Category Archives: journalism

Tale of a gravedigger’s daughter

Graves to Horizon x

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

—from Rachael Hanel’s memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values & the writer

Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.

William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:

Zinsser-The Writer Who Stayed Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.

I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America; to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, NOTED, religion & spirituality

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

John McPhee discusses chronological structure

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

Futuristic Ceiling x

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

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

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

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

McPheeArt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

Why Truman Capote’s masterwork keeps making news.

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with its plain diction, elegiac tone, and rhythmic sound and syntax:

 The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

The original cover, 1966.

The original cover, 1966.

But there are problems. I’ve written here before about In Cold Blood (here  and here), noting that today the book that has done so much to further narrative nonfiction storytelling would be a scandal in its genre, at least among practitioners. The two major and more or less proven examples of Capote’s fabrication are when Perry Smith, the killer he identified with, apologized on the gallows for the murders (never happened, according to credible witnesses, though apparently Capote had begged him to) and the book’s closing scene in which the crime’s chief investigator runs into one of the victim’s friends at their graves (totally invented).

Kidder is known to be a stickler for factual accuracy in his work, and his and Todd’s chapter “Beyond Accuracy” in Good Prose is a deep and nuanced discussion. They wouldn’t countenance what Capote did but maybe aren’t aware of the unending low boil concerning his book’s issues. They do weigh Janet Malcolm’s overblown indictment of journalists as confidence men, while acknowledging that Capote “appears to have lied shamelessly to his subjects,” presumably meaning the killers. Nothing about the cottage industry that’s grown up around what is or is not fictional in In Cold Blood. But then, that’s a book in itself.

Voss-Capote's Legacy

That book appears to have been published in 2011, Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details—why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”

Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.

I have Voss’s book and haven’t yet read it. But I need to, I realized, after a Wall Street Journal exposé on Friday. I don’t find very compelling the article, by Kevin Helliker, which points out that Capote was given special treatment by the case’s chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and that Capote in turn made Dewey the hero of In Cold Blood. Newly discovered files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation purportedly show Capote’s shadings of events to make Dewey look better and reveal Dewey’s large feet of clay. My guess is that readers will care even less about this than they do about the book’s fictional ending scene.

But maybe that’s not the point, or only part of it.

Admirers of In Cold Blood, including me, have used it as an example of narrative nonfiction because it’s geniusly written. But it’s inconsistent to praise it, especially to students, who love it, while knowing or even strongly suspecting its fabrications. And a recent movie about Capote has further muddied the picture, fictionalizing as it did the book’s supposed effect on him: it killed him. In fact, it made him rich and famous. And while being two-faced surely did his soul no good, what appears to have killed him, aside from severe alcoholism, was being banished by his high-society friends for revealing their secrets in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Maybe it’s time for the nonfiction camp to give up In Cold Blood. Maybe we need to call it what it is, a great novel based on exhaustive research into a real crime. Its claim to be nonfiction is partly what made the book the sensation it was, of course, but it now endures on its literary merit. With added interest, for some of us, because of the deep and perplexing questions it raises about narrative and the role of the storyteller.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

Four more years

Means, ends & inner narratives in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Barack Obama was mocked by Republicans when, late in the campaign just ended, he blamed his struggle to dominate Mitt Romney on his failure to provide Americans with a compelling narrative. I couldn’t help but agree. And yet I wonder if even a writer as talented as Obama can do anything more than animate his partisans’ own existing narratives. Romney’s narrative was widely exposed, commented upon, and derided as a farrago of outright lies, lesser evasions, and gross distortions. But he almost defeated Obama. I really wonder: What’s the moral of this story? Revisiting my post, below, written just before Obama’s 2008 victory, I find it deals with this same question of means, ends, and inner narratives.

• • •

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is still guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped his depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, journalism, narrative

Around the web

Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere.

For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction.

Anyway, it was ages ago that I committed to this book, and I’ve read so many memoirs since, increasingly ones checked out from the library. I’ve realized they’re like novels—you can’t keep up, can’t read them all; I only bought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after reading a library copy—but here on my table, for some reason, is this one, a handsome book.

In conjunction’s with his memoir’s release Russo has given an interview to The New York Times in which he says several interesting things, including this on the role in memoir of selection and dramatization in scene:

I think the best memoirs read like novels, which means, among other things, that the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him. He decides—as in a novel—how and where the story begins (near the end, in this case). He also chooses, just as a novelist does, when to summarize and when time should slow down for a dramatic scene.


Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert on being a lifelong writer

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. —Elizabeth Gilbert, in her Rumpus interview

Speaking of conflicted feelings, I had them about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—like a subset of other readers, for me its veiled calculation curdled some of the book’s pleasures—but admired her writing ability. I found inspiring her recent wide-ranging interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus.

She discusses her new historical hovel, her writerly girlhood, and her years, while learning to write fiction, of bartending and waitressing and her wasting time in “fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas,” so that it’d take her almost a year to write one short story. A big breakthrough came with her GQ article, about a bar she worked at and where she’d set a short story, which led to the movie Coyote Ugly.

Gilbert (or Cousin Liz, as I call her—no relation) is really good on keeping going as a writer, and she answers her critics of Eat, Pray, Love and those of its follow-up, Committed. An excerpt:

It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. . . . It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace. . . .

It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committedpermitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.

 

The definitive account of the fall of Jonah Lehrer

. . . Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out.—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Kachka’s rather amazing New York article,Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer” is about how Lehrer, whose unraveling began when some obsessives noticed he’d made up some quotes by Bob Dylan for his book on creativity, Imagine, represents the end stage of a new evolutionary beast:

In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the ­journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.

The contrast between Elizabeth Gilbert’s slogging apprenticeship as a writer and Lehrer’s as a science journalist is striking. He’d studied to be a scientist, apparently, or at least majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book. At some point, he saw he could translate science to a big audience. Just as Malcolm Gladwell raids social science, he could plunder the harder stuff.

But as Kachka points out, no one, not even a genius, let alone the merely brilliant, could do everything Lehrer was trying to do as a leading practitioner of  “this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers.”

 

The almost-definitive account of David Foster Wallace & his demons

David Foster Wallace’s suicide was the greatest literary tragedy since John Berryman flung himself from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972. The pain of mental illness and drug addiction constituted a frightful part of who he was. Out of that pain and his efforts to purify and to heal himself he wrote one of the most remarkable novels of our time. To say it reaches the heights of Joyce or Dostoevsky is going too far, but it will stand, and it has something crucial to teach generations of readers about how to live, even with terrible pain they might think they cannot endure.—Algis Valiunas, “King of Pain”

I say almost because it will never end. Obviously.

But Algis Valiunas’s “King of Pain,” for the website of the Claremont Institute, while another baby-whale retrospective on the late writer, is impressive and interesting; it addresses what kind of person he was, his long but productive apprenticeship, his moral vision, his mature writing and especially Infinite Jest, and the depression that killed him.

For anyone with any interest in Wallace as a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist, it’s well worth reading.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, scene

Memoirist, skin thy own cat

Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either.

The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this and other early interviews before the book was finished that Rushdie, this erudite novelist, was very actively educating himself about memoir.

How could he not be? He’d probably paid some attention during his career to the memoir boom, but study is in order when you begin to write a book in a new genre. So study he did, into journalism and memoir. That is, into the poles of nonfiction. And one can watch the process of Rushdie’s self-education happening on YouTube. Some of his insights are surprising, maybe idiosyncratic, and others are rather scholarly.

In one interview he confesses, “I don’t actually understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.” That would be a shockingly untutored admission for anyone in the academic literary world—for anyone who’s been to writing conferences and workshops or read any of the stream of books on memoir that take pains, first, to set it apart from autobiography. Maybe Rushdie’s confusion is reflected in the length of Joseph Anton, a baby whale at 656 pages. More likely, he had a big story to tell, a big reputation, a big publisher, and a big market.

By the time of the Emory interview, Rushdie had done enough research, probably building on his existing knowledge as a literary man, to name with confidence the world’s first memoir—and not Augustine’s Confessions like you might suppose:

Early memoirs by St. Augustine, St. John, and St. Teresa were written as confessions to God, or about their relationship with God, not as what we’d consider memoirs. The Confessions of Rousseau [1782] is the first modern autobiography. He kind of chickened out by not publishing it in his lifetime. But there is an intent there [to tell the truth about his life in the world]. Nobody had ever understood that it was interesting to tell your own story.

What happened to literature with Rousseau’s memoir, Rushdie says, was personal “self awareness.” Novels made use of this newly discovered power:

The most famous novels of the eighteenth century pretended to be memoirs—Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. It was a marketing device of the time. And Dickens had a very biographical view of fiction. He liked to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t know and I don’t care what my characters do after the book ends. But he did care. And he told you about what happened to them—and their dogs.

In his study of the memoir Rushdie learned a dismal truth—maybe he relearned it since it would seem true of the novel as well: “Other people’s work doesn’t help really. You have to find your own solutions to the story you have to tell. It’s useful to see how other people skinned the cat, but you have to skin your own cat.”

At least, in Rushdie’s reckoning, the memoirist faces an easier task than the novelist, who must answer many more questions of presentation: “In the novel you have to answer a what question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a who question: Whose story am I telling? Then you have to answer a why question: Why am I telling this story? And finally you have to answer a how question: How do I tell this story? And the ‘how’ question is the most difficult of all.”

Memoirists only have the “how question,” he says. “So it’s a little easier. Three quarters . . . that’s already there.”

He credits Oprah Winfrey and the confessional culture she has created for memoir’s current boom, but links it also, rather surprisingly, to the New Journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s that borrowed back from the novel tools now associated with fiction, such as scene, dialogue, and a involved or intimate point of view. He also reveals that he’s studied the most popular recent literary memoirs:

What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived. The reader doesn’t experience them as living. In that sense it’s completely novelistic. If you look at the best examples of the memoir genre, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best of them are novelistic in that way. It derives from the earlier form we call New Journalism, where journalism decided to put on some of the clothes of the novel.

 

Writers like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer in his nonfiction, Hunter S. Thompson in his book on the Hell’s Angels, deliberately wrote those books novelistically, with all the techniques of the novel. And it created a new form, one element of which was participation. If George Plimpton was going to write about Mohammed Ali, he was going to get in the ring with Mohammed Ali; if he was going to write about the New York Yankees, he is going to get on the field. The journalist enacts the drama he is writing about. And out of that came the New Journalism, which is really extraordinary.

 

In the next generation, what happened with the writing of memoir was the use of the novelistic technique in the writing of autobiography. Of course there are problems of truth. For example, verbatim dialogue. It’s very difficult to believe someone writing about their childhood and what their mother said to their father, and it’s in inverted commas as direct speech. I don’t care how good people’s memories are, there’s a sense that a convention is being used: that to represent the conversations that dialogue is being partly if not completely made up. And there’s sort of not a way around that—you sort of have to do it. That’s how it is like a novel. You’re making it up in the service of truth if you’re doing it properly.

Rushdie spoke to how a memoirist enhances his credibility: “You have to be harsher on yourself than anyone else. It’s self-glorifying to begin with to say ‘I’m going to write 500 pages about me.’ You have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. You have to describe yourself more critically than you do other people.”

I mentioned to a fiction writer that Rushdie has chosen to tell his memoir with an unusual and interesting strategy, in the novelistic and distancing third person, writing about himself a la Norman Mailer in his nonfiction as “he,” and my acquaintance was amused: “That was probably a good move for someone with an ego so big.”

So one lives with the perception one has created. Indeed Rushdie seems to suffer from no lack of confidence. But I have to admire him for surviving mentally and emotionally, let alone physically, for a decade with a sentence of death-by-terrorist on his head. And now he’s revealed that decade in hiding—and apparently much of his life story—in a memoir. His choice might have been different in another time:

The market for fiction has dwindled. In terms of numbers of books being sold, nonfiction is king at this time. Not that it will always be that way. The way people want to see their world described changes. Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.

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Filed under craft, technique, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, scene, structure

Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir