Category Archives: scene

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Filed under discovery, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-personal, NOTED, scene, sentimentality, teaching, education, working method

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

Pulitzer winner on scene & structure

Today’s Mother Jones online features a fascinating interview with Gene Weingarten, now a semi-retired

Gene Weingarten holding a walrus’s penis bone

humor columnist for The Washington Post, who won two Pulitzer prizes for feature writing, most recently for his story about parents who forgetfully leave their children locked inside hot cars. He’s the author of The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of his stories that originally appeared in the Post and its Sunday magazine. Interviewer Michael Mechanic writes that “very few living nonfiction writers could ever hope to match Weingarten’s mastery of pace, place, and character.”

Weingarten’s drug-addled early life and his thoughts on the craft of narrative journalism are worth pondering, especially this insight dealing with scene and structure:

Basically, I think the art or craft of long-form narrative mostly boils down to figuring out internal kickers—how each section will end. Then you need to build the section to justify the kicker, to make it fair, and clear, and earned. I never start a section of the story without knowing how it will end. I also consciously try to shape the story as though it were a movie. I really try to think cinematically, because that’s how people read. They create a theater in their minds.

The complete interview is here.

Summer nonfiction reading list

Mother Jones also features an interesting story from the May-June issue on the favorite nonfiction books of twelve literary stars, including Michael Pollan, Michael Chabon, and Susan Orlean. And Nick Hornby, who loves one of my favorites, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

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Filed under essay-narrative, journalism, scene, structure

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, which are especially relevant for writers who are trying to build scenes:

• “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.
“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.

I recommend Writing with Power, 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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Filed under audience, editing, essay-expository, narrative, scene, working method, workshopping

On giving readers an experience

“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

If writers desire readers to breathe life into their words, then they must breathe experience into their words as they write, says Peter Elbow in Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. “I don’t know why it should be the case,” he writes, “that if you experience what you are writing about—if you go to the bamboo—it increases the chances of the reader’s experiencing the bamboo. But that’s the way it seems to work.”

This idea holds clues to the weird power of scenes. Elbow speculates that images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid experience 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. . . .

It may be complicated for psychologists or philosophers to deal with this distinction between seeing and really seeing, but it’s simple enough to notice it on certain occasions: you stand there on the lawn and really see that beech tree and somehow the perception fills you or fully occupies you—the tree is wholly present to you. Or else, you stand there and, yes, you see it, but somehow you don’t see it fully, for you are slightly distracted or numb or unable to focus your attention. Some of your energy or attention is elsewhere. There is incomplete impact or commerce between you and the tree.

So the principle, at least, is simple:

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, when you have gotten to the bamboo, 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.)

It is probably easier to really experience something if you are actually standing there looking at it. But not necessarily. And it is probably easier to really experience something if you have actually seen it—that is, you will probably do better writing about memories than made-up events. But not necessarily. For the essential act in experiencing something is wholly internal . . .

In other words, as Ford Maddox Ford supposedly said, the writer must see characters as if they are on a lighted stage. Elbow expands and refines this idea:

For you as a writer, then, the crucial distinction is between trying to experience your subject fully versus trying to find the right words. In the one activity your energy and attention are directed wholeheartedly to what you are describing, in the other your energy is directed at your language or at your reader or at considerations of what kind of writing you are doing. . . .

When your raw writing grows directly out of full experience of your subject, the life entrapped in those words enables you to generate more words during the revision process that also contain life. The life in those original words keeps you in touch with the experience and enables you to dart back into it even if only for a moment as you search for a better word or phrase—even though you are engaged in the cold, calculating process of revising.

Elbow believes writers succeed more often in rendering small moments than in big, dramatic ones, which they refuse to experience as they write. He says keeping the mere thinking self—the pushy ego—out of the way tends to simplify the words used and emphasizes the essence of the experience. In any case, “Experience the tree” is better advice, he says, than “Give more details.” And beware of later feelings that flood the memory; they can prevent the writer from re-experiencing the original feeling in order to create.

Next: Elbow’s tips for conveying experience.


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Filed under audience, scene, working method

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners. But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before?

I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.

Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.

Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir. However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.

He writes:

Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.

 

I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”

Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”

I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple.  You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole.  You’re using your imagination.  Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking:  “What was that?  Who were those people?”  So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.

In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:

There are things that you just don’t forget.  These things are imprinted onto you.  And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .

 

I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.

I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”

(Abildskov’s complete interview with Durrant is here on the Mary site.)

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, scene, subjectivity

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:

To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.

As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?

Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.

Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.

For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?

Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?

And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.

Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:

What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.

Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir, scene, subjectivity, teaching, education

Review: ‘Lit’ by Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper Collins. 386 pages

Her family drank. As a girl she sat with her father in bars and sipped from his beer cans. On her first trip home as a college freshman, at Christmas, her father picked her up at the bus station and offered her a swig of the whiskey he’d hidden under his truck’s seat. “The bottle gleamed in the air between us,” Mary Karr writes in her latest memoir, Lit. “I took the whiskey, planning a courtesy sip. But the aroma stopped me just as my tongue touched the glass mouth. The warm silk flowered in my mouth and down my gullet, after which a little blue flame of pleasure roared back up my spine. A poof of sequins went sparkling through my middle.”

Until then, in high school and college, drugs had been her preferred escape. But that day in the truck, her birthright of drink claimed her. She dropped out of Macalester College—which had admitted the poor girl from a redneck Texas town in the first place, she says, out of pity and oversight—at the end of her sophomore year. Why? She didn’t know, at the time. But it’s hard to keep on track when you feel empty and lost.

Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional. Her mother was often drunk and was disordered in some major narcissistic way that could flare into psychosis. What parental love Karr felt seemed to come from her father, who as a dedicated alcoholic wasn’t reliable and who likewise neglected her. In this atmosphere, in which she never got “that sense of acceptance and security” kids need, she and her older sister had to raise themselves as best they could.

In Lit Karr looks back at herself from the vantage point of twenty years of sobriety; we know she’s in a safe place and so can enjoy her harrowing pilgrimage. I don’t envy Karr her material, however plucky her voice and chipper her attitude as she stares into the abyss—but my gosh what a delicious book this is.

She’s a master at making scenes (chapters typically begin with some authorial musing and summary, with visual snippets, before fading into a major scene that renders experience and that propels the narrative). And her mordant humor (a gift from her colorful mother, as were her literary ambitions) underscores the larger awareness that seems always to have been there. Poets write well, of course, and Karr has some interesting moves. Like sometimes starting sentences with a verb: “Fitful, this rest is.” “Worried, I must have been, about . . .”; or the noun: “The child-abuse tour, she jokes it is, for my agenda is to double-check my words against . . .”

Early in the story, Karr the college dropout is tending bar and trying to get her poems published. A side gig teaching retarded women at a group home finally seals her resolve to become a poet. A snippet shows her prose’s smooth clarity and its colloquial kick:

As staff people herded them in I felt my armpits grow damp. The faster ladies spilled into the room around me like kids lining up for a pony ride. A flat-faced woman with the severe and snaggled underbite of a bulldog stood introducing herself with a handshake before she sat. I’m Marion Pinski, she said. P like Polack Pinski. She wore a brown beret flat atop her head like nothing so much as a cow pie.

Alongside her squeezed other women, whose heads seemed as small as dolls’. Under narrow shoulders, their bodies went mountainously soft. And they were mushroom pale, as if they’d been grown underground. It’s a shocking thing to face all at once so many kecked-up, genetically disadvantaged humans. In a country that values power and ease and symmetry, velocity and cunning, kinks in their genetic code had robbed them of currency.

A romance with Mr. Right seemed part of a steady, if labored, upward arc. So her mismatched marriage is poignant: Karr calls her patrician husband, also a poet, “Warren Whitbread”—as in complex white bread—and it’s hard to say whether, at base, they didn’t love one another or whether they each were just too damaged. He was from a wealthy WASP family and hers was poor blue-collar. His withdrawal from Karr, her chaotic family and her emotional plight, feels about as bad as her self-destructiveness. But Warren also grew up feeling unloved, and Karr paints his chilly parents’ sins as more inexcusable than those of her own because, in her house, cruelty wasn’t deliberate but “the haphazard side effect of being shitfaced.”

And yet, she says, “Poetry will deliver him from his stultifying fate as it will me from my turbulent one.” Literature delivered them separately, however. (In her subsequent affair with David Foster Wallace, whom she got to know in AA, we see another brilliant intellectual brought low enough by addiction to learn coping skills from bikers and hookers.)

In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Karr said Lit took seven years to write largely because she kept trying to get her marriage and divorce right. She threw away 500 pages in August 2008 in which her ex was an angel and as many in January 2009 in which she was the wretch. “It was so horrible,” she said of the process. The third version felt to her finally balanced.

In her 1995 bestseller The Liar’s Club, Karr wrote about her chaotic early life. Cherry, in 2000, dealt with her adolescence and high school years. Lit reprises the highlights of the earlier books and covers Karr’s early adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and early middle age, with her growing alcoholism and her slow, erratic and precarious recovery the through line.

Karr reluctantly turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and prayer as she tries to get sober. Almost immediately, good things begin to happen, including an unasked-for $35,000 writing grant; at that time, she’d written one ignored book of poetry. With this windfall, her angry rejection of faith weakens a notch. Her ragtag AA fellows, whom she had largely scorned as losers, begin to coalesce for her into a safety net, their community based on “radical equality.” Their small kindnesses humble her. Slowly she begins to widen her concern from herself to them and their struggles.

And here Lit begins to achieve its greatness, as Karr documents how, kicking and cursing, the canny, heartbroken little atheist gradually became the humbled soul who got religion. For a writer of her gifts to document such a thing is valuable. And I wish she’d said even more—more about God, revealing her conception of her deity, if she has one (one female AA buddy told her she prays to the sane part of herself—the kingdom of heaven indeed within). But describing the God you do or don’t believe in is more taboo than anything. In understandable deference to her large audience, assumed to be unbelievers, Karr holds back. She and her publisher may be too concerned for their tender feelings, but her trying to explain faith to the secular world without seeming idiotic or preachy gives Lit a nice tension.

Prayer, if not God, helped her kick booze. And yet, when Karr got sober she got suicidal. Pitched by depression off the folding steel chairs at her AA meetings, she landed in a locked mental ward. She had drunk to ease the pain that years of therapy hadn’t touched. She’d drunk out of an abiding sadness. Make no mistake: this is a sad story, the sequel to a “tortured and lonely” childhood, made tolerable by humor and a happy outcome.

In the loony bin, abandoned by her colleagues and writer friends (yet not forgotten by her posse of recovering drunks), Karr at last truly surrendered to prayer and humbly asked God’s help. She’d feared that such capitulation would erase her individuality, but found it delivered her unto herself. And still she quibbled about the meaning of words like will and care—so much so that her support group votes “that I’ve surrendered already and am just being a bitch about it.” To their will she yields, another softening of her egoistic armor. Her buddies have her write a list of what she feels angry, hurt, or self-reproachful about—from being raped as a child to her minor unfaithfulness to a boyfriend in college—and the litany runs to almost eighty pages. A marathon session with an ancient priest, whose own pre-ecclesiastical life was far from holy, helps ease her shame.

Even today, one senses, her path wasn’t forever smoothed. Her equanimity takes a daily spiritual discipline. In a powerful summation regarding an unhappy childhood’s legacy, Karr indicates she remains vulnerable to a species of fragility and suffering:

When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function as an adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.

Aside from Karr’s considerable gifts as a writer, we keep reading because she’s the story’s hero—we root for her, her own worst enemy—and she rises. Karr learns to live with herself by managing herself. Which means coming to terms with her brokenness and her understandable anger and her mother, whom she loved and hated, almost became, and was able to forgive. Prayer, this ancient answer, did it, along with community and service to others.

Karr documents a transformation that enabled her to own her own faults and misdeeds—her own badness and sin, in her words—instead of blaming all her dysfunction on her abundantly dysfunctional parents. I found this a moving testament to the healing power of a spiritual discipline. In our time, this is underestimated, in comparison with psychotherapy, certainly. The sources of Karr’s misery—let it be said—were in no way connected to religious “guilt” (quite the opposite); instead, traditional devotion, admittedly preceded by twenty years of therapy, shattered her prison of pain and anger.

I’m amazed by Karr’s accomplishment as a writer in this inspiring memoir and moved by her journey as a human. Lit is a generous, yeasty book that elevates Karr’s “journey into awe”  into literature.

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Filed under humor, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene, style

Make a scene

The big shocker this winter: making scenes is hard. At least it’s a lot more work to give readers an experience than to pound out summary. The payoff’s obvious—the reader gets to immerse in another life—and scenes may even help me cut swaths of fat exposition from my memoir. All this is clarifying, and my writing feels more like conscious craft these days. Always in this latest revision, I’m trying to bring more showing to the foreground and less recapping. Scenes are defined by action—something’s happening before our eyes—and usually include dialogue, a strong point of view, and are highly visual.

Donald M. Murray has a great example of the power of visual details in The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition:

TELLING:

A parent always wants to protect a child and never, no matter how irrational it is, stops feeling guilty if a child is killed or dies from an illness, feeling there must have been something the parent could have done.

SHOWING:

Lee

Remember me not

when I was kept from you

in the waiting room, not

when I sat in an office signing

your dying, not

when I pushed you on the swing

higher than you had ever flown

and you looked back as I grew small,

certain I would always be able

to save you.

In Murray’s poem about his daughter’s death, in a flashback we see what he saw—her glance back—that revealed her confidence in him. We understand, without being told, that the memory, surely always poignant, now haunts him because he let her down. He couldn’t save her. Since we see this, we understand his emotions, his feeling of loss and guilt—even that he betrayed her trust. That such a short, spare piece can stir empathy and convey so much is astonishing.

Perhaps in a longer scene, and surely in a narrative made of scenes, the writer might move readers to feel an emotion as well as to empathize. Just explaining won’t hack it, because the two techniques trigger completely different areas of the brain, explains Jordan E. Rosenfeld in Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story one Scene at a Time. Visual scenes of unfolding action stimulate the brain’s visual cortex—our mind’s eye—and allow readers to participate. In contrast, exposition affects the inner ear. “While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound,” writes Rosenfeld. Voice is important, she allows, but explaining can make readers feel bored, like they’re “sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.”

Here’s part of a scene from Alice Munro’s story “Royal Beatings”:

“All right,” he says, meaning that’s enough, more than enough, this part is over, things can proceed. He starts to loosen his belt.

Flo has stopped anyway. She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, then there comes a time when you can’t draw back. . . .

At the first or maybe the second crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the door. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage, or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking: Forgive me, Oh please, forgive me! Not yet, he throws her down.

Saying “My father beat me” lets us know a fact but doesn’t help us imagine the experience. With our intellects, we can understand only the tip of the iceberg. So making scenes is the technique of choice when the writer is asking for readers’ emotional understanding. Here’s a scene from near the end of Bernard Cooper’s memoir essay “Winner Take Nothing”:

After loading the boxes into my car, I came back inside the kitchen to say goodbye. “I have something for you,” my father said. He beamed at me and stepped aside. Atop the counter, a pink bakery box yawned open to reveal an enormous cake, its circumference studded with ripe strawberries. Slivered almonds, toasted gold, had been evenly pressed into a mortar of white frosting, every spare surface dotted with florets. In the center was written, in goopy blue script, Papa loves Bernard. For a second, I thought there’d been some mistake. I’d never called my father Papa. Dad, yes. Pop, perhaps. The nickname didn’t mesh with the life I knew. If the years of silence between us had an inverse, that cloying, layered cake was it.

Back to Donald M. Murray, who says in Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem that the light went on for him about this fundamental building block when someone told him, supposedly quoting Joseph Conrad, to write narrative in “scenes of confrontation.” In the above example, conflict suffuses Cooper’s scene.

Lest we get too simplistic about the components of scene, Alice LaPlante observes in her excellent textbook The Making of a Story that all scenes blend telling and showing. There’s much more telling than is recognized, she says, because technically only three things constitute showing: dialogue; actions; and basic objective descriptions of objects or settings that a reader would see if he were there. She’s a little strict about this, but is making a point to strike at the sanctimony of those who advocate pure scene-by-scene construction. The depiction of viewpoint, so basic to voice and usually intrinsic to scene, is telling.

Writers fall somewhere on a continuum of showing vs. telling, their particular mix defining their style, says LaPlante, who prints a scene from Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres that’s mostly shown; another passage from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News leans more heavily on relaying point of view; and the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” uses telling and showing equally for rich texture and satisfying point-of-view lines like, “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”

But try to show the important stuff, LaPlante emphasizes. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which, she shows, arise constantly within scenes) and to set up a scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.” Recognize that “often we can tell something more efficiently, elegantly, beautifully, or subtly” than by dramatizing it.

So this matter is complex, but the writer’s gut seems a good guide. The important lesson I’ve taken is to use scenes of unfolding experience involving action and conflict whenever possible, whatever their mix of two very different modes of writing. Yeah, it’s basically the timeless advice “Show, don’t tell,” if tell isn’t taken too literally.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, scene

Almost Christmas at the coffee shop

Middle-aged men, two to four in the group, one talking loudly at a time:

“You need to read more books!”

“How are we going to solve the health care problem if . . .”

“What gets me is these Republicans who say—”

“This isn’t partisan—the Democrats . . . Obama . . . ”

“We go to Wal-Mart and we buy this crap, and we don’t care where the shit comes from, as long as it’s cheap.”

“No, I’m for a stronger military because I want to protect me.”

“You know your problem?”

“I’m reading Thomas Friedman—do you know who he is?”

“We’re destroyed the middle class in this country.”

“This country is becoming . . .”

“I’m just saying that . . .”

“For once, I’d like to see—”

“If you could admit . . .”

“No!”

“I gotta go.”

“Next time I see you, I hope you’ve read something intelligent.”

About ten o’clock the men leave, leaning forward into the December gloom, gripping their refillable coffee mugs like clubs, taking with them their staccato bursts. The shop’s human sound burbles and murmurs. The corner table is taken by women, five or six of them. Sometimes they talk together and sometimes they split into sidebars, two with two or three:

“I think that was the start of my insomnia . . . My husband, I could set him on fire and he wouldn’t wake up. But the dogs, I thought . . .”

“But I said, ‘We don’t even know where we’re going.’ He wanted to use MapQuest. ‘Don’t we have to know who we’re going to visit first?’ ”

“They have a heavier down—they’re made for travel.”

“They were taxing on unrealized gains. When they sell it you pay, but . . .”

“And my maternal grandmother . . .”

“If I’d known that I would have—”

“Embellished?”

Laughter.

“She has such a Lab personality.”

“Oh, she is part Lab?”

“So she opens the door and pulls him in! I’d only been dating about a month. I went inside and they were all sitting at the table.”

“She’s so controlling. I’ve told her, ‘Either it changes or I’m done.’ I was telling someone my mother in law stories . . . She’s emasculated him horribly . . . And until that point, I always felt sorry for her . . . He drove for eight hours, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ The whole trip I drove for two and a half hours. She had the GPS in back, and it kept saying ‘You have arrived.’ She said . . . I just gave her a dirty look.”

“Last year he wouldn’t come because I wouldn’t let him bring the dog.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Last year the dog peed on our floor because it was so excited. I took the dog for a half-mile walk because the thing was crazy.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Spaniels? I don’t know any spaniels that . . .”

“There’s a nice side to her, I like her but . . .”

“The half brothers were raised by a different mother, and they’re normal.”

“He’s going to be a real man of God one day, but he’s only nineteen.”

Worker interrupting: “Ladies, you are having too much fun!”

Laughter.

“They’ll be working twice as hard for the same money.”

“This is depressing.”

“This is reality.”

“I’m leaving!”

“Have a nice trip!”

“I’ll probably talk to you later today.”

“I’m going to come back in a really nice mood, not mad at anyone.”

“Merry Christmas!”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, dialogue, essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, politics, scene