Category Archives: essay-classical

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began by Joe Bonomo. Orphan Press, 248 pp.

There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.—William Faulkner

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Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

Here’s an example from “Caught,” which moves from his adult self’s sexualized encounter with two strangers—two college girls acting up—to depict his adolescent self’s furtive research into sex at his neighborhood newsstand:

One weekend afternoon I discovered that the manager of the newsstand had stocked a ground-level magazine rack with digest pornography, magazines like Penthouse Forum and Family Letters. My heart racing, I cased the store like a petty thief, strolling self-consciously up and down the aisles feigning interest in Creem magazine, soon recognizing that if I stood directly behind the rack, reached in surreptitiously through to the front, and discreetly pulled Penthouse Forum through the rack back toward me, I could prop it up harmlessly between Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac.  . . .

And so I remember vividly the instant the manager’s thick hand crashed through the magazine rack and clutched at the magazine I was holding. Startled, I looked up and saw his eyes peering at me through the magazines. The store spun away from me in a swirl of fear, and in a lightheaded haze I felt my feet lift from the ground. Memory seduces us with claims to legitimacy and to truth, though I remember graphically the long moment it took for the manager to sweep around the side of that rack and to lean down into my face, his eyes ferocious behind thick rim glasses.

Sexuality runs as one theme through this collection, which made me realize how seldom creative nonfiction even mentions the topic of sex in passing, whereas fiction fairly reeks of it. Not that it’s a big deal here, just another thread, as in life, but arresting in its candor. Equally unusual is the spiritual theme in some of Bonomo’s essays, and perhaps a riskier one than sex. In fact I first learned of his work several years ago when he read his essay “Occasional Prayer,” collected here, in Ohio University’s chapel where it’s partly set. The essay opens with an adult ritual, Bonomo and his wife praying as they set out on a trip, and depicts how and why Bonomo returned to prayer in college. One thing I like about his essays on faith is their roots in a frankly utilitarian view of religion, which after all is most usefully about practical matters—not abstractions like whether an external God exists but how we might live more humanely.

From “Occasional Prayer”:

My occasional prayer finds me less reaching a higher state than desperately shedding ego. Perhaps this explains my impulse to write autobiographically. Does self-addition wiggle from its straightjacket by turning outward to others in an attempt to make larger humane sense? And I wonder, can I pray for that. Prayer does not change God, writes Kierkegaard, but changes him who prays. . . .

Amy and I are back from our drive later, and I’ll repeat to myself what she’d said in the car when I asked her why her prayers are longer than mine. More people to say hello to. More people to stretch toward on the thin prop of prayer. More to caress in absentia, to tap lovingly on a shoulder knowing that touch is a foreign language, not spoken here. There. And I’ll wonder, who do I have to say hello to? Who do I have to surprise, moist-eyed, my mouth moving oddly, slowly, the other tilting his head tenderly to make out the words. Alone to myself in my room, my words perish on the mirror.

In an interview with the campus newspaper where he teaches, Northern Illinois University, Bonomo said his essays are about “the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language [. . . an] attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.”

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began won the Orphan Press Book Contest. Bonomo’s other books include AC/DC’s Highway to HellJerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School.

He answered some questions:

Your new book is organized into four themed parts, and within the sections medium-length essays alternate with short lyrical meditations or tone poems. How did this structure develop, and once you had it how did it influence individual essays’ content or placement within a section?

The overall structure materialized near the end of the process. At some point I realized that I was going to have these longer essays and these shorter, micro-essays or prose poems together, that they were going to have to work it out. Once I took a step back and recognized the book’s essential themes, I saw clusters of essays that worked well together, and they began to fall into these four sections. The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces in such a way that would, one, imply my subjects and interests rather than name them directly, and two, allow the longer and shorter essays to work together without feeling as if they were gathered together artificially. I had to trust my instinct that in the experiences I was exploring there was a need for sustained attention in the form of longer essays, as well as a need for a brief, momentary recollections or narratives in the form of smaller pieces. Our experiences, and our memories of them, are so varied in shape and texture and temperature, and call for different forms, I think.

Why did you want to imply rather than name your subjects and interests?

Well, I think that comes from Walter Pater who said “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” To my mind, music is an abstraction, and abstraction evokes rather than states, a place where I like my essays, which are generally lyric- rather than narrative-based, to go, and the place where they usually originate. I try in my essays to circumvent designating my subjects; I’d rather the language and the selection of details and the story-telling, if there’s any, to do that.

Phillip Lopate has said that an essay can tell as well as show, and that’s of course true, but I like essays too that evoke rather than declare, though there are plenty of declarative sentences in my essays. That’s one reason why I like segmented essays so much: the white spaces act as a kind of transparent connective tissue. It’s more exciting to be held aloft by wires that you can’t see. And that same strategy went in to arranging the book and the essays within the sections.

I sense a strong link with poetry in your essays, or perhaps it’s that you seem to have a background in poetry as well as in creative nonfiction. Is this impression accurate and, if so, what did studying poetry bring to your prose? What poets were strong influences and why?

Yeah, in graduate school at Ohio University I wrote poems, in fact wrote a poetic thesis and dissertation. Sometime in the mid-1990s I began to grow dissatisfied with writing poems and turned to writing prose. It wasn’t overnight nor was it something I was really conscious of at the time, except that I felt that I wanted to write sentences and not concern myself so much with line breaks. That’s a very simple decision that had a monumental impact on me as a writer. I’d been reading essays but really had to catch up—I still am. I think that because of my love of poetry I gravitated toward writing essays that were lyric in impulse, or in origin. Like most of us I’ve always remembered, and observed the world, in snatches, shards, and brief scenes, narratively-speaking. So my early essays, some of which are in the book, are quite short—not as short as the micro-essays or prose poems; those originated in deliberate attempts at brevity—and in retrospect definitely stem from the lyric moments I’d been working with in my poems. But my poems had begun to feel to me squeezed out, too dry or spindly, and I wanted to push my sentences a bit, to “tell” and chase ideas or analyze more while still allowing imagery and abstraction and music into the writing.

There were poets I loved to read—Stevens, Kinnell, Plath, Lowell and later, Russell Edson, Dennis Schmitz, Mark Irwin, and other contemporaries—but I don’t know that they’ve been direct influences, more like compass pulls toward lyric abstraction as I’m writing sentences and paragraphs.

Your work seems conversant with the entire tradition of the essay, from classical essays—Montaigne’s work comes to mind—to today’s lyric form. What do the essay’s roots have to teach us? Which essayists, whether ancient or modern, have most influenced you?

The roots of the essay have everything to tell us. On some level each essay begins with What do I know? The great turn that an essay can make, has to make in my opinion, is to move from that essential question to Why do I know? That is, why does this linger, why do I now feel compelled to explore it? What don’t I know? Every essayist is fond of highlighting the word essay’s etymological roots in “the attempt, the weighing out,” and that’s always important to remember, for young essayists especially, who need to be urged to go beyond story, to really believe that an essay should start not with What but with Why, an attempt to make sense of something that’s either dimly understood or so well-understood that it might benefit from a skeptical reassessment. My favorite quote about the essay is Huxley’s: “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” An essay can do anything in the world as long as the essayist is writing candidly and honestly.

Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf have had some influence on me, I think, as have contemporaries Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Vivian. As a single influential book, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker In The City is up there, both for its subject and its style. But lots of writers from different places—fiction writers like Andre Dubus, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Larry Brown, rock & roll writers and cultural critics like Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the baseball writer Roger Angell, even Phyllis Richman, the restaurant reviewer at the Washington Post who I read every Sunday when I was growing up!—all these people have also influenced my writing and my approach toward nonfiction, some directly, some indirectly. A model is always good to have for a writer, to see where one overlaps with that model as well as where, and how, one doesn’t.

The self and its experiences are what the essayist has to work with, yet in practice both components face the presumed “so what” test and are tricky to pull off. You quote V.S. Naipaul on this: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” Could you discuss this in terms of your own subjects and your use of persona?

This is the great paradox of personal writing. Why should the reader care? Because the writer cares? That’s not enough. What I love about Naipaul’s quote is his necessity on song, the crafting. The image I always use, that I’ve discussed before, is of a silhouette: by the end of an essay or a book of autobiographical nonfiction the writer should morph into a silhouette, a persona-outline into which the reader steps, and into which the reader fits, perhaps surprisingly. Montaigne said that we have inside ourselves the entire human condition, and I think the smartest essayist both embraces this and is deeply skeptical of it. The work comes less in being attentive to potential subject matter than in shaping that subject in such a way that might resonate with a reader. And the reader works, too. Some essays —I’m thinking right now of work by Nabakov and John D’Agata and Lia Purpura, Richard Rodriguez or David Foster Wallace, or Walter Benjamin—need time and patience on the part of the reader, to let digressions and footnotes and expansion do their work at coherence.

But the art, and hopefully the resonance for the reader, comes in the shaping. The tops of my students’ heads lift off when they get it, finally, that an essay can come from anywhere—it doesn’t have to originate in sexy or dramatic or otherwise trendy subject matter. Their spirits flag a bit when they realize the work involved. They learn, and I’ve learned: “This does not matter simply because it happened to me, or even simply because the experience might be unique.” Paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, the value is in the telling, the exploring, the doubt and uncertainty, the chase toward something tangible—not in the events. My childhood and adolescence were statistically normal, I’m happy to report. The subjects I explore in my book—suburbia, cities, Catholicism, faith, sex, landscape—are hardly novel or sexy or fraught with drama or abuse or adversity through which I’ve been transformed. What an essay says is: Being alive is startling, an astounding subject; that’s everything, let’s go there.

Your thematic mix is interesting in itself, and your exploration of sex and faith, in particular, is unusual. Despite those being such fraught subjects, your stance seems much the same as for your other topics—here’s something that happened and that interests me—and I wonder if you’d discuss your approach? Also, because many of these thirty-eight essays first appeared in journals, I wonder how readers, including editors, have reacted?

The experience of growing up Catholic was a kind of fun-house mirror held up to sexuality. On the one hand, Catholicism is a very sensuous faith in that among its foci is the body: Christ’s body, both divine and human, sacred and wounded, the priest’s body, devout but flawed, my body, all hopped-up and going nuts in puberty. But the church also taught me about self-abuse, about the dangers of indulging, about the sins of the body. So around age 13 or 14 as I was mentally undressing the girls around me during mass or thinking about the underwear ads in the Washington Post Magazine, while struggling to pay attention to the sermon and the sacraments, there was an age-old conflict going on. Urge versus abnegation, urge versus sin, urge versus propriety, the afterlife. It was a heady mix, to say the least. And, as you said, I approach writing about it as I would anything else intense that I experienced: this must be made to matter. But the mingling of sex and faith was—is—such an overwhelmingly present subject for me, that I trusted to its value.

Readers and editors have been fine with these subjects. I don’t think that I’m particularly explicit, and I try and write respectfully, even if what I’m essaying at times are moments of rather brutal objectifying on my part. But living is complicated.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-personal, implication, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

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A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

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Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. —Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 230 pp.

 Novelist Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir about life with her depressive mother in working-class England breaks the rules that American memoirists live by. By the rules I mean our emphasis on scene. I won’t bash scene—it’s vital for really conveying one’s experience—and usually scene is deepened and balanced with exposition: summary and reflection. Instead, Winterson’s story is heavily expository—she tells this tale, and she reflects upon it, all from some distance. Scenes come in brief flashes or are heavily interlarded with exposition. She gives the perspective of the writer at her desk rather than that of the child who was “shut in a coal hole” or locked out all night on the family’s doorstep.

Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? took some recalibration, but this Yank got into it, impressed by the distilled rigor of Winterson’s thought, by the cadence of her sentences, by the coldness of her eye, by the still-raw pain that emerges, by the writer’s honesty about her own ornery self.

Forbidden books saved her, sent her to Oxford, to life, to a distinguished literary career with seventeen books on the shelf. Here she is on literature, first on Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur: 

     In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/ returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

. . .

     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

. . .

     I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost. . . .

It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

The Times (UK) is quoted on the memoir’s cover: “Arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years.”

I supposed this an overstatement—but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does feel like some kind of masterpiece. For some reason, perhaps her originality, Winterson reminds me of Gertrude Stein.

Winterson is the author of the autobiographical novel about a young lesbian, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s about an adopted girl growing up in the north of England with a huge, depressive, religious fanatic Pentecostal mother and a kindly but passive father. It may be that her novel is scenic—I haven’t yet read it—and that like many fiction writers, Winterson tends to tell rather than show in her nonfiction.

This aspect didn’t merit a mention in a review by Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review, so maybe I’m overstating what struck me. Harrison writes:

     It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson [what Winterson calls her mother] imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

Winterson also writes about her own dominant temperament, her over-reactive rages and black moods. She traces her bereft nature, her soul filled with inconsolable loss, to the fact that her birth mother, only seventeen, gave her up after breastfeeding her for six weeks. She is convinced that she felt the rejection—as was I by the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what her adoptive mother said upon learning that Winterson was gay and intended live with her lovers blissfully and openly. In other words, normal people are unhappy, so get over yourself and join them in their misery. (“Mrs. Winterson was gloriously wounded, like a medieval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus, and she dragged her cross for all to see.”)

When Winterson escapes her Dickensian childhood for Oxford she reflects:

     The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going—and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible, unseen except in its effects.

Strangely, perhaps, Winterson does not condemn her mother’s fundamentalist church, or even her warped, apocalyptic, Old Testament mother. Her mother was unbelievably strange: she hung watercolors, inherited from her mother, with their faces against the wall because of the Bible’s admonition against graven images. But people lived a “deeper, more thoughtful life” because of that woman’s church, her adopted daughter says, and studying the Bible “worked their brains”; they belonged to “something big, something important” that lent their lives unity and meaning. Winterson elaborates:

     A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce—we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives—money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning—it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Suddenly and rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the way through, this literature-saturated reminiscence becomes a tale of Winterson’s search for her birth mother. There are surprises galore in that story, which fuels the memoir’s growing power. I won’t give it away. But the book soars at the end with a meditation on wounds, and another, even more astringent, on love. Winterson riffs on the wounded in classical literature, and writes:

     The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

I’ll say this about this not-very-scenic memoir. I want to read it again. That’s because, I think, it isn’t merely a recitation or recreation of a dysfunctional childhood. It’s no Angela’s Ashes. Rather it is about someone who made something of what was made of her—and that’s always interesting, always news. Winterson doesn’t convey experience as much as she conveys the residue of that experience. Herself. Her mind. Her happiness, or at least her feeling of being lucky, that she has the life she does because she became herself, forged by books, by Oxford, and yes, by Mrs. Winterson.

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Essay’s ancient spell, memoir’s transformation

[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41

 

At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .

But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91

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‘Our Secret’ by Susan Griffin

Often I have looked back into my past with a new insight only to find that some old, hardly recollected feeling fits into a larger pattern of meaning.—“Our Secret”

Susan Griffin’s long essay, a chapter in her book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, is about the hidden shame and pain humans carry and their consequences. It is an astonishing essay, a meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.

As an essay, it shows the power of a writer’s voice—the scenes are few and spare in its forty-eight pages—but it’s mesmerizing. “Our Secret” has joined my pantheon of all-time great essays,  along with Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Despite its innovative braided structure, Griffin’s essay is much like Baldwin’s in being a rather classical reflective essay, though Baldwin’s essay’s spine employs a more traditional framed structure (opening and closing in essentially the same scene). Somehow Griffin achieves narrative drive with her segmented approach, perhaps because of her interesting juxtapositions, intense focus, and the quiet power of her language as her family’s own story unfolds alongside those of war criminals and victims.

“Our Secret” is a hybrid of memoir, history, and journalism, and is built with these discrete strands: the Holocaust; women affected by World War II directly or indirectly in their treatment by husbands and fathers; the harsh, repressive boyhood of Heinrich Himmler, who grew up to command Nazi rocketry and became the key architect of Jewish genocide; the testimony of a man scarred by war; and Griffin’s own desperately unhappy family life and harsh, repressed girlhood. In between these chunks are short italic passages of just a few sentences on cell biology—for instance, how the shell around the nucleus of the cell allows only some substances to pass through—and on the development of guided missiles in Germany and, later, by many of the same scientists, in the United States, where nuclear warheads were added and the ICBM created.

Griffin returns often to the thread of Himmler’s life, going back to his boyhood diary, a recording of times and trivial events, that his father Gebhard, a schoolmaster, required him to keep. Griffin reflects on her own life in relation to Himmler’s:

I was born in 1943, in the midst of this war. And I sense now that my life is still bound up with the lives of those who lived and died in this time. Even with Heinrich Himmler. All the details of his existence, his birth, childhood, adult years, death, still resonate here on earth. . . .

In the past few years I have been searching, though for what precisely I cannot say. Something still hidden which lies in the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s life. I have been to Berlin and Munich on this search, and I have walked over the gravel at Dachau. Now as I sit here I read once again the fragments from Heinrich’s boyhood diary that exist in English. I have begun to think of these words as ciphers. Repeat them to myself, hoping to find a door into the mind of this man, even as his character first forms so that I might learn how it is he becomes himself.

It is not easy. The earliest entries in the diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even the breath of a self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot.

Griffin comments on the ordinary “mask” Himmler’s parents usually wore in photographs, like anyone—the father kindly, even. But this contrasts with the advice of German childrearing experts at the time that parents should crush the child’s will, dominate and suppress him. Braces and straps were used to correct posture while standing and sitting, and to prevent masturbation. “The child, Dr. Schreber advised, should be permeated by the impossibility of locking something in his heart.

Of course there cannot be one answer to such a monumental riddle, nor does any event in history have a single cause. Rather a field exists, like a field of gravity that is created by the movements of many bodies. Each life is influenced and it in turn becomes an influence. Whatever is a cause is also an effect. Childhood experience is just one element in the determining field.

As a man who made history, Heinrich Himmler shaped many childhoods, including, in the most subtle of ways, my own. And an earlier history, a history of governments, of wars, of social customs, an idea of gender, the history of a religion leading to the idea of original sin, shaped Heinrich Himmler’s childhood as certainly as any philosophy of child raising. One can take for instance any formative condition of his private life, the fact that he was a frail child, for example, favored by his mother, who could not meet masculine standards, and show that his circumstance derived its real meaning from a larger social system that gave inordinate significance to masculinity.

Yet to enter history through childhood experience shifts one’s perspective not away from history but instead to an earlier time just before history has finally shaped us. Is there a child who existed before the conventional history that we tell of ourselves, one who, though invisible to us, still shapes events, even through this absence?

In this I recall a cast-off thought: what was I like before relationships and opinions hardened, my own and others’, and took irreversible and unchangeable form? Griffin, on the track of Himmler’s soul that was lost in boyhood, buried under a rage turned inward as much as outward, speaks to a rabbi in Berlin who appears to have lost his faith. Yet here in this somber essay there’s a shard of hope: “Still, despite his answer, and as much as the holocaust made a terrible argument for the death of the spirit, talking in that small study with this man, I could feel from him the light of something surviving.”

Himmler’s stilted diaries remind Griffin of life in her grandmother’s home, where she was sent at age six when her parents divorced. She says, with chilling simplicity, “We were not comfortable with ourselves as a family. There was a great shared suffering, and yet we never wept together, except for my mother, who would alternately weep and rage when she was drunk. Together, under my grandmother’s tutelage, we kept up appearances. Her effort was ceaseless.” In particular, her grandmother worked to reshape Griffin. Grammar. Manners. Memorization. Drill.

The Griffin family was terrified, like Himmler’s, that its modest origins would be discovered, and had managed to forget one side’s Jewish roots. Just so, young Heinrich was taught to befriend boys whose fathers held prestigious jobs; he was taught to be punctilious in manner and increasingly harsh.

Griffin reflects on how boys are shaped into men:

Most men can remember a time in their lives when they were not so different from girls, and they also remember when that time ended. In ancient Greece, a young boy lived with his mother, practicing a feminine life in her household, until they day he was taken from her into to the camp of men. From this day forward the life that had been soft and graceful became rigorous and hard, as the older boy was prepared for the life of a soldier.

Researching her book in Paris, Griffin meets a woman, Helene, who survived one of Himmler’s death camps. She’d been turned in by another Jew and tracked down using a net of information—a system tracing back to Himmler’s boyhood diaries—collected on cards and sent to the Gestapo for duplication and filing, the work of countless men and women. “One can trace every death to an order signed by Himmler,” writes Griffin, “yet these arrests could never have taken place on such a massive scale without this vast system of information. What did they think, those who were enlisted for this work?”

She leaps ahead: “The men and women who manufacture the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs do not tell themselves they are making weapons. They say simply that they are metal forgers.”

Many learn this ability in childhood, to become strangers to themselves, she points out. And outwardly the Nazi mechanism of death was cloaked in legality: “These crimes, these murders of millions, were all carried out in absentia, as if by no one in particular.” Others inflict more directly upon others the suffering they have endured. Leo, a Russian refugee, brutalized in a German prison in World War II, made his way to America. In high school, he and his friends decoyed and beat up gay men for sport. Later he was drafted for the Korean War and assigned to interrogate Russian prisoners.

He was given two men to question. With the first man he made every kind of threat. But he carried nothing out. The man was resolutely silent. And Leo learned nothing from him. He left the room with all his secrets. You can never, Leo told me later, let any man get the better of you. With the second man he was determined not to fail. He would get him to tell whatever he knew. He made the same threats again, and again met silence. Then, suddenly, using his thumb and finger, he put out the man’s eye. And as the man was screaming and bleeding, he told him he would die one way or the other. He was going to be shot. But he had the choice now of seeing his executioners or not, of dying in agony or not. And then the man told him his secrets.

Sharing his sins, Leo does not break down until he tells Griffin of how, after the war, he killed an innocent black man with the butt of a pistol. Looking into the man’s broken face, Leo sees “he’s just like me.” Griffin breaks down as she finds the core of her own rage, her memory at eight years old of the injustice of a punishment by her grandmother. In her desire to make the woman feel the same pain, her imagination takes over: “I am forcing her to feel what I feel. I am forcing her to know me. And as I strike her, blow after blow, a shudder of weeping is released in me, and I become utterly myself, the weeping in me becoming rage, the rage turning to tears, all the time my heart beating, all the time uttering a soundless, bitter, passionate cry, a cry of vengeance and of love.”

This powerful, inspiring essay lingers in the mind.  “Our Secret” took courage to write, and it bravely asks a reader to consider unpleasant subjects and to slow down. Slowly it teaches one how to read it and begin to appreciate its many layers, its juxtapositions, its depths.

I’m grateful to my blogging friend Paulette Bates Alden for giving me a copy of “Our Secret” while trying to help me with one of my essays. Googling Griffin’s name and the essay’s title reveals a cottage industry among writing teachers and students. I sampled a few student reactions to “Our Secret” and was impressed by their insights; though there are many essay services that supply slacking students with interpretations, I like to think the ones I read were original.

I found a full text of the essay (at: learning.writing101.net/wp-content/readings/griffin_our_secret.pdf ) that a teacher uploaded (often you can find these by googling the author’s name and the essay’s title and “pdf”); and I also bought her book.

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Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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