Category Archives: essay-personal

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

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.

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

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

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

Adverse Camber x

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, craft.

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

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

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

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

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

New essay era, 17 classics by women

 

Bonus: Jake Adam York offers a fine minute of writing advice.

We’re living in the golden age of essays, proclaims a February 18 essay by Adam Kirsch in  New Republic. In “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television,” Kirsch immediately invokes as an example John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which in another day, with its roots in magazine pieces and celebrity profiles, might have been labeled journalism—but which, as an exciting hybrid of reportage and personal musing, can fairly be claimed by essayists.

And then Kirsch seems to backpedal from his opening pronouncement:

But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances.

So which is it, golden age or mirage? Well it seems to be more like a new wave, to help Kirsch mix his metaphors further. The self was always at the heart of the essay, he says, but the new essay is exclusively about the self. (Making me wonder whether Joan Didion ever wrote about anything but herself, in the end, and so how new is this new phenomenon?) The popularity of comedic essayists, who bare the world’s supposed assault on their egos, is Kirsch’s prime example: “What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.” Hmmm. If you say so. You don’t have to agree with him to find his essay interesting, albeit not very humorous despite his focus is on comedic essayists. He has some interesting things to say about the fictionalized personas they create to achieve their effects.

The most exciting thing about Kirsch’s piece is the way he posits the knowing collaboration between an obviously exaggerating author and his audience. Raising the question as to whether only humor gets a pass or if something else indeed might be brewing, the blurring of genres that David Shields has predicted and celebrated.

• • •

 Flavorwire has recently posted “17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read,” a varied selection of work by grizzled matriarchs and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The selection, made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, includes live links to a dozen of the essays. Classics like Virginia Woolf’s short “Street Haunting,” Adrienne Rich’s powerful “Split at the Root,” and Didion’s ambitious “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” appear with Jo Ann Beard’s contemporary classic “The Fourth State of Matter” and Cheryl Strayed’s more recent “Heroin/e.”

I haven’t followed all the available links, but of those I’ve read or re-read I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature.” No Thoreau, she. Oates’s beef with nature is  refreshing because of the assumed pieties of nature writers; at least, a pitfall of nature writing seems to be that it can so easily come off as smarmy. In any case it’s hard to argue with Oates when she points out, making a deliciously personal and curmudgeonly indictment that also seems true, that nature lacks a sense of humor.

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Filed under essay-personal, fiction, honesty, humor, journalism, NOTED

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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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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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-narrative, essay-personal, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, teaching, education

Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

An esteemed essayist and theorist, the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate was interviewed in 2008 by Lania Knight for Poets & Writers Magazine, online version. I just stumbled across it, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:

Creative nonfiction is somewhat distortedly being characterized as nonfiction that reads like fiction. Why can’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Why does it have to tart itself up and be something else? I make no apologies for the essay form, for the memoir form, or for any kind of literary nonfiction. These are genres that have been around for a long time, and we don’t have to apologize for them, or act like they’re new fads when they’re not. A colleague pointed out that James Frey, in his defense, said memoir is a new genre. He said there aren’t as many rules as there were when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing fiction. This is total nonsense because, in fact, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both wrote nonfiction as well. Frey showed his ignorance. Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life.

There’s a kind of bestseller that’s being written now, true crime nonfiction, which is essentially told through scenes. Perhaps this goes back to Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but the idea is to write a kind of narrative that makes you feel like you’re watching television, so it’s very close to a screen play. That’s okay, but I don’t see any reason to encourage graduate MFA nonfiction students all to write that way.

I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind. I’ll read an essayist, like E. B. White, who may write about the death of a pig one time, and racial segregation another time. Virginia Woolf may write about going on a walk to find a pencil, which seems like a very trivial subject, or about World War I, or a woman’s need for a room of her own. She has such a fascinating mind that I’m going to follow her, whatever she wants to write about. One of the ploys of the great personal essayists is to take a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then bring interest to it.

I have no desire to pick a fight with [immersion journalist Lee] Gutkind. I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.

There is a lot of great fiction that is largely reflective. Proust, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Sebald, Conrad, Samuel Beckett, on to the post-modernist people like David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. It’s not true that fiction is always showing and not telling. That’s a distortion, a very narrow way of looking at fiction.

One objection you could make to my prescription is that it’s rather snobbish. I’m interested in intelligence and interesting minds. You could finesse a certain amount of technique, scenes, and dialogue, but it’s hard to finesse having or not having an interesting mind. I try to read writers who are better than I am, or who have deeper minds than I do because I need to learn.

Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.

The most advanced literary theory talks about the dissolution of the self and asks if there is really an author. In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive. . . .

Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.” The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-personal, honesty, NOTED, scene, teaching, education