Category Archives: scene

Nina Hamberg’s memoir ‘Grip’

After being assaulted in her own bedroom by a masked intruder when she was a teen, Hamberg found her relationships with men complicated, to say the least. In this thoughtful memoir, she shares the victories and defeats that shaped those relationships in vivid detail. Introspective without lapsing into solipsism . . .Soundly edited, focused and well-crafted, Hamburg’s memoir is an examination of what it means to be a strong, independent woman, and how we often manage to lead ourselves astray despite the best intentions.—Publishers Weekly

Grip: A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamburg. Route One Press, 276 pages

“Well, thanks for the lift,” I said, stepping into the center of the room. My footsteps echoed in the open space.

 “Sure thing.”

I expected him to turn and leave but he just stood there, slouching against the door jamb. He was even taller than I realized in the bar, maybe six feet two inches. I barely came up to his armpits.

He stood up straighter, letting his fingers run up and down the zipper on his open bomber jacket. He seemed to be considering something. Whatever it was made him smile; at least the corners of his mouth turned up.  He took several long strides toward me, stopping a few feet away.

“Listen. I need some money. I’m running short,” he said in a low, slow voice.

Yellow flicks glowed in the pupils of his eyes. I felt a knot form in my gut.

“Money? I don’t have any money.”

“Come on,” he said, stretching out the words. “I’m sure you can spare a twenty.”

“No. I really can’t.” My voice came out a whine.

He looked down, shifting his weight between his feet. For what seemed like minutes, he didn’t move. Finally he said, “I’ll bet they don’t show you how to deal with this in karate.”

And in one quick motion, he lunged straight at me.

In an instant, I ducked beneath his outstretched arm and darted in, close. My hand shot up, seizing his throat just over his bony Adam’s apple and clamping down on his windpipe.

I love the detail and honesty here, his fingers on the zipper of his jacket, the “yellow flicks” in his eyes, the whine in her voice.

Published in July, this book is an account of a woman’s attempt to grow and to empower herself—while always falling for the “worst guy in the room,” as PW put it. Grip won the Maui Writers Conference Rupert Hughes Award and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for “Best Memoir.”

The author has launched a blog, The Memoir Café, devoted to the art and craft of memoir, including conferences and tips on publishing.

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Bret Lott’s ‘Against Technique’

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though I know craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. Not by far.

A paradox about writing—maybe any art—is that craft, or call it technique, is what we can discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is what releases what we’re really after, which is art. But technique itself is hollow if enshrined.

Sometimes to me the craft of writing seems a daily struggle with the self—the practice itself pressuring whatever it is that’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately—not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why.

Which is why I love Bret Lott’s long essay “Against Technique,” published by Creative Nonfiction. Some excerpts, not in his order but mine:

Technique, of course, can be taught. Its result, however, is a kind of uniformity that yields not art but artifice. I know this firsthand, having been on the Fellowships in Literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago in both fiction and creative nonfiction. After reading hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, the one constant I saw that arose from them all, the one common denominator—and it was, let me assure you, a most common denominator – was the technical competence of the works at hand. They were technically competent. Nothing more, nothing less. Only competence—creative nonfiction and fiction alike, all told well, whether in any number of obtuse or conventional ways—that revealed a kind of routine verbal acumen, but that had, sad to say, no heart. No soul. Only windows all alike and all in a row, behind them merely automatons—dressed in various costumes of style, but automatons nonetheless. When the consciousness of the artist is neglected for technique, the result is often serviceable, may resemble truth, but it will never be alive.

 It is only through paying attention by you, the author, that art will be made. It is and always will be only your seeing, if I may paraphrase a bit brazenly Thoreau’s unintended dictum, “It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” This seemingly claustrophobic fact is, in truth—whether in the art of the essay or of fiction, and why can’t we also include poetry as well?—the single most liberating force behind the making of art.

It’s all about scene. It’s all about detail. It’s all about one good sentence placed after another and another until, when you look up at the end of the day, you see through the pale light of late afternoon that you have pieced together a story—whether fact or fiction—that might, if you are lucky, be larger than itself. That might be, if you are beyond lucky and in fact blessed, be larger than you.

And it is this single-minded doing, finally, that is the true triumph of art, the true liberation only the artist can enjoy: the discovery that you can. Here is accomplishment, and here is reward, no matter how piecemeal the final product, no matter how intimately one will know its flaws, no matter how rough the road was to get here.

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An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics.

And then there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be.

Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like so. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme about him: Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal.

Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection— which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. But, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t.

Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying, He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife.

At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme. And we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this latest holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

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Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

Welty on what’s ‘greater than scene’


A version of this post first appeared on August 31, 2008.

Eudora Welty’s essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery, what we’d call a convenience store today. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and it captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing  instead of telling readers what to feel. The store’s realm is one of children on errands and of a kindly grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.” But Welty steadily pours vinegar into the essay’s nostalgic soup until, by the end, we’re horrified with her by the violent, mysterious fate of the shopkeepers.

I like to assign this essay to students every year or two, so I can reread it, one of America’s greatest essays—or at least one of my favorites. Early on are a series of remarkable paragraphs full of tactile and sensory detail that bring to life the store, the children, and the grocer. Here’s the first:

Running in out of the sun, you met what seemed total obscurity inside. There were almost tangible smells—licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice.

Early on, too—just before the essay’s only emphasizing line break—are these foreshadowing lines:

Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.

II.

One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. Here, in the essay’s only true scene—the rest is artful, visual summary—they break the illusion of normalcy. But they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as are all the objects and people and activities on her store trips connected—and with the adventure of going there.

Except she didn’t think the store had a life of its own. And she never wondered about those who owned the store and lived above it, though she was steeped in the changing stories of everyone else in her neighborhood.

People changed through the arithmetic of birth, marriage and death, but not by going away. So families accrued stories, which through the fullness of time, in those times, their own lives made. And I grew up in those.

But I didn’t know there’d ever been a story at the Little Store, one that was going on while I was there.

The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and violence and people “who simply vanished.”

We weren’t being sent to the neighborhood grocery for facts of life, or death. But of course those are what we were on the track of, anyway. With the loaf of bread and the Cracker Jack prize, I was bringing home the intimations of pride and disgrace, and rumors and early news of people coming to hurt one another, while others practiced for joy—storing up a portion for myself of the human mystery.

The climax’s impact is felt and lingers because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain.

Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes, affirming the mystery that seems her work’s motif:

The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.

(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)

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Scenes that work—for writer and reader

This post appeared originally in 2010 as “Keys to Conveying Experience”

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
This seems key to me:
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.”
And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

Writing with Power is an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)

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Revising, from the top

Belle the Revision Dog supervises all edits. Shown: typical summer habitus.

Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.

Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.

My impulsive forbidden photo

One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)

As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)

Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of  that chapter.

But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.

Yuknavitch's edgy memoir

The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”

She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.

Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:

What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .

And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.

In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.

Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.

Revising is hard work

I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.

And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, scene, structure, working method

Q&A: Lisa Davis on a Mormon tragedy

The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church by Lisa Davis. Scribner, 368 pages.

I met Lisa Davis six years ago, in a creative nonfiction workshop at Goucher College, and I read her recently published The Sins of Brother Curtis first out of loyalty to a friend and then with increasing admiration for her work. Davis, a San Francisco journalist and a teacher at Santa Clara University, has painstakingly crafted a gripping narrative about a serial pedophile within the Mormon church. Publishers Weekly called it an “insightful examination of hard-won justice.”

It’s really two stories: one about what Frank Curtis did, how he got away with it, and what the abuse did to his victims; and a David-and-Goliath story of a plucky legal team that took on a phalanx of legal talent funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

This is a disturbing story. Various LDS leaders knew Curtis was a pedophile but kept giving him access to children—especially to boys, his preferred prey. In Davis’s telling, this is connected to the church’s policy on serious transgressions: excommunication but with opportunity for repentance, re-baptism, and readmission. Curtis was disciplined at least three times and excommunicated twice. Usually he shifted locations, and although he was known as someone with a problem, under church policy and belief he had wiped the slate clean.

Davis, trying to be fair, points out another way a miscreant can take advantage of LDS ecclesiastical idealism since, in the church, bishops come from the ranks of the male laity:

The truth was that most of these men had no idea that one of their brethren had molested children. They were untrained in professional counseling and could barely keep up with their gargantuan responsibilities. They all had full-time jobs and large families of their own, on top of which they’d been called into a volunteer position leading hundreds of people. One day they might be helping someone who faced eviction and the next they faced a dying mother or a child who needed special help. Given the insular nature of the Mormon community, most bishops didn’t know anything about sex crimes, certainly not enough to understand a serial pedophile.

But, frankly, the LDS church as it emerges in The Sins of Brother Curtis seems, as an entity, uncaring—more eager to avoid revealing its considerable assets than in atonement or in helping victims heal. Its tactics were to stall, to pressure, and to buy off people as cheaply as possible.

Lisa Davis, immersion journalist

In researching the book, Davis learned there are about twenty survivors of this one pedophile’s abuse, which stretched over decades and into multiple states. The secrecy began to unravel when two Seattle attorneys took the case of Jeremiah Scott, then eighteen, in 1997. Scott had been abused repeatedly when he was twelve by Curtis, then a Mormon elder in Portland. Curtis had since died. Scott and his mother  decided to sue when they learned that bishops had known about Curtis’s past abuse of boys.

Scott eventually settled for $3 million, at that time the largest individual settlement ever reported in a church sex abuse case. Other lawsuits against the Mormon church followed, including one in which two women, abused as girls by their Mormon stepfather, won $4.5 million; the amount was later reduced on appeal, but still included the first penalty for inflicting “intentional emotional distress” against a church in the U.S. And Scott’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, having become an expert in this area, in 2006 helped win $46 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Spokane for many victims of abuse by priests.

More recently, Davis told me, Kosnoff helped represent native American survivors in Alaska, Washington, and Montana in an historic $166 million settlement, reached in March, with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. A Reuters story reported, “The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.”

Lisa Davis answered some questions about the book and her working method.

Q. Did you gain any insight into why churches seem vulnerable to perpetuating or concealing abuse?

Certainly, sex abuse is not a problem exclusive to the LDS Church, the Catholic Church or any other. That said, there are some things that were unique about the case I wrote about. The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of personal worthiness. Essentially, members have agreed to live by a certain moral code. It’s what binds the community together, this idea of a shared belief that everyone lives by. Unfortunately, it also can create a sense of false trust. People within the ward regard one another in a trusting way that they don’t view the outside world. That made the community more vulnerable to a serial manipulator like Frank Curtis.

Q. You didn’t appear to have had any cooperation from the LDS church or its attorneys. Is that accurate, and how did it affect your reporting and writing?

I contacted the defense lawyers and key church leaders involved in the Scott case, and sought to to interview them. I also spoke several times with the LDS Church’s public information office.  In the end, the Church offered only to speak about the case in a way that was unacceptable to me.  I wanted to keep my interviews on the record.

Q. You created, through skillful interviewing, a sequence of events—a story—from events you didn’t witness. I was struck by how vulnerable such a project must be, how contingent. Your relationship with attorney Kosnoff seemed crucial. But then, so did your ability to get some of the victims to open up. How and when did you know this could be a book, that you had enough to build a story even if some sources fell through?

In all, I worked on the book for about eight years. Mostly that was because I wasn’t able to work on it full time until near the end. I saw that it could be a book fairly early, after my first trip to Portland, because there were just so many layers.  But I didn’t fully commit to the idea of writing the book until I was in the MFA program at Goucher College.

The long time span was problematic because there were often many months between my interviews with Tim Kosnoff, Joel Salmi and some others involved in the case.  So, I had to re-establish a rhythm and get them back into thinking about the Scott case every time we met.  Everyone’s life had moved forward and the lawyers were involved with other cases. I learned early on that it all worked much better if I met them somewhere outside the office.

I also benefitted tremendously from my time with the survivors, and I am extremely grateful for their bravery. Stanley Saban walked through his old neighborhood with me and we went to some of the places where Frank Curtis lived.  He was able to point at this or that and tell me stories about what happened there when he was growing up.  I interviewed other of the survivors in prison.  And while that brought logistical challenges, the men were tremendously helpful in piecing together the puzzle. Jim Goodall was older and had a pretty clear memory of neighborhood details. Bob Goodall was amazingly reflective and willing to share what he’d experienced.

Mothers, sisters and other family members were able to put things in time and context, and provide some background to various events.

Other folks who had known Frank Curtis drove me around Grand Rapids, Michigan and shared with me what they remembered. The court clerks in Racine, Wisconsin led me around the court building where that part of the story unfolded. Really, a lot of people were willing to help me tell this story.

And eventually, you get used to asking things like “what color was the car?” I learned that people tend to have a soundtrack to certain memories. So, it helped if they could remember what songs they were listening to during a certain time.

Q. While working, did you focus your reading on immersion journalism as you worked? What books or authors were models for you and why?

I’m very fortunate to have learned the power of the details in storytelling from two masters: Jon Franklin and Tom French. I studied Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action because he did such a great job of structuring the tale of a lawsuit. Also, Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee, because it grew out of his reporting on the court cases in Texas. I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, so I looked a lot at how he keeps up the pacing in his stories.

Q. You were an experienced journalist when you began your MFA in creative nonfiction. What did you learn that helped you in bringing your book to fruition?

A lot. I could find out pretty much anything, but I had to learn how to write a book. I’m still working on developing the patience to let a story unfold in front of the reader.  I love playing with language and finding which detail is going to make a scene pop.  But, quite honestly, my inner-journalist still wants to cut to the chase.

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Filed under Author Interview, craft, technique, immersion, journalism, MFA, NOTED, research, REVIEW, scene, working method

Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

An esteemed essayist and theorist, the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate was interviewed in 2008 by Lania Knight for Poets & Writers Magazine, online version. I just stumbled across it, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:

Creative nonfiction is somewhat distortedly being characterized as nonfiction that reads like fiction. Why can’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Why does it have to tart itself up and be something else? I make no apologies for the essay form, for the memoir form, or for any kind of literary nonfiction. These are genres that have been around for a long time, and we don’t have to apologize for them, or act like they’re new fads when they’re not. A colleague pointed out that James Frey, in his defense, said memoir is a new genre. He said there aren’t as many rules as there were when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing fiction. This is total nonsense because, in fact, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both wrote nonfiction as well. Frey showed his ignorance. Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life.

There’s a kind of bestseller that’s being written now, true crime nonfiction, which is essentially told through scenes. Perhaps this goes back to Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but the idea is to write a kind of narrative that makes you feel like you’re watching television, so it’s very close to a screen play. That’s okay, but I don’t see any reason to encourage graduate MFA nonfiction students all to write that way.

I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind. I’ll read an essayist, like E. B. White, who may write about the death of a pig one time, and racial segregation another time. Virginia Woolf may write about going on a walk to find a pencil, which seems like a very trivial subject, or about World War I, or a woman’s need for a room of her own. She has such a fascinating mind that I’m going to follow her, whatever she wants to write about. One of the ploys of the great personal essayists is to take a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then bring interest to it.

I have no desire to pick a fight with [immersion journalist Lee] Gutkind. I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.

There is a lot of great fiction that is largely reflective. Proust, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Sebald, Conrad, Samuel Beckett, on to the post-modernist people like David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. It’s not true that fiction is always showing and not telling. That’s a distortion, a very narrow way of looking at fiction.

One objection you could make to my prescription is that it’s rather snobbish. I’m interested in intelligence and interesting minds. You could finesse a certain amount of technique, scenes, and dialogue, but it’s hard to finesse having or not having an interesting mind. I try to read writers who are better than I am, or who have deeper minds than I do because I need to learn.

Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.

The most advanced literary theory talks about the dissolution of the self and asks if there is really an author. In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive. . . .

Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.” The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-personal, honesty, NOTED, scene, teaching, education

2nd scene from my memoir

This is the northern view from our farmhouse that’s referred to in the passage below.


(This scene, from seven chapters after the first one I posted, isn’t quite as packed, and perhaps the characters introduced last time are becoming clearer.)

Mom called me at the office from our house with news to report: “A man was just here asking for you. He wanted to make sure you gave him permission to hunt, because your neighbor is upset.”

“What was he driving?”

“A big green pickup.”

“That’s Ed McNabb. He lives on the other side of Lake Snowden. I said he could hunt deer at Mossy Dell.”

“He’s handsome. Does your neighbor who’s upset want to hunt?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell what’s going on out there, Mom.”

Our upset neighbor would be Ernie. It didn’t take much to rile Ernie, but why would he care if I let Ed hunt on our land? I picked up the kids at Athens Middle School in Roberta and drove home wondering about that, but mostly worried about getting my chores done before dark. In November I lost my light early, especially after the time change, which gave me more daylight in the morning when I didn’t need it and cheated me out of a precious hour after work. Since I went in early, I drove to work in the dark anyway; by December I’d be coming home in the dark, too.

After throwing on coveralls over my town clothes and donning rubber boots, I moved the sheep to a fresh paddock, fed and petted Flower, and gave hay and water to the rams in the barn. It was mild but only a week before Thanksgiving, the day I’d always turned in rams to breed. I’d have to sort the ewes, after first deciding on paper who went with which ram, and was still getting the feel of having the entire flock, fifty-two ewes, on the hilltop. We were more than fully stocked for only sixteen acres of pasture—by Mike Guthrie’s rule of thumb our maximum flock should have been forty-eight ewes—but the barn was full of hay, our first square bales from the old cornfield, and I’d dotted the pastures with large round bales to supplement stockpiled grass.

When I cut the floodlights inside the barn, I stood before an incandescent mural. Framed in the building’s sixteen-foot-tall back doorway, the western sky was lemon yellow, tinged with brass. Cloudbanks, bruised blue and lavender, lay above a glowing orange band that spanned the horizon. Claire had decorated our house’s central hallway with her attempts to capture the hilltop’s gorgeous sunsets in photographs, which she’d tacked to weathered boards from the farmyard. I studied the celestial display, then turned and walked the gravel driveway past the sheds’ gaping black mouths; ahead, our house’s yellow lights pooled as warm as whiskey in the dusk.

A cool breeze, refreshing after my work, rose up the hilltop, and dry leaves rustled against a shed’s tin wall. The darkening sky above me, and as far as I could see to the east, was marbled with low gray clouds. Our van swept up the driveway, swung to a halt across from the house, and Kathy hurried across the gravel, unaware of me in the dark. I heard the front door open, and saw Doty and Jack trot out in a wedge of light. Doty squatted to pee in the middle of the driveway, but Jack came tearing down the gravel toward me, a white blur. He sniffed my boots and then ran to the corner of the nearest shed and lifted his leg dramatically, looking up at my face. I gave him the expected praise—“Good boy!”—as if that would firm up his shaky housetraining. Jack knew that his pee and poop upset us, so he’d sneak into a quiet room or hop down the basement stairs to relieve himself. He wasn’t a puppy now, and this infuriated Kathy, along with his other sins, spilling our wastebaskets and raping Claire’s stuffed animals. But we’d succeeded only in making him furtive, and hadn’t convinced Claire and Tom to be more attentive. “Come on, buddy,” I said and resumed walking. He stared long at the barn, where he liked to hunt, but wheeled and shot past me to ambush Doty, who, peeing again, gave a nervous glance over her shoulder.

I loved that farming sent me outside, every day, in all weather, no matter my mood. Inside the house, it would look pitch black outside, though I knew it wasn’t; it would seem cold, though I knew that tonight the hilltop’s air, beneath its blanket of clouds, was mild and oddly layered. I kicked off my wellies on the porch and came inside to the smells of Mom’s cooking. We’d discussed tonight’s menu, everything homemade of course: our own lamb shanks with leeks, tabouli heavily seasoned with garlic, yellow squash in butter and garlic, Greek salad, and her sour-cream-and-butter biscuits. Jack raced ahead, hopeful that Mom had dropped food. I hugged her at the stove, where she stood holding a wooden spoon, stirring the lamb in thick brown gravy. Kathy was making a fire in the woodstove.

“You guys should look at the sunset,” I said.

“I know,” Kathy said. “We’ve been watching it.”

“Okay,” Mom said, “everybody come on!”

Claire and Tom emerged from their bedrooms and we gathered at the table. When Mom visited, every night was a feast. At eighty years old, she still worked like she was sixty; at sixty, she’d worked like she was forty. Twice a year she came north, stuffed us with home cooking for a week or two, cleaned the refrigerator, rearranged the kitchen, and filled our freezer with heat-and-serve meals. She loved the farm, and especially seeing the lambs in spring.

“There was more excitement here this afternoon,” Mom said, setting down a steaming bowl. “Your neighbor Ernie showed up, right after I called you.”

“Oh, no! What did he want?”

“I thought we were going to have a shootout right in the driveway, if the other guy came back.”

“What happened?”

“He knocked at the door, raving. He said he was going to return fire. I thought he was about to have a heart attack. He said ‘your’ hunters had crossed onto his land and were shooting toward his house.”

I pictured Ernie’s dark eyes, wild and mournful. “I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of that. What did you say?”

“I asked him, ‘Do you have heart trouble?’ He said, ‘How did you know? I’ve got so many health problems . . .’ I told him, ‘My husband died of congestive heart failure, and I know the symptoms. Your color doesn’t look right.’ ”

“Then what happened?”

“I got him inside, sat him down, and got his whole story—and his wife’s—and served him pie and coffee. Do you know his wife?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ve met her. They live in that little white house with the tin roof, just around the curve. Janet is this tiny thing, shorter than you. She’s as sweet as Ernie is angry.”

“Her health isn’t good, either,” Mom said. “Maybe we should take her some chicken soup.”

Kathy and I laughed; across the table Claire grinned, knowing the players. Tom concentrated on his plate: he loved his grandmother’s cooking. Finally, Ernie had met his match. Mom was renowned for getting people’s stories—her example had helped me succeed in my first career as a journalist—and by giving Ernie attention, showing him that simple kindness, she’d soothed his disturbed soul.

“You took a thorn from his paw and made a friend for life,” I said. “But I’ll have to visit the barbershop and see what’s going on.”

The next day was Friday, my farming day, and after one of Mom’s big breakfasts—eggs, salt pork rolled in cornmeal and fried, grits made with pepperjack cheese, and bread slathered in butter and toasted in the oven until it was as crisp as croutons—I drove into Athens. The barbershop would be packed by afternoon with college kids getting haircuts before leaving on Thanksgiving break. Now, at ten o’clock, Ernie and Jim each had a student in their chairs; two more waited against the window wall in brown plastic bucket seats. Sale-a-Thon murmured from the radio in the corner—someone was trying to sell an outboard motor. I sat across from Ernie, just inside the glass door, and hailed the barbers.

“I met your mother yesterday,” Ernie said abruptly, looking up from his client’s head.

“She told me. She said you were upset over Ed McNabb and his sons hunting at Hidden Valley.”

“I found them over there, in the corner of your place. They’d killed a buck, on my side, I think, and dragged it over the fence.”

“I’m sorry if they trespassed. Ed’s been asking me if they could hunt squirrels, turkey, and deer since we bought the place. I finally said yes to deer this fall, since Jim helped me move our flock to the hilltop. There’s no livestock over there.”

“I heard a slug go over my house yesterday. I’ve got Janet there, and my dogs. She’s not well and doesn’t need to be upset. I won’t stand for it, especially since that shot came from my own woods across the road.”

“I’ll talk to Ed.”

“He’s one of Fred’s buddies, part of his ‘hunting club.’ They drive around, drink, shoot up the countryside.”

“It does sound like a war out there in hunting season.”

Ernie ran his comb across his student’s hair. Jim, his back turned to us, crouched on the shop’s dull green linoleum, clipping around his client’s ear. The students had been silent witnesses to our conversation; the two being worked on stared straight ahead, and the two waiting perused girly magazines. Then Ernie said, “Janet and Fred’s wife are cousins, you know.”

“You’re related to Fred by marriage?”

“Janet and Dolores grew up together. But when Fred and Dolores started dating, Janet went her own way. She never liked Fred and his big talk.”

“Is that when you and Fred got crosswise?”

He said it started not long after Fred and Dolores moved into their new brick house. Ernie was running cattle then and wanted to fence the field behind Fred’s. Fred refused to pay half, so Ernie took him before the township trustees. But Fred just faced them down, even though he was obligated under Ohio law. Then, when Fred started fencing his place, he tried to make Ernie share the cost on two line fences. “That’s when I hauled those cars over there,” Ernie said, “to spite him.”

I pictured Ernie, grim at the wheel of his tractor, as he dragged junked cars over the hill toward Fred’s house; in my vision this scene unfolded in grainy black-and-white, a film thirty years old, from the days when only a few desolate homesteads stood along Marshfield Road. Last summer Ernie had shoved the vehicles into his woods as a gesture of friendship to me. Now our house’s northern view—my favorite—is of his steep, overgrown fields, his rusty grain silo, and the road curving into the distance past our farms.

Then I remembered that Ernie had finally been inside our house, and I felt self-conscious about its beauty—the gleaming wood floors, Kathy’s antiques, the Persian rugs Mom had given us, Dad’s landscape paintings. “I wish we’d known what was underneath the bricks of that house,” I said. “We got in over our heads.”

“Yeah, you really overhauled it,” Ernie said. “That’s why my taxes went up.”

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, scene

A scene from my memoir

I walked into Ernie’s & Jim’s Barbershop, clutching a stack of old issues of The Stockman Grassfarmer and Jim’s horse-training videotape, and arrived to find the shop empty except for Jim. He lounged in his barber chair, smoking a Marlboro, roosting in the window wall’s golden light like an old-time porch-sitter, doing nothing with palpable enjoyment, one of those people who can sit and think. I knew he was dreaming about his farm.

Jim had warmed to my proselytizing about grass farming—he liked the idea of his horses grazing, rustling the range like livestock did out west, instead of standing around all day in a stable waiting for him to feed them. Jim wasn’t the average horse trader. After his boyhood spent riding the roads and countryside around our farm, he’d participated for several years in the annual roundup of wild horses at Chincoteague Island; he’d admired the old-time cowboys he met there, listened to their campfire tales. He’d since become a serious student of how horses saw the world, reacted. People called him a “horse whisperer,” a trendy term he seemed to dislike, perhaps for its mystical pretense or its whiff of hucksterism. He’d been to workshops with the big names—John Lyons, Pat Pirelli, Peter Campbell—who emphasized infinite patience: slow is still too fast. Horse whispering was shorthand for whatever it was that such weathered gurus did and embodied. For their intuition. For their humble self mastery. For everything people like me didn’t understand about how humans, fragile creatures in the natural world, could meld with and bend to their will, without cruelty, big, strong, mercurial animals.

“That gelding I bought is stubborn,” I said. “And he’s worse with Tom. He hasn’t been ridden in a while and doesn’t seem to want to work.”

“Makes sense,” Jim said.

He fell silent, clipping and combing my hair. I felt agitated and wanted answers, keenly aware I’d disrespected him by getting that horse in the first place. I should have bought a horse from him, or at least have had him evaluate Dream. Now, still clueless why Diana’s cow Charlene had tried to kick me, I had a horse problem, and soon I’d be handling a grown ram.

“I’ve trained dogs, and feel like I understand them,” I said. “The video helped, but I guess I don’t know how to read hoofed animals.”

“It’s about body language, the human’s and the animal’s,” Jim said. “It’s a silent language.” He snipped at my hair, contemplative. “It’s all there, in that book,” he said, gesturing with his comb toward the shop’s magazine-covered table. A thick treatise was nestled among journals devoted to humans with large mammary glands. Jim pulled the book from under a copy of Playboy and handed it to me: Communication and Expression in Hoofed Mammals by Fritz R. Walther. It carried an Indiana University Press logo. I recalled one evening back in Bloomington, shortly after I’d started work for that scholarly press, telling Kathy over dinner in our new house that I’d read about the book in our catalog: “This German boy fell in love with gazelles in the Hamburg zoo, became a professor in Texas, and spent his summers on the African plains watching animals. Isn’t that cool?” Now, in a redneck barbershop the size of Diana’s milking parlor, his magnum opus lay in my hands. I opened it to Walther’s drawing of a couple of zebras interacting, their long ears and narrow shoulders set at telling angles.

The bell on the shop’s door jingled and Ernie entered, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Hi Richard,” he said, “I guess we’re going to be fenceline neighbors now that you’re adding Fred Paine’s place to Hidden Valley. You’ve been here what—a year?—and own two farms.”

“Oh, yeah, we’re negotiating to buy Fred’s,” I said, as if I’d been absentminded, as if we hadn’t reached agreement, aware of an edge in Ernie’s voice. I was impressed by his grapevine and embarrassed that I hadn’t mentioned it before. I’d been avoiding the barbershop. But Ernie might have seen us out planting the cornfield. His little house, a white clapboard structure with a satellite dish affixed to its blistered tin roof, was just around the curve from Fred’s hilltop, on the same side of Marshfield Road. Because we drove to the farm from the opposite direction, I could pretend that Ernie wasn’t going to be our closest neighbor. Even though we’d bought Hidden Valley, I was acting like we were just folks, not affluent outsiders.

“My land goes all the way to his northern border,” Ernie said. “Fred’s been telling everyone he sold out to ‘some dean.’ ”

He added, “Sorry about those junked cars—I’ll get them out of there.”

“I didn’t really notice them,” I lied.

“I just hauled them over there by his house to piss him off. That sonofabitch has tried to screw me and every other person up and down Marshfield Road. You watch yourself.”

“Thanks, I will.”

“He might try stuff with you,” Ernie said, glancing at me, draped in a plasticized black smock in Jim’s chair, “but he won’t mess with your wife, that’s for sure. I hear she’s plenty tough.”

This comment hung in the air. Like Diana’s view that I lacked the grit to persevere in Appalachian Ohio, Ernie’s assessment surprised me: I was a “nice” guy, harmless enough—that is, weak. How did I come across? Not like a farmer, probably, with my slight build, horn-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts. And I’d never mentioned Kathy’s job to Ernie or Jim. So even Fred knew her title—of course he did. It sounded like a professor getting his hair cut had given Ernie an earful about Ohio University’s newest dean. But he spoke with admiration—his informant probably was our acquaintance who owned a stable, a senior professor who had welcomed Kathy’s ideas and energy. Claire had taken lessons at his place before I bought Dream.

“She’s making changes,” I said. “Kathy moves fast—she’ll have done six things before anyone starts second-guessing the first. They had a saying back in Indiana about people like her: She goes at it like a dog killing chickens.”

Ernie, sitting in his chair gripping his coffee, grunted appreciatively and said, “Fred has finally met his match.”

“Speaking of Kathy,” I said, slightly lifting my head to address Jim behind me, “she heard from John Baker”—the stable owner—“that one of her new professors got kicked in the face by his mare a couple of weeks ago. I guess he took a bucket of grain away from her and she whipped around and nailed him, caved in his cheekbone. He’s got to have surgery. Kathy’s worried because we’re now in the horse business ourselves.”

“She treated him like another horse,” Jim said.

“Probably not like the lead stallion, either,” I said.

“No.”

“How do you avoid that, with all your horses. Some must get ornery.”

“I’m the dominant horse in the herd,” he said.

“What if one gives you trouble anyway?”

“I’m no rougher to a horse than a horse is to a horse. Sometimes that’s plenty rough. But you only have to do it once.”

Evidently, getting physical was a less-publicized backup tool in the kit of the horse whisperers. Jim swept hair off my poncho with a whisk broom. “In any relationship,” he said, summing up his philosophy and apparently irascible Ernie’s, “one is the hammer and one is the nail.”

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, scene