Category Archives: Persona, Voice, POV

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

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

Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

The Days are Gods author on braids, voice & earning your story.

Liz Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

After reviewing The Days are Gods, I asked its author, Liz Stephens, for an interview, and she has kindly obliged. Stephens, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Glendale College, California, earned a PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University, where she served as managing editor of Brevity.

You’re very reflective about your ongoing experience as the story moves forward—and it does move forward, The Days are Gods combining the strengths of sharing someone’s subjective, highly reflective point of view with that of scenic narrative, of experiencing her life events. What were your processes and models in working out this persona, voice, point of view, stance—however you think of it: and how do you?—which is distinctive and seems somewhat unusual to me in the way that it is combined so strongly with forward-moving events?

This was the most deliberate construction in the book: to gently balance the growth of becoming more internally knowledgeable about both a place and myself, and to use external events to do so. I essentially wrote the text and then dug my hands into it and picked up those three threads—knowledge of self, knowledge and lessons of place, external events—and started slowly braiding, backwards and forwards, over and over, until the plait worked out at the end. The sections had been much simpler to write individually and initially, but in the end I did have to order them, which was by and large how the final arc was made. Though I also did tweak some sentences very lightly to emphasize momentum through time or self-knowledge—literally highlighting season, or taking out a small reference in the past tense. I also had to find and then use deliberately any personal blind-spots I’d had, which sometimes I needed to write back in, of course.

The arc retains some lightness due to the nature of actually living the process as I wrote; I think in this case, taking a long time to write the book worked heavily to its advantage. I was more aware of myself, and more in tune with my surroundings, by the end of the writing process, so I resisted changing earlier bits to make myself look smarter. I just left in my initial excitements and lack of knowledge. But, yes, choices like deeper internal musings, more High West lingo, and less glibness in my conclusions by the middle to end were very deliberate.

Furthermore, I had tools by the end of the writing I hadn’t had access to at the beginning. When I began this book, I was an early nonfiction writer and high on discovery. By the end, I was finishing years of study of nonfiction form, hours of writing workshops with invested peers and mentors in the same field. So when my point of view as the narrator changes, it is through an integral change of the persona itself. Voice is the through-line that doesn’t change. “She’s” still there, talking to you, amazed.

Models? Uh, now that I think about it, no. I don’t think I’m alone in achieving this, but I didn’t model this after a particular successful narrative in my reading list. I just knew I needed momentum for the book to be one that a broader audience than essay-lovers would like, but knew I did not at all want to give up my musing, because that would have turned the text into a field trip through the West. I did have one very established awarded writer (not anyone affiliated with my program, but a very fine writer in their own right) tell me to stop taking about my feelings so much, but that seemed more like that person and less like me. I do know this will be the model of the balance of my next book. It’s most like me.

You carefully worked a thread through the book about an older local couple you admire and how they accept and befriend you. When you and your husband make a decision, late in the book, that disqualifies you as locals, they take back a horse they’ve given you—essentially they steal it—and the reader, at least this one, feels upset and angry. I experienced this as the book’s climax. Then, a little later, you return to their act and reflect on it from their perspective, moving the reader toward understanding and empathy for them. It’s remarkable, and I wonder how you envisioned this culminating event, as the way I experienced it or in some other way?

I in no way envisioned them as offering closure, advancement, or analogy to the book. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the threads in the book now look that way in retrospect, I think because I was writing (the first time through! This should be emphasized, for my students!) so purely from my deep place of processing the experience, but in this parallel immersion of new (to me) discovery in craft; I literally could not see it coming. I wrote not knowing the end any more than you did. I can only hope for that state of grace to light on me again, where all of the serendipitous moments happen again and you look back after the writing and it’s like looking through a really obvious tunnel or down a cattle path in the weeds. It’s like speaking in tongues. Just prepare yourself, sit on your butt to be available, and then get out of your own way—sometimes, in case you want to repeat yourself. My mother-in-law sees sweet Yellow the cat as a metaphor for my very soul in the West; and you know what? She’s right too. You all are.

So in the end, I do see that couple as a literary barometer for our family’s position in the community. They were the benchmark for how we fit. Until it slowly dawned on us we may have been looking at the wrong standard-bearer. . . in the end it was clear that they themselves were not as seamlessly and holistically embedded in their own community anymore, and that was a very moving mark of the changing of the very nature of the West. People who lived not more than one house from him could say with a straight face, “Now he’s country,” and you know, they didn’t always mean it as a compliment. So when we lost their faith, we still came out smelling like roses to the town, flashy and exotic, moving at will . . . but to everyone’s detriment, I think. What he’s got, I think we should want, if we don’t.

Also, I wrote the end of the book fresh. I’d barely had time to process my loss myself. There’s a whole saga about selling our sweet home that was so raw I couldn’t even include it. Even though it was the dead-nuts perfect metaphor for our experience there. Ugh. Would not compute.

Stephens-Days are Gods

Braids: “knowledge of self, lessons of place, external events”

Annie Dillard once said that every book has its own impossibility that the writer soon experiences, realizing her task isn’t as simple as she’d pictured. That, in fact, the book may be impossible. What was the impossible problem you faced in writing The Days are Gods?

 Annie is always right. When in doubt . . . anyway, I moved before the book was done. I feared I was screwed, book-wise. But I longed for it. I sat staring out at my new back field full of frogs and poison ivy and trees so unlike my last view, and just pined. My mother looked out the front window of my Ohio house at the forest and, sure enough, said, “What a view,” and I burst out crying.

And then I called it back, the feeling of all of every bit of it. I wrote as a testament to that loss and those lessons. So every bit of what I learned in my PhD program got cycled through that particular wringer. I really believe in telling a fairly literal truth in nonfiction, so I wasn’t interested in dreaming up the rest whole-cloth for a better story. I had to be very conscious and deliberate about what I had learned and when. I doled out my experiences there very deliberately jewel-like into their settings. That created more than anything perhaps the story drive you were talking about. If your response is any indication, that became a central feature to the book, but it seemed while I did it to be not possible. But I was afforded the opportunity to not hurry the processing of an experience, to think deeply and well about a particular finite set of events, and love on them at length.

Additionally, the fact that I’d moved seemed to be a dead give-away that I hadn’t stayed. So did that invalidate my search there? That became a central issue. And I knew, just examining my own—well, grief wasn’t too strong a word then—it was so patently manifest and undeniable I got mad and thought, hell with it. If readers don’t think I deserve to feel this, they can lump it and just feel gyped at the end. But I’m going to be dead honest all the way through, and earn it, and explain it, and we’ll see how they feel about me then. I’m still finding out.

Liz Stephens’s The Days are Gods website is worth visiting, especially for its resources page, with ideas, links, and recommended books. And Joe Bonomo hosts Liz’s self-interview at his blog No Such Thing as Was.

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Filed under Author Interview, braids, threads, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV

Noted: Pico Iyer on voice

Bookstore, Quaint x

The paradox of persona—which you is speaking—devils nonfictionists.

Especially memoirists and essayists, but apparently fiction writers, too, more than I’d supposed. From Pico Iyer’s superb April 11 “Voices Inside Their Head” column in The New York Times:

At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting.

• • •

The ideal writer should be a Method actor of sorts, I’ve always felt: Meryl Streep can get so profoundly into Isak Dinesen, Margaret Thatcher and Karen Silkwood in part because she finds that corner in herself that rhymes with each one of them. We can evoke the people (or places) that move us by becoming them, since every subject worth taking on remakes us in its own image. In my first book, I thought it only right to describe the Philippines in a passionate, undefended, solicitous voice — to reflect what I saw in the place itself — and, five chapters later, to evoke Japan from a glassy remove, to speak for its cool and polished distances. Writing on the Dalai Lama, I work hard to espouse an analytical and logical and rigorous part of myself — to transmit by example those qualities most evident in him. And then, when I turn to writing about Graham Greene, I aspire to a more haunted, shriven, doubting (even English) voice.

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Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

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

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

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

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

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he explains in his most recent blog post:

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

Lee Martin makes a point.

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

Stephens-Days are Gods

A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

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

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