Category Archives: humor

James Thurber on memory & memoir

It is his own personal time, circumscribed by the short boundaries of his pain and his embarrassment, in which what happens to his digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six or eight persons and two or three buildings is of greater importance than what goes on in the nation or in the universe. He knows vaguely that the nation is not much good any more; he has read that the crust of the earth is shrinking alarmingly and that the universe is growing steadily colder, but he does not believe that any of the three is in half as bad a shape as he is.

—from the Preface to My Life and Hard Times (1933)

On fire as a writer.

On fire as a writer.

That was his third book, his breakout as a writer and humorist. I admire how Thurber (1894 – 1961), a son of Columbus, Ohio—where I now live—wrote personally but put a wry, distancing spin on things. He was his time’s David Sedaris. Humor is awareness of the Big Picture, as in the above, which universalizes the human flaws he saw in himself. I haven’t written much humor myself, and my memoir essays have tended to be darker stories, so I try to employ the distanced narrator (“I see now . . .” “Looking back, it’s clear that” “I wish I would have”) to give similar relief from the overly angst-ridden self. The reader can take a lot of personal drama and darkness if she senses that the writer himself has learned and grown.

Thurber discusses his writing assets seriously in an interview with The Paris Review:

Well, you know it’s a nuisance—to have memory like mine—as well as an advantage. . . . For instance, I can remember the birthday of anybody who’s ever told me his birthday. Dorothy Parker—August 22, Lewis Gannett—October 3, Andy White—July 9, Mrs. White— September 17. I can go on with about two hundred. So can my mother. She can tell you the birthday of the girl I was in love with in the third grade, in 1903. Offhand, just like that. I got my powers of memory from her. Sometimes it helps out in the most extraordinary way. You remember Robert M. Coates? Bob Coates? He is the author of The Eater of Darkness, which Ford Madox Ford called the first true Dadaist novel. Well, the week after Stephen Vincent Benét died—Coates and I had both known him—we were talking about Benét. Coates was trying to remember an argument he had had with Benét some fifteen years before. He couldn’t remember. I said, “I can.” Coates told me that was impossible since I hadn’t been there. “Well,” I said, “you happened to mention it in passing about twelve years ago. You were arguing about a play called Swords.” I was right, and Coates was able to take it up from there. But it’s strange to reach a position where your friends have to be supplied with their own memories. It’s bad enough dealing with your own.

And on planning, writing, and rewriting:

I don’t bother with charts and so forth. Elliott Nugent, on the other hand, is a careful constructor. When we were working on The Male Animal together, he was constantly concerned with plotting the play. He could plot the thing from back to front—what was going to happen here, what sort of situation would end the first-act curtain, and so forth. I can’t work that way. Nugent would say, “Well, Thurber, we’ve got our problem, we’ve got all these people in the living room. Now what are we going to do with them?” I’d say that I didn’t know and couldn’t tell him until I’d sat down at the typewriter and found out. I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint—old man propaganda.

. . .

For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on —“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.

. . .

Still, the act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not. I remember Elliot Paul and I used to argue about rewriting back in 1925 when we both worked for the Chicago Tribune in Paris. It was his conviction you should leave the story as it came out of the typewriter, no changes. Naturally, he worked fast. Three novels he could turn out, each written in three weeks’ time. I remember once he came into the office and said that a sixty-thousand-word manuscript had been stolen. No carbons existed, no notes. We were all horrified. But it didn’t bother him at all. He’d just get back to the typewriter and bat away again. But for me—writing as fast as that would seem too facile.

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Filed under humor, memoir, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, revision, working method

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

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.

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

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

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Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

People understand the constraints

Solstice musings: poetry, nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

Winter Patio x

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms. In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

Poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” :

I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but might have developed it as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

This slight poem—and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre—has this background: my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” said our daughter, switching sides and rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water.

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

This post originally ran Dec. 16, 2008. For the record, I rejoice at the winter solstice—because we’ve hit rock bottom: each day we get a few minutes more light. A child of summer, my despair comes on June 21 when we have reached our apogee of light and each day shortens even as summer lengthens. Wrong, deeply wrong.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, humor, MY LIFE, narrative, poetry, structure

Perchance to sit

I report a crucial difference between adults and college students.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended—William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Almost Christmas

Sunday night, I leashed the dog and took her upstairs. I had to grade a set of student essays, and the dog, Belle, had to accompany me because of a looming event at our house. My wife would soon host sixty freshmen. It was a holiday mixer for her class and for two others that share the theme of leadership.

How many?” I’d kept asking. “How many students are coming?”

“Sixty, in three classes. Probably only fifty will come.”

“Only fifty?”

So Belle, on the rug, and I in my leather Laz-E-Boy, heard the freshmen arrive downstairs. The noise of conversation rose up the stairwell, though not the roar that attends an equally large gathering of adults. I’ve hid upstairs for some of those, too, and listened to the happy cheer rising until, to be heard, everyone was screaming. From a slight remove: almost scary.

“Richard!” I heard Kathy call up to me. “Do you want to bring Belle down?” She’d forewarned me of this summoning, a showing of the family dog to the students.

So I ambled down with Belle. And what did my wondering eyes behold in our living room but students everywhere. Mostly they were sitting, which was a feat, given the numbers. Our coach held, oh, about twenty kids. Two big overstuffed chairs somehow held about four—each. Three unseated girls, looking forlorn, approached Belle and began to pet.

I tried to walk the dog around, but Kathy was desperately fetching odd chairs and there weren’t many paths. I had to leap back as Kathy, hair flying, shoved a leather ottoman past me from our study. The three lost girls settled instantly upon it like sparrows on a ledge.

’Tis the season of holiday gatherings and aching backs. For those, like me, who’ve worn out their spines, or who are merely middle-aged, the price of standing can seem high. If not right then, then the next morning. And this is what Kathy had expected, two roomfuls of standing students. Socializing, you know, like adults. She had sensibly allocated two rooms for this, our living room and our dining room. They would stand and talk and nibble on snacks for an hour. Only an hour—they knew this. Eighty adults have done as much.

But, alas, they sat.

From the packed living room, Belle and I made our way into the dining room, which seemed to be a transient space. Liminal, a writer might say. Just a few students, and a couple teachers gasping for air. Most of the room is taken up with the long table that I grew up around; Mom drove to North Carolina fifty years ago to buy it. On the table were urns of hot chocolate and coffee, trays of cookies, and vats of gummy bears.

Beyond lay our sunroom—kind of a cross between an enclosed porch and a freezer—that was packed to the rafters with the rest of the students. “I didn’t have it set up!” Kathy hissed. “They just went in there. I thought they’d socialize. They want to sit.”

In point of fact, they did.

Belle has seen some odd human behavior, no doubt, but I swear she did a double take, kind of like someone coming upon a violent Greyhound bus crash, there at the threshold of the sunroom. We couldn’t enter it beyond a pace. Finally I turned and led her back upstairs.

Now I sit too much, like most adults. If my waistline won’t let me forget that, neither will The New York Times, which runs an article every couple of days on how bad sitting is for us. The latest, on Saturday, upped the ante:

But a closer look at the accumulating research on sitting reveals something more intriguing, and disturbing: the health hazards of sitting for long stretches are significant even for people who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated recently in two studies, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

On the treadmill this morning, getting in my thirty minutes of activity before I sit for the rest of the day, I thought about this. But mostly about those students, who are so very active but who have the sense to sit down when they socialize. Or is it fear of each other that makes them sit? The questions only grew. Don’t weary soldiers collapse like this? Does each Age of Man possess, indeed, its wisdom?

“We learned something last night,” I told Kathy when she came down to the basement to say goodbye. “We’ll know next time. But why?”

“I don’t know,” she said above the treadmill’s whir, eager to get on with her day. “They wanted to sit.”

College freshmen. I can almost bring it back. In life somewhere between children, who run everywhere, and adults who when they stand do so as if rooted, they sat.

The older I get, the less I seem to know. So much is unknown, really. And how often do we truly see—and therefore learn—despite our age-barnacled selves? Kathy may be ready to put the past behind her, but not me, not yet, not this time. I’m here to witness, here to tell you. And I can only report what I saw last night with my own eyes.

Those kids, they sat.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, humor, MY LIFE

An essay of the empty nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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