictured. That, in fact, the book may be impossible. What was the impossible problem you faced in writing The Days are Gods?

 Annie is always right. When in doubt . . . anyway, I moved before the book was done. I feared I was screwed, book-wise. But I longed for it. I sat staring out at my new back field full of frogs and poison ivy and trees so unlike my last view, and just pined. My mother looked out the front window of my Ohio house at the forest and, sure enough, said, “What a view,” and I burst out crying.

And then I called it back, the feeling of all of every bit of it. I wrote as a testament to that loss and those lessons. So every bit of what I learned in my PhD program got cycled through that particular wringer. I really believe in telling a fairly literal truth in nonfiction, so I wasn’t interested in dreaming up the rest whole-cloth for a better story. I had to be very conscious and deliberate about what I had learned and when. I doled out my experiences there very deliberately jewel-like into their settings. That created more than anything perhaps the story drive you were talking about. If your response is any indication, that became a central feature to the book, but it seemed while I did it to be not possible. But I was afforded the opportunity to not hurry the processing of an experience, to think deeply and well about a particular finite set of events, and love on them at length.

Additionally, the fact that I’d moved seemed to be a dead give-away that I hadn’t stayed. So did that invalidate my search there? That became a central issue. And I knew, just examining my own—well, grief wasn’t too strong a word then—it was so patently manifest and undeniable I got mad and thought, hell with it. If readers don’t think I deserve to feel this, they can lump it and just feel gyped at the end. But I’m going to be dead honest all the way through, and earn it, and explain it, and we’ll see how they feel about me then. I’m still finding out.

Liz Stephens’s The Days are Gods website is worth visiting, especially for its resources page, with ideas, links, and recommended books. And Joe Bonomo hosts Liz’s self-interview at his blog No Such Thing as Was.

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Filed under Author Interview, braids, threads, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV

Whither the postmodern memoir?

Moby Dick Kabob x

 

Beyond ‘crazy shit’ content: stories that intrigue, inform, illuminate.

 I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at its best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow.

—Steven Church

It’s probably inevitable, having written a traditional memoir myself, that I’d become smitten with nontraditional forms. Or taken at least with the idea of experimental memoirs, which offer the hope that they can truthfully reflect contemporary life. The risk, of course, is that by abandoning a chain of dramatic past events as narrative propulsion, they bore or anger readers. Postmodernism implies confusion and fracture, not a clean narrative line.

Shards of culture & life united.

Shards of culture & life threads united.

Which isn’t exactly what Steven Church argues for—he seems after a realistically sideways and nuanced approach—in “On the ‘Stealth Memoir’ and the Confessional Expectation,” a recent post at his site My Atomic Angst. Church, author most recently of The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, addresses how the memoir “might accomplish some of the aims of memoir while focusing on subjects outside the self or by using different forms and styles.”

As he puts it in explaining his new book:

   OK, so the book is about the nuclear fear I felt growing up in Kansas in the 70’s and 80’s and how the made-for-TV post-apocalyptic movie, The Day After (set and filmed in my hometown of Lawrence, KS) brought these fears home in more ways than one. It’s also about the violent, apocalyptic history of Lawrence and of Kansas, culminating with a 2007 F-5 tornado that destroyed my father’s hometown of Greensburg in southwest Kansas. It’s also about the movie itself and the lasting cultural resonance of a film that even the director, Nicholas Meyer told me he didn’t consider art but instead a giant “public service announcement,” a video essay of sorts that at the time garnered the 2nd highest Nielson rating in history. And finally, the book is about the seemingly sudden and apocalyptic implosion of my parents’ marriage. The book uses a variety of forms and styles, from outright fiction and fabrication to more straightforward journalistic interview, memoir and film criticism.

Okay, sounds pretty postmodern. In the best sense: layered, formally complex and experimental, discursive, genre blurring. Church says one of his challenges in writing this book was that his own experience with the movie, other than as a scared watcher, was limited. His parents’ divorce likewise was only one thread—and, again, he didn’t have great material there (narratively speaking) but, instead, in real life, gained a happier mother.

He desperately wanted to avoid having his publisher label his book a memoir:

I begged, in fact, during production, that it not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. . . .

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Ironically, he says a memoiristic thread late in the book—helping his father and aunt clean up after that apocalyptic tornado—brings the threads in his story together.

• • •

Some recommended postmodern memoirs

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

Steven Church’s stimulating essay led me in a roundabout way to Hugh Ryan’s take on the postmodern memoir for Associated Writing Programs. Ryan shows he knows what he’s talking about in his first paragraph:

As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship with the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world.

Quite simply but ambitiously he asks whether it is “possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the ‘real’ answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?” He observes that writers who cut their teeth as readers on the great modernists, from James Joyce to Joseph Heller—and, I’d add, raised in a fractured, mediated world—are still trying to answer that question.

Ryan explains:

As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.

Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader’s trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of losing all authority and being disregarded.

He gives these examples of postmodern memoirs, recommended by implication:

Wickersham Memoir

• Joan Wickersham’s second-person The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, an annotation on a larger story, was widely raved, including by Publishers Weekly;

DJ Waldie’s celebrated Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, a third-person “story of alienation so profound it almost prevents him from writing his own life”;

• Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, structured as a dictionary,not chronological, but it does follow an internal order separate from the arbitrary progression of the alphabet . . . [H]er nonlinear structure is an effort to call her own story into question”;

• Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, like the previous arranged alphabetically, it’s “filled with charts and illustrations, making for a more playful text,” an anti-memoir that “consciously avoids the neat linearity of most nonfiction”;

Flynn Memoir

• Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City grapples with the fiction of easy facts, even turning part of it into a surrealist play, the obviously fictional move reflecting his own uncertain experience;

Lauren Slater’s Lying, a memoir of epilepsy in which shedoes not tell us one lie and then expose herself; rather, she maintains multiple truths at the same time, allowing us to pick and choose between them.”

I’d add Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst as worth looking at. But lest we get too excited about postmodern possibilities, Ryan ends with a warning and a prediction:

The backlash against postmodernism is already going strong. Postmodern has become a dirty word, meant to convey something confusing, precious, pretentious, or just downright sloppy. When it was born, it was David fighting the Goliath of Modernism. Now it has become the dominant force, and with nothing to rage against, it seems useless. A genre designed to take things apart cannot stand alone. The New Sincerity movement, which combines postmodernism’s playfulness and rejection of universal truth with the search for personal meaning and real emotion, is gaining ascendency-and rightfully so. It is time we moved on.

But postmodernism still has lessons to teach us. They lie (and oh, how skillfully they lie) in nonfiction. As memoir struggles to be recognized as art, it must find new ways to deal with the truth, when the truth is a confused and confusing thing.

You can read his whole essay, at least for a time, here. I googled New Sincerity and apparently there actually is such thing. As someone helplessly and hopelessly sincere himself, I’m all for it—I think, though it seems enough work for now to grasp postmodernism.

Here’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s postmodern approach to marketing her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life:

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Filed under braids, threads, experimental, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, structure

A cheap trick that slays readers

Hairy Canary x

Jill Talbot’s braided essay & Lee Child on creating suspense.

It’s difficult for most people to verbalize the ways in which they disappoint themselves and others. The personal essay and the memoir demand that it be written down, perhaps even read aloud to others. The genre, I tell my students, is not for everyone. If you’re not comfortable with looking closely at where you have gone wrong or at least trying to find out why, you’re not going to be a good essayist.

—Jill Talbot, “Creating Nonfiction”

Jill Talbot is an acclaimed essayist and nonfiction theorist. Her braided essay “Emergent” has just appeared in the Paris Review, and I commend it to you. I predict you won’t be able to stop reading it because you’ll see what Talbot couldn’t see, the terrible danger that she and her young daughter were in. Multiple questions drive it forward as she lets the reader see what the apparent problem was even as she was oblivious to it in the wake of her move and her daughter’s seemingly separate issue. You’ll want to know how it comes out. And I love the way the essay’s braided structure deepens the foreground story and makes it seem even more real, more textured like life. Her memories and worries continue along with the slowly unfolding disaster, just as they surely do. This chilling story embodies so much more than its abundant explicit content.

In her essay “Creating Nonfiction” Talbot addresses the so-what-why-should-we-care issue I’ve been writing about:

In writing essays, you have to be more loyal to the art than the experience that created that art. A good place to start is by choosing an appropriate persona. It’s not enough to be an “I.” As I ask my students, Who are you for this piece? Because I believe that is the relationship between the persona and the essay. An essay demands a certain persona to achieve what it sets out to do. One of the ways I introduce the idea of persona is by making a list on the board of each of my varying personas, including ones like professor, mother, smoker, runner, writer, lover, seventies music aficionado.

Notice what this implies: You as a narrator are standing at least somewhat outside experience, delivering wisdom or at least testifying as to meaning. Talbot makes this explicit a little later:

When a student wrote about being raped at the age of twelve by her cousin, her workshop group grew visibly reticent from across the room. I usually stay out of workshops unless the group needs a new direction or an essay affords me an opportunity to make a point that will help all of the writers, but here, I purposefully broke in to remind them they were responding to the writing, not the written rape in any innovative or intriguing way. If an essay doesn’t bring a new voice or approach to its subject matter, don’t write it. If you write the essay as a surface catharsis, a confession, or for attention,  the  significance  is  yours  only. What makes an essay move  beyond the telling is when a reader, with or without  a similar experience, can  recognize  a humanistic  truth emerging  from its words.

• • •

Part of the narrative puzzle: Ask a question to make readers care.

If you’re still reading, I must’ve hooked you with that “cheap trick” line. Sorry for making you feel craven and unclean, but I had to try it. And it’s not really cheap so much as comparatively easy and effective; we pose questions naturally but like all impulses in writing this move can become more effective when we use it consciously.

I’ve mentioned in a writing class a few times this semester how important narrative suspense is. That’s an overt or implicit question that keeps the reader reading. Overt questions like, “I couldn’t figure out why I’d acted that way,” propel the reader forward, as do implicit questions. How will the relationship come out? Does he live or die? Did her eating disorder get better? As we know, Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his new book on writing (reviewed) that implication is one of writing’s most powerful qualities because it lets readers grasp and figure out some of the narrative’s pieces for themselves.

Now suddenly I’ve remembered that, in December, a short New York Times essay by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, addressed this issue. “A Simple Way to Create Suspense” mentions only fiction, but it applies directly to nonfiction as well. Child says posing a question can seem almost unfair because it works so well. I’m all for what works, however easy, because writing is concentrated thought and hard enough. And memoir always faces this “So what?” issue. He says you can make readers care by asking a question, since humans are compelled by curiosity about how questions are answered:

Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. I learned that fact in my first job. I worked in television production from 1977 until 1995, and the business changed radically during that time, mainly because of one particular invention. It was something that almost no one had in 1980, and that almost everyone had in 1990, and it changed the game forever. We had to cope with it. We had to invent a solution to the serious problem it posed.

(You notice I haven’t told you what the invention was yet? I implied a question, and didn’t answer it. You’re waiting. You’re wondering, what did almost no one have in 1980 that almost everyone had in 1990? You’re definitely going to read the next paragraph, aren’t you? Thus the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.)

What almost no one had in 1980 and almost everyone had in 1990 was a remote control. Previously, at the end of a segment or a program, we could be fairly sure the viewer wouldn’t change the channel on a whim, because changing the channel required the viewer to get off the sofa and cross the room. But afterward, changing the channel was easy, which was very dangerous for an audience-hungry station.

So how did we respond? (Notice the structure here? Wait for it!) We started asking questions before the commercials, and answering them afterward.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, memoir, structure, teaching, education, workshopping

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

An essay of the empty nest

My “Wild Ducks,” a braided memoir essay, appears in River Teeth.

My daughter Claire, at eleven, sledding with her puppy Jack, two players in the essay.

The past few years, working on my memoir of farming in Appalachia, I’ve generated tons of material—twice, 500 pages—and have spun some passages into stand-alone pieces. The published ones include an essay on my hired hand who died; another about a legendary pond-builder with a tragic secret; one about the historic first meeting of my future wife and my father; yet another about my father’s return to farming in retirement and his decline and death.

When I first began adapting essays from the memoir, I noticed I had some vivid fragments of our kids growing up on our farm with animals. I liked the vignettes, chained them together, and told myself I’d written a postmodern collage. Here’s an excerpt from one, about hatching some wild mallards in an incubator:

      Claire and Tom and I watched the ducklings hatch. Wriggling like wet seals from the rocks, they emerged from their brittle cocoons. These were some sweet ducklings—literally: they smelled like maple syrup. I’d misted the eggs daily with water during incubation, using a recycled syrup bottle as a makeshift sprayer, and the incubator’s warmth had reconstituted a residue. The sugary scent had passed through the eggshells and coated the ducklings. All seven hatched, and when the black-and-yellow brood huddled in our children’s laps, the room filled with the smell of Sunday morning flapjacks.

In a more pensive scene I reflect upon a photo I took of our kids with a lamb that same spring. It was our first lambing, everything had gone wrong, and I felt I’d stopped getting the work-life balance right to boot:

Tom, nine, sits cross-legged and tries to smile, his mouth pressed into a downward line that bunches his pink cheeks. He wears a blue tee shirt with white bands, and he must have been in a growth spurt because his canvas pants ride up his legs. Tom scratches at his neck with his left hand—he’s bothered by his long hair, which forms a dark blond helmet on his head and hangs down his neck and in his eyes. His little face peers out as if from under a haystack. Our Saturday barbershop ritual has dissolved here, a casualty of house construction and farm busyness and new school routines and the unpredictable weekend hours of Appalachian barbers.

When I waved the kids into place that day for their portrait with a lamb, I wanted to capture a culmination, and I suppose I did. But now I can’t look at the photograph in its cherry frame on my desk without seeing something else. . . .

Editors I sent that essay to, the first version of “Wild Ducks,” schooled me with rejections. Apparently it didn’t work. And yet some of the rejections, weirdly for that genre, were complimentary and encouraging. I concluded the passages were fine but needed unifying, needed something more. I hadn’t a clue what, so I put the piece aside.

Then one morning the summer before last, as I was slaving away on a rewrite of the memoir, I began to tell a new story, about when my wife, Kathy, and I took Claire off to college in Chicago. The account, or much of it, was played for humor. How Claire was angered by our overbearing emotion; how my wife and I melted down differently, and at different times, locations, and rates, as we sent our first born over that threshold of adulthood; how I lost the ability to walk after our farewell restaurant meal—an allergic reaction to MSG—and how Kathy, lost in her own grief, ignored my crisis in our motel room.

I had it! The through-story. The foreground thread I needed to hang the baubles upon. It would be a braided essay, a structure I’d grown fond of unto obsession.

I’d read a neat essay by Heather Sellers, in a 2009 Writers Digest, extolling the form (and later I read her own braided essay she’d adapted from her fine memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know). The problem with many essays, Sellers said, is that they’re only telling one story and that’s boring. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing. Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.” (For more, see my post on her explanation.)

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

Braiding is just telling two stories (or more: see my post on how “Our Secret” by Susan Griffin employs three) by alternating between one in the foreground and one unspooling farther in the past. The structure is used in so many novels, narrative nonfiction accounts, memoirs, and movies because it works. A great example is Sean Penn’s movie based on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. The foreground story starts with the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, establishing his camp in the Alaskan bush; the movie alternates with scenes of the people he met on the way to getting there. The backstory is incredibly moving because even though we know where he ended up it shows how and why, and because we watch him turn his back repeatedly on love and hearth in favor of the spiritually purifying quest we’re watching, in the foreground story, slowly kill him. In fact, the backstory is more compelling than the wilderness thread, even though we know it’s “over,” in the past, because it’s populated with people and complex emotions.

I cast my foreground story in “Wild Ducks,” taking Claire to college, in present tense because I liked its immediacy. I liked too how present tense set the foreground events off from the past-tense thread of her growing up on the farm. Here’s the end of the essay’s opening passage, set on Claire’s campus in Chicago (which is followed by a line break and that story of the ducks we hatched):

      Outside Claire’s dormitory we perch on a bench in a patio’s nook. Coneflowers hang in the warm air around us like pink shuttlecocks; a fat bumblebee clings to the brown button eye of one wavering blossom. Kathy reviews the use of debit cards and fumbles a speech about making the most of one’s college years. Claire glances toward her stone dormitory. “Kathy,” I say, “if we don’t leave, she can’t miss us.” I hug Claire, then Kathy does, holding on longer. She pats Claire’s shoulder. “Call us she says,” turning away as her face swells with emotion. She’s looking in her purse for a tissue.

Claire stares at Kathy’s lowered head and throws out her arms in theatrical frustration. Parental emotion, especially her mother’s, is too heavy to lug into her new life.

I’d forgotten I’d sent “Wild Ducks” to River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative—they’d had it for about nine months—and when one of the editors, Joe Mackall, called me I was stunned. “It’s like E.B. White meets . . .” and he named two other writers, but I was too flummoxed to follow. “Regret runs like a thread through it,” he added. Or something. I was babbling my thanks.

Writer friends had worked me over for “Wild Ducks” good and hard since I’d sent it off so happily to River Teeth. One felt it wasn’t reflective enough, and she had a point—but now it was too late for a major recasting, just some tweaking. Another said I acted like a “big baby” in the MSG scene; but I’d inflicted the whole manuscript on her, and since she didn’t like my anxious persona, that scene late in the book of my flopping around and bleating for help apparently was the last straw. I disagreed: I couldn’t walk and was truly alarmed, plus I was playing the scene for humor. But I felt another scene, since cut from the book, where I tease Kathy seemed puerile. It was, however, an accurate depiction of my sometimes childish sense of humor. Truth in nonfiction!

Anyway, I’m thrilled to be in River Teeth. My fellow contributors include two writers I admire: author of The House of Sand and Fog Andre Dubus III, who writes about his surprise and vulnerability when he was confronted by people pained by his perceptions or by their family secrets being aired in his gripping and gritty memoir, Townie; and Lee Martin, novelist and memoirist, recently interviewed on this blog, who in “Selling Out in the Writing of Memoir” likewise explores hurting peoples’ feelings.

My own second-guessing aside, I’m mostly pleased with my essay, now available on Scribd, where I’ve posted some other memoir excerpts, even if neither Kathy nor Claire can bear to read it. For better or worse, a writer comes to regard with a cooler eye his raw material—the upsetting event, the nagging memory, the painful emotion—that he shapes into story. And he assumes the narrative’s other actors share his clinical view. They don’t; they can’t. My experience was not theirs, yet it triggers and perhaps threatens theirs.

I’m glad I memorialized that trip we took years ago with Claire. I made meaning from it, distilled something clear and hard from the murk of memory. And now I also have that day when I finally figured out, with a yelp of joy, how to tell the story.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, film/photography, humor, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, structure