Category Archives: memoir

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Occasional Prayer”:

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

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

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

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

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

He answered some questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading my father’s book at last

Charles C. Gilbert’s Success Without Soil  endures after 65 years.

Image by Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Image by Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Mr. Gilbert was one of the first to commercially exploit the popularity of hydroponics at the time by marketing the first nutrient solutions to commercial and hobby growers.—Progressive Farming Media Kit Volume 1 Hydroponic Gardening: A Resource Guide For Understanding, Teaching, or Writing About Hydroponic Gardening

Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics by Charles C. Gilbert. Charles C. Gilbert Company, 129 pp. [second edition, 1949].

Tux & tomatoes: Dad in his greenhouse, ca. 1947.

Tux & tomatoes: Dad in his greenhouse, ca. 1947.

My father got enthused about hydroponics—growing plants in sterile sand, gravel, or vermiculite and fed by liquid fertilizer—while serving during World War II in the Pacific, where the U.S. Army established several vegetable farms. Family lore has it that Dad was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the war ended. He was twenty-six years old on August 28, 1945, when he flew in Major General Kenneth Wolfe, who had directed the start of the heavy bombing campaign against Japanese cities. Outside Tokyo, which had been devastated by subsequent firebombing, Dad witnessed the development of a vast hydroponics facility.

At Chofu the army built a glass greenhouse that covered 232,000 square feet—over five acres—more than twice as large as any in the world. U.S. Signal Corps photographs show a gleaming structure that stretched to the horizon in a series of peaked glass roofs. Workers seeded lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops into gravel beds periodically saturated with 75,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer. Other crops apparently were grown hydroponically outside the greenhouse in special beds.

Soldiers longed for fresh vegetables, but they were forbidden to eat local food, grown under centuries of “unsanitary and primitive fertilizing practices,” Dad writes in Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics. This allusion to the use of human excrement was in contrast to the hydroponic plants grown in “sterile gravel and pure water.” He adds, “I wish that those who are not yet convinced of the value of soil-less growing could see the harvests taken from those fifty-five acres of concrete.”

Dad saw an opportunity—this was modern farming. The future, in fact: all variables were under control. Hydroponics could be done anywhere by anyone, and hydroponic farmers would need to buy products constantly. Upon his discharge, he returned to La Jolla, California, and set up a greenhouse at home. With two friends, he started a business in San Diego selling a hydroponics fertilizer. He wrote and published his guidebook to promote the sale of his Nutrient Formula.

Success Without Soil promotes hydroponics yield, nutrition.

Soil-less-grown plants out-yield those grown in soil by ten times, the book reports. Perfect soil is rare, Success Without Soil observes, and much farmland is so worn out and abused that the crops produced are unfit nutritionally. “It is necessary to fertilize, cultivate, irrigate, rotate, pray and perspire,” Dad writes, “in order to keep good soil fertile or to improve worn out soil.” Furthermore, diseases lurk in soil and often kill tender seedlings.

Growing up, I’d spy the green leatherette cover of Success Without Soil in Dad’s bookshelf, pull it down, and start turning its glossy pages—Dad had paid for the best paper stock—intrigued by photos of the Japan facility and enthralled by photos of him working in his greenhouse in California years before my birth. In one photo he’s inspecting tomato plants while dressed in a tuxedo; the tux presumably symbolized how clean and easy this way farming was, though I imagined he’d just come from a party, since Mom always told me those were his wild partying years.

I’ve only just read Success Without Soil from start to finish for the first time, impressed with Dad’s sentences, his expertise, his service ethos, and his persona. I recalled that Dad’s authorial persona was confidential, humorous, and self-deprecating, but this time I was surprised by how he tailored it to his presumed audience. For instance, he launches a brief, jokey attack on organic growing, surely assuming that his readers would expect or enjoy it. And there’s one reference to the Japanese as “Nips,” hardly the worst slur they suffered but astounding to me from a man who’d raged when he heard me, as a boy playing war, call my opponents “Japs”—like I’d heard on TV. While he didn’t have a smidgen of guilt for bombing them, he honored the Japanese, seeming to respect their discipline.

I also noticed a reference to my mother, who apparently typed the book, and I had to smile because the advice he’s dispensing was always her caution to him: “[S]tart small, start small, start small, start small, start small, start small—I would keep that up for twenty pages if I wasn’t afraid of having Rosie throw the typewriter at me.” Dad was completely unable to follow this path himself, and lost a small fortune cattle in ranching and in leisure pursuits that usually involved buying boats, racecars, and airplanes.

An introvert who avoided socializing, in Success Without Soil he’s amazingly there for his readers, offering to send them additional information and corresponding with numbers of them. Of the first “so-many thousand” buyers of Success Without Soil, exactly half sat down and wrote him a letter, he reports. He includes long, enthusiastic passages from one Walter X. Osborn, who, upon release from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, had settled down in the Philippines and established what he called a “productive chemical farm.” Dad thanks readers for their positive letters, seems stung by one writer who criticizes him for being too technical, and pleads with readers to number their questions, keep a copy of what they asked, and be clear and exact about what they wished to know.

He cites this letter from a man in Maine:

Your book and everything was fine but I raise rabbits and arthritis is giving lots of trouble. Now I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be a good idea to feed your Nutrient Formula and everything directly to them so that the fur would be better. Also I could save money this way. Besides, I want to go and set up my business in Florida but I don’t know what effect it will have on my rabbit work but it should help the arthritis and everything. What do you think? I had a friend that moved there once but he won’t write me about it. Please answer at once as I must make plans and everything.

“I know very little about Florida,” Dad replies, “less about rabbits and practically nothing at all about arthritis—and everything!”

Romance & memoir dwell between the lines of the how-to book.

The first edition of Success Without Soil is dated August 10, 1948, the birthday of my mother, Rozelle Rounsaville, whom my father had hired as his secretary the September before. She must have been different from anyone he knew in southern California’s party circuit. A five-foot-two redhead, Rosie had grown up in a family of ten children in the sweltering country town of Atoka, in southeastern Oklahoma.

Dad quickly sold out of his book’s first printing. The second edition of Success Without Soil is dated May 23, 1949, my Dad’s 31st birthday. His Nutrient Formula mail-order business was written about in Forbes and featured in Mechanix Illustrated in October 1951, in an article by Lester David headlined “Mail Yourself a Fortune”:

 Mechanix illusThen, there’s the case of Charles C. Gilbert of San Diego, Calif., who began five years ago and now calls himself the world’s largest supplier of hydroponic information, equipment and materials. Hydroponics, a soilless method of growing plants, was generally misunderstood, Gilbert discovered. It was clouded by all sorts of technical gibberish. Gilbert thereupon set out to make the field so simple that any schoolboy could enjoy it as a hobby. He began selling seeds and a book called Success Without Soil. The business caught on so rapidly that today, during peak months, he does a $350 daily volume of business.

Mechanix Illustrated article featuring Dad’s mail-order business.

Mechanix Illustrated article mentioning Dad’s business.

But by then he’d saturated the market—eager hobbyists and modest-scale farmers—and his Nutrient Formula business was wilting. Dad was soon pursuing a new dream. He and Mom bought a cattle ranch outside Hemet, California, where my sister, Meg, was born in 1953; I followed in 1955. When I was about two he settled us on another cattle ranch, in Leesburg, Georgia, having concluded that the rainy southeast was more viable for a grass farm than the California desert. Still unable to earn enough income from cattle, he moved us when I was almost six to Florida and went to work at the Kennedy Space Center. In retirement, he started a successful nursery.

Hydroponics never has seemed to achieve its postwar promise in America. I suppose that’s because we’re a big country, still with more land than we know what to do with. And hydroponic growing is intensive, and associated with greenhouses, which are expensive. Probably another factor is America’s cheap fuel policy: a grower in the Midwest can’t get a premium for early or out-of-season hydroponic tomatoes when they’re being trucked cheaply from fields in California and Florida. Hydroponics, I’ve noticed, retains its allure for marijuana growers, who for obvious reasons often want to grow their crop indoors.

Dad was value-neutral as far as methods and information went, so when I was a kid our house in Satellite Beach, Florida, was awash in literature with clashing philosophies. We still received the mainstream Progressive Farmer, which I found boring, but also got a quirky grassroots how-to rag, the original, on black-and-white-newsprint, Organic Gardening and Farming, along with the fun Countryside & Small Stock Journal. Later in the 1970s Dad subscribed to The Mother Earth News, a counterculture upstart that he’d learned about in the Wall Street Journal. Then we got the coolest pre-Internet resource ever, Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. On Dad’s bookshelves I found the four volcanic farming memoirs of Ohioan Louis Bromfield, who wrote rapturously about soil and mystically about the glory of humus.

So I grew up absorbing a very different agricultural ethos from that espoused in Success Without Soil. Dad’s romantic farming adventures, his losses, and his flood of alternative reading material helped forge me as a boy into an agrarian dreamer with organic leanings. Proud of Dad and his book, I’m still doubtful that there’s truly such a thing as success without soil.

This started as a basic review or account of reading my father’s book from start to finish for the first time, but I ended up explaining a bit more. My father, his farming, and the scarring effect on him—and therefore on me—of his father’s suicide constitute a major thread in my Shepherd: A Memoir, to be published in 2014 by Michigan State University Press.

Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Learning the craft, part three

Don’t submit your beloved manuscript too early.

Sky Hole 2x

This is part three of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

There’s such a high in completing a book’s first draft. A whole manuscript. In You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, Elizabeth Sims nails it:

To write a book is to open and give yourself to a world thirsty for authenticity. Writing a book is a heroic act, and it is an accomplishment no one can take away from you. When you come to THE END you will know a wealth of things about your subject, about writing, and about yourself. You will be a deeper, richer, more complete person.

The tough love part for me resided in a simple question. Do you want to publish it? Your baby? You don’t have to—but I wanted to. And so I learned that if you think your book is ready, it isn’t. You must know it’s ready. That took more work, in my case. Six drafts over seven years.

A rookie mistake, which also afflicts writers at every level, is sending off a manuscript too early. It’s hard to see your own work. But I can now see my un-admitted doubts when I began to submit what I probably was calling the third draft of my memoir.

Freckles sez, "Get help—don't be baaaad!".

Freckles sez, “Get help—don’t be baaaad!”

I’ve read that Philip Roth sent his novel drafts to five people, and I like to imagine who they were: three wickedly good fellow novelists; a sensible and erudite lay reader; and, what the heck, a Rabbi. Every writer needs a writing posse. At some point, however, your chief deputies can fail you if they too have read the work, or its pieces, so long that they’re blind to its faults. Plus, they want your and its success. I was fortunate that an editor, in a roundabout way, kindly directed me—actually he bluntly called my book “plodding”—to obtain the services of a developmental editor.

So after I got professional help I began writing a new version that truly was new, the fourth draft, and about a year later I had it, another baby whale, the manuscript having returned again to its original length of 500 pages. Eventually I cut it to a svelte 360, and broke up a chapter on my father and dispersed him throughout the book. Where he should have been all along—as an MFA mentor had mentioned the better part of a decade before. I went through the book a couple more times, smoothing sentences, looking at persona, and clarifying timeline.

Finally I knew my memoir was ready, and thankfully hadn’t burned too many bridges with my early efforts. That’s the problem with submitting a book before it’s ready, not just initial rejection but permanent rejection. It’s natural for neophytes to think, “This may need some work, but they’ll see it’s a diamond in the rough. They’ll want to work with me.” Nope. Not unless you are named Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. There are too many other manuscripts that are ready, clamoring for editors’ and publishers’ attentions. They’ll cross you off and move on.

Now, finally bearing a book contract, here I am, this putative font of wisdom who’s really just trying to advise himself. Trying to codify what I fear I’ll forget. And while I hunger for another project, for that addictive immersive quest for authenticity that puts you in a new zone, at the same time I must fear it. Or something. I think it’s fear of failure that produces resistance, but I’m not sure. I seem to wish I could skip the struggle, the time, it takes to enter fully a project. As if on cue, I stumbled the other day across this:

I realized that this was going to take time and patience, which I didn’t have much of. It took me only 15, 20 years to develop some patience, and it was a struggle. It was the same with my reading. I had the desire to learn, but I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to tear that page up, because I didn’t have the patience to even contemplate those words. I was in a hurry to run away from the suffering that was required to sit still.—Harvey Keitel

So start, slowly. Time is going to pass anyway. Night is falling. Accept suffering, but try to enjoy the process. Because it’s all process on the writer’s way, the writer’s path.

This and the previous three posts have run, in slightly different form, as a single guest post at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision

Learning the craft, part two

In writing, I learn, it’s wise to emphasize love over discipline.

 

This is part two of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

 There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms. I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.—Annie Dillard

Thankfully I came across this advice in The Writing Life early in my work; an MFA mentor had admired Dillard so I was reading her. Love, Dillard continues, is much stronger than discipline: only love gets a mother out of bed in the night to tend a crying baby. Discipline has its place—after a writer has gotten in shape, built his muscles. After he’s made himself ready, in other words. You don’t set out to run a marathon on your first day jogging.

I used to wonder why it took writers so long to finish a book. I didn’t realize they were producing multiple versions of that book. Mine took six complete versions over seven years, with each sentence, paragraph, passage, and chapter worked over so many times I lost count. While part of me can’t believe it took seven years, using Dillard’s figures in The Writing Life the average length of time is six years to produce a publishable manuscript.

Sure, writing’s hard—but it’s play, too. Get in shape before you try “discipline.”

Get in shape before you impose “discipline.”

It always took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the next hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m good for, came the good stuff. My usual hourly rate, I found, was a page an hour. And after a year and a half of writing for hours daily I noticed that my sentences seemed better somehow. They felt more fluent, and I’d learned the secret of varying their structure for rhythm and musicality.

In the end, the self that apprehends meanings, the part of us that would say this is true, is all-important. You’re trying to make something out of nothing. One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy. All one can do is put one’s head down and try, hope that the work itself will call forth—and in some way help supply—any necessary personal transformations. One must begin humbly but bravely wherever one is. And try.

But ideally not try so hard that you lose the fun and let fear win. Because that’s what “lack of discipline” usually amounts to, fear and confusion. Maybe it’s all confusion, because ignorance creates fear that can only be remedied in the practice itself and through education, both willful and incidental, as a result of the practice.

No wonder writer Bill Roorbach counts birdwatching and gardening as writing. Writing is fed by what lies beneath the straining ego; I think of that vastly larger continent as—there’s no better word for it—soul. Or, if you prefer, Jung’s collective unconscious. The Force? Whatever you call God?

Anyway, something greater than the feverish brittle outward egoistic shell we commonly call me.

Next: Why your writing posse is vital—but can be mistaken.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, MY LIFE, working method

Celebrating my book contract

Shepherd: A Memoir to be published in Spring 2014.

Shepherd: A Memoir depicts this view, our green pastures & neighbor Ernie’s weedy fields, the road below snaking into trees.

Shepherd depicts this view of our pastures & a neighbor’s weedy fields, the road snaking below.

 I was fifty and the marketing manager of a university press when one day I decided I would write a book. My own book. The story I needed to tell. There I was, bent over a drawer in the press’s endless row of gray-green filing cabinets, and from the radio perched somewhere overhead I heard a writer, a man my age, talking about his latest book. What am I waiting for? I wondered. I’d noticed that one of our recent authors had attended something called a low-residency program for her MFA. We were publishing what had begun as her thesis.

Slamming that cabinet drawer behind me, I headed for my computer to google her college. That’s what I’ll do, I thought. Keep my demanding day job, keep running our sheep farm on the side, knock out this book in a year, polish it for a year, and publish. I figured that picking up an MFA would be a nice bonus credential. Maybe I’d learn a few tips—couldn’t hurt.

Boy did it hurt sometimes. But fourteen months later, I emerged with a 500-page manuscript, which I set about paring to 300 pages. The lessons continued as the years went on, post-MFA. The pains now seem trivial and passing compared with the joy of learning and of creating.

me with Freckles' '06 lambs.

Happy day: me with Freckles’s 2006 twin lambs.

The book, a memoir, is about how I, a guy who grew up in a suburban beach town in Florida, ended up operating a sheep farm in the Appalachian hill country of southern Ohio. It’s about my obsession with my charismatic, distant, farming father and about my father’s traumatic sale of our family farm when I was six. It shows how I was even more scarred by something else—the effect of my grandfather’s suicide on my father—but that I couldn’t see that. It depicts the upheaval I put my own family through as I tried to become a farmer myself: how I got into financial trouble, struggled with fatal and disgusting sheep ailments, and got seriously hurt trying to save a dying ewe. In the wake of my injury we sold our first farm and retreated to a neighboring property bought in my early lust for land. Finally I became a respected shepherd and supplier of breeding stock.

My story wasn’t quite so crystallized at the start, especially its emphasis on my father. What I really wanted to do—and this was my project’s worthy seed, I believe—was to try to explain, so someone else would understand, what it was like to win Mossy Dell, the farm of my boyhood dreams, and then to lose it. That’s really what my literary ambition came down to. I yearned to tell about losing a magical farm so that someone else would understand.

Now, after seven-plus years of work on that book, I’ve just signed a contract to publish Shepherd: A Memoir with Michigan State University Press. The book is due a year from now, in Spring 2014.

Next: My first lesson on the path to publication.

This frontispiece map shows the rural neighborhood depicted in Shepherd: A Memoir. Map copyright Laura Joseph.

The rural neighborhood of Shepherd: A Memoir. Frontispiece map copyright Laura Joseph.

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Filed under memoir, MFA, MY LIFE

John McPhee on writer’s block

In which he nails the issue & I rename this blog Draft No. 4.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

—John McPhee

—source unknown

—source unknown

Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion of renaming this blog, called Narrative now well into its fifth year. “It’s getting confused with Narrative the online magazine,” I said. An acquaintance recently offered me a fine guest post, I explained, but withdrew it when I told her this wasn’t that Narrative.

Kathy nodded, taking this problem under advisement.

“Today I came up with the perfect name,” I went on. “I’ll call it The Fourth Draft. You know, that was my book’s transforming draft.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” she said, giving me pause. I saw that The Fourth Draft sounded like a minor-league baseball team or a microbrewery.

Friday morning, I sat down with my oatmeal and opened my new New Yorker, the April 29 issue, to John McPhee’s latest piece: “Draft No. 4.”

More than a title, it struck me as a sign.

McPhee’s essay, my favorite so far in his valedictory series on writing, is about writer’s block. He suffers the torments of the damned in forcing out his first drafts. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” he asks, nailing the existential problem writers face in trying to make something out of nothing. “Until it exists,” he adds, “writing has not really begun.” Much of this grandiose problem of facing the blank page with the self seems simply the difficulty of thinking: writing is concentrated thought. Yet it’s true as well that one writes in Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.” One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy.

And first drafts don’t feel very worthy.

For McPhee, though, subsequent drafts just get easier and better. At last, in draft four, he draws boxes around many of his chosen words. He explains:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.

McPhee allows himself to enjoy the fourth draft, his final draft.

Honestly, I thought producing the fourth draft of my book, a memoir of farming, would kill me. I’d enjoyed writing the first draft, so much so that after some cutting and polishing, I was ready to shop around what I was probably calling draft three. Luckily I ran into an editor who bluntly directed me to get the services of a developmental editor. So I found one. Namely Bill Roorbach, a novelist, award-winning short story writer, and memoirist.

Development? That isn’t a big enough word for what Bill did to my book. I mean for my book. From sentences to story arc, he laid about with a heavy sword. But with a strangely positive energy and kindness—he believed in my story! All the same, when I got his report I crashed for three months.

My persona wasn’t working—there was blurring between me then, the guy in the action, and me now, at the desk recalling (plus he mentioned a meta-level of “me” beyond all that: the me creating the me at the desk; that one still tests the limit of my cognitive abilities). The narrative arc wasn’t working, either, because I’d bring up a character who should have appeared throughout, but dispose of him right away, as if the chapter were a stand-alone essay. And my scenes weren’t sustained enough to dramatize fully my experience.

Whew. Bill’s markup in Word looked like the Fourth of July. I say I crashed for three months, but the actual fetal position surely lasted only about three weeks. Then I got up and thought, and walked and thought, and read voraciously. I questioned myself down to the soles of my feet. I grasped what Annie Dillard said about sitting with a book as with a dying friend. I decided I’d worked too long and hard to quit and let my book fully expire. Though I’d cobbled together an awkward narrative homunculus, I still yearned to share my story.

And the heart of my monster was there, weakly beating. Bill said the creature just needed major surgery.

My crisis over Bill’s editing turned out to be trivial. For the first time, I had to force myself to the keyboard. The resistance, I’m sure, was fear of failure. Then the usual happened: it took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the second hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m usually good for, came any good stuff. My usual hourly rate held steady, a page an hour.

I’ve just polished my sixth draft, and my book is ready. I hope to announce a publishing contract soon. Meantime, it’s not easy for me to rename this blog, because I love the word narrative and think of myself as writing for an entity I created called Narrative. But everyone else loves the word too, and with a literary magazine having claimed the name, I feel like someone who writes about TV news calling his blog CNN.

So in honor of my agonizing but fruitful fourth draft, and in hopes that I might one day emulate McPhee’s comparative ease and pleasure in his fourth drafts, I hereby rechristen this old blog Draft No. 4.

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Filed under blogging, craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, revision, working method