Category Archives: essay-narrative

Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Lee Martin, speaking at Otterbein University on April 9, 2013

“Write what you don’t know”: Lee Martin, speaking to my class at Otterbein University, April 9, 2013.

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve been using it this semester, in fact, as a textbook, reading it for the third or fourth time with a group of twenty junior and senior college students. The kids love the book, are fascinated by its stories, which are about Martin’s tumultuous growing up years and his middle-aged dilemmas, and some mix those two time periods. I pat myself on the back for choosing Such a Life and for starting my students off with its “Never Thirteen,” one of the most beautiful and affecting essays I’ve ever read, about Martin’s relationship with his first girlfriend. After reading that essay, my students were hooked. They’re still close to their first crushes, after all, and they found Martin’s depiction of the tenderness of the young sweethearts, set against the sour adults around them, thrilling and surprising. I think they’d never read anything like it.

Just as some fiction writers say they’ve typed up Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn to write, one of these days I’m going to type up “Never Thirteen.” Having already reviewed the book, I won’t go into more detail about Such a Life here, except to say that Martin is a master at exploiting the enriching advantages of the memoiristic dual narrator—him “then” as a character in the action, him “now” stepping in to comment—and at writing essays that, simply put, are interesting. When he graciously came to my class last night to speak with my students, in answer to one’s question about how he knows his family stories will be interesting to anyone else, Martin said, “If it interests me, I figure it will interest someone else.”

But that’s the end of his long answer and therefore misleading. He told my class he works on an essay for about three months on average; he’s exploring, discovering the whole time, working without a net, no outline (though he plotted during his long apprenticeship); when he writes he doesn’t picture a reader he’s confessing to or entertaining but feels he’s having a conversation with himself, with the different parts of himself. In this regard, one of my favorite quotes about nonfiction comes from him, writing on his excellent blog:

In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another.

All semester, my students have been fascinated by Martin’s openness, by his willingness to reveal things that make himself look bad, and a couple asked about that last night. He pointed out that that’s his past self, that we all have faults and have made mistakes. When you portray other people in nonfiction, he said, you are inescapably going to write about their faults, so you’d better write about your own. Besides, he said, he forgives his younger self, or at least views him with some wisdom, from time and age. He writes about what perplexes and bugs him, past and present, testing possibilities and moving toward an understanding he didn’t have. “Write what you don’t know,” he told my students. A good example is Martin’s essay in The Sun, “No Ears Have Heard,” which was spurred by an incident Martin witnessed while waiting to check out at Wal-Mart and grew into an evocative portrayal of the hidden burdens people carry.

Martin told me that it took him twelve years after earning his MFA to pull all elements of craft together and to grasp the intangibles. Where does he stand in a fictional piece with a first-person narrator? How can he view life with Flannery O’Connor’s “anagogical vision,” which means seeing “different levels of reality in one image or one situation”? He said Richard Ford’s famous short story collection Rock Springs helped him find and free his voice. And along the way he learned with help from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction that a story is not just about a conflict or its resolution but about something else that, by the end, is rising. Call it implication, perhaps, in part. Martin’s persistence and study resulted in his first book, a collection of short stories, The Least You Need to Know.

As he explains in his most recent blog post:

This writing business takes a thick skin, persistence, a willingness to fail, to listen to why I failed, to figure out a way to not fail again while at the same time accepting that I will. Developing as a writer takes an intelligence, an ability to look at one’s work as if you’re not the one who wrote it, an acceptance that there are other writers who know more than you do, who are more talented, who are farther along. Steal from them whenever you can.

• • •

It took me six years to begin to answer these questions for myself:

1. From what world do I wish to speak? (the small towns and farming communities of my native Midwest)

2. What’s my material? What am I obsessed with? (issues of violence and redemption, the consequences of deceit and betrayal, the blending of the moral and the profane)

3. How is the person, Lee Martin, connected to the writer, Lee Martin? (I spent my adolescence balanced on the thin line between my mother’s compassion and my father’s cruelty; it finally struck me that everything I wrote was in some way an attempt to navigate that boundary.)

Lee Martin makes a point.

Persistence, acceptance, humility: Lee Martin makes a point.

I asked my students what they thought of Lee Martin after meeting him in person rather than just through the page. “He’s so soft-spoken,” one said—a few may have been concerned, after the darkness of some of his stories—“but he’s funny!” Yes, they agreed, he’s funny. He’s a lifelong teacher, and by all accounts a great one, so I must’ve expected humor to be part of his quiver of tools. Beyond that, he was funny like a Zen master is funny, which seems to involve laughing through well-dried tears. But they saw that too, my students.

The medium was, in the end, the message. Isn’t it always? Martin revealed himself in tangible and intangible ways—through his craft advice, his candor, and his persona, at once crafty, wry, and sincere. Through great effort, he’s made himself into an artist. Maybe that’s no more rare or precious than becoming a successful businessman or “learning to think like a lawyer,” though of course to me it is. And it was to a classroom of students, here at Otterbein University, who’ve been touched by his art.

Advertisements

16 Comments

Filed under essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, teaching, education

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.

Stephens-Days are Gods

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.

12 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-classical, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Tale of a gravedigger’s daughter

Graves to Horizon x

It takes a village to raise a child, and my village was the graveyard.

—from Rachael Hanel’s memoir

 We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter by Rachael Hanel. University of Minnesota Press, 177 pp.

hanel-cover-small-copyRachael Hanel grew up in a sleepy Minnesota town where old people “have more faith that cars will stop for them than they have in Jesus Christ.” But where her gravedigger father could joke, with a darker edge than any TV Mayberry admits, about a jaywalking elderly woman, “Business has been a little slow. Should I gun it?” Even sincere, hard-working folk—especially them?—can be naughty. Maybe need to be. Especially when they’re gravediggers and cemetery-tenders, their noses rubbed constantly in the taboo, the unspeakable, the humdrum matter of death. Her father, in wry response to his mundane-macabre role, dubbed himself Digger O’Dell, and took for his business motto the cheeky pun that gives Hanel’s memoir its title.

“Death infiltrated our lives,” Hanel writes, casually mentioning how a man’s ashes, shipped from California in a white box wrapped in clear packing tape, once sat on their clothes dryer for a week or two, “bouncing and vibrating every time Mom did a load of laundry.”

Surrounded by death, playing and working in cemeteries, Hanel was more aware than most of mortality as she grew up but was untouched personally by its sibling, grief, until her vibrant father was struck down. His abrupt, agonizing death from cancer came when she was fifteen. The thirteen linked memoir essays in We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down circle this loss and culminate in its depiction.

The tone of Hanel’s writing is exquisitely pitch-perfect. She achieves a plainspoken charm and a depth in the spare elegance of her expression, inseparable from her appealingly forthright Midwestern persona. Due credit must be given to her mother, who told young Rachael stories of loss, harrowing and gruesome tales of how those bodies came to her father for burial, and kindled in her daughter the storytelling impulse. Here’s Hanel on her bookish childhood and the dark turn her reading took:

Other people my age also went to wakes—we were all part of this small town. But no one went as much as I. No one spent their summer days in cemeteries, though occasionally my friend, Amy, came with me, and we rode our three-speed bikes up and down cemetery roads. I didn’t feel the need to talk about my immersion in death. I didn’t feel a heavy pressing on my chest that had to get out. People here didn’t show much emotion; we didn’t pour out our love and sadness. These were people of periods, not exclamation points. If I couldn’t connect with people in person, I could connect with them on the page.

I knew death but Bridge to Terabithia showed me grief, the part of the story others left out. I learned what could happen to the people left behind. At wakes I caught only glimpses of grief, those initial moments of shock that render family as zombies. Immediate grief forms a quiet, hard surface that makes it impossible to peer inside. Quiet tears slipped down cheeks, of course, and there were gentle hugs, but the calm surface of a sea hides volatile riptides flowing beneath.

The murders of 1986 made the gap between Bridge to Terabithia and Helter Skelter very small indeed. The summer, with its violent deaths, demanded a book on the scale of Helter Skelter.

In our house, it was perfectly appropriate for an eleven-year-old to read Helter Skelter. I had no need to hide it, no need to read it furtively by flashlight like it was some type of pornography. I read it out in the open, in a chair in the living room while everyone else watched TV. Mom valued a good story; she wasn’t going to stop me. Tales of grisly murder, violence, and disaster had knitted me in the womb.

A former newspaper reporter, Hanel lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and works for Kaplan University as an administrator. She’s an adjunct journalism instructor for Minnesota State University-Mankato, and is the author of many nonfiction narratives for children. She answered some questions for Narrative:

You’ve said that your memoir took you thirteen years to complete. Why so long?

I used to feel badly about this, but then I took a step back to examine why the writing process was so slow. I was always doing other things while writing. I’m somewhat of a workaholic and blessed/cursed with a strong work ethic. A 40-hour week to me is like a vacation, because I’ve usually always had side jobs on top of full-time work. When you’re working for a paycheck, that needs to take priority over creative writing, at least in my world.

Here’s an inventory of things I’ve done in the past 13 years besides writing: completing an M.A. degree in history; running four marathons; completing about 10 triathlons; maintaining a happy marriage; maintaining lifelong friendships. There were times when I wanted to work on my book but other things took precedence. After working all week and not connecting with my husband, it felt unfair to him to say, “Honey, I know I haven’t talked much to you for a couple of days, but I’d like to work on my book now.” Or it felt wrong to say no to a nephew’s birthday party or no to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. So the 13 years represents how writing fit into my “real life.”

I’m struck by the fact that you were an experienced nonfiction writer, as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author, yet it appears that to produce your memoir you had to create your own MFA program by attending workshops and classes for years. Could you explain your education process in creative nonfiction? What was the challenge of personal nonfiction since you apparently had the factual down cold?

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Not doing an MFA wasn’t a conscious choice. This may sound strange, but when I decided to go to grad school, I was so steeped in the journalism world that I didn’t even really know what an MFA was. I had a vague notion of creative nonfiction, mostly in terms of literary journalism, but I thought that was something for others to pursue, not me (because I was a “serious” journalist). I got a graduate degree in history, mostly because I love history very much and I thought it would be a good complement to journalism. By the time I was finishing my M.A., I realized I should have pursued an MFA instead, but it was too late. So I looked for writing classes elsewhere, namely at The Loft in Minneapolis. I took several creative nonfiction classes there and also was part of the 2007-08 Loft Mentorship Series. In the mentorship, four of us nonfiction writers worked closely with noted nonfiction writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich. In addition, I read a lot of narrative nonfiction and memoir, closely examining structure, narrative arc, and writing style.

Writing memoir was hard! I went into the process thinking it would be easy, since I already knew how to write and had journalism experience. I had no idea what memoir really entailed. This is where an MFA would have been beneficial. For me, it was more of a trial-by-error process with some feedback along the way from trusted readers and writers who pointed me in the right direction. This is also probably part of the reason why the writing of the memoir took so long. I was about five years into the writing of my memoir before I really figured out how to ditch the journalistic voice.

Each of your linked essays has a structure, but so does the overall work, which moves toward the depiction of your father’s death and the devastating effect of his loss on your family. How did you envision the overarching structure of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down?

Structure was something I played around with quite a bit. For a long time the manuscript consisted of separate essays, many of which were written as stand-alone pieces that I had submitted to journals and contests. When I was figuring out how to put them all together, I came across information about the three-act structure. I bought a couple of writing books that were more screenplay-oriented. When I read them, that was really a breakthrough moment. My story doesn’t fit neatly into the three-act formula, but I did use it as a loose organizational structure.

I’m interested in your persona in the book as the storyteller who clearly exists beyond the action, in the writer’s “now,” yet who allows the character of you “then” her moments. Was this a natural impulse or did you have to work out where you stood as the narrator?

I hear a lot about this in writing books, writing classes, etc. But to be honest, I didn’t know a lot about narrator perspective as I was writing the book. I guess I wrote in a way that felt natural to me. In the process of revising and getting feedback, readers helped me refine the perspective. But it was not anything I planned out before I wrote—“OK, what perspective do I use here? The now-perspective? The then-perspective?” That would have made me feel that I was overthinking things and the result may have been stilted.

Your book’s tone, or maybe some would call it voice, is impressive, deftly balanced in terms of diction, mood, and the content of what’s being expressed; it feels both controlled, in terms of conscious intent, and pleasantly colloquial or natural, seemingly offhand. How did you work this out?

The “voice” question! 🙂 When I was in writing classes, discussion about voice drove me crazy, mostly because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. Voice was always a nebulous, confusing, abstract topic. I didn’t know what my voice was or how to achieve a voice. After a while, I gave up trying to define it. When discussion would come back to voice or when I would read about voice in a writing book, I tuned out because I would get frustrated. I stopped thinking about it and just wrote.

My answer here relates to the one above. I wrote in a manner that felt natural to me. When I reread something that I had written, if it sounded strange or clunky or inappropriate to the topic, then I revised. I could flag some of that, and my friends who had read my drafts flagged some of it, too.

Both of these questions together make me realize that maybe there’s something to be said for not knowing too much about craft, at least in the beginning stages of writing. If I had taken a lot of writing classes and really studied things like narrator’s perspective and voice, I probably would have become mired down in those details just because that’s my personality. I’m sure studying craft deeply helps a lot of writers, but I think it probably would have just made me more anxious during the writing process.

We all have favorite memoirs, but do you have favorites that taught you moves you needed for your own memoir essays?

 You and I have talked about this one before, Richard—Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a major influence upon my writing. I bought it when in came out in 2006, mostly because I was interested in the fact that she spent part of her childhood in a funeral home. I was blown away upon my initial reading and read it probably eight more times over the years. My copy is marked up and I spent weeks poring over it and writing down a map of its narrative flow. I haven’t come across a more perfect example of memoir both structurally and also in terms of inner/outer story. She also is simply a brilliant, smart writer, but her intelligence doesn’t come across as fake.

A couple of Midwestern-based memoirs also were influential. My dear friend Nicole Helget—also based in Mankato—wrote a beautiful, lyrical memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, in 2006. Her story takes place in a town not far from where I grew up, so her memories of growing up in a rural area where a certain darkness permeated lives was very familiar. In terms of pure literary style, very few people do it better than Nicole.

I also enjoy Debra Marquart’s A Horizontal World, a story about growing up as a farmer’s daughter in North Dakota. As I was writing my memoir, I was curious as to how people wrote about rural places in a way that can be engaging to all readers. I have always been concerned that my story may be too “regional,” and I wanted to see what it was that made a writer break out of those confines and how he/she was able to tap into a larger story, even though the root of the story was Midwestern.

15 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, structure, teaching, education

John McPhee discusses chronological structure

Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.

Futuristic Ceiling x

You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker

“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”

And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”

You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”

McPheeArt

McPhee’s drawing of the structure of “Travels in Georgia”

McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”

I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.

McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.

There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.

Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.

In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.

Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.

27 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, structure, theme

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

27 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, fiction, humor, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

Review/Q&A: Lee Martin’s ‘Such a Life’

Stay in love with the journey.—Lee Martin

Such a Life by Lee Martin. University of Nebraska Press, 214 pp.

Lee Martin, an accomplished novelist, is also a master of life stories. His memoir From Our House focuses on his fraught relationship with his father, whose hands were mangled in a corn picker when Martin was a baby. Martin had been conceived accidentally to parents married late, his father thirty-eight and his mother forty-one, and his father had wanted to abort the pregnancy. Martin grew up in the wake of that impulse and of his father’s accident, suffering from the rage of a man with hooks instead of hands. As his father lashed him for misbehavior, a leather belt gripped in his pincers, Martin, a difficult boy, wailed in pain and terror, feeling abandoned by his meek mother.

The linked essays in Martin’s new collection Such a Life continue to explore his family, as well as his own adult life, at revealing yet ordinary moments. They show how people can love each other and constantly fail each other, how love can entwine with shame. This seems epitomized to me by how shy he and his father were with each other as they made up after beatings; each was ashamed of himself, the boy for being bad and provoking his father and the man for the rage he vented on the overly sensitive boy.

My favorite essay in Such a Life, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures such sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them.

An excerpt:

     That afternoon in Yankee Woods we stop on the trail, and there in the grove of trees, there in the dark, cool shade, she asks me if I have ever kissed a girl, and I’m so thankful for this moment—even now I remember with immense gratitude how she reached out and touched me, lightly on my forearm as if to say, It’s all right, whoever you are, it’s okay—that I can do nothing but tell her the truth, that I’m practically without experience; outside of a chaste kiss from my mother, my lips are virgin lips.

     “It’s not hard,” she says, and she steps closer. She gives me a shy smile. Her hair is thick and blonde and cut short, a la Mary Martin in South Pacific, and, like Nellie, Beth is kind and spirited, the girl next door and everyone’s friend, eager to be swept away by love. I can still see her in her white Oxford shirt, her blue culottes, her white sandals, her books cradled in the crook of her left arm. She lifts her chin, tilts her head to the side, and waits for me to take my cue. . . . 

     I don’t want my mother’s life to be mine. I don’t want to be old, not at thirteen. I don’t want to be unkissed. 

    “What about my nose?” I say to Beth. “Where do I put my nose?”

     I’m serious. It’s been a big concern of mine since seeing an episode on The Patty Duke Show in which Patty and a boy kept bumping noses when they kissed. I’m afraid that Beth will laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She explains patiently that she will tip her head to her right, and I will tip mine to my right, and everything will be fine.

The stakes are high because he has needed Beth’s kiss “since the first time my father whipped me with his belt and my mother did nothing to stop him.” And, in this aching puppy love, for the first time he becomes aware of his parents’ own loving intimacy: “[A]ll along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair.” There are flashes too in “Never Thirteen” of Martin’s own adult self, looking back ruefully and tenderly on his innocence and Beth’s.

Lee Martin, fiction writer, essayist, memoirist

There are other remarkable stories here, and they expanded my notion of how an essay could be used to capture and to reflect upon life. Martin is brave in his persona as well as likable, unafraid to show his own faults and fears as he encounters in boyhood a vicious bully, ponders an annoying neighbor as an adult, awkwardly tries to deal with his and his wife’s aging parents, and admits his regrets about his wife’s decision not to have children. His essays, with their candor, pathos, and wry humor, linger in the mind.

Many of the essays in Such a Life appeared first in literary journals, and some are available online. “Twan’t Much,” a concise essay about a lesson Martin learned, as a college student, from a poor coworker in a tire factory, appears in Brevity; Sweet published “Take, Eat,” about Martin’s mingled nostalgia and repugnance, as a vegan, for the farm food he grew up eating and about the difficulty he has in finding a decent meal on return visits to southern Illinois; The Sun offers an excerpt of “The Classified Ad,” about his efforts to help a woman find her brother, with whom Martin had fought as a boy; and Gulf Coast published “All Those Fathers That Night,” an innovative segmented essay about how a man, the father of six, killed himself in an alley beside the town’s barber shop, another haunting incident from Martin’s boyhood. In that essay, which closes the collection, Martin imagines the town’s fathers trying to grasp the tragedy; he misses his own father and imagines them reunited with nothing withheld between them, each his best self, each for once leaving nothing later to regret.

Martin writes about “All Those Fathers That Night” and creative nonfiction issues in an essay for Brevity. A creative writing teacher in the MFA program of Ohio State University, Martin writes about writing and teaching at his blog, The Least You Need to Know.

He answered some questions for Narrative:

Did you produce these essays as byproducts of other work, such as your two previous memoirs, or did they arise on their own, from questions that dogged you?

Richard, these essays were never parts of longer works. They were always meant to be discreet, stand-alone pieces, and, yes, they came from my attempt to respond to my life, focusing on matters that wouldn’t leave me alone over the past sixteen years or so.

You seem to have embraced fiction and nonfiction equally. How do you decide whether to explore something as a life story as opposed to in fiction, as a short story or novel?

When it seems important to me to claim the material as my own, I turn to nonfiction. I guess that means there’s something in the exploration of the material that seems important to my own development as a person. The nonfiction form allows me to announce that I’m using this material to think about something important to me. Of course, I often use fiction for the same purpose, but there’s something about the material for my novels and stories that doesn’t have that same urgent call to me. For whatever reason, it’s okay with me if no one ever knows where I am in that work.

With other material, though, such as the essays about my father, it’s crucial to me that I have the power of speaking directly about my own experience. Doing so helps me think about the complications of my life in a way that changes my relationship to them. I wrote a number of stories in my first book, THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW, that dealt with difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Even though I was obviously writing from the relationship I had with my own father, it was only after I wrote my first memoir, FROM OUR HOUSE, that I started to have any clarity about that relationship. Facing it directly was necessary for me to get beyond that experience.

I’m struck by the innovative structure and the everyday subjects of your essays, which epitomize to me the explosion of creativity and interest in creative nonfiction. How do you view this apparent surge in the genre?

One of the things that excites me about creative nonfiction is the elasticity of the form and how it can constantly reinvent itself. Even though I’m primarily interested in memoir and personal essay, I also write short, lyric pieces that appear in places like BREVITY, and I love sometimes immersing myself in voice and language and experiments with form just to see how all of that invites an expression of myself that I might not find in a more traditional essay form.

When you read memoir or personal essays, what are you looking for as a reader and as a writer?

As a reader, I’m looking for an emotional and intellectual connection to the material. As a writer, I’m hoping to be stunned, swept away, to the point that I say, “Damn, I wish I’d written this.” Then I take a hard look at how the writer was able to do what he or she did. In my teaching and my writing, I’m interested in how any artistic choice creates a specific effect. I’m interested in how those choices can be rethought if necessary. When I read other writers’ memoirs or personal essays, I’m looking for what I can learn, what I can borrow and put to use in my own work.

What lessons have you learned during the writing-reading-thinking process—whether in fiction or nonfiction—that have helped you the most?

When I started out as a fiction writer, I had to learn to trust my material, and I had to learn what my worldview was. The two things were linked for me. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Illinois, a farming community, and I spent too many years thinking, as young writers are apt to do, that no one was interested in reading about my world. Then I read the stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, who grew up not far from me in Mayfield, KY, and I saw that it was possible to write about the complicated lives of people who didn’t live in large cities. Richard Ford’s story collection, ROCK SPRINGS, was a big influence on me because, even though he was writing about the American West, I heard in his voice the voice I needed in order to access my material. When I applied that voice to my world, my view of how people interact began to come through. So I encourage students to write from the worlds that matter most to them and to listen to the sounds of those worlds.

You are known as a great teacher, and I’ve found the exercises for students on your blog very useful in the classroom. Are there some key points or lessons or ways of thinking that you try to give creative writing students by the time they graduate?

Thank you for that compliment, Richard. I suppose my answer to this question is partly contained in my answer to the one above—trust your material, write from the worlds that matter most to you, find the voice that best allows you to express your view of the way people bump up against one another—but I also try to impress on my students that writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Each piece we write demands we learn something new. We’re always in service to the craft, and we should stay focused on what brought us to writing in the first place—that love of the music language can make on the page.

I want my students to know that great disappointments and great victories await them, and that never changes no matter how long one’s career may be. Stay in love with the process, I tell them. Stay in love with the journey. Our obligation is to the piece we’re writing. The journey will take us to where we’re meant to be. Isak Dinesen said she wrote a little every day, without too much hope and without too much despair. That’s the approach I hope my students will embrace.

There’s another interview with Martin, by Dawn Haines, on the Brevity site.

9 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, teaching, education

Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

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

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

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

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

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

“Business,” I said.

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

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

I changed my major.

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

. . .

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

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s already sold them.”

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

. . .

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

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

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

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

Me at University of Florida, 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

But I left out Gopher.

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

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

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

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

18 Comments

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