Category Archives: revision

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.

7 Comments

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

To plan or to plunge?

What a nude “gesture sketch” class taught writer Rachel Howard.

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.

—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

Annie Dillard's self-portrait sketch.

Annie Dillard’s expressive self-portrait sketch.

Rachel Howard’s essay on “gesture writing” in The New York Times interests me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve taken two writing classes from her through Stanford’s online continuing studies offerings, and she’s a generous teacher and a true prose artist who has published a memoir about her father’s murder and is completing a novel. Second, her essay concerns one of those core writing issues that is challenging to discuss and which I’ve gone back and forth about on this blog: the role of the conscious or critical mind versus the unconscious or intuitive mind in initial creation.

Rachel’s insight favoring the intuitive arrived after she started posing as a nude model for drawing classes. She was impressed by a teacher who urged his students to capture her essence in the pose rather than to try to make their sketches representational. Rachel explains:

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

This quick impressionistic approach helped her, she says, find the essence of a scene she’d been struggling with in her novel. Abandoning her keyboard, she sat on the floor with a notebook and saw the scene unfold fast and clear in her mind. She jotted new dialogue, suddenly seeing and capturing a new point of view as well. In Peter Elbow’s terms in Writing With Power, Rachel experienced the scene. And when a writer does that, the scene lives because its details are both organic and relevant—what the writer or participants really would see and feel—rather than being laboriously descriptive and feeling somehow false or dead.

Elbow speculates that effective images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid images rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:

The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience . . . you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

Writing With Power (discussed much on this blog, along with his other work, as the linked words suggest) is a brief for process-based writing. Elbow’s theories apparently have done much good in schools because beginning writers are taught that their first drafts can be messy, and should be, and that writing is steadily refined instead of arriving flawless the first time. In contrast, what I and many writers do—compose and edit at the same time, polishing each sentence and passage as we go—he calls “the dangerous method.” That’s because, in his view, the critical, editing mind is different from and hostile to the creative, holistic one.

Recently I wrote here about stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, in which he argues that there isn’t such a split, and that in struggling to perfect each sentence—he “auditions” and rejects many—the writer discovers her material and brings it to life. Even as the Times offers Rachel’s essay, it’s running a new one by Klinkenborg, another of his small wonders—only 386 words—about the mounted head of a mule deer, shot by his father during their Colorado years, that he’s been lugging around his whole life. His essay interests me because I’m a fan, because of its remarkable compression, and because I’m vacationing in Colorado right now.

This apparent schism between Rachel and Verlyn’s process of composition relates to the everlasting argument in creative writing between “plotters,” who plan everything, and “pantsers,” who plunge in and proceed by the seat of their pants. I think most writers work in the middle; they do both, if not initially then eventually. Notice that Rachel had a complete draft, at least of that problem scene, when she retreated with her notebook. One might even surmise that her intuitive fix worked because she’d already gutted out the scene; she knew it cold from more plodding work.

Who knows? But the fun and the key is finding out what works for you.

After I posted this I realized maybe I’ve muddied the water in equating Elbow’s dangerous method—editing as you create—with planning your structure. A writer might polish each sentence as she goes even if she doesn’t know where she’s going in terms of plot or structure. Also, in Rachel’s example she already knew what was happening in the scene—she’d previously created it—just didn’t like how it was playing out. So she sat and riffed, seeing it fresh. But it was not in that sense initial creation.

15 Comments

Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, NOTED, revision, teaching, education, working method

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.

20 Comments

Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision

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.

24 Comments

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

An essay of the empty nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, film/photography, humor, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, structure

Cheryl Strayed’s back pages

How Cheryl Strayed feathers her compelling backstory into Wild.

. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I have each of my memoir’s chapters broken into beats in my working table of contents. Different narrative threads are color coded, red for my father.

 The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major flashback depicting an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.

I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that discusses Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and 315 pages, though some of them are quite long.

Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that begin as freestanding passages after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:

I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.

I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .

This digression is interesting (we’ve not heard about that tattoo before) and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness. We remember an early scene of her mother asking the doctor if she could ride (he said that after her radiation treatments her spine would collapse like a cracker). So this passage rewards us for what we already know and it deepens the story. Strayed has withheld the tattoo until she needed it narratively.

Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as naturally arising occurrences, as memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly even intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her and it makes sense. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted Strayed’s sensible view of honesty in memoir.)

I’m trying to be less self-conscious in my memoir about how I transition into memories of my father. At the least I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of one of his own farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and I think at that very time; in any case, my hard season epitomized how I always drew strength from his lesson. So the story of how he overcame his nursery’s salty well—its irrigation water was killing his plants—is true to my memory and to the connection with him that I need to convey there amidst my own disasters.

We are after Truth, the Big Picture, the granular bits in your interior landscape. There’s seldom a transcript to help you convey what it was like to be you—and I’m beginning to think that the more “facts” we have the harder it can be to bring the past to life. One would like some photos, some dates, sure. But I’m careful now about thinking that my experience as a journalist can help me find what’s vital in external records; I’ve had to cut so much of that, while so much of what I have discovered that’s useful has been in the process of writing.

I feel silly for seeing so many of the ordinary-but-important craft lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.

This and the previous two posts have run in abbreviated form as a single post on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Next: The backlash against Cheryl Strayed and Wild.

 The interview quotes from Strayed in this and the previous post were taken from the excellent short video below, a discussion with Bill Kenower of Author magazine.

5 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

Studying ‘Wild’ for its structure

Reading my memoir printed out like this, two pages on a sheet, helps me see it in a new way.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is narrative-driven but reflective.

 Every book has its inherent impossibility. For Wild it was about me walking alone through the wilderness for 94 days; it could have been really boring. The challenge there was to convey what was happening inside of me. The trail was always there, that was the great constant, but I was always different on the trail.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I threw out the first act of my memoir in June—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.

At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit, one of concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.

Along with reading aloud, reading hard copy—sometimes with the type enlarged to at least fourteen points—is useful for me. But this time I printed out my book with two manuscript pages side-by-side on one sheet of printer paper; this makes the type fairly small, but the copy looks and feels totally different. Not so much like me. And more like a real, bound book. Stuff jumps out.

As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the Pacific Crest Trail. Like a landslide. I felt doom creep upon me as I read the chapter so recently reworked on my computer . . . a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’s narrative probably was what gobsmacked me.

And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How? I whined to Bill Roorbach about how lucky Strayed was to have the PCT to hang stuff on. Bill, who had recently reviewed Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, shot back:

 The thing about WILD as an example is that we have to build our own Pacific Coast Trail through our books, and be clear when we’re on or off the trail so the reader can be clear: Ah, we’re back on the trail!  Also, as she did, we can skip large chunks of the trail if the snow’s too deep, just so long as we explain what’s going on with the weather.

Yep. Right. True.

And so, as I suffered in my failure, I pondered. And finally my subconscious barfed up one of those gifts of insight you earn by work or by suffering, usually by both in my case. In Wild, everything happens on the trail, one damn thing after another, and that indeed could get tedious. Except, as Bill says, she doesn’t tell everything she goes through but compresses and leaps ahead. More to the point for my chapter: the through-story itself is suffused with Stayed’s commentary and reflection on the experience she’s having. She’s not just plodding along and telling us about it, but rather she’s conveying her inner landscape as much as the outer.

In fact, I felt rereading it, that Wild, this narrative-driven book, is just this side of chatty.

I saw why my chapter felt slack, certainly in comparison with Wild but even in regard to my own chapters that preceded it. It featured a sluggish foreground story and a fuzzy expression of the inner story. Each section and its actions and musings seemed isolated, each one a dead-end. I needed more snap to the action, so the narrative didn’t feel like merely “this happened and then this,” just time passing, and I needed more cohesion in the commentary. Most of the content was okay, but the whole pace of the material and its relevance were off.

So I junked my chapter’s opening section, which I loved but which was static. I restored a passage I’d cut that had a lot of action and reflection. Into that passage I integrated several of the previously freestanding sections—Wild has relatively few line breaks but I use them a lot, and to a fault in Chapter Five, I saw—so that the reader sees what to focus on as the story of my farming adventure moves through time. Integrating necessary but less major sections into the opening caused an instant ordering of priorities: the action-packed, reflective opening became the dominant story, the integrated bits obviously secondary, sharpening the chapter’s focus.

I love line breaks (aka space breaks or narrative breaks, white space) but had too many in Chapter Five only because each section was too much an island, cut off by white space. Strayed doesn’t use them much but she uses them well; I was excited by how she used a break within one of her backstory flashback passages. It underscored how line breaks emphasize but also can help meld a narrative, letting it breathe but holding it together and integrating it as a dramatic unit; its use recognized that her readers were into that passage, not as mere filler background but as drama in its own right. That line break showed how cohesive her entire chapter is.

When I began to fold some of my formerly freestanding passages into my new opening section, I added a line break or two within the section; the breaks no longer signaled New Topic Transition but Dramatic Emphasis within an ongoing story.

Next: Wild’s structural deployment of backstory.

16 Comments

Filed under memoir, REVIEW, revision, structure, working method